Seth Patterson and Beth Hoffman Faeth, May 26, 2019
Scripture Ecclesiastes 3:1–8
Every one of us is a complicated emotional creature, capable of holding complex emotions. This may not always feel true. Sometimes we don’t want it to be true. Often it can feel good to hold onto some primary emotion and ignore the streams of other emotions that may be running deeper within us. Still, no matter what color our emotion is, there are threads of other feelings woven within it, giving additional shades and textures to each of us. Each of us is a complex person. And so is everyone else (even if you don’t like them). It is part of being human.
The famous passage from the biblical wisdom book Ecclesiastes speaks to this complexity. It may seem like it is describing a binary set of options—birth/death, silence/speaking, love/hate, war/peace—but none of us actually experiences these things in a simple way. None of us alive in this room are either being born or dead. We are neither purely silent nor purely speaking—our silence is full of an inner monologue and our bodies speak even without words, while our speaking is punctuated with moments of silence that serve the speaking. We neither contain only love nor only hate; the two are separated by a porous barrier. There is a time for each of these things, and we are always moving between them. Each exists as a fundamental part of the other. And we are always existing in some transition in between these two opposite poles, which means that each of us is constantly holding this complexity within ourselves.
Memorial Day is a great example of a day in which this complexity and transition, this ability to hold seemingly opposite emotions in tension at the same time, is brought to the surface and celebrated. Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor those that we love who have died, specifically in times of war. This is a complicated enough task that we are given a day of rest to hold all of this tension. Memorial Day asks me to remember the loss of someone that I love, to reencounter the various depths of that loss. It also asks me to honor their memory, to celebrate my loss as having been part of a larger accomplishment. I am asked to hold the loss of my loved one while simultaneously celebrating or honoring the greater gain that may have come from their death. This is complicated. This takes all of our emotional complexity, so we feed it with leisure time, loving companions and barbequed food.
I was raised by a father who would often try to get to the heart of this complexity by making a distinction between making sense of something and making meaning out of it. To make sense of something is to try to explain it with an answer of simple certainty: she died of lung cancer because she smoked; he got hurt in that accident because he was drinking. To try and make sense is a logical exercise in hopes of an answer that will then stop the questions. On the other hand, making meaning is where we inevitably go when the sense-making, logical explanation is no longer sufficient. To make meaning is to take an experience or set of experiences and learn from it; to incorporate a complicated situation into our complicated selves in a complicated world. To try and make meaning is often a lifetime exercise, which we continue to learn from and allows us to live in the beautiful complexity of our humanity. It is often much more difficult, but ultimately life-giving.
I asked Beth to share this sermon with me today for several reasons. I have wanted to try something like this for a long time; you all have heard from me a lot in the last few months and less from Beth; and, ultimately, I know of few people who have had to make more meaning out of loss in a concentrated amount of time than our Minister for Congregational Care and Worship. So, Beth, please wrestle with these questions with me. How have you made meaningful remembrance in a period of great loss?
While I have numerous goals in life, I did not aspire to become so personally experienced in grief and loss. But as John Lennon sang in 1980, although others coined the phrase earlier, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”—or, in my case, pursuing other milestones. In the past 20 years, I have experienced a trifecta of loss, in which there are no winners. I have lost to death a child, a spouse and most recently, on April 1, my father. Grief has become an integral part of my life’s narrative, and every day I am reminded of what I no longer have. I have wrestled with the very question Seth poses—how do we make meaningful remembrance when we are completely wrecked by an all-consuming despair? In its immediacy, grief takes over a life. I am more aware of the stages now than I was 20 years ago when my daughter died. I acknowledge, sometimes even with a bit of humor, “grief brain,” in which the simplest tasks seem monumental and I have a really hard time remembering where I put my keys, or my glasses, or my phone, or my dog, or whatever it is I might be looking for. When a death occurs, there is much intent in making a meaningful remembrance. Just five days after my father’s death, I stood on the chancel in the sanctuary with Seth to officiate his memorial service and spoke words from the pulpit to remember and honor the man who shaped my life in ways too numerous to articulate. I can also tell you I remember little from those first few days, except that the focus was solely on creating a memorial service that would demonstrate the essence of a most memorable man. There are so many details, and a family divides and conquers in those first numbing days, while trying at the same time to accept the paradigm shift and schism in their life.
Ecclesiastes 3 begins with these thought-provoking words—“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”—and then lists, as Seth described, not a binary set of “either/or”s but a fluidity of life experiences, a place in between many of these milestones: birth and death, breaking down and building up, war and peace, planting and harvest. One of those continuums is mourning and dancing, suggesting again that there is time for both sorrow and joy in our lives, and, as you have heard me proclaim before, joy can often arise from our greatest sorrow. Mourning suggests an immediacy; grief is much more of a process. For me, grief weaves its way into every aspect of my life’s continuum. It coils itself around the heart of all the pinnacles the wisdom writer suggests. Mourning is for a season, grief is for a lifetime. Over and over again, I am humbled by the fact that every good and beautiful experience in my children’s lives is marked with a crippling sadness because their father is no longer a witness to any event in their life, either mundane or extraordinary. That is knowledge too much to bear at times, yet it also invites us to pause and remember the significance of their father’s presence and absence in their life. That is meaningful remembrance, even in its painfulness.
