Good Grief

Although an assurance, death is never something for which we seem to be prepared.  As those who are left in its wake, our confidence is often shaken and our endless questions remain.  Though answers sometimes elude us, what is certain is that we as a collective do not discuss the process enough or even know how to handle its aftermath.

This week, I took part in the receiving line at my father-in-law’s funeral service, a viewpoint of death from which I had not previously experienced.  Standing next to my family, I shook hands with extended relatives, friends, former students, and past co-workers, all of which had wonderful stories and anecdotes about how he had touched their lives.  Outwardly, we attempted to put on the bravest face we could find, reaching down deep for some sort of superficial courage, but inside, we were wracked with shock and a bevy of emotions at our loss.  Although mostly unspoken, I could see the deep grief etched into the faces of my family and those who were left behind.

Grief has come to be understood as a necessary part of the process; it’s the survivor’s way of grappling with death firsthand and with the confusion that comes as a result.  Yet, we seem to have a problem with how to address grief.  Mistakenly, many view grief as a weakness of faith and do not fully understand or accept it, so we tend to be unsure as to how to deal with it when we encounter it.  Because we don’t talk enough about it, when we see it we attempt to cure it, thinking that grief is a human flaw.  However, grief is a sign of faithful individuals wrestling with the complexity of life and the seemingly contradictory nature of death when juxtaposed with an all loving creator.

So, when we expressed our grief to some, we received well-intentioned but dismissive comments intended to halt our grieving process.  When people saw us struggling with grief, their work mistakenly turned away from comforting and gravitated more towards justifying the situation, moving from an emotional response to a logical one.  In our faith journeys, we are sometimes (although not enough) taught to question everything, but when grief rises to the surface, we are too quick to dismiss it instead of embracing it and allowing it as part of that journey.

Reasonably, the limitations of human knowledge lead to uncertainty within all of us.  We are unable to answer the simple question of “why,” as the answer eludes us as long as we reside on this side of the curtain, while the heavenly realm continues to exist behind the thin veneer that separates us from our complete knowledge.  Resultantly, doubt creeps in from the lack of answers, not as a sign of our loss of faith but instead from a lack of satisfying responses to our endless questions.  Hence, when we are filled with pain and doubt, grief emerges not as a sign of faithlessness but as a sign of our humanity.  In Matthew 27.46, a crucified Christ, limited by human knowledge and wracked with pain, cries out in grief to His father and creator. “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”  Much like ourselves, Jesus’ answer was not provided to Him in that moment, and like Him, we are fundamentally forced to confront our doubt.  Also like Him, our agonized uncertainty is not a reflection of faithlessness but is the sign of one’s individualized wrestling with questions and a frustration with our limitations as imposed upon us by our humanity, none of which should be dismissed.

Grief makes us not so much question God’s existence but instead question our understanding of our faith, refining it not through commonplace platitudes but through empathetic understanding and acceptance.  Despite the emotional toll it may take, we need to resist the urge to halt or dismiss grief, as we need it to help us through these difficult times and emerge a more mature Christian.  Although oftentimes unpleasant, a Christ-like wrestling with our faith and our doubt through grief leads us to a stronger, steadier understanding of our existence and further solidifies our relationship with God.  Amen.

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Precarious Shifts in Perspectives

As permanent members of this planet, our view of others, our problems, and the horrors of this world are what we experience daily.  Their importance fills our lives and troubles our minds to the point of being fully consumed by them.  The good news: it is possible to put these events into perspective.

In 1968, members of the Apollo 8 mission spied the Earth from a distance for the first time.  They described seeing our planet as “hanging in the void” of space, dangling precariously.  They then reported experiencing a profound cognitive shift in their consciousness, citing that they understood the “big picture” of our existence and how fragile our planet and its inhabitants are.  These astronauts recorded that they felt as if we were just one small cog in a larger, more intricate process of the universe.

The astronauts experienced what is more commonly known as “The Overview Effect,” where individuals view the world from space and feel as if Earth is nothing more than a tiny ball in a much larger universe, suspended in the vacuum of emptiness shielded by a paper-thin atmosphere.  When experiencing this effect, astronauts have reported that all the conflicts that divide people and the boundaries that break us up suddenly become incredibly unimportant, and a need for universal harmony and peace is instilled.  In other words, they learned not to sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.  The pettiness we experience on a day to day basis just isn’t worth fretting over or fighting about, because in the larger realm of things, it just isn’t that significant.

