Grief, Memory, and Hope

Grief, Memory, and Hope

Rev. Christian Iosso

Texts: Psalm 90: 1-6, 9-10. II Corinthians 4:6-5:10. (Longer than listed in newsletter)


Saint Paul was almost certainly martyred in Rome, and probably under Nero between 65-67.[i]But he lived as one unafraid to die. More exactly, he lived as one who had already died, in his baptism into the death of Christ Jesus, who was then the source of his inner life in the Spirit. Paul’s conviction of the reality of the unseen world was such that he already felt partly at home there, lifted up by resurrection energy. He was thus effectively without fear; of death itself, of persecution, and certainly not of aging.


At the same time, while he may have been unafraid of death, Paul prays that countless people do not suffer and are spared catastrophe. If they do suffer, Paul promises no miraculous protection, but he says they will survive together by faith: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (In delivery, relevant to the hurricane hitting Louisiana on 8/29/21, added that a General Assembly report on Hurricane Katrina’s impacts, written by a theologian who grew up in the Ninth Ward, was called, Struck Down But Not Destroyed.)


Paul does not say much if anything about heaven as a place. (He gets into describing a mystical experience once as involving heaven, but there is no road map). Rather, his focus is on being with God. We have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. This house is a container for our spiritual selves that persist in some individual form. Our earthen vessels—the clay jars of our bodies, a reference to God having made Adam of clay, and the images of God as potter—these mortal bodies will be given eternal, imperishable bodies. We will not be unclothed but further clothed in some material more real than any physical material or flesh and blood. Elsewhere we know that Paul feels loss intensely, but trusts that God will ultimately make right all that is wrong in the world. So we have the inspiring language of Romans 8 and I Corinthians 15. At funerals we sometimes quote those texts and the John 14 text about the many mansions where God has a place for us.


Now we live a more prosaic, everyday world, and our faith does not expose us to persecution in this country. But yet do we fear death? Does the conviction of being with God give us comfort? Many of us do not spend much time thinking about the afterlife—maybe we think of death as little as possible—and we expect to live fairly long lives—certainly more than 70 and increasingly more than 80.


But, although we may not think of being with God after death as the goal of our lives, many of us do think being with God is the heart of our lives in this world. We are not motivated by a fear of hell—we trust God to forgive us, welcome us, and transform us. We talk of being spiritual people, or having a divine spark. We try to live as God’s beloved people, as people chosen by God to love those around us, and to serve the whole community of creation. Don’t our lives have a nice, orderly pattern from our birth, though our lives with families, friends, and work, and onto a natural death we have prepared for, “decently and in order.”


Wait a minute. Is that how many of our lives actually work? What about the tragedies? What about the undeserved suffering—especially of the young? What about those losses of divorce or abandonment, where there is a death of relationship? What about suicide, isolation, and mental illness? For virtually every one of us, there are moments of deep, sometimes sudden grief.


Do we hold God responsible for those tragedies and hurts? Do we think heaven can make up for them? Do we even cultivate a kind of stoicism to reduce the pain, to keep calm and carry on without falling to pieces? Do we believe, it’s just part of living as an earthen vessel? There will be cracks, and if we are fortunate some of God’s light can shine through? Well, though I like Leonard Cohen’s Anthem lyrics about “a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Paul is saying that the light shines through the whole earthiness of our being—even in those breaking times of loss. We may be cracked, but not broken. We may be distraught, but the light of God’s love “shines in our hearts.” (II Cor. 4:6).


Here is where I am going to try two more things: a bit of teaching, and a bit of testimony. I think I have a responsibility to address issues of death and future hope from the pulpit.


The teaching is to tell you briefly of four books that talk about grief at the death of people we love. CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, about his wife’s death, after only four deeply happy years. Martin Marty’s A Cry of Absence, also about his wife’s death. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son. And O Susan! Looking Forward with Hope after the Death of a Child. That book was written by James W. Angell at the death of his 21 year old daughter on Easter Sunday. He is also the author of a book I am using with the Inquirers’ class, How to Spell Presbyterian.


