Grief Never Ends But…

Sunday Morning Musings:  May 27 will mark my final Sunday worship in a regular “call” relationship within The United Church of Canada.  Of course, any ending brings with it a bitter/sweet experience.  On the other hand, an ending can also mean a new beginning.  Yet, regardless of the circumstances, any ending results in some sort of loss and any form of loss means there will be grief associated with it.

Rather than talk about my particular grief I want to muse about grief in general.    Mitchell’s Funeral Home offers a quote from Leonard Cohen that I find thought-provoking“The broken heart illuminates a path, and it is a different path for each broken heart” (Leonard Cohen).  As I ponder this quote it reinforces for me that grief is unique for us all.  Yet I also know that there many commonalities to our grieving.  Today, I want to focus on one such common element of grief.

It has been my experience over the years of journeying with those encountering grief to know that the broken heart mentioned by Cohen, does not really ever heal.  Grief was once described to me as being like working on a jigsaw puzzle and throwing the whole thing in the air but when it came down one piece was missing.

Because the heart never fully recovers and even though we must continue to go on with our lives and living, we can never be sure when we will once again feel the sorrow of our loss.  I, and many others, have described this idea of grief as the “wave effect”.  Quite some time ago I was invited to go fishing (when I lived in southern Nova Scotia).  We were in a 20 foot long dory doing some hand-lining.  It was a marvellous morning and the Atlantic Ocean was as smooth as glass.  Then without warning I looked behind me and noticed a wall of water approaching.  I could see nothing else but the huge swell that I was sure was going to smash into us.  A moment later, we were sitting atop that same swell and all seemed fine again.

When folks described events that happened to them, not only in the first couple of years but many years after the initial loss, it was common for them to mention the idea that they felt “overcome” by something connected to their loss.  Sometimes, the event that cause the moment of devastation was as simple as seeing a bird or hearing a song or even a word.  Long after the feeling that we are past the initial loss, we are still affected.  The saving grace is that over time we learn that it is okay to feel the grief and though it is never totally gone we will be back on top and life will go on.

It is important that we continue to learn about this thing we call grief.  There will always be uniqueness to it – and we will each walk a different path.  Yet, along that path there will be those experiences that others have also known.  What is most important for us to remember is that grief is a normal reaction to loss.  Grief continues as part of our lives but does not have to govern those lives.  We should also remember that even years afterward grief will still be present and that too is normal. Like most elements in life, our response is the issue.  It is vital that we recognize and acknowledge grief and let ourselves feel the loss and continue to grow.

Uncomplicating God

Sunday Morning Musings:   The Church has its own seasons and today begins the season called Pentecost.    This new season begins fifty days after Easter and commemorates the receiving of the Holy Spirit by Jesus’ first disciple (according to Luke`s writing in the Book of Acts).  Of course, in John`s gospel Jesus offered the Holy Spirit to those gathered on the evening of Easter, bringing once again into question the writing of and meaning of Scriptures.  Naturally, this would lead an inquisitive mind to ask about other elements of belief.

One of the most difficult to understand is that we called the Trinity.  Sometimes the Trinity is referred to as the idea of God being revealed as three entities, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Ghost – if we read the King James Version).    I have given up trying to make any explanation of the concept of The Trinity.  Arguments have taken place over the centuries, which have led to disagreements about the very nature of Jesus.  Was he human with divine qualities or fully divine just pretending to be human, and so on   It is no wonder that many folks today are just throwing up their hands with the whole idea of religion and its beliefs.

It was no surprise to me to see a cartoon this past week about two people discussing the concept of the Trinity.  The one said to the other: (not an exact quote) you seem to have no problem believing in black holes, yet you can`t get your head around believing in the Trinity.  Which once again raised the issue of science versus religion – or in other words: give me proof.