There are days, like Memorial Day, in which the grief we carry with us ignites all over again. While I realize the primary focus of Memorial Day is on remembering our military heroes who have given their lives in service to our country, I also know that many of us travel to cemeteries near and far to tend the graves of the ones we have loved and are no longer physically present. We place flowers, we gather with family, perhaps we attend special services. Even if we do not pay homage at a grave site, Memorial Day calls us to pause and remember. And in so doing, memories flood our minds, grip our hearts, and perhaps even reopen the door of our own suffering. For some of us, the remnants of grief have been securely tucked away, always with us but no longer the only focus of our lives. When we remember in this intentional way, the gate gets flung open, and the freshness of the pain can come rushing in, taking strong hold of our being and demanding our attention. This is something we must embrace, even in its difficulty, because it is part of a meaningful remembrance. There are other days that are tender in this way as well—anniversaries of a death, the loved one’s birthday, a date of significance perhaps known only to you: a first date, a proposal, the day of diagnosis, a family holiday. To make meaning of loss requires us to pay attention to our own remembering, to surrender to the feelings grief brings rather than stuff them into a particular corner of our heart, called out only in “appropriate” moments. To make meaning of loss requires an acceptance that the totality of grief is for a lifetime, that grief is not something we get over or move away from. To make meaning of loss is an invitation to remember the best of the person while also working to reconcile the aspects of character or the relationship that were difficult, far from perfect, even hurtful. To make meaning of loss is to accept grief as our companion while at the same time opening ourselves to the possibilities of joy, the beauty of hope, the constancy of faith.
Columbine are one of my favorite spring flowers, for they offer in their early blooms a promise of renewal. They are also easy to grow, which delights this neglectful gardener. They just keep showing up in my perennial garden, with no encouragement from me! Two years ago, I noticed a plant growing in the crack of my driveway, near the garage door. Thinking it a weed, I determined to pull it. But as my grief brain often dictates, I got distracted and forgot about the weed. This was only shortly after John died and I was grateful to remember putting on shoes before leaving the house. One day as I pulled into my driveway it caught my attention again, having tripled in size and suddenly, the leaves were familiar to me. Or so I thought. Is that a columbine? And how did it get there? I may be distracted, but I know I didn’t plant anything in the cracks of the sidewalk. After another week flower buds began to form. Although smaller in size it was still a lovely plant, made even more so by a few blooming blossoms. I thought about pulling it out because it doesn’t really belong there. But I didn’t, because soon that plant became a symbol to me of resilience.
Life is what happens when we are making other plans, and sometimes we are forced to transplant and bloom in places we never imagined. That columbine has flourished for the past two growing seasons and now in its third year is currently huge and in bloom as it nestles itself against my garage door. It is a reminder to me of endurance and perseverance, both instrumental to our grief travels, and it has become my daily meaningful remembrance because every time I look at it I recall my personal trifecta, my cloud of witnesses, the gifts they gave to me in their living and the lessons of resilience each of their deaths have taught me.
Days and symbols invite us into meaningful remembrance, Seth, nudging us to feel more deeply, become aware of our sorrow and our joy, and perhaps most importantly encourage us within a community who stands with us, supporting and loving us as we travel through the various seasons of our life. I do believe you have some thoughts about this. . . .
I think you said something important here at the end that could be expanded a little bit. You spoke about a community that stands with us. This seems to me to be incredibly important on days of remembrance, honor and loss. We are never in this alone. Even when it feels that we are an island, we are not. It is true that we may not know where to find the others who could stand with us or feel with us, but they are here somewhere. That is why we create days like Memorial Day and why we have memorials for loved ones—to bring us together, to help us find each other. To find those that understand in some way the complex and complicated feelings that jumble up inside of us in times like this. God doesn’t wish for us to be alone, but to be together in community with the God that is found in all of us.
In this way, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is even more profound. When we see beyond ourselves, there is always someone being born and someone dying. There is always being done the work of peace and the work of war. There is always someone weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing. There is no us and them, there is only us. And we are constantly holding all these seasons in tension. And we do it better, fuller, more robustly, more profoundly when we are doing it together. It is the church, with its attempts at recognizing God within each of us and all of us, that comes together and holds in sacred cradling this tension, this complexity, this complicated array of emotions. It is us, the church, that is always trying to make meaning out of contradictory things. We are built on trying to make meaning out of the death and the rebirth of Jesus, the perceived presence and absence of God in the world and our great power and incredible fragility as humans. That is why Bonhoeffer said that we, the church, is like a seer of ancient times naming the suffering and speaking what others do not want to hear. And the church is not me, it is we. And we are all in this together, holding all the seasons of the world in our collective hands. May we be gentle with each other.