Holding On for the Blessing

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Worship Story – Orpheus and Eurydice

Sermon – Preached on October 5, 2014 
When we lose someone or something we deeply love, we don’t know it right away. We think: they must be nearby, let me go after them. We trek down to the underworld to recover them. And for a time, we reside there – the living who have turned away from life – filled up instead with dead things and lost moments and irretrievable endings.

We may not even realize we’ve traveled to such a place, believing that this too is life, that it will take some sprucing up and positive thinking, but blow some air into its lungs, resurrect what was, reclaim and revive. For a time, it is all we can do, all we must do. It is so human, this holding on. It is a sign we have loved, a sign we risked our hearts breaking just like this, a sign that it took, that it was real, that we are real.

Holding on like this reminds me of my favorite story from the Torah – fitting for a Sunday where the Jewish holy days have just concluded.

Jacob had been away from home for a long, long time, when he decided to return. His big family – his wives and 11 children- had never seen his homeland, and he had recently been having a hard time with his father-in-law…..it was time. They’d traveled many miles, day and night, to return.

One evening, they were to cross the river Jabbok. Jacob took each of his family members, and all of his belongings, and sent them all ahead. He told them he would follow them the next morning.

Once he was alone, a man came up to him, and started wrestling with him. A man, or maybe God, or maybe an angel. We don’t know. The story isn’t clear. They wrestled and wrestled, and the man/God/angel was sure Jacob would give up, but he just wouldn’t. And so he got a little extra aggressive, and hit him on his hip, and Jacob’s hip was put out of its socket -he ended up permanently disabled. But still he kept wrestling. The man/God/angel said to Jacob – Really – let me go, the day is breaking. And still Jacob kept wrestling.

And he said to him – I won’t let go, unless you bless me. The Man/God/Angel asked him – what is your name? He answered – Jacob. And in response, the man said – you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have struggled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.

Then Jacob asked him to tell him his name. But he said – why do you ask? and then he blessed him, and disappeared.

Even once we realize what we have lost, still there is the holding on, the determined, stubborn wrestling. There is almost always an injury, often permanent. There is the sending away of those we love as we tread into the underworld, and there is the turning back for one more glance, and sometimes as much as we may wish to prevent it, there is the going down with the ship.

Sometimes, after the loss, a lot of the time, we pray, there is a blessing, and a new name – a new life and new beginning, the crossing of the river, and beginning again.

How you will react, how I will, how we will be able to care for each other after the loss- we cannot predict.  We may try to prepare and imagine and brace ourselves. We may say things like – “well at least I’m not in so and so’s situation, that would be impossible,” hoping such comparisons will make us feel more capable. Unfortunately, grief doesn’t work like this. “A broken heart is a broken heart,” suffering is suffering.

A better prediction than some ranking of things lost is the weighted accumulation of loss by any one person or community – and the tools and practices built up in those who have lost before they are asked to face life irreparably changed, however so.

We build resiliency not by avoiding pain, but through the witness of our repeated survival.

To have come this far in life – however far that may be – we all must have our coping mechanisms. Those things which hold us together when life falls apart. When I’ve been stuck in my own struggles of loss one of my dearest friends likes to ask me about my survival techniques. And then she swears to help keep them in tact. She says, I’ll never take away your tools right when you need them most.

It’s a kind of semi-promise, a promise that only careful friends and thoughtful ministers – and not just the ordained kind – make to one another. Because if any of us love each other, really love each other in the ways David spoke of last Sunday, in the ways we mean to describe when we speak about courageous love, when we speak about standing on the side of love – we know our call is to both love one another exactly as we are – to keep each other safe and surviving – and also call each other to something more – for a life beyond mere survival.

This bright faith kind of love knows that though we will not be taking away one another’s life preservers, we must simultaneously help each other build and know how to deploy our rescue helicopters.

Liberal religion has not historically done enough in this realm. We tend to live more comfortably in the intellectual realm, the careful and studied distance of analysis rather than the messy, unpredictable and vulnerable realm of grief and loss. Tragedy unravels our illusion of control, which our privileges mostly allow us to keep up, and we’d rather not.

Even with a greater courage, I also wonder if we lack confidence that our faith has enough to say in response to loss. Last month, many of you said you placed your faith in humanity, in the natural world, in community – and yet what if these are the very things that fail? When we lose the people who we have counted on, or when we put in our best effort, and love seems to make no difference, or when natural disaster strikes, when community fails to show up – what does our faith have to say then?

Many of our churches have over time realized that they could go years at a time without dealing meaningfully with life’s brokenness, loss, death, or grief. Which means, not dealing meaningfully with life at all, since life is filled with loss;
the fuller and richer the life, the greater the depth of loss.

Theme-based ministry – a practice many of our congregations, including ours – have taken up in the recent past – allows us to more intentionally address all the seasons of the human experience, not just beginnings but also endings, not just love but also loss. And, in doing so over the course of a month, across multiple kinds of programs, we can engage the fullness of these worthy questions with depth and care.

This morning we begin our new month, and our new theme, grief. Our whole congregation – all ages – begins a month-long meditation on the practices, tools, questions and blessings that arise while attempting to come to terms with loss. Each of you are invited to join in this journey, to travel with us into the underworld where those people and things and places we’ve loved reside, and to stay in the struggle for a time.

And in this invitation, we make my friend’s promise to each other – that we need not take away the tools that allow any of us to survive. We trust each person to go at a pace and depth that feels right to them. And still, in our careful walk with one another, our careful listening and tender presence, we hope to call each of us to something more than our existing tools, to learn together new practices of transformation and healing and health in life’s inevitable encounter with loss.

