Eric McEuen’s sermon for The Land, March 26, 2022
(inspired by Hebrews 12:1-2)
I don’t know about you, or the people in your life, but it seems like everyone I know is carrying too much these days.
I’m not saying we choose to do this; I’m not even saying we have a choice. If we’re aware – if we’re paying attention – chances are we’re carrying too much, emotionally.
Some months ago, several of my friends were sharing a blog post on social media, with this title: “If you can’t take in anymore, there’s a reason.” (It was posted last August by Denver-area pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.) Its central idea is that our hearts and minds evolved to deal with a smaller, less interconnected world – a local community; a limited number of people and other animals – and that we’re literally not wired to take in the amount of news we take in today. Particularly all the bad news coming from places we may not be able to do anything about. And if we can’t carry any more than we’re already carrying – she says “It’s not an issue of values, it’s an issue of MATH.”
By January or so, I’d seen this post make the rounds of a couple of times. And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine.
More than ten years ago, I heard – from my pastor at the time – that he believed most people are about 30 seconds away from tears, if the right buttons are pushed.
And that was before the last 10 years – before the 2016 elections; before the COVID-19 pandemic; before any of this week’s news.
That was also before my dad died, in August 2013, which was a major turning point in my education about grief. I was in seminary then, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t finish. Specifically, I didn’t handle my grief well enough to keep good grades in my classes. But as a result, I ended up suddenly having to leave the school I was attending, the degree program I was in, and the community of people I had around me at that time. More to grieve.
Since then, I’ve become something of an advocate for being real about grief. It doesn’t work to suppress it, and it doesn’t help to try to give it rules or a timeline. One of my friends in ministry, mourning the death of her son, keeps using the hashtag #griefhasnorules.
Why am I talking about grief today? It’s partly because of the state of the world, and the ecological crisis, and the continuing endangerment of wildlife habitat that those of us doing the Lenten book study keep reading about.
It’s partly because of where The Land finds itself, knowing more development is coming soon around this property, perhaps already pre-mourning some of the changes to come, and some of the things we might lose.
It’s also just a feeling I have – that we’re seeing grief upon grief upon grief, when most of us are carrying too much. And it’s hard to deal with. Sometimes it just weighs us down, and we don’t know what to do with it.
Sam Sanders, comedian and NPR host, tweeted something back in 2016 that still makes me chuckle – and also helps me! – when I think about it:
“Whenever u think ur carrying the weight of the world on ur shoulders, stop, take a deep breath & remind urself–that’s not how gravity works”
I have a close friend who’s been active for years in work around education about climate change, and working on solutions, such as sharing resources in intentional communities. She’s begun speaking about the importance of doing grief work as we try to address the climate crisis. We need to get honest about realizing that the world we have now isn’t what many of us were told we could expect, and realizing it isn’t even the same world we remember from when we were younger. Because if we aren’t real about this, unprocessed grief tends to get in our way, leaves us feeling stuck and angry, and ultimately makes it harder for us to take the actions, and make the changes, that we need.
And it’s my opinion that I’m seeing unprocessed grief all around me as I drive around the Denver area – often showing up as rage.
So what can we do? First of all, I want to tell you that it’s normal and okay. Grief comes with loss, which comes with change, which comes with living. And grief shows that we’ve cared about something enough to care when it goes away.
Second, maybe the answer isn’t to “do” anything. We can sit with our losses, with our grief. We can let them be, and be real about them. And if we have busy lives, we can maybe carve out a few minutes here, a few minutes there.
Because grief is not morbid. Grief is love with no place to go.
When we open the channel, and let it flow, we give the love a place to go.
So I’m inviting us to be real about our grief, and about the senses of loss that many of us (all of us?) are carrying. And then, the beautiful thing is, we don’t have to stop there.
Because when we open the channel, and grief can flow freely, so can other feelings. When we aren’t suppressing our grief, we aren’t suppressing our joy. And our aliveness. And our ability to pay attention.
Glennon Doyle, a beloved author – who’s been called “everybody’s therapist” – tweeted back in 2015:
“Q: G, Why do you cry so often?
