Part 1: A Time To Mourn
Three years ago, I did the Memorial Day service, and started preparing long in advance, not knowing that 9 days before the service, we would lose our dear friend Jim Erickson. My theme back in 2012 was the role that memory plays in our spiritual lives.
Months ago, I agreed to do the Memorial Day service once again, and chose the theme of grieving. Once again, I did not know that we would lose another dear friend, Dawn Anderson, shortly before this service.
Our invocation this morning was the famous passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and the official stated purpose of that holiday is “remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.” In my case, I have to stretch far back into the past to find a loved one who died in the military, so I will broaden the subject to “remembering people who died.” But I would say that Memorial Day qualifies as “a time to mourn.”
For people who knew Dawn, or others who passed away recently, mourning is a process we are actively going through right now. For others, Memorial Day may be a reminder of loss from years ago, but I believe that is a valuable thing too. For some people, it may even be what they call “anticipatory grief” – mourning the loss of someone who has not died yet. For others, it may not be about death, it may be about a different kind of loss: loved ones moving away, or the end of a relationship.
Years ago I went to a 3-day workshop on grieving, and the keynote speaker was a fascinating man named Glen Davidson. He was interesting because he was an ordained minister and a medical doctor, and for three days in a row he spoke for hours at a time about the grieving process. And because he was a minister and doctor, he could discuss the spiritual aspects but also talk about medical issues such as the role of the endocrine system in grief or the chemical makeup of grieving tears vs. happy tears. Looking back, I’d have to say it was the most influential workshops I have ever gone to.
He later published the book “Understanding Mourning: A Guide For Those Who Grieve.” The book begins with Davidson pointing out that no one wants to go through the grieving process. “If left to their own designs, most people would ignore mourning, just as they try to ignore other disagreeable experiences in life.”
But no one can ignore mourning. It is a universal experience. Except for those who died very young, everyone on earth has to deal with the pain of losing someone else in their life. The Bible is full of stories of intense mourning, sometimes lasting for days, sometimes for months. These stories appear in almost every book of the Bible, and affect every major character, including Jesus. One that I didn’t read this morning was the story of King David and his son Absalom (2 Samuel 18). Absalom hated his father so much that he was bent on killing him, and despite David’s orders not to touch him, the king’s soldiers killed Absalom in order to protect their leader. They thought David might be relieved to hear that the person who was trying to assassinate him was gone, but when David heard of his son’s death, he wept bitterly and said, “O Absalom, my son, if only I had died instead of you!”
Many times in the Bible, the whole tribe mourned a death – and they did it more dramatically than we do these days: tearing their clothing, covering themselves in ashes, wearing painful sackcloth, fasting, and shaving their heads.
In fact, I think that ancient peoples understood the grieving process better than we do now; we have forgotten how to grieve. There are two specific things the ancient tribes knew about grieving that we don’t necessarily recognize these days: (1) that it is a group process, not something people should have to do alone, and (2) it takes a long time. Our Old Testament reading (Genesis 50:1-11), about the death of Jacob, has both of those features: “The Egyptians mourned for him seventy days” and that was before the burial ceremony. And listen to the description of the burial: “So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt—besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company. When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.”
Our Sunday morning Bible study group has been looking at the Beatitudes, and the second of them is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like all of the Beatitudes, that thought seems to contradict common sense – how can mourning be a blessing? What is the value, the benefit of going through that process? No one wants to do it, and as Glen Davidson talks about extensively in his book, everyone wants the process to be shorter than it actually is. In fact, he quotes statistics that show that most people drastically underestimate how long grieving takes: in one survey, the overwhelming majority of people thought that someone should be over the loss of a loved ones in two weeks or less. He goes on to discuss what happens when mourners are still in the throes of grief long after that time period: they worry that others will get tired of hearing about it, or think they are crazy, so they stop talking about it. At that point, it stops being a group process and becomes a very solitary process. But it doesn’t stop.
Instead of lasting for weeks, or even months, most people find that grieving takes years, and in a sense, the pain never goes away. How can Jesus call such a long-lasting pain a blessing? People have been puzzling over the meaning of that statement for thousands of years.
Part 2: Do Angels Grieve?
It is particularly puzzling when I think about angels and the afterlife. Do angels grieve?
Why would they? Grieving is the reaction to someone dying, leaving your life, a relationship ending. If you believe in eternal life, then that’s something that simply doesn’t happen there. There is no death in the afterlife. Swedenborg describes how angels sort themselves into societies, but they can also visit anyone else any time they like.
In our reading from Swedenborg’s book Spiritual Experiences (#108), he says it plain as day: “Therefore no grief touches them as it does here in the world.”
No grief touches them.
How could it? If our spirits never die, we can be with whoever we want to be with, and nothing is ever lost, what is to grieve? Angels may get sad from time to time, but not to the level of what we’d call “grief.”
Yet grieving is something we have to endure on earth. Why is grieving a process we must go through in this world, if angels don’t have to in the next? Isn’t life on earth just a preparation for life in heaven? To put it another way: what does grieving teach us, that we can’t learn another way?
In our discussion of that Beatitude a few weeks ago, the people in our Sunday group all had different views on what the blessing that comes from mourning may be. I think it’s good that it’s left to our own interpretation.
