April 12, 2020
I’ve been finding that Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days for me. Sundays are great! On Sundays I’ve been finding such energy and joy in seeing you all, worshiping with you all, finding inspiration and hope from some new angle on God’s love together. But then, on Monday and Tuesday that inspiration gives way to something heavy, and fearful, and doubtful. On Mondays especially it has been hard to get out of bed in the morning.
A colleague of mine shared an article from the Harvard Business Review. It is entitled, “That Discomfort You are Feeling is Grief.” And, grief sounds about right. Or, sadness. That’s what’s got me feeling so lifeless at the beginning of the week.
What makes it worse in a way is the sense that maybe I’m not supposed to feel that way. I’m your pastor and I’m supposed to keep you inspired. What good am I if I don’t? More than that, I haven’t lost anyone among my immediate family or my deepest friendships, as others have. I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a nice family. Many others don’t have that. I’ve been hearing more and more about how the virus is inordinately impacting poorer communities where spacing is less possible and where minorities and people of color make up most of the population. I’ve been hearing concerns about people who live with domestic violence and how they are stuck at home with their abuser. I understand this and I feel wrong about my sadness, like I shouldn’t feel it because others have it worse.
On the other hand, the person who led my pastoral care class for two years after seminary had a “should” jar on her table. It’s where you could put all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that keep you from dealing with how you really do feel. The “shoulds” really don’t do anyone much good. I know this too, and I’m trying to remember it.
The article I mentioned is an interview with David Kessler who is considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on grief. He says there are multiple kinds of grief, but what we are collectively experiencing in a new way, and what I certainly am, is called, “anticipatory grief.” It’s the loss of normalcy and the setting in of uncertainty. “There’s a storm coming. There’s something bad out there… but we can’t see it… and we don’t know when it will go away.”
The New York Times published an article along similar lines. Their’s was an interview with Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who at the age of 35 in 2015 was diagnosed with incurable cancer. “How to Live in the Face of Fear: Lessons from a Cancer Survivor,” that’s the name of the article.
Her interviewer asks, “How are you feeling your way through this new moment of mass fear and uncertainty?” Bowler replies, “[In a way,] It feels so familiar.” “That feeling of waking up in the morning and for a moment you don’t believe it’s real – I remember that feeling of not remembering I had cancer, and then remembering all over again, every day.” I think she’s right that we’re going through something analogous here. I wake up from the high of Sunday and realize that we have to do it all over again – conjure hope and faith amidst the fear and uncertainty, and then do it again and again for who knows how long.
Keller says we have to name what we’re feeling. “When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion,” he suggests. They don’t stay, and other emotions do come. He also suggests acceptance. There’s power in acceptance, he says. “We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.” When we embrace acceptance we see that we are capable of more than we know. We see that we can act creatively within the confines of new circumstances.
Professor Bowler has some really good advice as well. She says, “If the days are really full and heavy, to focus on the absurdity is so great. Small delight is really fun. I’ve been in onesie “Star Wars” pajamas so much more this week. Get really in to a reality show that people would lose respect for you if they knew that you watched it. Make a commitment to something unbelievably dumb right now — now’s the time.”
I know, this sounds a little silly and superficial, but coming from someone who lives with fear and grief the way she does, I actually take it as serious advice. There is an important permission-giving implicit in her words: permission to embrace the moment more joyfully by holding both it and ourselves a bit more lightly. There is great uncertainty in what is to come, but we do have right now, and if we can be in the now with some sense of gratitude and some sense that it, in itself, is an expression of grace, why wouldn’t we?
I hear a kind of permission-giving in our scripture readings today as well. Did you notice how both the angel who rolls the stone away and the risen Jesus say to the two Mary’s, “Do not be afraid?” And, did you notice what Matthew says about them as they leave the tomb? They leave with “fear and great joy.” They carry both emotions with them, and so in a way they follow their orders: they are not simply afraid. We have permission to name our fear, name our sadness, but own that we have more than these things. We have our joy too.
The challenge, of course, is taking advantage of that permission, really experiencing the joy that is ours while there is such fear and sadness pressing upon us. Colossians, I believe, points us in a helpful direction. Paul reminds the church, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Paul reminds us of a divine invitation to do something very powerful, and that is to surrender – to surrender our heroic selves to the truth of our contingent, loved, redeemed, dependent-on-God selves. If acceptance helps us see what we are capable of, surrender helps us see what God is capable of in us.
We sometimes associate surrender with loss and the pain of having to let go of control, but there’s also in the end a great joy to surrender because when we surrender ourselves to God we don’t just give over our power; we give over our weakness too; we surrender our fear; we surrender our sadness. We surrender because God has asked us if God might carry these things for us, carry all that we have and all that we are. We surrender because when we do God gives us back something better, something more, something holy, and sacred, something that is eternally and unconditionally loved. To know ourselves that way is everything!
Asked what consolation she had for people who lack the spiritual resources to find comfort right now, Dr. Bowler says, “I hope that every person, religious or not, feels the permission to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know. And in the face of the sea of abyss, someone out there please show me love.” Easter is God’s response to that plea. Easter is God saying I will enter that darkness with you. I will enter it for you. Give me your fear, give me your sadness, give me all that you are. Empty your hands; empty yourself so I can fill you with my love because in the end that is who you most truly are: you are the object of my undying love, and I have risen so that I might tell you this again and again and again, and so that you might know this deep in your bones.
 Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020.