One of the things I remember most vividly about seminary is the mantra of self-care that the faculty tried to instill within us. Take your day off. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Get a spiritual director. See a therapist. Advisors, Deans, random professors, even visitors to campus who had recently graduated would remind us, again and again, to take care of ourselves. They did so, I assume, because they hadn’t, and knew the cost. Like so many of them, I didn’t either. I’ve never been terribly bad about taking my days off, but the seminary lunchroom was an all you can eat buffet. Exercise requires self-discipline. Spiritual directors might be easy to find in Washington DC, but not so much in Foley, Alabama. And therapy? I’d take care of that someday. I graduated in May of 2007. In May of 2020, I finally got a counselor thanks to the pandemic and the rise in telehealth.
It has been a little more than a year since I signed up with Betterhelp.com to deal with anxiety, stress, and grief, and these days, I find myself sounding a lot like those faculty members from so long ago, telling everyone who will listen that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of the strength you need to take control of your life and further your walk with God. As COVID restrictions loosen and life begins to return to “normal,” I am keenly aware of the need we all have to find healthy ways to deal with the grief we’ve all experienced over the last 15 months. Most obviously, we have to grieve the friends and family who have died during the pandemic, whose loss we have not been able to mourn in the usual ways. Our list for this evening contains more than 30 names, but there are countless others whose funerals we’ve been unable to attend, whose families we’ve been unable to hug, whose stories we’ve been unable to share. For many of us, the process of grieving the loss of loved ones has become backlogged in this long COVIDtide, as grief has stacked upon grief stacked upon grief. Rather crudely put, we’re all a bit grief constipated at this point.
Less obvious is the grief associated with the loss of other patterns in our lives. Two Easters were spent online and physically distanced. Christmas Eve was a snowy night on State Street and quick walk-through nave to receive communion. Graduations, proms, birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, dance recitals, concerts, sporting events, even Memorial Day picnics – you name it, the pandemic took it away or drastically changed it. It might feel strange to mourn the loss of a watermelon seed spitting contest on the 4th of July, but it is real, and it is normal.
We gather this evening to do the important and necessary work of lamentation, grief, and remembrance. According to the folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary, lament is a word that has gone out of fashion over the last 200 years. Maybe it is because the industrial revolution’s goal is to make life easier and more comfortable, there’s been less reason to lament, but the act of expressing grief, in forms both ecstatic and humble, is part of what it means to be fully human. Lamentation is a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. There are 58 Psalms of Lament, both personal and corporate, making up 39% of the book of Psalms total number. There is an entire book of the Bible called, Lamentations, in which the Prophet Jeremiah is thought to have penned five poems of lament after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. In the lesson we’ve heard read here this evening, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and a whole crowd of others gather in lamentation and mourning at the death of Lazarus. Even our Book of Common Prayer acknowledges the holiness of lamentation, when, at the end of the Burial Office, it teaches that while we find our hope and joy in the resurrection of the dead, grief is not unchristian. “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deeps sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that [those] we love [have] entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”
This service of lament and remembrance isn’t the end of the grief process. More likely, it will mark only the beginning of a long road toward acceptance and hope, the final stage of grief as first posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. Looking at the world around us, it seems that corporately, we’re all stuck in the anger phase, which is often marked by lashing out at others for no apparent reason. No matter where you are, or how many times you’ve walked through the stages of grief, the work is hard, but important. As my counselor has told me on several occasions over the last year, “feel your feelings.” Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Fighting them, won’t make the grief process any easier or help it go by any faster. Instead, as individuals and as a community, the lament, grief, and remembrance work that we do tonight will be part of what God uses to carry us through the days, weeks, and months to come, so that, on the other side, we might be able to accept all that we have lost and look forward with hope to a brighter future. If you don’t have a counselor, I can now, with confidence, invite you to find one. If you don’t have habits of discipleship like prayer and Bible reading, I invite you to start one. If you don’t know the stages of grief, I’d be happy to tell you more. Tonight, we turn our focus on the beginning of a long, hard road. The end of which, is nothing less than the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen.