Let us be People of Hope even as we grieve

3/25/2021

By Paul Black
IGRC Director of Communication Ministries
 
As part of my devotional journey during Lent, I took a 10-day side trip reading Presbyterian pastor Granger Westberg’s Good Grief.
 
As many of you know, 2020 has been a year filled with loss for my family. In August, my mother passed away at the age of 95. And then, on Feb. 5, my brother died ending a 4 ½ year journey of caregiving for me and the family after he suffered two strokes in August 2016.
 
On my ninth day of this side trip, I opened the book on what would have been my father’s 96th birthday (March 19).
 
I thought back to the day of his birth — March 19, 1925 — which was the day after the Tri-State Tornado hit southeastern Missouri and Southern Illinois, leaving 695 dead. The tornado was a confluence of 12 individual storm systems, packing a punch of more than 150 mph winds for more than 200 miles. It was the deadliest tornado in U.S. history and the second deadliest worldwide.
 
A little farther north, in Tonti Township of Marion County, Nellie Black delivered the first of seven children and my father was a big baby at 10 pounds!
 
There are a lot of similarities between the journey of grief and childbirth. Both can be a struggle and one may even feel at times, the pain is just too much. But then when the child is born, the hope comes with new life and new possibilities. And Southern Illinois rebuilt and moved on after the tornado.
 
I do know that as I was grieving my father’s death came the joy of my grandson Jude’s birth six months later. And six months after Mom’s death and two days after Phil’s passing, little James entered our world looking to his parents and grandparents for love and care.
 
Rabbi Joshua Liebman writes in his book Peace of Mind a chapter entitled “Grief’s Slow Wisdom.”
Says Liebman: “The melody that the loved one played upon the piano of your life will never be played quite that way again, but we must not close the keyboard and allow the instrument to gather dust. We must seek out other artists of the spirit, new friends who gradually will help us to find the road to life again, who will walk the road with us.”
 
As we wrestle with a global pandemic and a meltdown within The United Methodist Church brought on by the postponement of General Conference until 2022, we see the signs of a hyper-anxious system at work on both fronts.
 
No longer are people being patient, levels of discussion on social media have been provocative and the level of politeness has diminished. The topics are now focusing on how to divide up and we see open recruitment of congregations and even annual conferences to leave the denomination to an “in your face” evangelistic fervor to convert those who are leaving as well as rallying support from those left behind.
 
Authority is questioned from both ends of the spectrum whether it is reopening the church, the election of bishops or whether certain legislation should be fast tracked so some can get on with leaving.
 
The current environment especially hits the moderate part of the church which comprises the majority of United Methodists where they have strong connections to persons who are both on the right and the left. They grieve twice.
 
Both camps are grieving. Here’s Westberg’s phases of grief – see if you can figure out where we are.

  • We are in a state of shock. Whatever the loss, the biggest hurdle is accepting it emotionally.
  • We express emotion. To repress emotion makes us less of a person.
  • We feel depressed and lonely. Something comes between a person and others. We somehow think God does not care.
  • We experience physical symptoms of distress. In fact, many of the problems we face as a church today may be over previous unresolved issues of grief (whether the 1968 merger between the Methodists and the Evangelical United Brethren, or the 1996 merger between the former Central and Southern Illinois conferences where things were different and some felt loss). Left unresolved, the distress eventually consumes us.
  • We may become panicky. We are unable to concentrate on the normal tasks. We are consumed with the loss and how to deal with it.
  • We may feel guilt about the loss. Westberg notes a difference between “normal guilt” and “neurotic guilt” that is not based in reality. It is important to face both.
  • We may feel anger and resentment. Humanity always is looking for someone to blame. We spare no one in our systematic scrutiny of things and provide a narrative as to what went wrong and who was to blame.
  • We resist returning. As we move through guilt, there is a paradox in that we want things to “return to normal,” and yet the normal we knew is not today’s normal. In fact, we can become so comfortable in our grief that it is preferable to the new unpredictable world.
  • Gradually hope comes through. We are never quite sure how long grief will last and eventually, other experiences of life bring new meaning to us.
  • We struggle to affirm reality. What often emerges through the process is a deeper faith in God.
 
As resurrection people, we are reminded how grief turned into a new reality for the disciples and the world was never the same! Yet, through that time, there were all of these stages. As pandemic people, as United Methodists and yes, ever as members of our family, we all encounter these things. Let us be, above all else, a People of Hope.
 
When grieving comes, people who have a mature faith give witness to an uncommon relationship with God. Because this relationship cannot be taken away from them.
 
(Paul Black is the Director of Communication Ministries for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference and the editor of The Current, the conference’s monthly publication)