January 21, 2024
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
January 21, 2024
A Little Help Here…
Well, this message gets much closer to home for me than any previous time in my life. Grief. Both of my parents died this past year. The strange thing I’ve found happening to me is reflexive thoughts. Around Christmastime I thought, “I need to get down to NC and visit my folks.” Then I realized, no… Or a habit I developed of calling them on my way home from church on Sundays. I still get in the car and feel like I need to call their house and then realize…No.
I’ve heard doctors talk about amputees having phantom feelings like a limb is still there. I suppose grief is a bit like that.
Still, though, losing elderly parents is not the same as the grief from losing a spouse or a child. So, I have asked for people in our church who have experienced these kinds of griefs to share with me about their experiences. I will share some of their feedback throughout the message. I found the way they described the experience of grief very vivid and powerful. One said, it is
“like being plunged into ice cold water and struggling to come up for air.”
Another shared that grief is like waves at the beach. You stand in the surf and it feels good, but all of a sudden a wave knocks you over.
“Over time, he said, “the waves come further apart.” Another simply said,
“(grief) can feel like you’ve been torn in half.” One woman said about a year after her husband passed away that
“grief makes you invisible.”
I spoke with a mother who had an adult son die of cancer several years ago, and then, more recently, another son who committed suicide. She said grief is different in each experience. How you respond and how it feels depends on the situation, the person, the relationship, what happened. But then she said, but no matter how it comes, we all have to face grief. Grief comes to everyone the longer we live. “I learned with my first son’s death, that I had to make friends with grief, because grief had moved in and wasn’t leaving.”
How do you make friends with grief?
Let’s consider the story of Naomi. She is a lesser known figure in the Bible but her role was vital. She was a Jewish woman who was married and had two adult sons. They lived in the country of Moab. Her sons married local women and they all lived together. Life was very happy and satisfying. Until Naomi’s husband died. Then both her sons died.
So much loss in a short time would be bad enough, but in a culture where women did not have rights except through a husband, brother or son, Naomi faced destitution. She decided to go back to her homeland.
(Pic) Her daughters-in-law were Ruth and Orpah, not to be confused with Oprah, who lives in the biblical town of Chicago. They wanted to go with Naomi, but Naomi discouraged them. She told them to stay in their own country. They were young enough to marry again and have families. So Orpah consented and left, but Ruth refused. She said to Naomi these well known words:
“Do not press me to leave you, to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” 1:16
We sometimes hear these words at a wedding, but they were not spoken by a wife to her husband but by a woman to her mother-in-law as she refused to leave her. So together they go to Naomi’s homeland of Bethlehem.
Naomi is a picture of a normal woman. She didn’t need to be popular or powerful. Her dream was to be a wife and mother and grandmother; to have a good home and care for her family. She was a woman of faith for whom it was important to pass along that faith to her family. But now she has lost nearly everything important in her life because grief has visited her with hurricane force. Her grief has not only robbed her of her dream but put her future in jeopardy.
But she does have a thread, a thread of grace, a thread of companionship on this journey, a thread of hope. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, goes with her. When they arrive in Bethlehem the whole town is stirred. They recognize her. They ask, “Is this Naomi?” Naomi responds to them, but it’s really like her grief does the talking. She says,
“Do not call me Naomi anymore, call me Mara.”(1:20) Naomi means “pleasant.” Mara means “bitter.”
She goes on, “The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty.” (1:21) Emptiness was her feeling. It wasn’t her condition. That was her grief talking, and
When grief speaks, it speaks to the reality of our moment, not the reality of our lives.
But here’s the powerful thing, people let her speak it. There’s no mention of anyone correcting her. There’s no offering of cheap condolence, “Oh there now, Naomi—uh, excuse me, Mara!—It’s not that bad. Your husband and sons are in a better place now. God’s going to look after you.”
When I call that cheap condolence, it’s not that statements like that are untrue, it’s just that healing starts with understanding. Condolence and uplifting words of comfort will come, but first there needs to be recognition of the reality. And that’s not an easy place to be. Just letting people speak their pain.
Again, many people in our church shared with me how helpful it was to have other people meet them in their grief. One person said, “Listen, listen listen. Short of homicidal or suicidal intentions, accept what people say as their truth…don’t give advice, false reassurance, time tables, or try to fix a situation.” Just listen. (St. Luke’s woman whose husband died)
What’s interesting about the Book of Ruth is how the name Naomi is used for the rest of the story. Not Mara. Even after she says, “I don’t want to be called Naomi,” the story goes on referring to her as Naomi. It recognizes that she was allowed to speak her reality at that moment, but it wasn’t the reality of her life. As one St. Luke’s man who lost children many years ago wrote to say, “It is good to celebrate that the event that caused the grief is not the final event.” (St. Luke’s dad of children who died)
You learn this truth only from experiencing the fact that your own story continues. So let’s continue Naomi’s story.
(pic) Ruth offers to glean behind harvesters working in a field so she can gather food for her and Naomi. This was a commandment in the Old Testament that owners not to reap to the edges of their fields but leave some produce for foreigners and the poor. Obviously, whoever owned this field was a faithful observer of the Torah.
The owner was a man named Boaz. He showed kindness to Ruth and when she asked him why, he said, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.”
