Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I Will Light Candles (12/21/15)

I Will Light Candles
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

Longest Night/Tidings of Comfort
December 21, 2015

Lamentations 2:28
Cry aloud to the Lord!
   O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
   day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
   your eyes no respite!

Lamentations 3:55-57
I called on your name, O Lord,
   from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear
   to my cry for help, but give me relief!’
You came near when I called on you;
   you said, ‘Do not fear!’

C. S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed that he wrote after the death of his wife begins this way:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

“It is so uninteresting.”

That is the sentence that stuck out for me when I re-read that paragraph as I was preparing this message.    After we lost our son, Zach, that is what it felt like to me, too.    I had been interested in so many things.   I had many causes, many concerns, many opinions.   But after his death I really had none. 

Nothing was particularly interesting.   

That may be one of the most terrifying things about grief and loss.  We may fear that we won’t be interested in anything again.       I used to think that people who grieve can move through it if they get involved in some new project.   Maybe it’s true.  It looks healthy from the outside.   

“You look like you are doing so much better!” an observer may comment.

I am not so sure anymore about that or a lot of things.  I am not convinced that being interested and involved in new things is the only way to go.    Sometimes we get involved and interested because we are afraid of not being interested.  We are afraid of our grief.  If we keep busy we don’t have to think about it. 

There is good reason to be afraid of grief.   It isn’t particularly socially engaging.   Who wants a sad sack around?   We all know that, so we know how to pretend or leave early or not talk about our loss or loved one or whatever it might be.  

There is a song by the Beatles that I heard anew after my son died.    I never really heard the lyrics until then:

Here I stand head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone I can't go on
Feeling two-foot small

Everywhere people stare
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

How can I even try
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
In the state I'm in

How could she say to me
Love will find a way
Gather round all you clowns
Let me hear you say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

It has been said that the pain of grief is proportional to the love for the one we have lost.   It is painful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable to watch another’s love/grief .  Hide it away is said in various ways. 

That is the world in which we live.   I think we are becoming more open about acknowledging the importance of sharing and expressing feelings associated with loss whatever they may be.    Yet, still, we who have gone through that particular dark wood know that for much of the time, most of the time, our love/grief must be hidden away. 

We may come to fear our grief because of the social cost.    Hoping it won’t spill out and embarrass us.  We do what we can to keep it down, to be cheerful even if not, to put on the game face, to pretend to be interested.   It can be especially challenging at Christmas.

But there is another cost if we do not acknowledge grief and sadness and allow it its place.   Only when we express it can we release it.  If we bury it, it remains and eats at us.  

This is why I think that the canonical authorities included the book of Lamentations in the Bible.   It is a book of grief over the loss of their nation.   It is raw. 

Cry aloud to the Lord!
   O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
   day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
   your eyes no respite!

I am convinced that had it not been for Lamentations, had they not given one another permission as it were to “let the tears stream down like a torrent,” that they would not have ever found anything to be interested in again.    They would never have had recovered.

The biblical authors tell one another to weep in front of the Lord.  I think it is an ancient way of making lamentation a sacred act—a holy act.   It is a way to express our love for the lost and it is done through grief.   It is done openly. 

That is why there is a service for The Longest Night or Tidings of Comfort.    It is a way to gather to express and to name our own feelings of sadness with others who understand because they are in the dark wood too.  It is a way to acknowledge grief in the open without any strings.

We need a place and we need regular rituals and we need conversation partners and friends from whom we do not have to hide our love.    We need a place to say and to hear the name of what or who we have lost and how it still hurts. 

I went to a counselor after I lost my son.  It was one of the healthiest things I did for myself.    One of the strange things about grief at least for me was the concern that I was doing it correctly.  “Am I normal?” 

“Of course you are not normal, you are you,” he said.  “Who wants to be normal?”

He told me that we are not in a fetal position 24/7, that life is like it was much of the time, except when it isn’t.   We can allow that feeling to be whatever it is.  To notice it , acknowledge it, give ourselves a break.   It is tough.   

There are times when we go back to when the pain seems as intense as when we first experienced the loss.     There are other times when I need to take time to remember him with that mix of laughter and tears and laughter again.             

“It is so uninteresting,” wrote CS Lewis.

That is true. 

And yet, I find anyway, that when I let myself express it rather than fight it or be down on myself that I am not over it, as if my son were an “it”, when I allow myself time to reflect or sit or pour over old photos or whatever I need to do, to say his name, that it does feel lighter and I can do what I must do next. 

There is a plus side to loss.   I don’t necessarily miss all the things I was interested in.  I no longer fear that I won’t be interested in anything again.   I am a bit more selective in my interests.   I have discovered some gifts in this dark wood.      

I included another set of verses from Lamentations:

I called on your name, O Lord,
   from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear
   to my cry for help, but give me relief!’
You came near when I called on you;
   you said, ‘Do not fear!’

Again, an ancient way, as I see it, of the power of expression.  Calling out our grief is a courageous act.  It is an act of a big heart.   Courage and heart share the same root word, cor.     It took a big heart for you to be here tonight.  I am glad you are here.   

The road is not so lonely and frightening when we walk it together.    

Howard Thurman is my favorite Christmas poet.  He recognizes more than most that the depth of joy is also related to the depth of sadness.    I particularly enjoy this prayer of courage, “I will light candles this Christmas.”

I will light candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.


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