Because grief you may have noticed has an agenda. It has an agenda and it comes for us like a man in the night, a man or an angel or maybe God – we don’t know, it won’t tell us for sure, but it has a plan and we get to respond.

We can pull away and study the man from a distance, describe his attributes as if they have nothing to do with us or our our lives. We can pretend he’s not there, turn away and hope he leaves. We can try to scootch around him, keep on our original path, leave him behind, though likely knowing he will remain there indefinitely, awaiting our response.

Or, we can look grief in the eye, and wrestle. We can be present to grief, the losses we have experienced across our lifetimes, losses from death or transition or change, losses of places, or identity, or status.

We can be present to the loss in our community, the loss of our now retired beloved senior minister, who I know I have been feeling grief for – maybe you have too. I miss Marc. We can say that. We can feel that together. We can feel all these things together, let ourselves acknowledge the struggle and the pain and maybe the anger or the negotiation tactics -just one more look? – and we can keep wrestling, refusing to resolve anything too soon.

In the recent issue of the Unitarian Universalist journal, Quest, Meg Riley tells the story of grieving after the death of her mother when she developed TMJ. Which means that her jaw hurt really bad and she couldn’t get it to feel better, no matter what she and her dentist tried.

Finally she realized that the one thing that stopped the pain was crying. “After that, [she] didn’t get out of bed in the morning until [she] had, literally, driven [herself] to tears….Many days, [she] did not want to cry; it was only the threat of severe pain that made [her] linger on sad memories, that convinced [her] that crying was a priority. She acknowledges in retrospect that her body was brilliant in “demanding that [she] take time to grieve [rather than let herself get away with] the things that [her] rational mind wanted to say, like ‘Yes, it’s sad, but it was a long time coming…. [or] She had three good years…[or]… She would not want me to cry.’ Instead, [her] body just said, ‘Cry. Or else it will really hurt.'”

In many cultures across time, active grieving like this has been considered a holy, sacramental practice. For example, the Rev. Forrest Church reminds us of the Ancient Roman tear cup practice, wherein, after a loss, “You pick up your tear cup, put it under your eye, and weep into it. When you are finished weeping, you cap it and put it away. It is a way to save your tears. Save them because they are precious, for they show you care. A cup full of tears is proof you have felt deeply, suffered, and survived.”

Can you imagine such a practice being part of our everyday world today? If I squint, I can almost.
I can imagine men carrying around their tear cups with pride, and teaching their children to position them under the eyes just so, to learn what is worthy of holy tears, and what is not.

I can see grandmothers passing on their cups to their grand daughters, telling them as they did of the losses that they have borne, which is to say, the loves of their lives, the expanse of their hearts.

We inherit these losses anyway, pain is passed along like any other family inheritance. Even in my children, with us since they were just a few days old, I can feel the generations of suffering they carry from their biological family history. Still, even when we grow up with our birth families, most of the time, such loss remains simply felt, never spoken. And so our lives are shaped by grief we do not fully understand, grief often left incomplete and unresolved by the generations before us.

What a gift it would be to have these stories shared early, and often. What a gift that we might learn to hear one another, companion one another in our grief just as we learn to laugh together, or play, what a gift to help our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends and strangers – wrestle with these stories until finally the blessing is clear.

Instead, we tend to send our family members off into the night while we stay at the shore, to do the work all on our own. Either that, or our friends and family themselves decide they it don’t know what to “do” to help, so they do or say nothing, and send themselves off across the river, hoping we’ll catch up. It doesn’t need to be this way.

While it is true that no one can do your grieving for you, we need not meet grief alone. Standing there at the river, readying ourselves for the long night, the presence of others can make all the difference between grief that yields a blessing and grief that keeps us wandering the underworld.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well-known author and grief counselor here in Fort Collins, describes what it takes to be such a life-saving presence for others in their grief. As a companion to those who are actively wrestling with grief, our practice is simply to be present to another’s pain, rather than trying to take that pain away. We go into the wilderness with another, but still we are not responsible for finding the way out. We don’t have to know how the wrestling will end, we just have to hold faith that it will. It is a presence guided by the spirit and the heart, where we must let go of our need to analyze or lead with our heads. Instead we bear witness in compassionate curiosity, walk along side, and refuse to judge, or direct, or fix.

At the riverbanks of another’s grief, there is silence and stillness, and it’s ok. Our presence need not fill up every moment with words or movement. This can be uncomfortable, and that’s ok too. Walking with another in grief is a holy practice, as it brings love to bear in the midst of darkness, and a light of hope and faith to keep going, until the day breaks.

Though all you are required to do “nothing,” such presence is anything but easy. It’s hard and heartbreaking to see another in pain, especially one you know and love, and not want to take that pain away. It’s hard not to believe you know the way out. It’s hard to remain clear on the angels that are yours to wrestle, and those that are not. And so in our efforts, we will stumble, and struggle ourselves. We will mess up and try to control, or analyze or compartmentalize. As the ones grieving we will act out and try to let go too soon, or hang on too long. But rather than give up, let us forgive ourselves, and each other, and begin again in love. This is our covenant, and our practice.

This month, this year, our whole lives. Walking together, we learn how to hold on, and how to let go, and we gain the strength and clarity to do so. We learn how to leave the land of the dead and return to the living with a new name. For after the wrestling, let us cross the river, and go in search of life.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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