Besides a sense of wanting proof for everything, it dawned on me that maybe proof has little to do with a sense of disbelief in God.  Rather, what occurred to me was that our concern is not so much about needing a complete explanation as is the fact that we don`t want a complex God.  We want a God who is easy to understand.  Sadly, this often leads to wanting a God who can also be controlled by us.  Wasn`t it so much easier to have faith when we believed that God was like an old man with a beard, up in the sky watching over everything waiting for us to die so `he could send us either to heaven or hell?     Yes, those were the good old days.  Never mind the fact that such is what John Westerhoff referred to as an affilliative stage of spiritual development.  That is to say, a level where we connect with those who thing or believe as we do because we are told to do so – we don`t need to think for ourselves.

I have no difficulty with anyone believing what we choose to belief – we all do that.  But I do have concerns around those who do not do their own thinking, who want a much less complicated God.  I want a less complicated God, as well, but I don`t want the what has become for many the church`s god who offers conditional love that demands we fit into certain boxed.  A church sign I read recently spoke of the impartiality of God – yet, LGTBQ people are often excluded, as are blacks or others of different faith groups.  I once invited other churches to join in a prayer vigil but was told that because I chose to invite non-Christian groups they would not participate.

Let’s not complicate God or faith with strange beliefs.  God is love.  For me that is all that matters.

Your Important Now

Sunday Morning Musings:   I don’t know whether I am getting closer to retirement or something else, but the weeks and days seem to be filled with more to do.  The month of May (my last of official duties) just seems so busy.  I realize that other factors including my participation in the theatrical production of Sex Please We’re Sixty, and unfortunately personal health issues are at play.  I also realize that time has not changed in one way or the other – each minute is still the same as it was years ago.

I say all of this because it speaks again of the need for balance in one’s life.   By balance I mean, doing what needs to be done, setting priorities and including in those priorities time for one’s own growth which includes rest.  Over the years I have found giving myself permission to rest is often the most difficult of all.  If I am not doing something, it seems like I am not being useful or productive.

Feeling a sense of value is a struggle I believe is a fairly common short-coming among many today.  It certainly appears more readily as one approaches the end of one’s physical life.  For me (and others) I believe that this is our spiritual life (our spirit) encouraging us to pay attention to this very important part of who we are.  Yet for the most part many neglect their spiritual life, or confuse it with a religious life.  Too often we connect “going to church” or “keeping the Ten Commandments” with being spiritual or not.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the true.  Too many religious people are not spiritual at all.  And too often spiritual people are often cast aside because they are not religious enough.  A third group, those who have been able to meld their religious and spiritual lives together, can also be misunderstood.  Out of these misunderstandings divisions arise that don’t seem to ever find reconciliation.  As a result another group has been created known as “Spiritual but not Religious” and a whole new group is founded.

As long as we keep dividing there can never be the true oneness that is intended.  It is also important that oneness or unity does not mean the same as uniformity.  We can look different but to proclaim that my way is better than anyone else’s way will only continue to separate us.  This separation, I believe, was not the intention of creation.  Every element of this universe was created out of energy and lives within and around everyone and everything.  There is a legend of a group of people who would encircle a tree and shout at it until the tree’s spirit died and the tree fell.  I like that the idea behind this story is not that people are stronger than even trees, but that even the tree has a spirit.  Many religious groups seem to have forgotten or just chosen not to accept such a belief.

Balance in life means allowing the sacred to be part of our everyday living.  It also means recognizing the spirit’s presence in all that is done.  We don’t have to wait until we are near death to live spiritually.  Rather we need to recognize that what we do matters now.  We need to realize that our true value is found in our willingness to share freely our value (our love) with others.   When the things we say and do, help others in this life, your life has great meaning and purpose.  And isn’t that the most important element of life?

Obeying God

Sunday Morning Musings:  As I was perusing the Bible this week, I was struck once again by the number of laws that it contains.   Someone once commented that there were over 600 laws (thou shalts and thou shalt nots).  Thinking that to be lots and knowing that many were from what is called by many Christians as the “Old Testament”, I felt some relieve when told that many of those “laws” really didn’t apply. Yet, many were still in force and even news added over the centuries.  For the life me, I never understood why we always ate fish sticks on Friday. Yet, many households will not eat meat on Fridays, and so fish it is.  I don’t recall reading that in my Bible, but then again not all laws are necessarily biblical in their origin.

