Facing Grief, at Christmas and Always

1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 51-57

I am neither a nihilist nor a pessimist. For heaven’s sake, I am pastor of America’s home of Positive Thinking. Dr. Peale would come back to haunt me if I were someone who focuses on the shadowy side of life. I am, however, a realist. And as such, I have a theory about life. Here it is: Life is not the last five minutes of the movie. For the first hour and twenty-five minutes of the movie, there may have been problems and foul-ups galore, but in the last five minutes somehow Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan always got together. The real world is rarely so neat or happily-ever-after.

Deep down, we all understand that. Consider the actual titles of some best-selling books from the not-too-distant past: Stiff (The Curious Lives Of Cadavers), Plague Pox, Toxic Psychiatry, and one of my favorites, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Prozac Nation (popular enough to have been adapted into a movie). We know that life is anything but a Hollywood fairytale.

Paul knew that, too. He provided a laundry list of problems he had experienced in his own life: being shipwrecked, adrift at sea, without food, falsely accused and imprisoned, and three times flogged almost to death. When it came down to the last five minutes of his movie, there was no magical deliverance from suffering. Instead, he was convicted of the crime of preaching Christ and was sentenced to die. Paul knew that life is not always fair.

Good people get sick.

Young people become addicts.

Babies go hungry.

Teenagers, rejected by their families, sleep beneath bridges.

The very young and the very old and the very vulnerable are regularly victimized.

Eight hundred thousand sex slaves (mostly girls at the average age of fourteen, some as young as five) are bought and sold every year.

People suffer from everything from Ebola to AIDS to diabetes, and most do not have the financial wherewithal to protect their lives or the lives of their families.

Added to that, of course, is the matter of death, the cruelest of all life’s tragedies. You stand beside a grave and weep bitter tears, you watch your loved ones with their breaking hearts, you say “good-bye” to someone who is absolutely irreplaceable, you struggle to remember the sound of a voice as it called your name, and there is no scriptwriter around who can change it all and create a happy ending. In those bitter moments, how does one find the strength to keep on keeping on?

Paul asked the same question. “If we have hope in this life only,” he wrote—if this life is all there is, if ultimately our lives are nothing more than momentary blips on some cosmic screen, if it is truly “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” and nothing more—“then we of all people are most to be pitied.”

But, Paul continued, this life is not all there is. “Behold, I tell you a mystery . . . we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Certainly Paul used those words to describe the literal change from physical to eternal life for those who die, but the words are also pertinent for those who grieve. There you stand, damp with tears, feeling empty and numb, wondering how the world can go on as if nothing happened, when suddenly, unexpectedly, “in the twinkling of an eye,” something happens to bring comfort.

The week after my father died, a family in the church I was serving was gracious enough to let me use their place at the beach to rest, relax, reflect, and regroup. One day I went to lunch in Wilmington, North Carolina, a beautiful city where the Neuse River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. I was standing alone in a buffet line, waiting to reach the food, head hung low, having a hard time dealing with the memories of my dad who would have enjoyed being there with me. Suddenly I heard a little voice, like an angel’s, which maybe she was. “Hi, my name is Alicia. I’m three. What’s your name?” Before me stood a beautiful three-year-old child with braided hair and large eyes, sweetly smiling up at me. She walked over without invitation, hugged my leg, and then extended her arms for me to pick her up. Her mom nodded that it was okay, so I did. Little Alicia softly nuzzled her head on my shoulder. I stood there and hugged her, remembering when I used to hold my children that way and how good it felt, even remembering being held in my own dad’s arms.

Her mother, almost apologetically, said, “Sometimes she’s too friendly. Alicia, you need to get down.” I mouthed the words (so that the child could not hear but her mother could understand): “My father died last week. I need this hug.” So her mom kindly waited and smiled as a three-year-old child surprised a grieving stranger with the gift of love. I believe God hugged me through Alicia.

Most of us have been there. Sometimes, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” something unexpected happens in the midst of your grief (most of the time that something is someone), and you feel God’s hug.

But there is something else that brings us comfort. It is a whisper of faith, a hope that life at the end is not merely extinguished. For “if we have hope in this life only, then we of all people are most to be pitied.” Paul believed and taught that the resurrection of Christ meant that all God’s children can count on that same resurrection: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, so that death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Death, where is your victory? Thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

And so, to all who have suffered the loss of loved ones, to family members who have wept bitter tears, there remains a word of comfort straight from the heart of the Christian faith: (1) Life does not end at the funeral. Instead, for those whom we have loved and lost, life that is endless begins there. Jesus said so himself: “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all others unto myself ” (John 12:32). (2) Our loved ones, in their living and in their loving, left us lessons for our lives. When we remember those lessons and replicate them, our loved ones stay alive through us. And (3) the God who has received their spirits to be with him in heaven will also send the Spirit to be with us in our grief.

My father used to quote William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Ode to a Waterfowl.” How beautifully the poem articulated Christian faith in the face of grief:

Thou’rt gone! The abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form; yet on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou has given,
And shall not soon depart.
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky their certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone
Will lead my steps aright.

This post was adapted from an excerpt of Michael B. Brown’s A Five-Mile Walk: Exploring Themes in the Experience of Christian Faith and Discipleship.

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