A Rough Draft

I'm nervous about this. I cried while writing it. I'm terrified of preaching it. I'm not sure it works. I'm not sure that it's all I want to say. It's more than I had intended to say. And yet, it feels like gospel truth... But, I'm still have enough fear that I wonder if colleagues would cringe. So, do you?

What do you think of my sermon based on Psalm 137?

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Elizabeth Kubler Ross chartered unfamiliar territory when she named these five stages of grief. And with these five words, Kubler Ross gave me a vocabulary for what I already knew. When I was seven years old, I hung up my harp. There were no words to sing. Like those that lament in this old song, I was displaced.

I was not exiled from my homeland. Those that first crooned these lyrics were forced out of their home in Jerusalem just after the temple was destroyed in 587 BCE. They had to recreate their lives in the foreign land of Babylon. My foreign land is not a place you can find on a map. I was not forced out of my geographical home. But like the exiled community in Babylon, my entire world was destroyed.

My mother died. For those of you that know grief, the past tense of this statement is irrelevant – just as it was to the exiled community singing this song. Our foreign land is in this non-place between what we knew and what we have created. This is the foreign place of grief where past, present and future converge in ways that don’t make logical sense. And in this place, it is so hard to sing. Nothing sounds like it did before. Somehow everything familiar has changed – like the world before and after September 11, 2001. Indeed, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

We can’t sing the songs we always sang. It seems safer to hang our harps on the willows and just weep for things we can’t possibly understand. Their sorrow is overwhelming. Our pain is too great. And yet, this exiled community in Babylon doesn’t just assume the position on the ground like mourners. They name their sadness. They didn’t shy away from it. They sing about their loss. They lament their lost home.

It seems an easy enough thing to do at this time of year when others talk about family reunions during the holiday season. For me, Christmas was the last time she was healthy. My mother died only a month later. There are no lyrics for my lament – and I won’t offer words for your pain at this time of year.

No one can tell you what grief is until you have been there. Joan Didion discovered this after her husband suddenly died. “Grief,” she said, “turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” With her sudden loss, Joan Didion realizes what I already knew. No one can tell you how to feel or what to do. It is your place. It is your exile. It is your experience of loss.

I cannot tell you how to feel or what to do. I won’t tell you that it will all be over soon. Because Joan Didion is right. Grief is not like we imagine it. It hurts more and it lasts a lot longer. For me, it has been twenty years of trying to understand what I don’t know how to explain. I can’t tell you how much it hurts or when it will hurt. I can’t anticipate what will trigger my grief. I only know that it is part of my daily life. It is my exile. It is my experience of displacement.

And because of this, I don’t want to edit it. I don’t want to make it sound like shining ever-present hope because there are days where it hurts too much to bear. There are days where I want my mother back more than anything. And for those days, I need to know that I can express my rage before my God.

I know it sounds horrible and perhaps doesn’t make any theological sense. But, there are days where I need to be able to smash something. I would prefer that it wasn’t the head of baby – but this is the language that is passed down to us. For this exiled community wanting so badly to reclaim their home, the language of the conquerors creeps in. We could edit this part out. Or just ignore it. But would this really ignore this last insult upon a conquered city? When a city was overtaken, the conquerors took the most innocent and defenseless and dashed their heads against rocks. It’s gruesome and violent. It violates our understanding of justice. And yet, there are days when this is just how I feel about my mother’s death.

It’s not enough to hang up my harp. It’s not enough to lament. I want justice. And in the words of this ancient song, I can find words to voice my outrage. These words release that anger so that no harm can be done to myself or others. Maybe this psalm teaches us to say things that we would never actually do but invites us to release our fury.

Perhaps that’s a stretch for you. Perhaps your foreign place has no space for that kind of violence. But again, I can’t tell you how to feel. I can only tell you about my exile in my foreign land – where I need to be able to release the rage that I felt for the receptionist at Breast Care Center only a few weeks ago. I was informed by this woman that because I was only 28, I was not eligible for a mammogram. It may as well have been baby heads smashing into the phone as I told her that my mother died of this disease at 33 and I did not intend to meet the same fate. She offered a polite excuse. And I slammed the phone into the cradle. Hot tears rushed down my face as I picked up the phone to make an impossible call to my mother. This is my exile.