Not sure of its source, I read somewhere this week:  “Have you been baptized to have your sins washed away by the blood of Christ? If you haven’t, then you still have every sin that you have ever committed.  With your sins you can’t go to heaven to be with God when you die, but you will have to go to the other place where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth forever and ever”. (Sorry the source is lost to me).  When I read it I was hoping that the writer had his/her (their) tongue firmly planted in one’s cheek.

No doubt the Bible can be interpreted to express the above.  But then the question of literalness raises its ugly head.  There have to be certain parts that one can only say that we don’t understand and therefore let’s call it mystery.  I enjoy mystery about God as much as anyone, but claiming literalness on one hand and mystery in the same breath, doesn’t do it for me.  We can’t take some things as literal and give less than literal meaning to that which we choose.

For example, we are told in many places throughout the Bible that we should/must obey God.  Not to obey God is to choose to turn away from God.  Sounds straight forward and leads to the idea of substitutionary atonement, i.e. Jesus died for our sins.  So I am left thinking that I really don’t have to obey God just believe in Jesus.

Of course, we can then begin to parse each and every word – and like former president Clinton we can ask what is meant by the word “is” and so on.   For me the first question I have to ask has to do with my understanding of God – if I am to obey God, what does this mean?

If I view God as the judge, or any other word that might personify and create a “being”, even a supernatural one, I believe that we still will miss the point.  What does it mean to do what God wants us to do?  If I say that God is love (as does the Bible, by the way), I obey love, I trust love in that I have to be loving even when I don’t feel like it, to those I don’t feel like loving as well as those I do love.

Obeying God is not a matter of keeping this law or that, of eating bacon or not, as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: without love I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

The God-Presence

Sunday Morning Musings:  More than once this week I have heard someone questioning the reasons why something terrible has happened, either to someone they may have known or to themselves.  The question I have heard is similar to the one that asks:  What have I ever done to deserve this?

The father of the man arrested after a driving rampage in Toronto that killed and injured many was overheard apologizing for his son’s actions.  A commentator attempted to reassure the listening audience that the sins of the son were not visited on the father, despite the scriptural reference used that states that those sins are visited on our children.  Personally, I have to agree with the person who feels that the father was not responsible for his son’s actions.

Then there was the case of a mother who was raising three children who needed support and wonder what she had done that was preventing her from receiving help.

As I mused about these situations, I also thought about the phrase or adage that reminds us that “what goes around comes around”.  At first, I thought this to mean the same as getting as good as one gives.  That is to say, if I am kind and caring, I receive the same.  Some have even used the idea of “karma” when attempting to describe why things happen to us, good or bad.

A simple response in these types of situations could be to suggest that there are always exceptions to the rule, or maybe everyone has to assume some responsibility for what happened.  No doubt there is an endless amount of blame to go around.  Some would even go so far as to blame “the big guy upstairs” for isn’t that what we are really saying when we say that the sins of the father are visited on the son; that we wonder what we have done to deserve something bad happening in our lives.  I have even heard it said that “God never gives us anything we can’t handle”.

It would seem that I have just given justification to those who would tell me this is the reason they no longer believe in God.  While at the same time I have given ammunition to those who would remind me that Jesus died for our sins and the only reason one is being punished (by God?) is because they haven’t yet made a proper confession or profession.  (Talk about keeping both sides happy!)

It is never my intent to support either view.  The God of my faith does not punish us for any reason.  The God of my faith is not capable of punishment, or judgement in this life or any other life.  When we choose to live and act in love, in compassion, we act with God-presence.  The vast majority of those who respond to tragic events (those on a massive scale or those on a more personal level) respond because of the need that exists. Rather than seeking to discover the “why” these terrible things have happened, we need to seek and find ways to let others see that our response is one of love, or being a real sense of “God-presence”.

It is time we open ourselves to a deeper understanding of the one called “creator”, or any other name.  We open ourselves to an understanding that believes in the goodness (the godness) of life, especially in the face of that which is hurtful and harmful.

