A Sermon For A Service of Grief and Loss During the Season of Advent

When I was little, I believed the moon followed me. On the rare occasion when we were in the car after dark I remember lying in the back of the car, looking out of the back window, and watching as the moon seemed to follow us home. It was a special delight, sure and notable. And, if not the moon, then the stars, and if not the stars, the glow of street lights. Shining in the midst of an otherwise intimidating darkness, the lights were a distracting comfort.

 Even now, the light in the darkness causes me to remember. Remember things like my dad rousing us out of our beds to watch a lunar eclipse. Remember things like the cheerful flames of my grandmother’s fireplace on Christmas morning. Remember things like my family gathering on the field under the stadium lights after my brother’s football games. However, the light brings it’s own grief, the once was and what has been lost. Relationships, my own father, those Christmas mornings that once brought us together but now show us to be oh so far apart.

 And, for many of us, the light brings the pain of what has never been. We stand on the outside, looking in at those gathered around the table, finding ourselves alone when all we desire is held up behind glass for our perusal but not our partaking. And, this, this is the complicated and messy pain of this season. Because as the light grows bright and the cold grows deep--the visions that haunt us may be of loss and grief. Which is why we are gathered tonight. To recognize that pain, to hold it, to honor it, to honor those things and those loved ones we have lost. And in the midst of loss, we are also called to find God’s presence. And, by this, I don’t mean a God who will fix it, who will be an opiate to our pain or our problems. Rather, I mean the God I encountered during my work as the chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

 It was my first call as an ordained priest--one I was rather woefully ill prepared for. I had spent a great deal of time ministering with children as a youth minister but had never worked with a pediatric patient population. I had 11 weeks of clinical work as a student chaplain on a geriatric psychiatry floor under my belt, but my last time in a pediatrician’s office had been as a patient! So, there I was, collar on...prepared for everything but nothing.

 The pediatric intensive care unit, the neonatal intesive care unit, the oncology floor, the emergency room...from room to room from crisis to crisis I moved through my days and often nights. More often then not called, not because of any skill on my part, but because I represented something bigger and more than any of us. My presence to many represented the presence of God in the midst of ungodly situations. And, in the midst of this all, I began to wonder where God was? In my own family we began to wryly muse about where Jesus was when all of these awful things were happening--on vacation in Belize? Taking a nap? It became easier and easier to grow angry at a perceived absence of the divine--but then I began to realize where I perceived an absence there was more than enough of presence. I was just looking for a fix it God when all the time I was witnessing a God who wept, and held and wiped and comforted--not taking away the pain but rather staying, despite the pain.

And, I can pinpoint the moment in which I realized the truth, for me, of who God can be in all of it. A little girl on the oncology floor was experiencing some very painful side effects to her chemotherapy. A normally cheerful sprite of a girl she was screaming in agony, begging her mother to take away the pain. But, the medications were not working and nothing could be done. It was horrific to watch...yet her mother held her, rocked her and kissed her. She whispered and murmured, weaving and dipping while holding the little one close. The child kept screaming, and her mother kept holding her. And, the whole time her mother wept. And, in her tears and in her strength I saw God.

 That was when I realized that for me the God of salvation history is our God, the God who promises to accompany us through the desert. The God who offers solace to his companions from the cross. The God who holds us, weeps with us and draws us ever closer. The God who prepares a room and a space of love and light for each of us. The God who’s light shines forth no matter how dark the night, no matter how cold the sky, no matter how lost nor how pained we are. I found God in the midst of my own journey--walking beside me, not preventing the journey from happening.

 And so, rather than looking for God to fix I began to look for God in the acts of love in the midst of pain. The holding, the loving, the wiping and washing--physical acts bravely performed in the face of fear, sorrow and anguish. These acts began to carry, for me, all the beauty of the incarnation. And, in this incarnation, I am all too well aware of what the manger holds--all our hopes and all our fears bundled up in swaddling clothes. I don’t know if Mary knew precisely what the outcome of her love would be, but I do know that she loved and that she carried and that she grieved and that she wept and that she lost, so much. And, so too we lose and gain and grow--as we do the real work of finding light in the darkness.

 So today, what holds you, what embraces you, what is the comfort surrounding you? Is it the light in the darkness? The glimmer of candles burning despite the cold? The scent of fir? The warmth of a soft and worn throw? Is it the arms of a loved one who holds your tears and your joys? Is it your presence here, a welcoming space that holds you in your grief? Can you feel the arms of God? Do you hear this litany of presence in the midst of pain? Do you hear it?

 As each of us turns and falls, leaps and collapses through life, do we hear the murmurings of the spirit and the companionship of a God who knows full well the grief of loss? As we prepare for the baby Christ, can we begin to find the power of love despite it all? This is a hard season in so many ways. Be gentle with yourselves, and with each other--hold each other in prayer and pray for yourselves. And, when all seems lost, perhaps you’ll find that you are being held by a weeping God who will stay with you no matter how hard it is. There is a light in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. 

Nowadays, with my own little guy, I find myself pointing out lights. The blinking of airplanes after dark, the brightness of stars and the full moon earlier this week--all of these fascinate him and he signs more, more! And, then he ups the ante, having learned to sign “please” he adds to his signing “more, please, more please” his hands move frantically--demanding more light, more brilliance, more miracles. And, once again they become beacons and focal points these lights, reminding me of then as I carry them into the now. I reclaim these points of brilliance and take them as reminders of the grace of God, a God who does respond, with more, more love, more grace, more forgiveness, a deeper embrace and a merciful hope.


MiniPiegirl said…
Beautiful! Sue and I miss you guys, and send our love!
Joy said…
Thanks! And love back atchas!
Manisha said…
I'm sitting here trying to find the right words to explain what I am feeling. To say I loved this is inadequate, to say this is exactly what I needed doesn't begin to explain the emotions I feel. In my own complicated relationship with family and God, tears were seen as a sign of weakness. Yet i shed many, over many years. To read that God is in those tears is profoundly comforting. Just yesterday, I realized that my tears were few and I thought this is how I become a mother, supposedly stronger and in more control of my emotions. Today, I feel that I should rethink this...
Thank you.
Joy said…
Manisha, I'm glad you found something here for you. Hugs, and you are most welcome.
Ruth Ottiger said…
Wow.. I knew I have been trying to figure out where God has been and how I see him through so much grief.I know hes with me but i didnt look at it quite like that.Thank you.I think I get it now I got it now.I need to get Nancy to read this!I miss your words . I dont think you have any idea how God speaks through you too me.At least I try to tell you.It blows my mind some times. I never quite heard things before the way you say them.I guess your a different messenger thats for sure.I understand your moving but then again my own selfishness feels I wish you were still here in Akron so I could just pop in and see you and chat.You have saved me so many times.Yes you have . This year has been horrible you know that I Pray this next year is better That was my first Prayer this morning to God that I get better and all those around me and far away do too.I dig this blog I just tuned in to it;) Your such an Angel in my Life I love you Joy happy New year!
Joy said…
Thank you Ruth, sometimes the best prayer I know is that tomorrow will be better than today.

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