(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 22, 2016)
In some ways, today’s message goes against the intent of this series we are in. But I believe it is important.
Some will remember that we spent the season of Lent leading up to Easter looking at the things which are weeds in our spiritual lives, the things that are choking out the seeds that God is trying to plant in us. We looked at people who exemplified some of those weeds that hinder us. That “weeding out” is an important part of life with God, but after Easter, I wanted to move to something more positive.
So we’ve been using the metaphor of preparing the soil of our spiritual lives: what are some of the positive things we can do that help us be good “soil” for what God wants to do in us? Again, we’ve ben looking at people in the bible who give us examples of things we can practically do: Mary Magdalene just showing up around Jesus; Daniel’s practice of regular prayer; Anna’s commitment to regular worship in spiritual community; Zacchaeus and his generous giving.
While those are challenging things to practice, they are positive. It feels good to give or pray or be part of a community. We can see how that creates good spiritual soil in us. But today, I want to look at grieving, grieving as a way of preparing ourselves for what God wants to do in us.
Who wants to grieve? Nobody! Who wants to stand up here and talk about how grieving prepares us for God’s work? Not me! But I’m choosing to do this anyway, because the reality is all of us have times in our lives when loss and grief are overwhelming. I’m not sharing this today to say, “Go out and find things to grieve!” Rather, it’s for the times when we will face loss and difficulty. How can we grieve in a way that best helps God’s seeds of health and healing grow in us?
We have people in our community who are professionals at dealing with losses that bring grief; therapists and social workers and nurses who have spent a lot of their working hours learning how to help others with grief.
I learned last week that Carol Sherwood has coordinated a class that Tamara Brand and several others have taught in the Children of Light class, a series of classes on aging and dying; and it sounds like it has been really wonderful!
While we don’t enjoy facing these things, it is helpful to us. We’ll explore making these classes available to a wider audience, perhaps in the fall. But for today, I want to do my part in trying to give some help for how we might address our losses in a way that gives God’s work a chance to grow in us.
It’s loss that can cause grief, and when you think of all the kinds of losses that are possible, you realize why we will all, at some point, face grief.
Beyond the idea of death and aging that I’ve already mentioned, there are many other losses that can cause grief. Loss of mobility. Loss of a job. Loss of a spouse through death or divorce. Loss of a friendship or a relationship with a family member due to fighting or conflict.
Loss of the ability to drive, or to see and hear as you used to. Loss of dreams, dreams for the future. When we experience loss, we’re all aware that what comes from that loss is not handled equally by all people. Some find themselves pushed to resentment and bitterness; some lose energy and hope. Some move forward stoically and silently, while others seem to put their grief out in the open in ways that can make us uncomfortable. Some seem to find a new strength or spiritual vitality even in the midst of loss and grief.
Over the years as a pastor, one of the things that I have said to people many times is that there is no “right” way to grieve. You may have seen the familiar “stages of grief”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is a lot of truth that is revealed in them. But the reality is almost no one goes through them in that exact order and then they’re done. Instead, everyone goes on their own path: some might go depression, anger, denial, depression, bargaining, anger. Others make a completely different random and circular pattern.
Grief is a journey that we work through a day at a time, not some task we race through to get over with. What I’d like to do today is invite us to look at a woman in the bible, and see what we might learn from her individual and unique experience of grief. No one here will have exactly the same journey or response; but perhaps in looking at her, we might find things that can help us whenever we have loss and grief we have to process and deal with.
Turn with me to the beginning of 1 Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:1-20.
We’re going to look at Hannah, the eventual mother of Samuel, and how she deals with the great loss and grief of her own infertility. When I introduce her that way, I give away the ending; I make it clear that her story has a happy ending. But I’m more interested in learning from what she experienced BEFORE things turned around. I think there are things we can model our lives after, even if we don’t experience a healing and a turn around like Hannah does. Listen as I read her story, a little bit at a time.
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. Because the LORD had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, ‘Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’ (1 Samuel 1:1-8, TNIV)
So much of this rings true to our experience with loss and grief, doesn’t it? The language “the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb” reflects how we as humans experience and think about loss sometimes. Many people wrestle with the anger and frustration that “God caused this suffering” I am experiencing. I won’t get into it today, but I think the major arcs of the bible teach us that this is a human misperception of how God works in the world. That instead of God’s plan, our losses are a result of living in a broken world. But for today, these words remind us how grief and loss often feel: why did God do this to me?
Another piece that rings true is having someone close to us who gets to experience the joy and goodness of whatever it is that we are experiencing as grief. Peninnah, the second wife, not only experiences the joy of having children; she “provoked [Hannah] till she wept and would not eat.” A big difficulty with loss and grief are the people around us who have the joys we’ve lost, and who sometimes are very insensitive and even cruel in how they interact with us.
Finally, Hannah experiences her husband Elkanah adding to the pain of the loss Hannah is going through. Not only can she not become pregnant, but she has her well-meaning husband adding a level of guilt to the equation. “Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
He’s trying to demonstrate care, but to a grieving person like Hannah, his approach is likely making it worse. Eat! Stop being sad! Don’t feel what you are feeling! He wants to cheer her up, but he’s not acknowledging the legitimate reason for her grief. He’s speaking in a way that could cause her to think that feeling sad is wrong or bad, instead of being a normal response to difficulty.