Questioning Religion, Keeping Faith

Sunday Morning Musings:  Over the years as I have changed physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, I have also come to realize how little about most of these changes I have talked with anyone.  Even today, there is still little discussion about our growth.  I measure the height of my grandchildren each time they visit.  I marvel at the books they read and the knowledge and wisdom they are gaining.  As their hormones change I also realize the moodiness that is present. Yet, most of our discussions are very informal and some don’t even take place at all.

From a theological point of view it was only when I entered the ministry that I began to learn more about what was simply called religion.  For the most part I accepted what I had been told as simple fact.  It was even suggested that it was better not even to question some of the long held ideas or theories of the church.  If I needed an answer I could just turn to a catechism.  One of my favourites was the Westminster Catechism of 1648, especially the very first question that asked about the chief purpose of humans.  The answer was to enjoy God.

However, the more I studied and learned about God, I found it harder and harder to “enjoy” God.  God was all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing who blessed goodness and cursed evil.  Of course, goodness and evil were defined by the church which claimed its authority from scriptures (and/or the Pope).  Naturally, I wanted to know where these writings came from.  Why was there a difference in the number of books in what was called the (Roman) Catholic Bible and the Protestant one?  Why some writings were excluded altogether?  Was any consideration given to including writings not found until the 20th century?  My whole understanding of the Bible itself came under question.

Over the years other elements of my Christian beliefs also began to become troublesome for me.  Jesus was always pictured as “meek and mild” except for the temple scene, but that was considered an abnormality.  For the most part Jesus was viewed as God incarnate who came to save the world from hell. Of course, my mind struggled with this notion in a couple of ways.  If I proclaimed the name of Jesus, would I be saved from eternal torment?  Did Jesus really come just to die on the cross for my sins?  In other words (not words I learned without seminary training), Jesus’ death was considered as “substitutionary atonement” in that God wanted/needed to punish someone for all the evil that was present in the world and Jesus fit the bill.

What did such a requirement tell me about God? It certainly was not a God that one could enjoy.  As a result I began to move away from much of my early teachings.  I had to develop a different understanding or I would have nothing (sadly, many have taken this route).  One of the first things I needed to do was to accept being loved by God because God is love.  God was not some super-being who either didn’t care or cared so much that I was nothing but a puppet.  I had to be concerned more about the here and now, as opposed to the hereafter.

The bottom line me became not my religion but my faith.  For too long I had simply accepted the church’s teachings.  I no longer can do that without asking lots of questions (without musing). What is more, I have come to accept that there are not always nice and neat answers to all the questions asked.  My catechism is still being written and I can enjoy God much more easily.

Grieving!

Sunday Morning Musings: For more than a week now, much of our country has been grieving the tragic deaths of many young hockey players (as well as others who were part of the team).  Maybe because it involved the game of hockey, it seems that there is such a strong outpouring of this grief.  In some ways grieving together like this seems to make it somewhat more tolerable.  Communal grieving is a good thing.

However, we must also be respectful of the need for private grief.  Not everyone grieves in the same way, nor do we all grieve at the same time. A good example of these differences was revealed in the scripture story of the death of Jesus.  Poor Thomas has been saddled with the moniker of “Doubting Thomas” because he wasn’t with the rest of the group and asked for proof.  He wasn’t with the whole group and now centuries later he is still being abused.  Sadly, we continue to put everything including grief into a box and often without we assume that anything outside the box one must be abnormal.

My experiences have taught me that there is no normal when it comes to grieving.  The stages of grief that have often been used as a guide have, at times, become more harmful than good.  Grief does not follow any pattern.  I am not saying that the feelings felt are not denial, anger, numbness, bargaining and so on.  But to attempt to put them into any type of pattern, to give them any timeline, is but a ruse.

We know there are different types of grief depending on each person’s situation.  Men often grieve differently than women.  The death of one’s second parent often causes one to grieve differently than when the first parent died.  Grieving parents often deal differently than any siblings of the deceased. Children grieve but not like their adult parents or even grandparents.  Many of the same emotions will be experienced, but no two of us are alike.

