What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)

August 18, 2019—Ted Grimsrud

As I reflect back on how I have understood God, I have recently noticed a connection that I had not thought of before. Though I have not thought of there being a lot of continuity between how I thought of God fifty years ago and the present, the moment that got me started back then turns out to be closer to what I think now than I have realized. The key connecting point is grief.

Questions and faith

I grew up in Oregon in rural Oregon. Though conservative and very rural, it was quite a non-church oriented environment. As a kid, I always had questions; I always wanted to understand better. That quest led to a Christian conversion when I was a teenager that dropped me into a fundamentalist Baptist congregation that, ironically, didn’t welcome questions. But I began a long process of learning and opening up, and I moved on quickly from fundamentalism. I eventually found Mennonites and had a career as a Mennonite pastor and theology professor. I have continued to “open up” and have moved right to the very margins of the Mennonite world.

I started my journey in my mid-teens with a sense of the presence of the divine that came to me in the midst of grief—as I was attending the funeral of a friend who had died in his late twenties of cancer. In a time of prayer, I felt that God was real and was with us. I had been thinking a lot about whether I believed in God or not, and from that point on I affirmed that I did. I find it interesting now, that what could have been an insight into the characteristics of God (as one especially present in sharing our grief) essentially passed by me. For years, I would look back at the moment and say that my sense of God was pretty vague and needed my education in Christian theology (such as it was in those years) to understand who God is. Now I think it is too bad that I couldn’t have pursued the insight about God’s close connection with grief.

From that funeral on, I was trying to understand what to believe about God. The Baptists gave me some answers. I never quite felt comfortable with what they told me, but they did help me begin. I have gone in directions I would never have expected back fifty years ago. Now I think grief is one of the best ways to get a sense of how to think about God.

Jesus wept

First, I will refer to a Bible verse, the shortest verse in the Bible. The King James Version of the gospel of John 11:35 says it this way: “Jesus wept.” The New Revised Standard Version is a bit more expansive: “Jesus began to weep.” I guess those translators couldn’t stand it that an entire verse had only two words.

I want to take the two (or four) words of this little verse, and make a big statement. As Jesus weeps, as Jesus experiences deep grief—the word translated “wept” could actually be translated “wailed and lamented” and signifies something quite intense—he shows us the intersection between the divine and the human like nothing else he ever did. In his grieving, Jesus most clearly shows us what God is like.

The godness of God is seen in God’s grief. The divine presence in humanity is seen, as much as anywhere, when we grieve. Our grief marks us as creatures made in God’s image, as creatures who possess the divine spark—even as our grief also marks us as human, all too human, fragile creatures, all too fragile.

I have to say that I don’t usually think of grief as all that great of a thing. I remember the few moments of deep grief that I have experienced and I would be more than happy to have bypassed those moments. Though, as I reflect a bit, I realize that what I would want to bypass are the events that led to the grief, not the grief itself. Grief was a response on the way to healing.

Let’s think about how we use the word grief. We have this saying, “good grief.” It’s one of those things where we don’t think about the literal meaning when we say it. We say it when we are upset. As in, I was driving along a desert highway in New Mexico and a cop car sped by going the other direction, stopped suddenly, turned around with its lights flashing, pulled me over, and good grief, gave me a ticket. The first ticket of my life. Good grief!

I looked it up. This saying goes back 100 years or so and almost surely began as a euphemism, used in polite society instead of saying “Good God!” But it’s interesting that “grief” would be the word that would substitute for God. I suppose it also has a nice ring. “Good grief” sounds better than “good sorrow” or “good sadness.” But it’s funny, we don’t usually think of “grief” as good—or as a substitute for “God.” But I wonder if maybe saying “good grief” points to truths we don’t imagine when we use that phrase. Grief is good—and it is closely linked with God.

A story of God’s profound grief

Let’s think about it this way. Go back to the beginning of the Bible. We have a key story in the first few chapters of Genesis, the story of Noah and the Flood. What’s going on with God? Is God terribly angry, wrathful, punishing? Or is it something else? Here’s my thought. Remember this is a story, not something that actually happened. The story says God creates what is out of love. God wants companions, friends even. To culminate the process of creation, God makes men and women in God’s own image, animated by the very breath of God.

And things are great. The man and the woman hang around with God in the Garden of Eden. They have fun together. But then, according to the story, it all turns bad. The people step away from God. Note a detail, though—after Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, God still heads down to the Garden to hang out. And the two humans hide from God. They create the distance. I can imagine that God was hurt by this. The story then tracks a terrible spiral of violence. Adam and Eve have enmity with each other, then their son Cain murders his brother Abel. And on and on, leading to disaster.

It’s important, though, how the story describes God in the lead up to the great flood that culminates that awful spiral of violence. We are not told that God’s righteous and holy anger is triggered leading to the inevitable retribution that God’s justice requires. We are told that God has profound grief. God is hurt. It’s not cold, righteous, holy anger that leads to the great flood. It’s wild grief, we could say, that leads to God’s out-of-control response. If they won’t be my friends, then to hell with them. God lashes out in this grief and destruction results.

However, in the middle we are told “God remembers Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” The tide turns, the flood recedes. Finally, “the earth was dry” and God coaxes Noah, his family, and all the animals out—“so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” As we look at this story, we realize that something fundamental has changed here in God’s heart. Because what shortly follows are two amazing things—first, we read again that humanity’s hearts are still unjust and then, paradoxically, that God will never again destroy creation.

