Grief as an Octopus

This Saturday morning I am thinking about grief. My wife has started a wonderful new professional position, but we live in an imperfect world. I fell asleep in bed with my head next to hers as she talked about her professional challenges last night. I listened for a good long time before my exhaustion took me away. Thankfully, she does not read my blog regularly: my “secret” is safe for now. Let’s be honest: she may already know.

Professionally, in my own ministry I often face grief in homes, at funerals, on Sunday mornings, in hospital rooms, in meetings, in conferences, in the checkout line at the grocery store, and many other places. Personally, I have been grieving the act of registering for Annual Meetings this year because of the grief incurred globally. Now that the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruling has effectively guaranteed a divisive United Methodist Annual Conference and a United Church of Christ Annual Meeting filled with well-meant sympathy and questions, I suppose my grief needs to be accepted.

Grief is in my thoughts this morning. I spent my quiet time this morning praying while doing the less than pleasant task of doing dishes. I might not have raisins to sort, but I try to learn from folks like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence. Grief was in my thoughts as I scrubbed oily residue and emptied the sink trap.

My conclusion at the end of my time of contemplation is that grief reminds me of an octopus. Grief can be Krakenesque or found 20,000 leagues below the surface. Grief can be in the shallows of a reef teeming with life or plucking what little it can from the open currents.

Grief is a master of camouflage. The beast hides in plain sight until it reaches out. Grief grabs you only once before you see it in every eddy of sand. Grief can make you paranoid to swim out into the seas of life.

Grief also does not hide behind every rock in the sea of life. If we spend our whole lives afraid to swim, we may eventually regret our choices. As strange as it sounds, fish that do not move water through their gills will drown. Most fish can only hold still for a certain amount of time before they get air from the surface or the sea.

Tomorrow in church at Maine Federated, we will sing songs and read the story of Easter again. We will proclaim resurrection in a world of grief. We will swim, we will breathe, and face whatever octopi wait in the depths.

Responding to a Weird World

Friends, Tuesday was an odd day for me as a minister. Two things happened which led me to go for a long walk around the block. The first is probably obvious to anyone who knows I am United Methodist or even goes back a few blog posts.

General Conference was taking place and the institutional global church further pressed back against people pushing for inclusion. I did not see the legislation pass in person because I felt the need to go and pray for the church.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with a colleague from a nearby church who came to discuss recent events during worship at our church. His church now has locked doors during worship. They were concerned. I was asked about what happened, was I afraid, and we discussed churches that have panic buttons and armed security. My colleague and I discussed that he doesn’t carry the panic button because he is aware as one of the people up front he might be the first one targeted by a shooter.

I went to take a long walk because it is weird to feel both slammed with pressure from above when there are people and colleagues in my neighborhood in the middle of nowhere that are now worried that church is literally a physically unsafe place without locked doors.

I have received threatening notes in the past regarding my own safety for taking stands on including folks from the margins, although honestly more about racial inclusion and less about LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I have upcoming meetings scheduled for dates before the Judicial Council will meet to determine whether what was just passed is enforceable under our constitution. I am concerned about what will happen between now and when the Judicial Council will (in my opinion) likely strike down portions of what passed.

I’m just concerned because my honest response to both issues is the same. If someone came into my church with a theological or physical gun, my place is between the church and that person. I have children and a family to provide for in this life, but that place of risk is my place as a minister.

I have taken a number of long walks between Tuesday and today. I will likely continue to keep walking, praying, and honestly playing a few video games on my phone to help keep my anxiety down.

I will find that ditto… I need the Pokémon who is all things to all people.

Pastoral Ghazal

Some believe that Justice must be blind---
Eyes covered from all a glimpse could find.

If true, I'd like to give her a piece of my mind
For every person I have seen tears blind.

I would rather Compassion with a strong arm find
Ready to seek the mourning to hold and bind.

Our own world with Justice I would leave behind—
Strip away tear stained rocks which once shined.

Compassion take their grief to the millstone to grind—
Rob away their sorrows far from heart and mind.

Let us Seek: The Mourning Faithful

I decided to tackle a difficult subject in today’s blog post. One of the sets of readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary includes Genesis 49:29-50:14. This passage is one of the more poignant moments in the relationship between Joseph and his father Jacob.

Jacob had loved Joseph dearly as a child. The coat which Jacob gave to Joseph is the inspiration behind one of the most popular musicals of the last century. The affection of Jacob for Joseph was pervasive and powerful enough that it inspired artistry from ancient times until the modern day. Their separation had been ended after a period of grief and mourning after circumstances led them together again as a family in the context of a famine in the land of Jacob and abundant stockpiling in the land of Joseph’s servitude in Egypt. The struggles between Joseph and his brothers led to Joseph being able to provide for his family in a time of need. God blessed Jacob and his family through even the rough circumstances endured by Joseph. Joseph’s faithfulness saved his family. Today’s story is about the next separation between Jacob and Joseph.

Joseph was faithful. Joseph’s father still died. Jacob did not live forever. The affection and love between the two moved from a daily reality into a matter of memory for Joseph. Joseph still experienced lost despite all of his faithfulness, all of his goodness, and all of his fidelity to God.

Even faithful people experience loss. Many people see the loss of a parent, a friend, or a child as a punishment from God. Sometimes loss can feel like a punch in the gut and I would never belittle or berate someone for feeling grief. Still, it must be said that for now death is a reality which all people must face in time.

Scripture is filled with the faithful of ages past and almost every single person in the stories of the scripture experienced death both in their immediate family and eventually in their own experience. Were it not for Enoch in Genesis 5 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2, every single person in the scriptures who have been described as dying or would have died by chronological inevitability, including Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Yes, Jesus died. Yes, Jesus rose. Yes, Jesus will come again.

One of the promises in life which is clung to by many of the faithful is that death will eventually be no more. I look forward with anticipation to being with my mother and my grandparents again on the distant shore which I will reach when I have passed from this life or Christ comes again, but neither of those moments have yet to pass in my life. For now, death is a reality which we all must face, whether we are Jacob, Joseph, or even my own children.

I believe that Joseph’s journey can teach us some things about our own journeys of grief. First, I think there is something wise in the concept of leaving room for our own grief. Joseph not only goes about the task of preparing his father’s body—Joseph enters into grief. He takes time to go on a journey to the land of Jacob and he spends time there in mourning. He accepts his sorrow, laments what has happened, and spends seven days in grief. He does not simply rush through the motions—Joseph takes time to grieve.

Second, Joseph does not shun his loss or pretend it does not happen. Joseph goes to Pharaoh, explains his promise, and takes time away from his responsibilities. Joseph did not live in a time where he earned paid time off for his service to the Egyptian monarch. Joseph had to intentionally ask for space. His request could have serious consequences (like those experienced for rejecting another man’s wife earlier in his life), but Joseph is willing to risk the consequences because he has accepted the value of what must happen. His grief might have a cost but Joseph is willing to pay the cost, even if it causes him influence, pride, or even prestige.

Third, Joseph eventually returns to life. In time, after he has paid all due respect and has cared for his responsibilities, Joseph goes on with life. Joseph returns to Egypt and resumes the tasks which have been set before him by the Pharaoh.

In time, we all enter places of grief. In time, we all struggle. Even the most faithful of individuals eventually has to face the journey to the other shore, whether in the life of a loved one or on our own journey. As you inevitably face grief, I pray you find the tenacity, courage, and eventual ability to move forward that was modeled by Joseph.