This week, I felt a profound shift of my own.  I had been worried about school and developing my lesson plans, how I was going to fit in certain activities into my life, and being able to maintain my day to day lifestyle with enough time, energy, and money for everything that we needed in our household.  My world then came to a complete halt when I discovered that a close family member had died.  As if at the drop of a hat, everything that I was so worried about previously didn’t matter in the slightest.  Priorities like school, activities, and deadlines became meaningless.  The surreality of my existence and a new set of priorities eclipsed everything else and my life was brought into a new reality and perspective.  Much like those astronauts, the small stuff no longer mattered, as I firmly grasped the frailness of life.

Sometimes our lives can be so overwhelming that what we really need is a different perspective to realize what is truly important.  Although my moment was sad in nature, it really drew me closer to those around me, helping me see past the triviality of daily life because my perspective had been changed.  In our daily walk of faith, we too can be bogged down by the minutiae that negatively affects us and eats away at our emotions.  Psalm 90.2 helps us to get that proper perspective, one that shuns out all the superfluous noise: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  To know that God was, is, and always will be, erases a lot of what plagues us daily.  He was present before anything else, and He will outlast any and all of our problems and squabbles.  A shifted perspective onto Him and his vastness leads us to a cognitive shift that resets our priorities and helps us to see what is truly important.

Focusing on His everlasting nature helps us to see the bigger picture, that everything on this Earth is delicate and temporary, that our problems are much smaller than we realize.  This week, take time to meditate on God’s existence, remembering that He is bigger than any problem we have in our lives.  With a proper perspective, our focus on the particulars of this world quickly blur, as our vision on Him and what’s important comes into sharp focus.   Amen.

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.

Withdrawal, Disengagement, and Peace

For better or worse, it’s’ very easy to get caught up in the moment.  When emotions are running high and all of the events around us start to swirl together, we tend to fall prey to our feelings as our mind becomes less of a priority, fading into the background of influences.  Oftentimes, once that moment passes, our senses start to come back to us, and we realize how rash we’ve acted.

A short time ago, a student was missing from my study hall.  I had seen him earlier, so I knew he was in the building, but for some reason, he was not where he was supposed to be.  I fumed as I quickly filled out a behavioral referral, emailing an administrator and his mother.  When he returned, I launched into a tirade about responsibility.  He innocently told me that he was in the cafeteria because he needed to eat something.  I blindly continued my rant, suggesting that it was irresponsible.

Later that day, his mother emailed me back, mentioning that she was surprised and asking if he had ever exhibited behaviors like this one before.  I sheepishly replied that he hadn’t, and meekly explained where he had been.  She replied that although she was sorry for his absence, perhaps I had been too ‘hasty’ in my discipline and that a firm word or two would have sufficed.  After some reflection, I realized she was right.  If I had just taken a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and put a lid on my emotions, I would have handled the situation very differently.  I acknowledged my clouded judgement to her and withdrew the referral.

There is great strength in withdrawing from our lives for a time to recollect our thoughts and get our heads straight.  For years, presidents have logged vacations and golf outings so that they could have time to themselves, recharge their proverbial batteries, and return with a refreshed attitude and mindset.  Marriage requires the same approach, especially where children are involved.  Similarly, I frequently warn my students away from emotional responses in social media, reminding them that although it feels great in the moment, that moment is the only reward: the rest is filled with regret and consequence.  If they just take a moment to withdraw from the screen and allow their minds to reengage above their hearts, they will quickly realize the negative impact their actions could have.  Time away helps us to get ourselves together so that we can avoid ourselves at our worst, thus being our best selves for others when we return.

Right after Christ had fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes, a tremendous miracle, He decided to escape the excitement and be alone.  “After He had dismissed (the disciples), He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray.  Later that night, He was there alone” (Matthew 14.23).  The feeding was more than likely incredibly emotional, moving, and taxing, taking a toll on Him as it simultaneously swept Him up in all the excitement and thrill of the moment.  So, Christ recognized the need to withdraw, get His emotions in check, and recharge Himself so that He could be at His best for His disciples.  A short time away from the thunderous hum of life allowed Him to get back into a more peaceful state, allowing for a closer walk with God, His father.

Withdrawing from the world when emotions run high not only prevents us from potential emotional mistakes, but also resets our priorities and brings us closer to Him through the peace that comes with a silencing of the world.  This week, take time to retreat from the world so that your mind is not clouded by your emotions, and allow God to refresh you in the peace of that retirement.  Amen.