Grief is Love with Somewhere to Go
A sermon on John 11:32-44 and Ruth 1:1-18
[for an audio recording of the sermon, click here. Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash]
Today’s readings include a lot of weeping… although perhaps not in the spots we might expect.
The reading from Ruth begins unemotionally, reporting the widowing of Naomi, and then the death of both of her adult sons without allowing us to witness her grief directly.
It is only when she instructs her daughters-in-law to go back to their families and leave her to her desolation that the factual focus of the narrative breaks down, and we are allowed to witness an out-pouring of grief.
But even then, we are invited to hear the weeping of the two younger women only. Naomi, it would seem, has moved beyond grief to despair and bitterness.
Naomi makes her case for the hopelessness of her situation and Orpah and Ruth weep again – “aloud” as the text tells us. But after Orpah departs, Ruth clings to Naomi. She declares her faithfulness to her mother-in-law in one of the most emotional and poignant speeches in all of scripture.
And even then, Naomi does not cry. She simply stays silent.
The surprise in the gospel story is rather different. The scene opens with Mary weeping for her brother Lazarus, and the people gathered with her weeping as well.
This is to be expected. Mary is mourning her beloved brother. And in her culture the public expression of grief is not only allowed but facilitated. When a loved one dies, professional mourners come to mourn with you. They weep to help you weep, to accompany you in your grief.
The surprise here – at least for familiar readers of the story – is that Jesus would weep as well.
After all, we know that Jesus has the power to raise Lazarus from the dead. Indeed, if we have read the story from the beginning of the chapter, we know that Jesus already knows what he is going to do… that he arrived knowing already that Lazarus was dead and that he will raise him from the grave.
He actually told his disciples that he was “glad” for their sakes that Lazarus had died, so that they could believe more completely once he is raised.
Jesus knows that Lazarus’ return to life is only minutes away. He has professed himself “glad” for the opportunity to demonstrate God’s power in raising Lazarus, and yet he still weeps.
Why? Why does he pause in his mission to end the cause for all the weeping in order to join in? What purpose does Jesus’ open grief serve?
There is a popular quote from author Jamie Anderson that tells us that, “grief is just love with nowhere to go.”
I understand why this statement resonates with so many people.
It gives expression to the sense of helplessness that makes grief so debilitating.
All loss is painful, but it is the ones that are irrevocable that hurt the most, because there is nothing to do, nowhere to direct our painful emotions.
That is what can make grief so paralyzing. It makes us feel trapped in our pain, with “nowhere to go.”
I think it is exactly this kind of paralyzed pain that we witness in Naomi’s dry-eyed grief.
She is utterly bereft. She sees no possibility of joy, or even comfort, in her future. All that she has is loss, and bitterness, and the sense of being abandoned by her God. She feels trapped in her pain and this makes her reject even those who seek to accompany her.
Given her destitution, it is hardly a wise course to take, but perhaps it is more familiar than we first realize.
I see echoes of this self-sabotaging grief in our country right now.
As a society we have endured an extended period of loss that we cannot control – devastating loss of lives exacerbated by other losses – economic, social, and spiritual.
It has been an experience of helplessness on a scale for which our modern expectations of control over nature left us totally unprepared.
It is deeply uncomfortable to feel so helpless… and so we lash out. We give vent to anger, and blame, rather than grief.
Frustration is a more empowering emotion than sadness. It is dividing and dehumanizing our country, but at least we don’t feel so helpless. We cling to our bitterness like a shield.
But what if there were a different way to grieve, a way that does not leave us feeling helpless?
In her book Good Grief, grief specialist Deborah Morris Coryell alludes to the children’s book Paddington Bear in diagnosing the problem of grief that goes unexpressed. She notes that when Paddington needs help, he calls out only quietly, so as not to disturb anyone.
Her advice to those who are grieving is to do the opposite: “Call out,” she urges. “Disturb the silence with your soul’s cry. Your pain, your loss, your grief disturbs our world.”
In other words, grief needs somewhere to go. It is when we silence it or cover it up with more palatable emotions that it traps us in helplessness.
I believe this truth explains why Jesus wept with Mary for her brother, even knowing that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead.
He is God, but he is also fully human, and thus he needed what all of us need: space and means to express the pain of grief. He needed to cry with his beloved friend in response to the pain of mortality, the anguish we feel when we are brought up against the inevitable loss of death.
Regardless of what hope we have for the future, when loss is our present reality, grief needs to be expressed.
This is at least one reason why we observe All Saints Day. This annual practice is our affirmation that grief belongs in our most sacred time and space, that it is a holy thing to express our grief.
But it is not only that grief needs somewhere to go. If we are to heal from our grief, then our love needs somewhere to go as well.
The great danger of grief is that it will turn us in on our own pain, like Naomi, seeing only our desolation.
I have personal experience with such internally directed grief. After my dad’s death, I experienced my first episode of clinical depression. It was a grief that hollowed me out inside and kept my eyes locked inward on my emptiness.
Until I discovered the healing that came from turning outward, letting my grief propel me into care for others, through a prayer ministry at my college. In the opportunity to focus my attention on the needs of others, I discovered how grief could find expression in love.
This is also what Ruth does with her grief.
Ruth has much to grieve:
Her husband’s death.
Before that, years of childless marriage, which – in her society – was a source of shame and insecurity.
The need to choose between her family and homeland and a woman she had come to love as her own mother.
But instead of turning inward on her grief, Ruth lets it call her into a vow of incredible sacrifice and commitment to the woman who shares her grief, with no assurances of hope for a future– in fact, quite the opposite.
To Naomi’s dire warnings she must add the loss of belonging by moving to a new society where she will be suspected as an outsider, with no resources.
But the one thing she will have is a bond of love. Somehow Ruth understood that grief is only “love with nowhere to go,” if we hold that love inside and refuse to risk loving again.
Grief is a universal human experience.
At some point we all lose something or someone we love.
And grief has become all the more universal as we have shared the collective losses (personal and societal) brought on by 20 months of pandemic.
At times this grief has brought out the worst in us as a society:
turning us in on ourselves,
focusing our attention on our own rights,
making us bitter and angry,
stealing our capacity to reach out in the kind of vulnerable love that Ruth offers Naomi.
But what if we could discover that in grief, love still has somewhere to go? What if our grief could open us up to each other? What if it allowed us to weep together and also make brave choices together?
Our gospel teaches us that we must not rush into hope when we have reason to grieve. Loss needs to be expressed. We need to weep together over all that we have lost.
And then, we need to let our shared grief lead us together into the work of love. Because grief is really love that still has somewhere to go.
Thanks be to God.
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