Good grief

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—April 6, 2014—John 11:35

The scripture text this morning is short, in fact don’t yawn or anything like that when I read it or you might miss it. But you probably know it. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. The King James Version of John 11:35 says it this way: “Jesus wept.” The New Revised Standard Version is a bit more expansive: “Jesus began to weep.” I guess those translators couldn’t stand it that an entire verse had only two words.

Small verse, big message

I want to take these two (or four) words, this little Bible verse, and make a big statement. At this point of Jesus weeping, of Jesus experiencing deep grief—the word translated “wept” could actually be translated “wailed and lamented;” it signifies something quite intense—when Jesus weeps he shows us the intersection between the divine and the human like nothing else he ever did. In his grieving, Jesus most clearly shows us what God is like.

It’s notable that the Gospel of John, of all the gospels, shows us that Jesus wept. John’s Jesus is the most divine of the four gospels, the most—we could almost say—superhuman of the four Jesuses presented in the gospels. Yet John makes the point that Jesus weeps. I want to say that this fits; the most exalted, God-manifesting Jesus is the one who weeps, the one who grieves.

The godness of God is seen in God’s grief. The divine presence in humanity is seen, as much as anywhere, when we grieve. Our grief marks us as creatures made in God’s image, as creatures who possess the spark of God—even as our grief also marks us as human, all too human, fragile creatures, all too fragile.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of grief as all that great of a thing. I think of the few moments of deep grief that I have experience and I would be more than happy to have bypassed those moments. Though, as I reflect a bit, I realize that what I would want to bypass are the experiences that led to the grief, not the grief itself—grief was a response on the way to healing.

Let’s think about how we use the word grief. But first a tangent.

“Good grief”

When I was a kid southwestern Oregon, I used to listen to the radio after I went to bed at night. Now, I lived in a tiny, isolated community. About 150 people lived in my hometown; my high school graduating class was 17. During my first 17 years I never flew in an airplane and never left the state of Oregon. But at night, with my little AM radio, a much bigger world opened up. My favorite radio station was the Big X, XERB, 100,000 watts out of Mexico, featuring Wolfman Jack. And I loved to listen to baseball and basketball games from San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The announcer for the San Francisco pro basketball team, the Warriors, a guy named Bill King, was especially fun because he would get wound up. If he got especially upset, say at a bad call by the refs, he would go like this: “Lakers ball. West throws it away. But wait, Holy Toledo! They give the ball to the Lakers. They said a Warrior touched it last. I can’t believe it. Holy Toledo!” It was like an unthinkably awful thing had happened. I never knew where Holy Toledo came from—and I still don’t after doing some internet research—but it has kind of a cool sound. Holy Toledo!

Or, we could say instead, “good grief!” As in, I was driving along the desert highway in New Mexico and a cop car sped by, stopped suddenly, turned around with its light flashing, pulled me over, and good grief, gave me a ticket. I couldn’t believe it. The first ticket of my life. Good grief!

This one’s a little easier to track down. It goes back 100 years or so and almost surely began as a euphemism, used in polite society instead of saying “Good God!” But it’s interesting that “grief” would be the word that would substitute for God. I suppose it also has a nice ring. “Good grief” sounds better than “good sorrow” or “good sadness.” But it’s funny, we don’t usually think of “grief” as good—or as a substitute for “God.” But I think that saying “good grief” points to truths we don’t imagine when we use that phrase. Grief is good—and it is closely linked with God.

A speculative reading of the Flood story

Let’s think about it this way. Go back to the beginning of the Bible. We have a key story in the first few chapters of Genesis, the story of Noah and the Flood. I’m not basing my reading of this story on the new movie. But one of the questions in how we think of this story is what’s going on with God. What do we learn about God from the story? Is it that God is terribly angry, wrathful, punishing? Or is it something else?

Here’s what I think—I admit I’m being a bit speculative, and a bit playful. And I’m not reading the story as straight history. God creates what is out of love. God wants companions, friends even. To culminate the process of creation, God makes men and women in God’s own image, animated by the very breath of God.

And things are great. The man and the woman hang around with God in the Garden of Eden. They have fun together. But then it all turns bad. The people step away from God. Note a detail in the story though—after Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, God still heads down to the Garden to hang out. And the two humans hide from God. They create the distance. I can imagine that God was pretty hurt by this. The story then tracks this terrible spiral of violence—Adam and Eve have enmity with each other, then their son Cain murders his brother Abel. And on and on, leading to disaster.

But note how God is described in the lead up to the great flood, the culmination of this awful spiral of violence. We are not told that God’s righteous and holy anger is triggered leading to the inevitable retribution that is required by God’s justice. No. We are told that God has profound grief. This is the deal—God is hurt. God’s friends had turned away and God grieves at the mess they made of creation.

So, it’s not cold, righteous, holy anger that leads to calculated retribution. It’s wild grief, we could say, that leads to God’s out-of-control response. If they won’t be my friends, then to hell with them. God lashes out and destruction results.

But in the middle, we are told that “God remembers Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” And the tide turns, the flood recedes. Finally, “the earth was dry” and God coaxes Noah, his family, and all the animals out—“so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” As we look at this story, we realize that something fundamental has changed here in God’s heart. Because what shortly follows are two amazing things—first, we read again that humanity’s hearts are wicked and then, paradoxically, that God will never again destroy creation.

God’s education: Living with grief

So humanity has not changed, but such wild grief will no longer drive God to such terrible destruction. If we can just take the story at face value and not impose on it our assumptions about God as perfect and never-changing, I think we have to say that the flood is a story about God’s education. Maybe like this: God needs to learn how to manage God’s grief. God cares, God can’t help but care—God loves, God can’t help but love. But in the real world, care and love always, inevitably, care and love lead to grief. Grief means pain, sorrow, regret, grief means feelings of abandonment and betrayal—or, at least, and maybe most profoundly, grief means just deep sadness.

