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.