Let me return to talking about what grieving is. And here, my thoughts have been deeply shaped not by a workshop or a book, but by a song. And curiously, it’s a song I’ve never owned, it’s never appeared on any album, and I had never heard it before the advent of the internet. When I finally heard it, I didn’t even particularly like it. How could a song I’ve rarely heard and don’t especially like be so influential to me?
Because of the title. The minute I heard that title, I never forgot it. It’s a song by Laurie Anderson, and the title is “It’s Not The Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”
Those ten words changed my thinking about what grieving is. When tragic things happen in life, those are the bullets that strike us. Maybe it was an unexpected or violent death, maybe it was a long drawn-out illness. Some people have had to endure many such bullets – what Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” When those things happen, they command so much attention that of course that’s where our focus goes – that’s what we think is hard about life. We focus on questions like, “Can we survive that kind of bullet?” Or “Does God ever give us things we can’t handle?” That’s a bullet-related question.
If we do survive those bullets, that makes us stronger. Learning to cope with tragedy is one of the things that builds character, and forces us to redefine who we are and what we believe.
Hollywood loves making movies about action heroes that are so tough that they don’t grieve when someone dies; they just go out and do something about it, usually in the form of getting revenge. If James Bond ever stopped to grieve about all the death he has seen, he would become a puddle, and never be able to be an effective spy again.
Hollywood also loves survival stories about people who overcome unbelievable challenges. All of these movies and stories reinforce the idea that life is about learning to survive bullets. Bullets help us to become hard.
But it’s not the bullet that really kills you, it’s the hole. You can recover from bullets, but holes last forever. And holes make us soft.
I have had a tragedy-free life; I have faced very few bullets. Looking at my own family, the loved ones who have left have died peacefully, and almost all of old age. Not a single moment in my life would make a good action movie, or survival story.
But I have just as many holes in my heart as anybody else. We all do.
Some of those holes are big, some very small. Here’s an example of a small one: I have been a college teacher for over twenty years, and I just wrapped up roughly my 40th semester of teaching. The reason I couldn’t be here for church last Sunday is because I went to the University of Minnesota commencement ceremony – two ceremonies in a row, in fact. It was a day of much celebration and talk about accomplishments. They printed a thick booklet of the names of all the new graduates. In the lull between ceremonies, I went through that booklet and circled the names of all the students I had taught. I circled 116 names. History has shown that perhaps three or four of those students will keep in touch, but at least 100 of them I will never see again. Many of them I didn’t get to know all that well, but we spent a few months together, and now they are gone from my life. It happens every year: hundreds of small new holes in my heart.
My son graduated from college two years ago, and is living in Iowa. Even though we visit him several times a year, it’s unlikely he’ll ever live at home again, and I’ll probably never be able to spend as much time with him as I did when he was a child. There was no “bullet” involved in him going off to college and becoming an adult. But that’s a huge hole.
My daughters are likewise growing up. Luckily they both chose the University of Minnesota to attend so they are close by, but it still means leaving the nest. Huge holes.
By the way, since then others have also written wonderful songs about holes in our heart. One I discovered in preparing for this service is by a British folk singer who goes by the name Passenger. He has a song called “Holes” that I considered asking the band to play today, but I didn’t give them enough time to learn it. The chorus goes:
“Sometimes you can’t change and you can’t choose
And sometimes it seems you gain less than you lose
Now we’ve got holes in our hearts, yeah we’ve got holes in our lives
We’ve got holes, we’ve got holes but we carry on.”
Part 3: The Value of Mourning
So what is the value of having a Swiss-cheese heart? Wouldn’t it be better to have a heart without holes in it?
To me, it is about the value of being soft. If I were a tough guys like those action movie heroes, I don’t think that would be good for my soul. This is not to judge or disparage people like soldiers, who perform a valuable and incredibly difficult function in society. Memorial Day is, after all, about honoring precisely those people. And it is not just the tough job they did that is worth honoring, it is the fact that they had to sever emotional ties in order to do it. They had to become hard in order to do their job, but we are all soft inside.
And when it comes to the purpose of Memorial Day, you could look at it as honoring the sacrifices that those soldiers made, giving up their lives for their country. Or you could look at it as being about the loved ones they left behind, and the holes they left in our hearts.
It’s about the connections we have with them. Even if they have been gone for decades, those holes are still there in our hearts, and that’s a good thing.
Because it reminds us that we are all connected. It reminds us that underneath it all, life is about love. It reminds us of the value of other people in our lives, which is something we can sometimes forget. The time to mourn is a time to also remember not to take anyone for granted. To quote one more song (this one by Joni Mitchell), “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” Perhaps when we become angels, we will have learned not to take anything for granted anymore, which is why it’s a lesson we need to learn on earth, but we won’t need to keep learning in the afterlife.
Here on earth, we need those reminders. We need things that re-prioritize our lives, that give us back perspective when we have lost it. We need to have those times in our lives, and times on our calendar, to think of those connections. It is important that we have a time to mourn.
I believe that grieving is one of the most important experiences that make us human. Human in the soft, imperfect, humble sense of the word. Grieving teaches us compassion, gives us understanding of others, makes us more connected. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge our own grief, but it is what makes us better human beings. I would go so far as to say, without grieving, we could not become truly human. So: blessed are we who mourn.