A while ago, I woke up from a nightmare. In this dream, I knew that my brother was in an upper level of an abandoned skyscraper, unconscious and badly burned, hooked into an IV that I did not know who operated. When I learned about his condition on the phone, I felt and heard a noise escape my throat - one I have only heard once before. The unmistakable, guttural cry of grief: someone is dead or dying. By the time I saw my brother’s body in front of me, in the dream, I woke up. It was dark. My body automatically turned over, bringing me to my knees and I prayed. With gratitude, gratitude that I knew, with almost certainty, that my brother was safe at home. Then grief washed over me again, because just as I knew my brother was fine, I knew that someone else’s brother was experiencing my dream as their reality.
A few days later, I was asked, “how do you respond when you notice the holy in your life?” Immediately my dream came to mind: prayer, gratitude, grief. Prayer: a physical act; embodying, surrendering, being presence. Gratitude: filling up with and casting thank you into my relationships and beyond into the world. Grief: a punch to the gut, a reverberating wave washing over me, moving through me... connecting me to you, to what is greater than all of us.
…Is grief holy?
Theologically and intellectually, I believe that holiness is not only found, but inherent in lament, suffering, death. But during actual moments of despair from personal failures to family dynamics to global pandemics, it’s challenging for me to name the holy when it seems like everything around me is falling apart; it’s challenging for me to name the holy when it hits me, again, that's it’s not good enough for just me and mine to be safe and well. And yet, exactly in these moments of despair, I fall to my knees in prayer, gratitude and grief; I realize what is most holy.
I, and I assume many of you, have been told again and again to see the blessing in the situation, to find hope in despair. But I ask you now: have you lamented today?
Have you paused long enough to feel what you are feeling? Before moving to comfort others or post a cat picture, have you grieved? Have you allowed yourself to feel a little more (even if you can’t name why or what)? Rather than reacting to the fear of disconnection, have you actually let yourself experience disconnection? Have you let yourself break down and cry? Are you allowed the space to break down and cry?
I had not cried until writing this sermon the fourth time.
I am a lingerer. After gatherings, meetings, classes, I stay, talk and laugh with the other lingerers. But these days, logging off of a Zoom call, I am met with loss and longing. Emptiness and the sudden sense of being alone opens like a chasm in the room. Yet, I have learned that if I scroll online or text people as a distraction from what I’m feeling, it does not make me feel better or more connected. It numbs me. It prolongs the process of facing my experience. I don’t want more depression--the lack of feeling--in this world, or anyone to get stuck in despair. I need us to practice feeling more, feeling honestly, allowing our emotions to move and change.The moments when I finally allow myself to feel what I feel--which sometimes looks like me moving around in physical distress, banging the floor with my hands, curling up to cry; at other times, sitting with my breath and allowing the tears to just fall. These are the moments when I am alive. Even in the deep sadness of loneliness, I am utterly connected to all that’s around me, has come before, and is yet to come. When my tears slow, my breath regulates and I am aware of the floor beneath me, I experience a shift: though broken, I feel whole.
The call for social distancing and quarantine is asking—or rather demanding—most of us give something up…be it work, an income, travel to loved ones, social gatherings, in-person theological discussions, physical contact, comfort in knowing we can shop for our needs.
There are those of us who are on the front lines in hospitals trying to save lives and reduce needless suffering; those of us concerned with laws, the distribution of resources and sanitation; those of us focused on parenting, educating and nourishing our children. We need these people—you—to continue doing this work and to do it in morally responsible ways—but what about the rest of us?
There is tremendous possibility to organize, to get to know our housemates, families and neighbors more deeply—I went for a walk the other day and saw more neighbors that I knew and didn’t know, than I have ever seen on a neighborhood walk before. We stopped and waved, chatted from across the street, noticed one another and kept our physical distance—yet we were all together. There is tremendous possibility to get to know one another in powerful ways and to respond to the many needs and shortcomings being exposed in our society. So, for those of us who have the capacity and opportunity to reflect in this moment, what are we clinging to that is preventing the conditions for the possible transformation we swear we give our lives to?
In the enormity of this disruption, sacrifice and uncertainty, do any of us actually know what this moment is calling for? How many of us are pretending, or trying to pretend that we know?
I have been. I have been pretending. Yet, there is a part of me (which I’ve brushed off as selfish, but might actually be the wise voice I’m ignoring) that keeps calling out for me to pause and retreat, to surrender to this moment of ceasing.
Please hear me, this is not a call for the most vulnerable to bear even more; the most vulnerable among us are always the most impacted, consistently suffer more, find themselves in despairing circumstances, and usually respond with incomprehensible resilience. No, this is a call for those of us who have the privilege of self-quarantining, for those of us who are being given the space to pause and witness as the world as we know it disintegrates around us.
This is not the time to cling to false idols and “apparent security”. This is a time to enter into despair. This is a time to grieve. This is a time to let false hope die and put our faith in the creative possibility of transformation by dedicating our lives to being a part of the organism of community. The role of grieving is not to be taken lightly.
Have you lamented today?
Theologian Henry N. Wieman writes:
Despair...despair is the state of mind ensuing when the good to which one clings as source and sustainer of all other good has been taken away. When that to which one clings is not truly the source and sustainer, its removal and the consequent despair open the way for the real source to enter… creative power (has the possibility to) dominate over all else as it could not before and could penetrate beneath every obstruction raised against it… but this… radical transformation cannot occur without despair if by despair (we mean) the removal of every other good to which one clings as ultimate source and sustainer.
Otherwise known as idolatry.
Perhaps, for many of us, what we are clinging to is not only the “apparent security and stability” of meeting our material needs, but also the false notion that when others suffer, we do not. But deep down, we know, there are no other people’s brothers. There are no other people’s children or grandparents. We live in a world filled with our siblings, some we have yet to meet and others we will never get the chance to.
Have you lamented today?
I’ve asked this three times now, and I’m wondering: Does it land? Do you feel called to lament? Where... what part of your body do you feel grief stirring? If you’re willing and able, put your hand right there. What does your grief feel like? Who is your grief connected to? Perhaps, you can even hear it’s message…
We do not create transformation... as local community healer and leader Susan Raffo says: We do not create transformation, we create the conditions for transformation to be possible.
What spiritual practices are you being called to in this moment? What spiritual practices move you into and through despair, allowing Source to enter?
Yes, may we—may we lament, personally and collectively. May we fall to our knees in prayer gratitude and grief. May we surrender to this ceasing, not in order to tolerate suffering, but precisely the opposite: to not allow this ripe opportunity for creating the conditions of radical transformation that we know this society needs to pass us by. May we surrender to the one true source with many names: Creativity, God, Mystery, Love.
This Blog Post was originally written as a sermon for the course UU Theologies taught by Demian Wheeler in Spring 2020.