So what is God going to do with all this pain? Especially since humanity itself is not changed by the terrible flood. The spiral of brokenness will continue. God doesn’t want robots, God can’t love and desire relationships while at the same time exerting total control that eliminates the possibility of brokenness and turning away. So, what’s God to do? Massive retribution is not the answer; it doesn’t take away the pain. God needs patience. God needs to live with the grief and let that pain deepen God’s commitment to vulnerable, non-coercive, persevering love.

This is what the rainbow means. God’s commitment to persevere. God’s commitment to exercise the kind of patience that will outlast humanity’s turning away over and over again. That is, God will learn to live with grief.

So, this is how we can read the rest of the Bible. What I call “God’s healing strategy”: God makes peace through the frailty and imperfection of human communities. These communities embody something of the love of God and spread that love haltingly to all the families of the earth. And, let me propose an addition to our thinking of this healing strategy—at its heart is the reality of grief. God heals, we find healing, through the experience of grief. Grief is an essential part of the picture of what it means to live in love and to share God’s shalom. God has learned to channel grief into more love—those who live in God will do the same thing.

We can’t live without grief

Think about it. We can’t love without grief. We may try to live without grief—but that will end up being a life without love. It’s like a character that John Prine sings about, “Safety Joe”: “Well, he never got too lonely and he never got too sad, But he never got too happy and that’s what’s just too bad, He never reached much further than his lonely arms would go, He wore a seatbelt around his heart and they called him Safety Joe.”

Every single relationship of love that we have will be a cause of grief, because all relationships end. Sometimes they end in conflict. Sometimes they simply end with geographical separation—even in this age of skype and email and Facebook. In the middle section of my life, from leaving home to go to college when I was 18 until ending up here in Harrisonburg when I was 42, I moved over and over again. And always left family and friends behind, with vows to stay in touch. And that does happen some, but many relationships do end. As I worked on this sermon I took a few moments to remember people at each of those stops along the away—but I couldn’t do it for long because I started to feel too sad. And, no matter what else, each of our relationships will end with death—and the accompanying grief. I haven’t lost a lot of people I’m close to. But each one. . . . It’s almost exactly thirty years now since my dad died, and that’s still pretty hard. I’ll never get over it.

Grief is infused in creation. God’s purpose is love. God purposes relationships of love. God’s purpose is healing, bringing the brokenness of the world into wholeness, restoration, reconciliation. To enter into God’s purpose (that is, to enter into our purpose as human beings) is to enter into these relationships where we care. And to care makes it certain that at some point we will grieve. We love, we find joy, we grieve. It’s all together. As Lou Reed stated in his song “Magic and Loss,” a powerful expression of his grief at losing two close friends—“There is magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.”

And it’s not only our relationships with human beings. We love our pets, and grieve it when they leave us. Another song, this one by Jerry Jeff Walker, tells about his encounter with an old hobo in the drunk tank, Mr. Bojangles. “He spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him traveled about. The dog up and died, he up and died. And after 20 years he still grieves.” As my dog Sophie ages, this lyric rings more and more true for me.

Grief is precisely where God is. As I said, we may read the Bible as the story of a grieving God, a God who turns this grief into redemptive, persevering love. We are most like God, let me even suggest, when we grieve—at least in the sense that we certainly are most like God when we love. And we can’t love without grieving.

Grief, a human universal

Grief is a human universal. Our challenge is not to avoid it but to live redemptively with it. There is this famous Buddhist story of a young mother who loses her child and is, of course, utterly shattered by her grief. She ends up talking with the Buddha and demanding that her overwhelming sorrow be taken away. Okay, it will taken away as soon as you collect white mustard seeds from five families who have not suffered grievous losses. She eagerly sets about the task. She perceived that everyone else was perfectly happy. She figured she’d collect her mustard seeds in no time.

But she searched and searched and didn’t find a single home that could give her some mustard seeds. In time she realized that she wasn’t alone. Her quest for an escape from her grief evolved into a ministry of compassion. Her loss became a source of power and empathy.

Grief is an amazing thing. It never really dies. Maybe this is kind of a morbid analogy, but I remember my dad’s malaria. He got a severe case in the South Pacific during World War II. He was healed, but a couple of times years later he got sick again from the parasites that remained in his system. This is the analogy, there’s always a possibility of the thing coming back, even after you have just about forgotten about it.

Let me finish with one more story. When I was 17, one of my best friends, Rod, got killed in a car wreck. I can easily conjure up the feelings I had when I was first told of his death and the fog that surrounded my life for quite some time. But over the years, as you would imagine, I would go long periods of time not thinking about my friend and my loss. But unbidden, those feelings have occasionally returned, surprising me.

One time, about ten years ago, when I was in a long, long meeting with my mind drifting, memories of Rod’s death stirred. As words came to me I surreptitiously wrote them down. When I got home I realized I had a kind of poem. I don’t remember ever writing a poem before. I let it sit for awhile, then decided to see if I could publish it. It’s not very good poetry, but it does capture something of the feeling at such a loss.

So it was published. Then about two years ago I got a letter from one of Rod’s older sisters. I have not seen her since his funeral in 1971. Someone saw the poem on the internet and gave it to her. She told me how moved she and her sister were by the poem. How it gave them words for their grief. That’s one of my most treasured letters. Grief and love, love and grief. That’s the way the world goes round.

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