Tag Archives: grief

53: Priorities

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But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Matthew 8:22 NIV

This is a puzzling verse, I think most of us would agree. It seems, on the face of it, devoid of compassion. And yet Jesus was often puzzling. He spoke in a figurative way that confuses us just as it sometimes did his disciples, though culturally this frame of thinking was usual to find at that time in a spiritual teacher, as it ought to be now, perhaps! Does Jesus really mean the man should leave all responsibility for his dad’s funeral?

I think this is about priorities. Jewish and Muslim burials need to happen within 24 hours of the person’s death, and so this man’s loss was extremely recent. He’d probably barely taken the news in, was still reeling from it. And Jesus says, no, don’t be concerned about that, following me is more important. Following him is more important, more urgent than the funeral of your nearest and dearest? Yes.

And Jesus also speaks from a place of absolute knowing the difference between life and death. Death in his understanding was not the enormous separation from life that we conceive it to be. For him, it was simply another state of being; several times he refers to the dead as “sleeping,” and of course was capable of raising the dead back to life. When you have come from eternity, perhaps these transitory differences are less fundamental and less tragic than they seem to us. And yet Jesus is not without compassion at other people’s grief throughout the gospels. We see how terribly moved he is by Martha and Mary’s grief even though he knows their brother Lazarus will soon be brought back from the dead.

I can’t help thinking, when I call this verse to mind, of Therese of Lisieux, who followed her calling to enter a convent despite the fact that her father couldn’t cope with losing the company of yet another child and was heartbroken afterwards. His mind broke too and he ended up in the local asylum. Yet still Therese went, there was no question of her returning home, of breaking her vows, and so she went on to become a revered saint and a doctor of the church, influencing and helping millions through her writing, life story, prayers and her “little way”. Likewise, we see Isabella in the bard’s Measure for Measure counting her eternal life more important than her brother’s earthly life, as she refuses to sleep with the Duke in bargain for Angelo’s release. I read this at university with a group of non-Christians, and they simply could not understand her refusal. I could see where she was coming from, but they just thought her selfish.

I am quite certain that Therese loved her father dearly. I am sure that she felt great anguish for him, but I also understand that there was a greater claim on her heart. Her elder sister, Celine supported him and Therese wrote to them and prayed for them. It must have been so hard. But both these women, one real, one fictional, are looking at things from an eternal perspective, seeing life as the smaller part of existence, and making decisions with heaven in mind. I think that is what Jesus is urging us to do, too.

 

© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo public domain from pixabay

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43: Trouble

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Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” Job 5:7 NIV

Trouble sometimes takes a while to brew, we can almost feel it gradually rising, like the opposite of a flower coming into bloom. We steel ourselves perhaps, and try to prepare and protect ourselves. But there are other times when it comes upon us very suddenly, like a thief in the night, with no warning. We are hit whilst we are vulnerable, unprepared and shocked.

Bereavements, losses, betrayals, these can all be either long awaited, or horribly sudden. I am struck that these ways resemble the two biblical views of time: Kairos and chronos. Chronos is the seasonal, temporal, cyclical way of time, and Kairos is the sudden happening, the miracle “chance” meeting or opportunity. The flip side is that misfortune seems to work the same way, either building to a horrible nadir instead of a climax, or wrecking our lives in moments.

And whilst this is one of the incredibly positive and helpful comments made by another one of Job’s “friends”, Eliphaz, (seriously, you don’t want these guys anywhere near you when you are suffering), trouble is indeed pretty inevitable in this life. Chronos trouble we can kid ourselves about. We can believe we are getting prepared for a loved one to die, or a house to get repossessed, a business to fail or a child’s marriage to disintegrate, but in reality, when that wall crumbles, so shall we. Grief comes in so many shapes and sizes and I don’t care what the self-help guides and flow charts tell you, none of it is predictable. The only sure thing is, it’s going to hurt, and then some. And the Kairos pain, that feels like one of Wile E. Coyote’s anvils falling out of the sky? Yep, that’s going to hurt too. And both the trouble and the pain are pretty much inescapable.

