Gratitude and Grief
As has become our practice, take time to transition slowly into retreat. When you are ready, hear the impassioned words of God to Moses in Exodus, chapter three:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land…”
Let’s just admit it. Thanks to the pandemic, we’re a little sick of the world as we’ve known it in 2020. In fact, the flood of protests in the streets reminds us that we’re sick of the world as we’ve known it for 400 years. We’re sick of all that has been lost because of the pandemic; we’re sick of all that has been lost because of injustice and oppression. We’re just sick.
That sick feeling, according to Dr. Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame, has a name: grief. Thompson compares grief to the inflammation of our hearts that, if untreated, can cause serious illness or even death. Grief is how we react when we're deprived of anything to which we have a significant emotional attachment. We have lost so much in the past few months, individually and collectively, and the losses just keep coming.
Some losses are easy to count. As we write this, more than 400,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19, one-fourth of those in the United States. Our hearts are broken. The number of black men and boys killed by police is trending upward to become a leading cause of death. This must stop. The number of people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic is astounding.
Other losses are more difficult to track on a map or a graph, but they take a daily and substantial toll. The loss of important social gatherings and celebrations; the loss of hugs and kisses from grandchildren; the loss of loading up buses for a week at camp; the loss of witnessing God work in the lives of work crew kids and summer staff on assignment.
The list goes on: The loss of confidence in public officials and institutions. The loss of relationships due to politically-charged divides. The loss of trust in our fellow human beings. Lord, have mercy! Like the Israelites in Egypt, we need you to see us! We need you to hear us! We need you to be concerned and come down and lead us to a different land!
Certainly we have received countless gifts from God during this season as well, and that is part of our collective sense of disequilibrium and exhaustion. We travel the distance between gratitude and grief (and back again) many times in one day and sometimes in one hour or one moment.
We see Young Life leaders celebrating graduating seniors with a parade of cars and signs, and we’re grateful. In the same moment, we’re acutely aware of what’s been lost, and we’re grieving. That’s just one example. Multiply that by the number of people we know and the number of days in this pandemic; then add the profound mix of emotion stirred by the videos of violence on the nightly news, and it’s no surprise that our hearts are inflamed and our heads are spinning. We lament:
When someone hands you a knotted ball of yarn and asks you to untangle it, sometimes the best thing to do is pull on one thread. Let’s begin this retreat by pulling on the thread of grief and see where it gets us. In a threshold like the one we're in, the question is not, "Will we experience grief?" The questions are, “What will it look like? And how will we respond?”
Thompson says naming our losses, no matter how large or small, is an essential part of our response. Until we name our losses, grief might look like a dozen different emotions in disguise. For example, it can look like apathy, disconnection, irritability or even anger. Naming our losses in God’s presence, however, is the beginning of clarity, connection and healing.
Reflect for a moment. What have you lost in this season? Take some time to express at least some of your grief and loss to God. Here are some prompts that might help:
Do not hurry through this exercise. Treat your soul with the same kindness and compassion you would offer to a hurting friend. Give it some time and space to be seen, heard and known.
It has been well said that every person you meet stands in a pool of tears. Today some of us are wading in a river. Finding a path forward towards healing and wholeness will require naming our losses. Naming our losses with God, and naming our losses with other people whom we trust. Giving our souls time and space to be seen and heard like this will require living at what author and pastor Matt Canlis calls “Godspeed”: living at the pace of being known.
To understand Godspeed, think for a moment of Jesus on His way to the house of Jairus to heal his sick daughter. In the middle of responding to that 9-1-1 call, Jesus was stopped in His tracks by a woman who had been suffering at the hands of doctors for 12 years. Jesus refused to move forward until He was able to set eyes on this woman and hear her whole story of grief and loss. Jesus waded chest-deep into her troubled waters. Jesus consistently created time and space for others to be seen and heard. He traveled at the pace of being known.
Likewise, think of Jesus sitting in the home of his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We see Jesus sitting and talking while Mary sat attentively at His feet and listened. What was He sharing that day? Perhaps He was sharing His anticipatory grief. Mary, I have tried to tell My disciples about the suffering that is ahead for Me, but they are not able or willing to hear Me. Instead, they start arguing about who is the greatest or who is in or out in My kingdom. We don’t know what Jesus said to Mary. We do know she created space for Him to be seen and heard and known. That, Jesus said, was the most important thing.
Perhaps the pandemic and the protests have given us an unexpected gift. Perhaps we can no longer ignore the river of sorrow swelling at our collective feet. Perhaps we are able to slow down long enough to wade into to one another’s stories and be baptized with their tears. If so, when we come up out of those waters, we may finally see where “pulling on the thread of grief gets us.” It gets us to the good and spacious land of gratitude and thanksgiving. We give thanks for the common ground beneath our tear-soaked feet. We are grateful that our shared grief has made the common ground holy. We thank Jesus that He invites us to walk with Him at the pace of being known.
Consider the pool of tears at your own feet. Take time to tell Jesus a story about that pool that you have not told Him in a while, or maybe ever. He has time to hear the whole story, if you have time to tell it.
After you have shared your story with the Lord, hear the words from the Father, first spoken to Moses and now spoken with compassion to you:
Not only has God seen and heard you, He is concerned about your suffering and acting on His concern. Read the words above again. Allow the Spirit to speak them to you, from deep within. Linger here for as long as it is helpful. Express any sense of gratitude you have to the Father.
On the Music and More page, there is a video that connects with this retreat, but also stands alone. Daniel Lai interviews John Smith, 23-year veteran on Young Life staff in Oakland, California. John shares about the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 and the loss of many kids over the years to violence and injustice. He shares insights he has learned about processing grief that have helped him remain grateful for his calling and his community, even in the midst of great loss.
Practice living at the pace of being known this week. Consider inviting someone with whom you seem to have little common ground to tell you their story. Consider inviting someone you know well to talk about their pool of tears. You may need to wade into those waters first before the other will be willing to follow. Practice being transparent with God and others about your own pain.
Before you begin engaging with words, take time to continue resting in the warm welcome of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Be reminded that God sees you as you are and welcomes you as His deeply-loved child. Words are not needed, but if it is helpful, you might simply say, “Lord, here I am.”
The questions below are offered to help facilitate our inner conversation with the Father. In that matter, however, we always defer to the Spirit’s leading. Notice which questions you are drawn to, and move towards them. As best you can, engage with the questions without judging yourself or raking yourself over any coals. Simply notice and name what stirs within you. Be mindful that you are sitting beneath the kind and compassionate gaze of our loving God.
Return to the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:5-8. He is offering us a soft cloth to polish the mirror of our prayer experience so that it might more accurately reflect the reality of who God is. What does your current experience of prayer reveal about your most deeply-held beliefs about God? Take some time to linger with this question.
Bring those beliefs to the Father. Hold them up in the light of His love. Ask Him for the grace to let go of whatever does not accurately reflect His image. Ask Him to begin to reveal to you the deeper reality of who He is. Have confidence that this is a prayer our Father is glad to respond to, although His response may be gentle and gradual, unfolding over time.
We invite you to take a few moments each day to enter into your inner room with God, take a few deep breaths and sit with Him in silence. If you need words, you might simply say, “Lord, Here I am.” Be assured: “He will rise up to show you compassion,” (Isaiah 30:18).
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