So humanity has not changed, but wild grief will no longer drive God to such terrible destruction. I think the flood is a story about God’s education. Maybe like this: God needs to learn how to manage God’s grief. God cares, God can’t help but care—God loves, God can’t help but love. But care and love always, inevitably lead to grief. Grief means pain, sorrow, regret. Grief means feelings of abandonment and betrayal—or, at least, and maybe most profoundly, grief means just deep sadness.

So what is God going to do with all this pain? Especially since humanity itself is not changed by the flood. The spiral of brokenness will continue. God doesn’t want robots. God can’t love and desire relationships and at the same time exert total control that eliminates the possibility of brokenness. So, what’s God to do? Massive retribution is not the answer; it doesn’t take away the pain. God needs patience. God needs to live with the grief and let that pain deepen God’s commitment to vulnerable, non-coercive, persevering love. We could say the rainbow reminds us of the need to learn to live with grief.

The rest of the Bible, with all its mixed messages about love and judgment, ultimately—I believe—is a story of healing. God heals, we find healing, through the experience of grief. Grief is an essential part of the picture of what it means to live in love. God learned to channel grief into more love—we may do the same thing.

No love without grief

Think about it. We can’t love without grief. We may try to live without grief—but that will end up being a life without love. It’s like a character that John Prine sings about, “Safety Joe”: “Well, he never got too lonely and he never got too sad, But he never got too happy and that’s what’s just too bad, He never reached much further than his lonely arms would go, He wore a seatbelt around his heart and they called him Safety Joe.”

Every single relationship of love that we have will lead to grief; since all relationships end. Sometimes they end in conflict. Sometimes they simply end with geographical separation—even in this age of Skype and email and Facebook. In the middle section of my life, from leaving home to go to college when I was 18 until ending up in Harrisonburg when I was 42, I moved over and over again. I always left family and friends behind, with vows to stay in touch. That has happened some, but many relationships did end. As I worked on this essay I took a few moments to remember people at each of those stops along the away—but I couldn’t do it for long because I started to feel too sad. And, then, no matter what else, each of our relationships will end with death—and the accompanying grief. I haven’t lost a lot of people I’m close to. But each one. . . . It’s almost exactly thirty-five years now since my dad died, August 25, 1984, and it’s still hard.

To thrive as human beings we enter into relationships where we care. To care means at some point we will grieve. We love, we find joy, we grieve. It’s all together. As Lou Reed stated in his song “Magic and Loss” about his grief at losing two friends—“There is magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.” And it’s not only with humans. We love our pets, and grieve when they leave us. Another song, this one by Jerry Jeff Walker, tells of his encounter with an old hobo in the drunk tank, Mr. Bojangles. “He spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him traveled about. The dog up and died, he up and died. And after 20 years he still grieves.” As I think of my dog Sophie who died two years ago, this lyric rings more and more true for me.

Tow stories of redemptive grief

Grief is a human universal. Our challenge is not to avoid it but to live redemptively with it. There is this famous Buddhist story of a young mother who loses her child and is, of course, utterly shattered in her grief. She ends up talking with the Buddha and demanding that her overwhelming sorrow be taken away. Okay, it will be taken away as soon as you collect white mustard seeds from five families who have not suffered grievous losses. She eagerly sets about the task. She assumed that everyone else was perfectly happy. She figured she’d collect her mustard seeds in no time. But she searched and searched and didn’t find a single home, not one, that could give her mustard seeds. Every one had had loss. So, she realized she wasn’t alone. Her quest for an escape from her grief evolved into a ministry of compassion. Her loss became a source of power and empathy.

Grief is an amazing thing. It never really dies. Maybe this is kind of a morbid analogy, but I remember my dad’s malaria. He got a severe case in the South Pacific during World War II. He was healed, but a couple of times years later he got sick again from the parasites that remained in his system. This is the analogy, there’s always a possibility of the thing coming back, even after you have just about forgotten about it.

Let me finish with one more story. When I was 17, one of my best friends, Rod, got killed in a car wreck. I can easily conjure up the feelings I had when I was first told of his death and the fog that surrounded my life for quite some time. But over the years, as you would imagine, I would go long periods of time not thinking about my friend and my loss. But unbidden, those feelings have occasionally returned and surprised me.

One time, about fifteen years ago, I was in a long, long meeting. As my mind drifted, somehow memories of Rod’s death stirred. Words came to me and I surreptitiously wrote them down. When I got home I realized I had a poem. I don’t remember ever writing a poem before. I let it sit for awhile, then decided to try to publish it. It’s not very good poetry so I won’t quote it, but it does capture my feelings at such a loss.

So it was published (and may be read here). Then about ten years later I got a letter from one of Rod’s older sisters. I have not seen her since his funeral in 1971. Someone noticed the poem on the internet and gave it to her. She told me how moved she and her sister were by what I wrote. How it gave them words for their grief all these years later. That’s one of my most treasured letters. Grief and love go together—and they reveal to us the character of the divine.

[This post is adapted from a sermon, “Good Grief,” presented 8/18/19 at the Harrisonburg (VA) Unitarian Universalist congregation. That sermon, in turn, was adapted from a sermon with the same title presented at Shalom Mennonite Congregation (Harrisonburg, VA), 4/6/14.]

[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]

One thought on “What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)

  1. Great thoughts and reminders, Ted. You’ve put some things in ways I’d not done.

    And I love the implication at the end that nearly the same sermon was given to both Mennonites and UU folks! Important accomplishment.

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