What this means for me is that every situation, every person must be considered individually.  The other day hockey sticks were left on porches, jerseys were worn, ribbons worn all seeking to be seen as a symbol of honour and respect.  Many have chosen to donate money.  It is important that all and any such actions or tributes be considered as ways of grieving and none should be considered wrong. Yet, such actions should also be named.  If we are doing something because we are told to do so, or because everyone else is doing it, perhaps we should do a personal check in.

Sometimes we choose to act out of our own sense of guilt.  Yes, guilt is a form of grief, but not always a healthy one.  Too often, we can also spend time asking the question “why?”   Hopefully the investigations will reveal some of this tragedy.  But a more important question that needs to be asked is “what now?” We will never fully know why a bus full of hockey players collided with a loaded transport trailer, but we can honour the memories of those who died, and support those whose lives have been forever affected.  That support can come in many forms.

Hopefully, we will also realize that live needs to lived fully every day, and love needs to be spoken every day. Accidents can break us, but they can also open our eyes and hearts.

Worshiping Together

Sunday Morning Musings: As something different for the next six or seven weeks I have asked my congregation to submit their requests for favourite hymns and to offer a few words about their particular choice.  The response was good, and even more fascinating, have been the reasons for their choices.  Some like the melody and others spoke about the words, some like the combination of words and melody.

I have to admit, that there are tunes that I like and prefer, but it may be the poet in me, but I am often struck by the choice of words.  Granted when it comes to hymns in our latest hymn book there are still many that are over 100 years old, or older.   One hymn even mentions the desire to get away from “stagnant traditions”.  In some churches the old hymns and even hymn books are being discarded almost completely.  Even the traditional church organ is being replaced as electric guitars and drum sets have found their way into worship.  It may be my traditional up-bringing, and maybe my centre of the road approach to life, but my preference would be to use it all. (Although, I do admit that I still prefer an acoustic guitar to a dual pick-up one with a whammy bar.) Regardless, music is an integral part of any worship.

I also find that worship can be just as meaningful if it is held outside a “traditional” church building.  Many congregations are not even concerning themselves with buildings – yet much of my experience over the years is that even new congregations then to develop a focal point (place) for worship.  I have even known one new congregation that went so far as to replace their chairs with pews in the worship area.  I must admit that pews (especially those fixed to floor) do limit the functionality of the space. On the other hand there are those people who are quite willing to do just that and want the pews left.

But as I mentioned, worship can and should happen outside the traditional sanctuary.  After all, creation is all-encompassing and the God we worship is there too.  Which brings me to another aspect of worship.   What is worship all about?

At one point worship was defined as “(that which seeks) to honor with extravagant love and extreme submission” (Webster’s Dictionary, 1828). Worship thus means to express the worth we have for “God” in our lives. (One can also worship money but that is another story.)  So it is that each week, often like-minded people, gather to offer praise and gratitude.  I say “like-minded” people because there is such a variety of understandings about God and other elements of religious life, that many find it easier to seek out a place where they feel more accepted and more comfortable.

What I have found most hurtful occurs when one form of worship is viewed as better than another. Not all of any worship service is going to touch everyone in the same way.  Some folks want a more traditional celebration.  Others may go only for the music or other elements of the service itself. No matter the reason for participating one of the main reasons is the fellowship of sharing with others the wonder of being part of a larger family, part of the whole of creation.

Lastly, worship is intended to be a celebration, but also an invitation or challenge. It is not enough to gather once or even twice a week and not seek to live our faith every moment of every day.  We can and must do this, always aware that we are never alone.

Easter Life

Sunday Morning Musings:  Happy Easter! I supposed some also might include some kind of practical joke and then say “April Fools”.  In some ways the story of the first Easter as it is recorded by the gospel writers (some 40 to 70 years after the fact) can appear as a weird April Fool’s joke. Even some 2000 years later people are still trying to make sense of what happened.  To further confuse the issue for many people has been the inclusion of a bunny that hides eggs, as if the whole idea of a bunny leaving eggs isn’t difficult enough to understand.  Some have even suggested that belief in the Easter bunny is more plausible than the resurrection of the Christ.

