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Sunday, April 25, 2010

From Fear to Life: A Sermon

From Fear to Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 25, 2010

Acts 9:36-43
John 10:22-30


What lay on the road was no mere handful of snake. It was the copperhead at last, golden under the street lamp. I hope to see everything in this world before I die. I knelt on the road and stared. Its head was wedge-shaped and fell back to the unexpected slimness of neck. The body itself was thick, tense, electric. Clearly this wasn't black snake looking down from the limbs of a tree, or green snake, or the garter, whizzing over the rocks. Where these had, oh, such shyness, this one had none. When I moved a little, it turned and clamped its eyes on mine; then it jerked toward me. I jumped back and watched as it flowed on across the road and down into the dark. My heart was pounding. I stood a while, listening to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars. After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.
--Mary Oliver, "May"

C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed writes about his own grief. After the death of his wife he wrote an honest account of his feelings. It is a powerful work and one I recommend. It is an emotional struggle. It is a spiritual struggle.

He makes the connection between grief and fear. He is surprised by the connection. He writes:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me . . .

An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m afraid of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t . . .

And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness . . .
It is helpful to hear others talk about their grief. It is also good to read articulate writers describe their own experiences. One of the reasons it is helpful is that when we experience grief (not if but when) we can know that we are not alone. We will still have the feelings, such as in Lewis' case, grief that feels like fear. But we can know that we aren't going crazy.

We can have doubts. Huge doubts. We can feel angry, alone, exhausted, self-absorbed, and realize that others are as well. It is grief. And it feels like fear. And what of God? Grief shatters all illusions and idols. According to C.S. Lewis:
... Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing [God], so happy that you are tempted to feel [God's] claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to [God] with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is [God] so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
That is good, honest writing.
A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
C.S. Lewis tells the truth. You wonder when you are grieving why no one has prepared you for that. Those who attempt to comfort in the name of or on behalf of God are well-meaning. They are caring, compassionate people who want you to feel better. But it seems as though they have never grieved themselves or have forgotten. The platitudes are so shallow. You want to say,
"just be with me but don't speak."
But you don't say that because you don't want to be rude and you still hope that maybe one of your friends will have an answer that is truthful. You don't want them to abandon you as God has done. But no answer is truthful. The door to God is double bolted from the inside.

Grief is more than mourning the loss of that which we have cherished. Grief touches the very core of our existence. When we are grieving we are grieving not only the loss of our loved one or whatever the loss may be, we are grieving the death of God. Technically, I don't mean the death of God. I mean the death of the concept of God. But it is more than an intellectual concept. We grieve the loss--the death--of the very thing that has held us together.

Everything we valued, everything we thought was true, everything we hoped for and gave us joy, has been ripped away. And no one else seems to get it. No one seems to understand. No one has fallen into that abyss except you. It is scary. Grief is like fear.

If you discover that others have entered into that abyss, then it is as though there is a conspiracy of silence. Don't tell the others. We cannot talk about this death. Even with others we are alone.

I think the scriptures, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the scriptures that centered around Jesus, are stories of grief. They are stories of people who experienced incredible loss. Loss that is so real that only stories about God can touch it. They are stories about the death of God. These are stories of the death of that which held them together.

The words placed on the lips of Jesus from Psalm 22 before Jesus breathes his last tell the truth of grief:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
That is why I still go back to this old book. Like Walter Wink, I wrestle with it. It tells the truth about grief and loss. It talks about the death of God. At a deeper level than the stories themselves, are human beings writing in their own idiom about their own grief and fear.

It is to this experience, the experience of the silent God that John writes about Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
"My sheep hear my voice."
That is unbelievable to me until I can be sure that the voice once was mute.

When the author of Acts writes about Peter raising the widow from death, I know it is a fictional story. But I trust the author is writing about the experiences of a struggling people who have lost everything, including God. Then they found themselves awakening to a new sense of God.

When we hear stories of death and rebirth or death and resurrection, if we are not tone deaf, we are hearing stories of awakening. This is near the end of A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis writes:
... Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. ... And suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
Those acquainted with grief know that it is not a straight line. It is not a series of steps to climb, or hurdles to jump as quickly as possible as if we are racing around a track. It is messy. It is up and down. Yet there comes a time when the door to God is no longer closed and bolted. Lewis speaks of God:
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
When the sorrow lifts a new sense of God (or of meaning if you prefer) emerges. It isn't the same as before. Less naïve. Less tame. Less familiar. More complex. Deeper. Wilder. Grief is the great killer of God. But what happens is that in time God is reborn. God is more alive. So are we.

When we experience grief and survive it we are ourselves reborn. I do like that last line from Mary Oliver's poem "May":
When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.
That is the sense of these stories from scripture as well. Because they are honest about death, I can also resonate with their stories of rebirth. This is the via transformativa or the way of compassion. The stories in Acts are stories of people who having experienced grief that feels like fear are no longer overcome by fear.

If you want to start a movement for compassion and justice, find people who are in awe of life, who know the depths of grief and have experienced dark nights of the soul and the very death of their God, and then have found God reborn. You need to find folks who aren't afraid to be a little blasphemous, because those who mouth platitudes won't be strong enough.

As Walter Wink writes in his book Engaging the Powers, you need folks who will rattle God's cage. This is what he writes about prayer:
Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes.
If you want a movement for justice and peace, you need folks who aren't afraid to set God free. If grief is the death of God, recovery is God reborn within.

God is in you.

Wake her up.
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