That’s the thing about small towns, everyone knows everything about each other. And sometimes it turns out to be a good thing! That evening when Ruth tells Naomi about this and says the name of the man is Boaz, Naomi says, and I want to read this in the Message translation because I believe it communicates Naomi’s words most powerfully: “Why, God bless that man! God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all! He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!” Naomi went on, “That man, Ruth, is one of our circle of covenant redeemers, a close relative of ours!”
Can you feel the change in tone? The last time Naomi spoke in this story she said, “Just call me ‘Bitter’ from now because that’s what God has done to me.” But now she says, “God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all!” I know these are just words on a page, but if we could hear her voice it would have to sound totally different. A spark of hope with a fresh sense of possibility.
What we learn at this point in the story is that The journey of grief takes time…in the company of others who will walk with us. There is no fast track way out of grief. But what helps us keep moving is the company of someone, or someoneS, who will join us. This means being willing to share someone’s grief, to enter into it ourselves. That’s what Naomi had with Ruth.
Once more, a number of people in our church attest to the importance of having people with you. In fact, they encourage people going through grief not to give into the feelings of isolation. To seek others who will journey with you.
One person said, “The most important influence on my progression through grief was active, weekly participation in a support group specifically for the loss of a spouse.” (St. Luke’s woman whose husband died)
Another said, “I was blessed to have wonderful, supportive friends and family around me holding me up at every juncture. What helped was not just having them listen but to actually HEAR me and try to understand what I was feeling. No one tried to talk me into feeling any different. They just supported those feelings and didn’t judge.” (St. Luke’s woman whose husband had Alzheimer’s)
This is called the ministry of presence, and it can be very intimidating to offer, because if we care then we want to help someone not to hurt, and the instinct is to say things or suggest things that end up feeling to someone like we can’t just let them be where they are. One young woman who experienced the loss of a baby, found meaning in walking with others through grief. What she discovered is just being present with someone, not having answers, not trying to get someone to do anything, just being with a person, was healing. (St. Luke’s mom who lost twins at birth)
And I found this very interesting. Overwhelmingly, people said they need friends who will talk about their loved one with them. They said many people fear mentioning the deceased person because they think it will cause further pain. But people told me just the opposite. It actually helps them. It helps them feel like that person didn’t just disappear, that they are still with them.
So Naomi is this ordinary woman who suffered significant loss, but who was allowed to name her grief as raw and perhaps unappealing as it was, who had someone to journey with her, and who began to find hope again. But the best part of her story is what her grief produced.
Ruth and Boaz got married and had a baby. And I want to read the several verses at the end of this book because they are very important not only to the life of Naomi but to you and me.
Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Naomi’s grief led to her caring for a grandson who became King David, the one God promised would have an heir who would be the Messiah. Naomi discovered that
God Can Bring Good out of Grief.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote a poem:
“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center, which is void, that makes it useful. You can mold clay into a bowl; yet, it is its emptiness that makes the bowl useful.
Cut out doors and windows from the walls of a house; but the ultimate use of the house
will depend on that part where nothing exists.
Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”
Out of emptiness there is meaning and purpose.
Five years ago I conducted the funeral for Cameron Powell, an eighteen year old who one morning took a Xanax tablet he had gotten to help settle his nerves before going to school. His family didn’t realize he did this. And Cameron himself didn’t realize that what he’d been given was a tablet laced with different forms of fentanyl. He started feeling bad at school. His symptoms weren’t recognized. He stayed with his grandmother that night and it ended up killing him.
Cameron had been a lively, outgoing, teenager with lots of gifts and potential. His family, members of St. Luke’s, were thrown into unimaginable grief. His mother, Amy, spent the first after Cameron’s death just trying to make sense of what happened and try to see that the person who did this to Cameron was brought to justice. Realizing that she couldn’t control that she was left with, “What now?”
Through a friend she learned about an organization called Overdose Lifeline, that provides support for families that have experienced a loved who overdoses and also awareness about the problem of opiates in our culture. She learned that a lot of work needed to be done in the schools to help teachers and nurses recognize the symptoms and carry the right medication that can prevent deaths. We do not have laws requiring schools to carry such medications and there is a stigma, perhaps, that if they do then they are acknowledging there is a drug problem.
Amy has gotten involved as a Peer Grief Volunteer. She helps families who are where she was six years ago. She has found purpose and meaning in her own grief in allowing that to be of help to other families walking the same painful road.
(Pic) Amy’s story was told on a front page article in the Indy Star just over two weeks ago on January 4. She works now to bring awareness and advocacy to this issue and healing for families. She wants her efforts to prevent for other families what she has gone through. In a situation where it would be easy to shrink back, avoid any attention, isolate, Amy has displayed great courage for the sake of helping others and found help for herself at the same time.
You can’t usually start with this idea when it comes to grief. But it can get there. God can bring good out of grief.
Naomi held cared for a baby in her arms. No, it wasn’t her biological grandson. It wasn’t the dream she had. But she was open to a new dream, and God used her to influence and raise a child who be the grandfather of King David who be the ancestor of Jesus who would be for you and me God’s presence to carry our griefs and sorrows and walk with us through pain and transform it by his own death and resurrection into new life.