Of course, the images created or metaphors promoted by the resurrection of the Christ; the new life represented by bunnies and eggs all fuel the Easter Story.  The fact that Easter occurs in the spring of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere) also adds to the sense that all these elements are about life coming from what appears to be death.  Spring announces the arrival of new life – animals give birth, dormant plants return to their glory.  The story of the prodigal is fulfilled:  what was lost is found, what was dead is alive.

Yet, the Christian story is still confused.  Some find it difficult to comprehend the resurrection of Jesus other than a “physical” event.  Even though in Mark’s gospel (the original ending – chapter 16 verse 1 through 8) – the Jesus figure doesn’t make an appearance.  The women go to finish their duty of preparing the dead body.  They experience an empty tomb and then run away in fear.

Over the centuries, the story has been told and re-told.  Some of these accounts seem to dove-tail together while there are also significant differences (as is found through other stories told in the Bible).  Yet the idea remains for many – what happened?

Personally, I have no difficulty in accepting (along with the apostle Paul) a spiritual resurrection, not unlike happens when any one of us dies.  Our physical life can no longer sustain us.  In one way or another, for one reason or another, our physical bodies no longer function.  (I choose not to get into the discussion about just when “death” occurs – at not at this time.)  All I want to say here is that even though the body has died, we have not reached the end of the story.

As I have said many times before, I do not have a scientific mind, but I am prepared to be confident that we are more than our bodies. I also have no difficulty in understanding the resurrection story as a mystical experience that move us away from even having to have proof (if that is what we want to call the empty tomb and burial clothes).  The Easter story is about life in its fullness.  It is about life that is lived after the body has stopped functioning.

One writer when asked about the meaning of the resurrection in our lives today remarked that “it is a journey toward intimacy with the creator of the whole universe” (Brian Findlayson).  Easter becomes a stepping stone and maybe even for some, a starting place, to live in the fullness of love and compassion.  Besides experiencing the power of God in another other, we are challenged to find and live that experience for ourselves.

Letting Go to Move Ahead

Sunday Morning Musings:  As far as the church is concerned this week is often referred to as “Holy Week”, that is to say, the week before Easter.  For some, this week begins with a parade known as Palm Sunday and culminates with the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of the Christ.  In between these two celebrations we often hear the stories of “fake news” about what was said and when; as well as betrayal and denial by close friends; and mocking and death on a cross. In some instances this week is also known as Passion Week.

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), my musings have been all over the place.  Truly, for many without Easter (the story of the resurrection) there would be nothing.  Even in the scriptures, Paul is convinced that without belief in the resurrection our faith is in vain (I Corinthians 15:14).  It would almost seem natural that the scientific minded among us would want proof (as did the disciple Thomas).  But proof does not exist. Such a statement has led many to the decision that seems so simple – either you are in or you are out.

I have to wonder though, whether or not if life is that simple. As I have remarked many times before, we seem to be a people who want answers.  There is no doubt that we have lots of questions, questions about nearly everything.  We want to know who was at fault when something doesn’t happen the way we think it should; we want to have explained (usually in simple terms) what things happen when they do.  I am told that a good detective doesn’t like to use the term “coincidence”.  As I mentioned previously in my musings, like Stephen Hawking, we want to know the “reason for everything”.

One of the most difficult tasks I have found is that of letting go.  More than nought, I want to control the outcomes of those things in which I find myself involved.  For some, such control issues affect one’s mental health – one of the conditions experienced by some is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  To some extent we all feel the need to determine the outcome.  Sometimes it can be as simple as feeling that anything less than a “home run” is a failure.  (Trivia fact:  did you know that Babe Ruth struck out three times more than he his home runs?)

Of course, due to the society in which we live, words and concepts can take on different meanings.  Letting go or surrendering is often viewed as a negative action.  Yet, time and time again we are told in one way of another that “in losing our life we shall find it”. Too often when the outcome is not what we expect we will play the blame and shame card – blame someone or something or feel the shame of not being good enough.  Letting go often means stepping back from “judgment” and then we can begin the journey to wholeness with all of creation.

The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, wrote in her book, When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, Boston, 2000): If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path. (p.38).

Letting go feels risky.  On the other hand, how will we know unless we do?  Letting go means to stop judging our actions or those around us and find a way to move forward.