Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

The Gospel of Grief

January 22, 2013

Several weeks ago, I was honored by an invitation to do a presentation at the national event for Phyllis Tickle’s new book Emergence Christianity.  It was a kind of adieu from Phyllis as she retires from public speaking (but thankfully, not writing!), and a valedictory event for hundreds of people to honor Phyllis for her immense contributions to Christian literature and to emergence Christianity in particular.  

The presentation I was asked to do is a PechaKucha, a very peculiar format with origins in Japanese design conferences.  20 slides click by for 20 seconds each, leaving the speaker just 6 minutes and 40 seconds to share their idea.  I found the format to be challenging (and my fellow presenters to be mighty intimidating!), but ultimately clarifying as I tried to continue thinking about how my forthcoming grief memoir might apply to life and Christian community.  

The slides were a mix of related images, pen-and-ink illustrations of Bible stories, and  sections of a rejected version of the cover of the book.  Here is the script of what I shared:

My life is pretty ordinary.  I do laundry, wash the car, wash the kids, cook breakfast and lunch and dinner.  I teach, I work at a church, and I am gradually, slowly renovating our house.  I am a religious person, too.  I am not terribly organized, but I have certain practices that I pursue.  Most every week, I take a holy pilgrimage

Okay, it is to The Home Depot.  Often times I see my friend Virginia there.  She is an older lady with a little too much makeup, but she is sweet as candy to my three little girls: remembers them, and greets them, and tells them how pretty they are.

One day when we saw Virginia, she asked what I had been up to. Why had it been so long since my last visit?  I told her I wrote a book, and was busy finishing it up.

Cover art by Holly Sharp, SharpSeven Design, Portland, OR.

“What is it about?” she asked, genuinely interested.
“Well, it’s about grief,” I answered cautiously.
“Oh, I know about grief,” she said, full of confidence.
“Do you want me to tell you how long a person should grieve?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, warily.
“Two months.  When my mother died, my aunt told me I had two months to get over it.  And that’s what I did.”
“How did that work for you?” I asked, trying hard to mask my cynicism.
“It worked great!,” she said, leaving an awkward pause.  “…And when my dog died three months ago, I missed him for 2 months, but then I went out and got a new dog.  The same breed, and I gave him the same name, and feel fine now.”

Color me unconvinced.

Phyllis Tickle–who also dotes on my kids, but wears a lot less makeup,  and bears a lot more wisdom, and shares a much more realistic understanding of the hard part of life,  once famously said, “God is both the shit and the fan.”

I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but I like it.

I think she was saying that God is always and ever right in the midst of our troubles.  Sometimes trying to save us from ourselves, sometimes fixing our problems, sometimes causing them. Frequently standing by like some indolent bystander:  deaf to our cries of loss, our cries for justice,  our cries of heartbreak.

When my son died, I learned that people mean well, but they say some stupid stuff.  They are trying to help, but their attempts only illustrate the irredeemability of the situation:
I might never see my son again
(and I wouldn’t want to hold him back that way)
my life will never be ‘normal’ again
(and that is okay– that’s my life now)
my pain might never be completely healed
(and neither might yours)

Loss of any kind makes us look into the abyss.  Loss opens our eyes to the truth: that loss is everywhere, for everyone, without a discreet 5-part plan to relieve it.

But all is not lost.  All is not bleak.  The gospel of grief is that loss is universal.  The gospel of grief is that you are not alone. The gospel of grief is that you already know what to do. The kingdom is within you, so pay attention to all of your life:  your victories, your losses, your joys, your heartbreaks.  Your embarrassments, and your moments of pride.  And your embarrassments *at*  your moments of pride.  It is not all good, but it is all for you. All of it.

So take it all in, and find that your strengths become weaknesses.  And even more, learn that your weaknesses become strengths.

You could of course choose to numb yourself to the pain, through all manner of methods and means.  But being dull to pain means being dull to joy.  Love and loss walk hand in hand.

In my case, I could callous myself against the pain of my son’s death. But that would make me callous to his twin sister’s life.  Dull to her joy.  Numb to her happiness.  Cold to her love.

Being tuned in to pain means being present to myself, and to my pain and my joy. But also, present to my friends.  Our communities can be places of grief and joy, of sorrow and celebration. Our communities can be places where we experience life, in all of its pleasure and pain. Communities of trust and vulnerability.  Not places of formal therapeutic care, and not sad or insular.  But honest and open and human.  Devoid of fake Sunday smiles.

The final cover, also by Holly Sharp (SharpSeven Design, Portland, OR).

The truth is, we are never whole.  Riddled with mistakes, failures, and broken relationships.
Distracted with disappointments.  The truth is, these experiences do not make us unusual, or aberrant, or faulty.  These are common experiences; a part of our humanity.

The gospel of grief is that our un-wholeness is something that brings us together.  Our holiness is tied up in our acknowledgement of our un-wholeness.  Of our embrace of our un-wholeness.

We in the emergence church are learning that our strength is not found in our power or might or intelligence or our perfect insight. Our strength is not found in our certainty, but in our doubt.  In our wondering, and in our wandering.  Our strength is found in our weakness.

Like Jesus in the garden, overwhelmed with his own life.  Like God at Golgotha, utterly separated from God’s son. Like Jesus at Calvary, utterly forsaken by his Father.   “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  A cry that each person has cried into that same dark sky since time out of mind.

You, and me, and Jesus, completely disempowered.  Undone.  But the power of God is found in that weakness.  So wave your losses high.  Wear your weakness like a flag.  Embrace the darkness all around you, for the light shines in that darkness.

Know that, like the gospel of Home Depot, grief is a do-it-yourself project. You know the way to do it.   …Or you will know the way, as you walk it.   The Kingdom is all around you, in the darkness and in the light.   You know what to do.  (But you should still buy my book)

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2 Responses to “The Gospel of Grief”

  1. Marty McCarter says:

    Mike, …..just like you – this writing is precious. Yes, so thankful that there is Light in the darkness.

  2. Sandra says:

    Leave it to you to find the gospel in Home Depot. Guessing your holiest encounters take place near the grill accessories.

    Seriously, Mike, I imagine your PechaKucha presentation was powerful and stood apart. Is it public? I’d so love to see it.

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