Grieving for the future
Jeremiah had a lot to say. The book of Lamentations follows the book of Jeremiah in our bible. This book is sometimes attributed to Jeremiah. We donít know that he did write it for sure and some scholars think it is a compilation of poems and prayers by unknown authors. But what is generally accepted is that these poems and prayers were written at the time when the Jewish people were being driven into exile by the Babylonians Ö basically where Jeremiah leaves off.
Jeremiah himself went into exile in Egypt. Others were forced into exile in Babylon. Our passage does not indicate at which destination the poet has arrived. He (or she) blames God for the exile and is now trying to find reconciliation with God.
We need to backup to the beginning of Chapter 3. There Jeremiah (weíll assume heís the author) associated God with the exile. God has driven him into the darkness without light. God has made his body a wasteland. God has imprisoned him. God is ignoring his prayers. Like a lion or bear God is lying in wait for him to tear him to pieces. God has made Jeremiah a laughingstock and left his soul bereft of peace. God has left him hopeless and homeless.
Yet Jeremiah struggles to recall the grace and love of God.† Almost as if heís trying to convince himself that God is not so brutal and mean, but is in fact caring and comforting, Jeremiah proclaims that Godís love is steadfast and forever. God is so much a part of him Ö a part of his soul Öhe has to hope that God is there for him.† All he needs to do is to wait patiently and quietly for God to come to him.
He goes on to say that Godís anger will not last. God will have compassion. He doesnít afflict us willingly.
From Jeremiahís point of view God is the cause of everything. He preached that the Babylon conquest was Godís judgment on the people for turning away from God. Now that Godís judgment has happened he is saying that God will turn to help Godís wayward people Ö much like a parent having disciplined a child turns to the child to help them.
Jeremiah is grieving Ö grieving the loss of his homeland, of his identity, and of his people. God has taken all of this from him. Now Jeremiah has to learn to live with a different homeland, a different identity and a different people. He faces a re-ordering of his life.
We all experience grief. Jeremiahís loss was traumatic and extensive. Maybe not all of our losses are as so traumic. But grieving is a very personal and individual experience. Oneís grief is always important and the event that triggered it can be traumatic for one, but for another.
We are left bereft of meaning. Why did this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? Why did God allow this? Why did God cause this?
And grief isnít just about a loved one dying. Losing a job, particularly one youíve had for a long time, can trigger grief.† Indeed, I suspect a job loss always triggers a measure of grief, even though it may be very light and small. We miss our co-workers. We miss the rhythm and structure it gave us. We miss the identity that it gave us.
Grief can also be triggered by someone leaving us. One that often triggers a death-like response is when a spouse or partner leaves. And all of the questions flood in: Why? What did I do? Where is God?
Or for an elderly person, having to leave their beloved home for a nursing home will trigger this grieving.† Why do I have to leave? How dare you take me away? I hate this place? Why did God allow this?
And in the early time after the event, we do experience disorientation and confusion. Thatís normal. We need to ask the questions. We need to go through that difficult and uncertain journey to a re-ordered life.
It becomes a problem if we cannot move from the questions. If we never find answers or acceptance, then often we respond with anger: anger at the person who died or left us, or most likely anger at God for letting it happen.
I think thatís where Jeremiah is at in our poem. Heís trying to resolve this initial rough journey. It swings from anger at God to wanting to believe that God is going to get him through this.
He blames God in gory detail. Then he swings to proclaiming Godís compassion. The sudden change on reading seems cobbled together. But if we realize that the poem is written on the journey into exile, itís an understandable transition.
Slowly, though, we learn to live with the loss Ö without our deceased loved one or without our home.† Indeed we enter into a process of transformation. Our lives have been changed, often significantly so. We have to re-invent ourselves if we are not to fall into chronic despair.
This happened to the Jewish community when it went into exile in Babylon. Before that God was basically their God centered on the Temple. Yahweh fended off all of those pagan, Baíalist gods. But in the exile where the Jews lived among the pagans and saw so much more of the world, they began to understand God was more than a tribal God. God was God of the universe. And they went from there to a broader, more inclusive God.
And so we who experience grief, often profound grief, must accept that our lives are going to change and work with God and family to make it the best that we can.
I work with families, particularly spouses who have lost a spouse Ö sometimes after living more than a half of century with them. One of the notions I suggest to them is that their loved one is not gone, but changed. The body does indeed go away returning to the earth. But the spirit remains. I suggest that that spirit remains with them.
Indeed Iíve had enough conversations with children or spouses to know that this is a very real experience. I receive reports of family members sensing their loved one with them. They arenít crazy. Itís quite normal.
I have you back at last.
I've missed you terribly and deeply
†† While you were gone.
I've cleaned up everything,
†† the house up and down is neat and clean.
Let me show you.
†† See, I've scrubbed the kitchen floors clean.
†† I've removed all the hospital stuff downstairs,
†† Now we have our living room back.
†† I've straighten up the bedroom just as you like it.
Remember when we moved in
And all the work we did to make it our home?
I'm glad you're home.
†† Now I won't be so lonely.
Here I'll place you on the mantel
†† Where you can keep an eye on things.
But it goes beyond just losing a loved one. We all have to re-order our lives from time to time because of a loss. The loss of a job is a frequent re-ordering. Some people find this easy, others find it difficult.
For a minister, the loss or leaving of a church is a trigger for grief.
Last Sunday we sang as our final hymn, ďGod be with You.Ē† The only parish I had for a length of time was the First Congregational Church of Closter. We used to sing the first two lines of that hymn every Sunday standing in a circle at the end of the service. We were very small with about 10 or 15 at best.
Eventually we had to close. Only a few people were maintaining the church and the budget. It was time for them to move on. It was the right thing to do. But when we started singing that last week, I flashed back to that final moment of worship.
It was not a painful event, just a bittersweet one.
So the other notion I offer to families is that the memories will cease to be painful. Rather they will be bittersweet.† Instead of remembering with suffering and heartbreak, you begin to remember the good times and the good efforts. And you realized that those remembered events have helped to shape who you are now.
And as you re-order your life, that experience or that person is part of that re-ordering. Your life is richer and deeper for having been through a period with that person or with that job or with that parish.
I was an engineer for 33 years. I am pleased to have moved on to ministry and chaplaincy. But I still miss the science and the engineering. Thatís still part of who I am. Iíve even found the experience helpful with certain patients, often men who worked in similar firms. We have great conversations Ö something a dying person often wants.
Just as the exile was traumatic, but became a part of who a Jewish person is, so our griefs become who we are. We need to move on and make a new life. But our loved ones, our past experiences, our past hopes enrich our current lives. We have learned from them. We have experienced life in them. And now our lives are deeper and richer for them.
But whether we have lost a loved one to death or loss a job or a home, God promises us that there is hope and that our lives can be re-ordered. They wonít be the same. They wonít match what we had. Nothing can replace a deceased loved one or a beloved home. The most important task of the journey is to let go, but not forget. We are to add to our wealth of experience, but we most accept that life is changing and God is pointing us to a new leg of our journey.
Think about it.
Godís grace and love be with you Ö