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"“Ambient Grief?”"


2 Corinthians 1: 2-4

Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gentle Father, the Mother of mercies and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows and affliction, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows and affliction, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves.

Ambient Grief?
By Rev. Debra McKnight

Folks, I think we are surrounded by grief and the gift is, we are not alone. This is a season where overnight loss is named for all of us in stats and stories on the news; where the fabric of society is wearing thin and we still carry our own personal hurts, wounds, and needs for healing. And while we are not alone, we struggle to find and be the helpers all at once. See, under normal circumstances, helpers come from somewhere else. They show up at the natural disaster from some other state or bring a casserole for a family hosting a funeral or grieving a loss. But during a global pandemic, we are the helpers and we are the grievers. We are the healers and the seekers all at once. This is probably a truth more often than we admit and the other truth is our faith roots us in this role. Perhaps this is the gift of our faith, the spirits of people who have struggled before us, as grieving-healers show up in poetry and song, story and
scripture to remind us we are not alone.

Paul picks up a piece of liturgy as he begins his letter, “Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gentle Father, the Mother of mercies and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows and affliction, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows and affliction, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves.” He is writing to the folks in Corinth for the second time about struggle and affliction because early Christians live in this daily pain and struggle under the oppression of the Roman empire. Women and men have followed their example over the centuries – folks we might name as Saints who are actually perfectly imperfect if we let them be real.

Elizabeth of Hungary and her huge dowry moved into the middle of Germany at Wartburg Castle to marry a future prince. Her arrival as a young princess made a statement and she brought wealth and her family – even sent a silver bathtub in which she should be bathed. She was young and grew up alongside the family of the prince she was to marry. This, of course, was normal.

Her intended died, which was probably also normal with such high mortality rates, and the families agreed that she would marry the next in line. She loved him and he loved her. They delighted in each other, which doesn’t seem too normal for the context. She not only loved her husband deeply and enjoyed life; she also loved God. She loved God so much that it shaped her choices. This we might wish was more normal, but it was not. She refused to wear a crown to church and even when a church leader urged her to do so, she asked how could she wear a golden crown when Jesus wore a crown of thrones? She gives her ornate garments away and opts for the simple wool garments of peasants. She befriends people, including peasants, servants, and folks begging for money and food. She becomes famous for generosity, sewing baptismal gowns for babies and paying for their baptism (because that is a thing in 1200ish CE), burying her people in need – even sewing their burial garments – cleaning the wounds of lepers, wiping the noses of poor children, and giving money away. Christian nobility are meant to be a little generous, but not this generous. There is meant to be a healthy separation and probably a healthy dependence on the wealthy feeling occasionally merciful. Elizabeth begins to draw the ire and concept of the wealthy around her. During one famine, she empties the store houses and the treasury to keep her people alive. The court prepares to tattle when her husband returns and he responds, “Let her do good.” He loves her, he loves her so much it probably enrages the people of the kingdom…well, the people with money. Elizabeth sees how the poor struggle and the fruit of their labor is squandered in extravagant living by the wealthy and, because she loves God, she takes every action she can think of to set the world right. She writes, she “wants to make people Gay!” which is probably a translation more than an agenda to unnerve Mike Pence and right wing Christian conservatives.

Of course, her actual agenda of a just world might cause us all to examine our lives. She wants a life that is abundant for all; a life that is not just toil for the wealthy, but abundance and delight for all. And while she sounds wildly delightful and like the kind of royal you would want to hang out with, she actually knows struggle. Giving isn’t easy when everyone will critique you and life isn’t easy when the love of your life dies in his early twenties due to an epidemic. Elizabeth is even more powerful once she knows grief and it sends her even deeper in love of the world out of the heartbreak she knows. She is one of the rare medieval monastics who has a happy marriage, three kids, and a life of devoted service to God’s vision of love.

I think of her in our own season of grief. We name grief in the particular – usually a partner, parent, child, friend, or family member. We process grief in all its phases, maybe even multiple times. We experience depression and bargaining or anger and denial before we get close to acceptance. Joyce Rupp in Praying Our Goodbyes,” names that grief is a process for all of us and that we all walk our own journey through loss to healing and as we move into a new life that
doesn’t forget the past but embraces it in a way forward, we should be good to ourselves. Grief makes us tired and we might need rest. We might need more grace or more space, we need nature and the trees that have witnessed all things and all seasons, we need to walk and move and we need to fill our bodies with good things. We also need each other. We are a spark of hope for one another in the midst of it all. Being together can heal us and invite us to love if we can be patient enough with each other’s’ sometimes winding journey.

This, of course, all seems very reasonable when we talk about grief in terms of death. We know to give folks space and to bring them food even if we should bring more salads than cheesy-casseroles. We are familiar with grief in the particular. Folks at Grief’s Journey and other researchers are exploring Ambiguous Grief: this grief that we experience in the loss of a person who is still alive. This may be a break-up or divorce, a change in relationship or a dream on hold.

This kind of grief can still hit us hard and we may not even call it grief. This is grief we have to give ourselves permission to feel and permission to name. Naming our grief is powerful and, in this moment, I feel like we have so much to name that it’s more than ambiguous, it’s ambient.

Ambient refers to the environment, what surrounds us, the character of where we dwell. We mostly claim ambient in relationship to the sound or the temperature of the room, but the temperature of the culture feels intense in this moment. I grieve the return to school in masks, I grieve the brokenness in our structures. Our investment in prison over education shows in our class sizes and our needs for outdoor learning spaces. I grieve our president wishing well a notorious human-trafficker while holding a grudge against a man who fought for a more perfect union and a more just world his whole life. I grieve the tweets and the posts and knowing what some of my elementary school teachers think about BLM. I grieve federal agents in our cities and Walls of Moms and Walls of Dads with leaf-blowers and Walls of Vets that still were not enough. I grieve that science is political and masks are deemed tools of oppression by folks who seem to know little about experiencing oppression and government overreach. I grieve so much and I suspect you do, too. Grief is exhausting. It makes us blurry and hazy and thin on grace.

Grief means we need kinship to come alongside us to spark our hopes. The struggle with this ambient grief is we are both the ones in crises and the caregivers, we are both healers and seekers. In a global pandemic, we are the help we seek. The helpers cannot come from somewhere else when we are all in a natural disaster, so what do we do?

We give ourselves what we would give others; grace and naps, nature, rest and good food (of course I write this as I ate a bag of chips, so it’s easier said than done). We take turns, just like the Kindergarten teachers told us. We rest up so we can be ready to care for our neighbors and support our efforts to make good, sustainable and lasting change. We rest, not for ourselves alone, but for others – and when it’s our turn to show up, we do. We show up with courage and
gusto and grace to love each other. The early Christians knew this. They lived in constant grief and fear of oppressive systems (and ones that were actually oppressive, not just a health department asking them to wear a mask). They knew that Easter was attached to Good Friday, that resurrection was attached to crucifixion. That grief and affliction were a part of life. Jesus didn’t make life easier as much as he made it purposeful and this purpose set people at odds with the status quo and in conflict at every side. Early Christians knew that sorrow was a part of life and that a life of faith, prayer and singing, study and listening, communion and connection, gave them the courage to comfort others in their sorrow and affliction. The folks who journeyed before us journey with us in spirit and grant us insight into this season so ambient with grief and loss.

So, may we have the courage to rest and nap, fill our bodies with good things and not just for ourselves, but for others. May we have the courage to write down all the things we grieve, all the loss in our hearts and may we have the courage to honor it and process it. May we have the courage to ask for help and to teceive the care of others. May it be so. Amen.

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