Search This Blog

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grieving in the Apocalypse

David Whyte. The Well of Grief*

Those who will not slip beneath
     the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
     to the place we cannot breathe,

                   will never know the source from which we drink,
     the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
     the small round coins,
                    thrown by those who wished for something else.

We are living in an apocalypse. The time of the revealing of things hidden. The unraveling of illusion. The great uncovering.

My teenage granddaughter told me she cried most of the day after the election. She had imagined a woman as president, and people she cares about—safe.

These days people tell me of their sleepless nights, fitful tossing and turning, horrifying dreams—their inability to focus.

There is fear and uncertainty in the air. Every breath we take—we inhale it.

The news is not good. And if you are checking your Facebook or Twitter accounts you’ll get more than your share of judgement and hysteria.

Whoever you voted for—or even if you did not vote—every late-night tweet by the president-elect can inflame your emotions—up or down. It’s a roller coaster ride at top speed.

Many of us have become addicted to the news (fake or real)—we are bombarded day and night by ceaseless sound bites and texts. We seek them out, responding to every ping on our phones.

There was a day not long ago when you and I read the paper once a day or watched the news in the evening—or maybe we went days without. We somehow knew the world would continue to spin without our being constantly in the know.

Today though we seem caught in the grasp of a paradox: we know more and more news sooner and sooner, day and night--and we ride those waves or sink under them. We’re addicted to hype. We’re exhausted. Stressed out.

On top of this, the Apocalypse itself is a time of danger. That revealing of truth we dared not face. The unraveling of our illusions—of dreams and hopes too for some. The Apocalypse is a time of vulnerability. The turf which seemed solid, is not. No wonder we feel so stressed.

One instinct is to flee—to withdraw into a cave or move to Canada perhaps. Hunker down. Become invisible. You know about fleeing the scene—there are so many ways to do it. There’s a certain allure to withdrawal—after all it’s all so overwhelming. We know too much...

In the know, we are also not in the know—in fact many of us are in a state of ignorance about one thing: what are we to do? Who are we to be in times like these? As followers of Christ, what are we to be up to in the days of apocalypse?

I suspect that one of our deepest fears—one that lies under the surface of a myriad of others is the fear about our faith –untried and untested for so many years—the fear that our faith will not carry us through the days that lie ahead. Just when we need to call on it—it will fail us. How is it possible that the long-expected Jesus could come in such a time as this? How?

And, if in fact, the divine is present in this now, how can I possibly open myself to receive, when my instincts are to shield, protect, ignore, and run away?

I take a page from the prophets here—from people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea—that lineage of truth-tellers that Jesus came from.  For them it all begins with grief. The revealing of the truth that things are not what they seemed to be—that truth that we have refused to look at even though it has been in our midst—this is an old theme in prophetic work and literature. The calling of the people to recognize that they have been living a pretense. When the unraveling comes and the revealing is made clear: the prophetic response is grief.

Grief was in my granddaughter’s tears and is in my own and those of men and women who have told me that when they have dared to sit still and silent these days—they find themselves weeping.

Who knows for sure what is in those tears? Perhaps tears of grief for shattered dreams. Grief for how far our reality is from God’s own dreams and visions. For our own complicity in systems that oppress so many and ruin the earth. Grief for the revelations of the depths of racism, sexism, and all the other isms and phobias we were afraid to acknowledge. Tears of frustration and powerlessness. Tears for the poor and the shut-out, who it turns out, include some of our neighbors some of us hadn’t paid much attention to. Tears that our own vaunted democracy has been revealed as not so perfect after all.

Tears have an honored place in Christian mysticism. The desert fathers and mothers talked quite a bit about tears, and the necessity to weep. Grief makes us humble. It is a measure of our losses—a measure of our love—a measure of our relationships. We grieve for what is important to us. And grief can be a shadowy place—as David Whyte says, It is a well –dark and cold even. It may leave us gasping for breath.

This is on-going work. We grieve in different ways. But, however we do it, it is our human way to acknowledge the truth of our situation. Things are not as they should be. This truth will set us free. Tears are our offering. Our acknowledgement that we have a place and a responsibility for the fabric of life. To grieve is to relinquish detachment and any pretense of control—not by running away, but by entering deeply.  It is to acknowledge our fragility.

However it is that we are to open ourselves to the depths and strengths inherent in our faith—however it is that we are to grow up into Christ so that we might stand upright in the days to come—it needs to begin in grief. And, my guess is that we will have continuing grieving to do in the weeks and months ahead.  

Jesus’ life—from his birth in the cave to his death on the cross—assures us that he is present in the vulnerability and depth of life. We have to dare to enter those places to meet him there.
Grieving will break open your soul to receive the Christ.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


“Dying isn’t hard. What is hard is relinquishing.” So said Chris Graham, as he goes deeply into ALS.(1) ALS IS a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. People with ALS may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. So many losses come with ALS—so much relinquishing on the way to death.

At the Bishop’s Ranch where I work, a bit of a walk from the main campus in a grove of oaks just beyond the prayer flags, is the Cristo—a metal rendering of Christ on the cross. This powerful sculpture was the creation of Skip Gathmann an artist who lived not far away. He made the Cristo after he was diagnosed with ALS. The Cristo has only stubs for arms—no hands—no arms really. “Dying isn’t hard. What is hard is relinquishing.” There came the day that Skip had to relinquish his hands, his gift for making art.

The dying learn to let go, many of them do so with grace. But in our daily lives, it's a challenge.