But worst of all, he lets his self-pity become a weapon to add to her guilt. “Don’t I mean more to you?” Aren’t I enough? It’s very likely that this IS his fear, his own sense of grief: aren’t I enough to make my wife happy? But by choosing to voice that to Hannah, he is adding on more weight as she walks this journey of loss.
Grief can drive a wedge between spouses.
Even in friendships, our desire to encourage or cheer up people who are experiencing grief and loss often makes us look like Elkanah with Hannah. But our good desire to encourage is actually adding to the emotional difficulty. “Cheer up! Look at all the good things in your life! God has a plan for you!”
It’s easy to understand why we want to say things like this. We want to help someone move through grief to a better place. But many times, this is reflecting our own difficulty in sitting with others in their pain. And always, this is missing the true path through grief, which requires us to honestly face the real and legitimate loss that is causing our grief.
Several years ago, I was walking with a college student going through what were the most difficult experiences of their life up until that point. At one point early in the crisis period, the roommate said: “Umm, is this going to be like a couple of day thing to get over, or longer than that?” It was one of the most clear examples I’ve seen of what is often true: we are not comfortable sitting with others in their sadness and grief. And yet, that is exactly the thing that proves to be most helpful.
Some of you will remember Wayne and Bertie Roberts. They went through the unexpected and excruciating death of their son in an automobile accident. I remember just sitting with them in their home when they found out, just sitting with them in their tears and grief, not having anything to say, not able to do anything to make it better.
Yet Wayne for years and years afterward would say to me and even to others in my presence how meaningful it was to him that I sat with them on their “mourner’s bench”, as he called it. What proved helpful was not the right words, not telling them they still had 3 other children, not telling them God had a plan…what proved helpful was to sit with them in their grief.
Let’s continue with Hannah. Verse 9.
Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s house. In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the LORD, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, ‘LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’
As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’ (1 Samuel 1:9-14, TNIV)
First, notice again someone with a not helpful response. Eli, the priest, the one in a position of religious authority, mis-judges what he sees in Hannah and ends up judging her negatively. She is pouring out her grief to God, showing her raw and strong emotion; Eli judges this as wrong, unhealthy, and probably a sign of drinking too much alcohol.
But in truth, Hannah is doing something incredibly healthy. She is letting herself express her anguish. More than that, rather than choosing to nurse a grudge against God, she is coming TO God with her grief and asking for help.
Hannah also names what she hopes: she still hopes for a son. You might see her prayer as sort of bargaining with God, and that might have some element of truth. But scholars also like to point to the parallel with Abraham and Sarah, who also spent most of their lives grieving infertility. They tried their own way with Sarah’s handmaiden, with disastrous results. And when Isaac did finally arrive, Abraham experienced what he thought of as a test as to whether he would trust God with his son’s life.
Hannah doesn’t try things her way, but instead brings her request directly to God. And before her request is even granted, she’s doing one better than Abraham and demonstrating her trust in God by offering that son to serve as a prophet or priest. This is a good model for us: express our raw grief, bring our requests directly to God, and take actions that demonstrate our trust in God now, regardless of circumstances.
There is no easy answer for wrestling with our loss and grief.
But Hannah’s experience shows so much of what we still experience today: human reactions are often the exact opposite of what is truly helpful. Something inside us wants to run away and ignore and gloss over loss, when what proves healing is the exact opposite. Hannah shows us how to express our grief healthily, and to come to God directly and ask for healing.
People who deal with grief today have learned the importance of facing their grief. A doctor who treats children with cancer, one of the most difficult jobs in dealing with loss and grief, had this to say: “We all handle it differently, but everyone cries at some point. Not in front of the patient, but everyone cries. Every few months we have a ceremony where we mourn all the children who have passed away. We have a slideshow. We make cards. We talk about them and remember them together. We acknowledge that we all feel the loss. And even though our grief is not as significant as the family’s, it’s not trivial either. And we must take time to acknowledge that. Or all of us will burn out.”
As I finish Hannah’s story, I feel like I have to give a little disclaimer.
I love that this is a beautiful story of how God intervenes and redeems. I love that Hannah gets to experience the joy of parenting. I love that she models handling grief in such an emotionally and spiritually healthy way.
But of course all stories don’t end up like this. Of course some of us have to deal with our grief and loss for the rest of our lives here on earth, without seeing any healing or redemption like this. I don’t have all the answers as to why that is. I do grieve this with people, and I’ll be honest: sometimes it makes me quite angry that God does not heal all loss and pain in this life.
But I believe God always is present. I believe God always listens. I believe God never responds poorly, as Eli and Elkanah and Penninah do. And I believe that in the scope of eternity and the cosmos, Jesus Christ HAS defeated evil and injustice, and we will experience full redemption at some point, even if we don’t all experience it now.
So hear the rest of Hannah’s experience as a picture of what God will one day do for ALL of us on the eternal scale of things, heal our pain and give us the gifts we most need.
‘Not so, my lord,’ Hannah replied, ‘I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’
Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’
She said, ‘May your servant find favor in your eyes.’ Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the LORD and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the LORD for him.’ (1 Samuel 1:15-20, TNIV)