So what do we do? Can we wall ourselves up against life, against the world? Well, we can try, but we’ll most likely end up trapped by our own fear and crippled by our own defence system. Really the best thing to do is to pray, and to live. Frankly, during some parts of life, getting through a day and still being able to breathe in and out at the end of it is a heroic and major achievement. But won’t God help us? Yes of course, and his companionship and his total understanding of suffering, grief and broken-heartedness will be invaluable. But whilst some problems can be avoided by asking for the Lord’s protection and grace, most of the time he will go through the trouble and the pain with us, not guide us around it. Because trouble and pain are crucial to the meaning of life we were talking about yesterday. If they weren’t, we’d be in heaven already. We learn to live with the cracks in our hearts and the holes in our memories and the pains in our bodies, and the loss in our souls. These are the deep dark places where hope springs eternal, and where grace creates a garden of beauty against a background of pain. This is where truth lives and angels abound.

 

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 NIV

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from morguefile.com

36: Lament

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I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands. They are desolate and untraveled, and the lowing of cattle is not heard. The birds have all fled and the animals are gone.” Jeremiah 9:10 NIV

 

Laments are something we don’t really do in the western northern hemisphere any more. I think this speaks volumes about the illusions we surround ourselves with. We seem to think that because we have more that we feel less. We seem to understand the world and our emotions in terms of satisfied stomachs and libidos, instead of realising that our hearts are deeper and more easily affected than that.

There are a lot of things to lament, and the loss of wildlife, as in the prophecy above, might well be one of them. Our so-called progress has come at a very high price. We might then, sing or pen a lament about the cruelty to animals, the intensivity of farming or consumer culture, or the oppression of the poor that marks our modernity. We might, in the UK today, sing a lament about the way the junior doctors and the NHS are being treated by the government, or about the rise in use of food banks, or about the refugee crisis.

We need also to sing personal laments, songs of our own misery, not to wallow in the sadness, but to express it. We all have griefs in our lives, and our society does not teach us what to do with them. Some will affect us for the rest of our lives, a loss, a bereavement, an assault, these are things that should be lamented, for those powerful emotions stuffed back down inside will squash our inner selves and suffocate the joy that longs to well up to counter them.

Lamenting is healthy and about giving voice to truth. The Psalms teach us the very best ways to lament, for even in desolate sadness they always come back to a hope in the Living God. Our feelings must never rule us on their own, they need to be tempered by reason and love. This is precisely why they need expression. Our stiff upper lips need permission to wobble a bit and let go. There is no sense in pretending all is well, no medals in life given out for telling everyone everything is going swimmingly when you feel like you are drowning. Let it out, let it go, express it, hear it, learn from it. Repeat if necessary, whenever you feel overwhelmed, especially if you are grieving, which is a never-ending process in many ways. But like breath, don’t hold it in.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

public domain photo, the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

4: Dust to Dust

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“All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

Ecclesiastes 3:20

 

Since our theme for this year is misery and brokenness, I suspect we shall be revisiting Ecclesiastes (known in our house as the Book of Eccles) quite often. Seen as quite a depressing collection of wisdom sayings, I grow fonder of it as I grow older, for the sight here is plain and free of ego, and all is laid bare. This facing of facts is refreshing in a Christian culture that seeks to put a positive spin on everything.

Because sometimes, there isn’t a silver lining, only more cloud. Some people never get to see their potential fulfilled (in fact, I’d argue that most don’t). Some people don’t even get to be born, or they leave us far too early because of a drunk driver, or because they were a drunk driver. Or they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reminding us that the main certainty in life is that we are all headed for death, is actually quite comforting to me, and it can be so not from a nihilistic point of view, that such thinking makes life devoid of all meaning, but because it reinforces the transient and temporal nature of this earthly life and our often weary or slowly disintegrating bodies.

We are all, like it or not, falling to bits, and the real questions are not about how we avoid that, or stay fit or try to look younger, or find our God-given health and prosperity (and yacht, don’t forget the yacht), but rather, what do we believe that makes this life bearable? What is actually the meaning that transcends the dust? Can we live with the faith that eternity with our Lord is the real prize? That there is a part of us that returns home to him at the end of our days and is free?

If we cannot see beyond our three score and ten, we are blind indeed, and whilst God is intimately interested in all we do, and does have plans for us, loving us in our flesh so much that he chose to live out a life within it too, it is our immortal spirit that truly needs to find its way. And we begin that journey here and now, for the Kingdom of God, the realm of the eternal, is indeed near at hand, close as our own breath.

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com