The CS Lewis book is the best known, and begins with the line, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” The novelist Hilary Mantel wrote a fine preface to a re-issue of the book in 2014. She noted that it is lucid about profound disorientation; that “mourning kicks away the props we depend on.” The Kubler-Ross 5 states (not stages) of grief go back and forth, we feel numbness and exhaustion as well as the denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. Pieces of memory are crucial, but often disjointed. Mantel emphasizes how Lewis’ loss challenged his faith—not in God’s existence, but in God’s goodness—it brought back the emptiness and doubt he had known at his mother’s death when he was young (and packed away to boarding school), and a new rawness of emotion (following the unexpected happiness of his marriage to a vivacious poet). A Grief Observed is not a self-help book. For Mantel, it “makes the reader live more consciously… (and) offers… a glimmer of hard-won hope.” ( )


Martin Marty’s A Cry of Absence uses the Psalms to help him manage the death of his wife after a long marriage. He talks of summery faith and wintery faith, and he feels he has been put on the wintery way. Part of his winter  minimizes the hope of an afterlife. Even our wonderful Psalm 90—like most Psalms—says little about heaven or hell.[ii] Nonetheless Marty does find a way to restore some order to his memories, his family, and his faith, and to deal with the guilt of finding some happiness again.


Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for A Son was written in a disjointed way over a year after his 25 year old son’s death mountain-climbing. Wolterstorff is a philosopher in the Reformed tradition. He considers grief a kind of price to pay for the deep attachment of love. He rejects almost all theodicy, or ways of justifying death and suffering in terms of a divine plan. In a later reflection on his book, he writes:


“God has not told us why there is natural and moral evil in the world, has not explained to us why we do not all flourish until full of years. I live with that. What we are told is that God is engaged in a battle with evil and will eventually win the battle…”


Wolterstorff believes God suffers with us and mitigates evil, but since his son’s death God has become more mysterious. “I look out the window of my study on this autumn day in western Michigan, at the deep blue sky and the gorgeous colors of the leaves. This is a brief but glorious passage in God’s performance of the cosmos.”


My testimony is not about deep grief. God and the cosmos have so far spared me that. I feel a form of outrage at cruel, human-caused deaths, but that is not grief, and it is linked to my faith that God is a God of justice. Along with my conviction that God is in the universal force of morality, I have always felt there was an afterlife, that in God’s love nothing of true value is ever lost. I realize I may not be typical in that, and you always wonder how real your beliefs are.


One summer day, though, there was a terrible car crash in front of my manse. I should say that I was chaplain to the rescue squad of Ossining, NY, and had some training. I ran to a car so wrecked it was almost in two pieces. One piece was on fire. With two other men, we kicked out the windshield and pulled one man to safety. They left for more help. But there was another man—unconscious, possibly dead, still trapped. I tried to rock the car off him—and shouted at the by-standers to help. None came close because they were afraid the car would explode. I reflected as I did it that I was risking my life, but felt that I had had a good life and was doing the right thing. I did pray and there was a calm amid the adrenalin. And I was angry at the by-standers as the second man gradually burned. (The car never blew up.) The ambulance eventually got thru the gridlocked traffic. The man lived. Heaven, a sense of God’s enduring love, had given me confidence.


So when people ask me if I am afraid of death, the answer is certainly yes, because it can be painful, but there are worse things. And in Christ we have already died and have some of heaven in our hearts.


I wonder what kind of death you fear, and I wonder what kind of a death we fear together, in this congregation. Where do you find the courage to face what lies ahead? Where do we find the strength to look together at a future we know only partially?

In the name of the Lord and Giver of life, the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] Tradition says Paul was beheaded, but the scholar Garry Wills believes the silence about the how, when, and where suggests it was a much more painful process.

[ii] In the Psalms the afterlife is only an ill-defined Sheol, more a shadowy half-life, though later Judaism came to affirm an afterlife. The great rabbi Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith includes reward and punishment (#11) and the revival or resurrection of the dead (#13), based on God’s eternal nature.