What’s so hard about relinquishing anyhow? Some things seem easy to let go of—but others not so. What is it about the bookshelf full of books that is hard to let go of? Books I’ve loved to read. Books that have taught me, challenged me. Books that represent my years of study. How much of my identity is tied up in my books? Who would I be without my books? You could say the same about a piece of jewelry, a car, a house, clothing, a job, a dream you have for your son or daughter, your political certainty. How about a relationship? Who would I be without him/or her? Would I cease to exist? What are the things you clutch? The things you have an iron grip on. Think about it if you let yourself imagine losing X or Y, you get that feeling in your gut, you can maybe feel yourself tightening your grip.

We live in a culture of fullness, not emptiness. So fasting is one of those traditional disciplines we don’t talk about much. Today it’s fashionable to go through short fasts for health reasons But spiritually, your hunger can remind you of your hunger for the divine, and your dependence on sustenance from outside yourself. Fasting can help keep you humble in that sense. Your emptiness is your readiness for the New Thing God is doing.

The material world is good, the incarnation affirms that. But, the amazing popularity of the Tidying Up books that have swept the western world is an indication of one fact: we, most of us, have too much stuff. Our lives are over full, cluttered: our homes, garages, storage spaces, our desks, our offices, our minds. We know it, yet we most often refuse the path of relinquishment that would free us. Relinquishing is about freedom and spaciousness. The things we hold on to, clutch, whether material or immaterial, hold us captive.  They define our world. We have to care for them, protect them, we worry about them, and focus on them. Our value as human beings gets all tied up in the things we possess-- in our illusions of control.

There’s interior relinquishing too. Meditation at one level is a practice of letting go: we sit there, and notice our myriad thoughts, obsessively running around in our heads. We can gently let them go and return to our breath. How many times? Thousands and thousands. It’s a practice of relinquishing. I am more than my thoughts. I can let them go.

Whether interior or exterior, relinquishing is all about letting go of our illusions of control, and creating a spaciousness and freedom to be present and vulnerable in the here and now—where that “pulse of life” awaits.(2) Relinquishing, a spiritual practice.

 (1)        Quoted by Walter Brueggeman in Reality, Grief and Hope.
 (2)    From a poem, Where is God? by Mark Nepo.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


photo by Margot Krebs Neale
            Our culture does not tolerate much grief—at least our mainstream mostly white, workaday culture. There are pockets of folks that still honor the spiritual role of grief—where people sit with the bodies of the dead, where wakes are held, where people wear black for lengthy periods of time following a death. Would that we were all so supported in our grief!
            We have so much to grieve. When I hear Dana Gioia’s poem on the death of his son I’m put in touch with my own losses. Perhaps you are too.
            Grief is an expression of reverence. Of the reverence we have for life, for relationships, for our hopes, dreams, longings—all those things that make up this mystery of life. The death of a loved one leaves us living in the presence of absence. It is real, and our grief is a marker of how real it is: this absence. To grieve is to acknowledge the truth of our losses. A friend can move away, a marriage dissolve, a young adult can turn to drugs; a grandparent dies, a friend has Alzheimers, a friendship erodes, your body can no longer do what it once did. Losses. Life has so many losses.
            Grief speaks the truth. Grief lives in the truth of the loss, values the loss you have suffered. Grief also affirms your vulnerability. None of us is invincible. We all suffer losses. To weep, to feel at sea, to wander about unfocused, to find yourself lost in memories, or numb with grief… this is grief announcing that we are vulnerable to loss.
            We all grieve differently. Often one grief brings up the others; they seem somehow woven together inside us. Some people refuse to grieve. Some are afraid that if they start weeping they’ll never stop. They stuff their feelings—ignore the emptiness left by what or who was once there. They soldier on, as though nothing really has happened. This is living in denial; almost always that ungrief will surface at some other time of loss. Until we grieve our losses there is no room for new life.
            Perhaps our calling in these very days is to grieve. There is so much to grieve. Not only the truth of our personal losses. But our corporate losses as well. Can we grieve for the earth, our seas, the creatures with whom we share this planet? Our country and the sense we have that we have lost our way? Do you grieve that our way of life that once seemed so innocent is now exposed to have very high costs—many costs that others have paid and are paying. Dare we speak these griefs out loud? Our leaders don’t—they criticize and judge, attack and remind us how bad things really are. But they don’t grieve. Our sadness over our losses—some concrete—but also the losses of dreams, and hopes, and confidence—our sadness has no place for expression. There is so much silence. The anxiety we have come to accept and live with is in great part an unspoken sadness—grief. Unexpressed grief can also turn to blaming, to inhospitality, to grasping and clutching, and finally to violence.
            Jesus’ grief over Jerusalem is a piece of the long prophetic grief that runs through Scripture. The prophets mourn and grieve and tell the people they should be grieving too. Their lives are a pretense; they have misplaced their moral compass. But mostly they just go on with their lives ignoring the prophets and their grief. They don’t want to look at it. They are in denial.
This pattern echoes in our own lives and we know it. Just one example: here in Santa Rosa just a few years ago, Andy Lopez’s death reverberated through the community. A teenage boy’s life ended tragically, his parents and family suffering that loss, his school mates, teachers, all of those who knew him affected. But there was much to grieve in the wider community. Andy’s death brought to light the undercurrent of racism rarely acknowledged but very present in our own community. Can we grieve the distance between the people we hoped and said we were, and the city that we came to see we actually are?
Until we grieve nothing will change, personally or corporately. Because grief is our acknowledgement of the truth. God’s new thing is coming in the here and now. And until we live in the truth of who we are and what we’re living in, there is no opening to newness. To deny is to keep up a pretense. We have to start with the real, the truth.
This is a spiritual issue. Grief is a spiritual practice.

I’m indebted to the writings of Walter Brueggeman in his analysis of the prophetic role of grief, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in our contemporary life. See for example, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Fortress Press: 1986 and more recently, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Eerdmans:2014.
Dana Gioia's beautiful poem "on the death of our son" is called Pentecost and can be found at poem