I may not be crouched on the ground weeping by the river every day – but there are still days that I need to hang up my harp. In my exile, I still look back and wonder what life would have been like if she had lived. I still yearn for her wisdom and miss her when the rest of family has gathered. But, like the exiled community in Babylon, I have created a new home in this foreign place. I have tried to make sense of what I can’t possibly understand and I have relied on the embrace of God through it all. And in this embrace, I can find the hope to sing.

I like that about this time of year. When our holy calendar ends, we begin again to tell the old, old story. In the darkest month of the year, we call upon the wisdom of the prophets to imagine the impossibility of realizing all of our hopes. This is a song I can sing.

In tune with the prophets, I can sing about my longing. And yet, just as I know that grief is not what we expect, I know that the incarnation of God is not what was expected. The prophets expected a warrior or a king – just as I thought I would be healed of my loss. Just as the exiled community in Babylon longed for restoration of their home. It is not what we expected – and yet, God comes. And God is with us in this too. When we want to hang up our harps and when we can’t find the words to sing, God is with us. God is with us.


more cows than people said...

pastor peters, i have chills. this is a very powerful piece of writing. you take a portion of scripture i have never been able to make sense of and make it plain and, in this season when grief rips people apart this probably couldn't be better timed.

my only questions are- can you get through it? and
will the congregation feel like you're leaning too heavily on them?

i don't think they would. i think this will humanize you in powerful ways and open up relationships that may not have been possible before, but I know the caution is to being so self-revelatory that people feel like they can't trust us, or fear burdening us. i guess maybe what makes me nervous is the very recent story from the breast center. it works very effectively in the piece for lots of reasons, but it makes it clear just how present this struggle is to you right now. and i know you've been thinking you want to do that, so, in that case the story is perfect.

just pray on it and make sure you're ready for this level of vulnerability in the pulpit.

i see nothing unfaithful in this sermon. i see wisdom, courage, and strength in this sermon. it is a word that needs to be preached. i can see clearly why it has come out of you.

i'm sorry to ramble on so. feel free to e-mail me if you want to talk more about this. morecowsthanpeople at gmail dot com.

Susie/Nueva Cantora said...

Its beautiful and true, and if the Spirit wants you to preach the Word you've got, then she can get your back and help you get through it all. I agree with more cows about the recent story, and really every thing else she said.

apbs said...

i'm not good at posting about others' sermons.

okay. you know how when sometimes you're listening to someone preach, and you think they're saying what they seem to think they're 'supposed' to say? this is so not that, and that's what makes it beautiful.

it is indeed a little stream of consciousness, but it seems that's part of the point you're making--that grief due to whatever kind of exile has this inexplicable edge to it, that doesn't respect boundaries or timeframes or whatever.

will people have the text in front of them? sometimes orally i connect the dots more for people than i do when i'm writing, because they only get to hear it once. but that might just be me.

i'd preach it, but i have an agenda. i think we encourage people to put us on pedestal is by not sharing parts of our journeys sometimes. any sermon that doesn't reinforce that, i tend to like.

at the same time, if the cost is too high for you at this point, no one would blame you for shelving it.

peace, friend.

ymp said...

I only made it part way through this first time. I'm going to need to go find some kleenex and give my memories a few minutes.
It's beautiful. And few people are willing to talk about these parts of life and faith. About preaching it, I think that if you either know you can preach it effecting or know that this is what you are being called to say, go for it. The Holy Spirit knows what needs to be spoken, and I hope that this is that. But that's my agenda

Deb said...

From a person in the pews perspective:

This is so "right on" to what I've been feeling since my mom died 2 years ago, and comes closest to expressing the feeling of being in that foreign land that few of my friends understand. You truly connect the scripture with life experience and make it real. I wish you could preach this in my church.

Pastor Peters said...

you guys are awesome.

i've been trying to memorize it over the past couple of days -- though i fear that won't happen. i can get through it actually. i'm more worried that i won't register emotion as it has become somewhat distant.

thanks for reading this. i really appreciate it.

Teri said...

PP, you are amazing.

that's all....and blessings on your preaching tomorrow!

Kimberly said...

It's a brave sermon-- especially given some of what you've been blogging about recently.

If you're going to preach it, I hope you can make space for yourself afterwards. A day of doing nothing on Monday, perhaps?

(just browsing here from ycw, and very aware of how many of us are pushing towards exhaustion at this time of year. It's so easy to forget the count the emotional stuff as work.)

more cows than people said...

i'm glad to hear you're going for it. i'll be lifting you up.

a day for you on Monday sounds like just the thing.

apbs said...

thinking of you!