A: For the same reason I laugh so often. Because I’m paying attention.”
And Kahlil Gibran, in the wonderful book The Prophet (the best-selling book of the twentieth century, after the Bible), wrote in a passage about joy and sorrow:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
And in our Christian tradition, this is often the kind of work we’re invited to in Lent. Sometimes we give things up; sometimes we adopt new practices; sometimes we just live with a different kind of
awareness. But often there’s an intention of bringing us closer to God, and/or closer to the people we want to be, by letting go of some things that get in the way.
And for me, when I open the channel, gratitude can also show up. It gets easier for me to be thankful for what I have and where I am, and easier to feel a sense of connection and belonging. That includes connection to others, and to stories from the past. It turns out that we aren’t the first people to know struggle, to know loss, to wonder how we’ll keep going or get through the current crisis.
When I started this reflection, I had a different Scripture passage in mind. But, as I sat with that one, it became clear to me that it didn’t feel right for this moment. Too heavy, too much to take on, this week of all weeks. So, instead, I chose this short passage from the Book of Hebrews. It’s familiar to many of us, for good reason. I love how, in a short space, it combines at least three powerful images:
· we’re running a race on Earth, towards some goal;
· a cloud of witnesses (ancestors) who have run the race before, might be imagined to be in the stadium cheering us on (however we imagine it, there’s something there to feed our imagination);
· Jesus as an inspiration – the ultimate faith ancestor, you might say – as the first one who ran this race (as it were), letting the goal ahead – the joy in the future – be more important than the suffering on the way.
Now, I’m not saying we should glorify suffering. A lot of damage has been done by theologies that glorify suffering for its own sake. I’m saying something else – suffering is part of life, and having our eyes fixed on the a future hope rather than on obstacles can help us get there.
Also – while the image may be running a race – I want to say that’s a metaphor, an image for illustration. Not all of us can physically run. As for myself, I can, but I don’t like it. I’d much rather walk, hike, look around. And I think the purpose of the image is to suggest that, whatever direction we want to be going, we need to keep going. (I like thinking of this when I’m walking at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and at the edges of some gardens, there are these signs that say “Stay on path.”)
The scripture we heard Ross read begins the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. It comes right after a chapter that lists many heroes of faith from the Hebrew Bible–including Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, and more. The author says they had this in common: they lived by faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Some kind of hope that animated them, that kept them moving forward.
I want to expand this notion of ancestors or witnesses, I believe each person here has our own heroes of faith–those who’ve come before us and paved the way for us. (Maybe they didn’t know, in their lives, some of the joys we know in ours. Maybe they just pressed on in the hope and conviction that better things were possible.)
If they’ve passed on, we can grieve. We can also be inspired. And both can happen when we tell their stories.
I was reminded this week of one of my faith ancestors and inspirations – Dr. Vincent Harding. He was, by all accounts, a kind and gentle man, and also a fierce truth-teller. In the ‘60s, he was active in the Civil Rights movement, helping draft some of the speeches that were delivered by his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And toward the end of his life, he lived in Denver – where he taught at Iliff, and worked
on a project called Veterans of Hope, recording stories from the movement. I never met him, but I know many people influenced by him.
Dr. Harding was fond of saying “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” And from what I’ve heard about him, he did his best to live as if a better country – a better world – were already here. One in which everyone was equally welcomed and respected. One in which people’s lives, histories, and families matter. (They say he began every gathering by asking everyone present to give their own name, then their mother’s mother’s name.) And one in which gentle kindness and fierce truth-telling could live side-by-side.
As for each of us, when we feel stuck and hopeless, like our losses and our fear for the future are blocking the way too much, I think it’s good to be able to name that. And give it space. And I think that’s one of the values of spiritual community.
Sometimes the best thing for us to do is keep working, keep living, keep loving. Sometimes it’s all we can do to keep going, to keep getting by. And then sometimes, when we can, it’s good for us to stop and refuel. I believe that naming our griefs and our hopes, and telling stories, are things that can help us refuel. And when we do these things, we can drop some of the extra baggage that makes it harder to keep going, and ask ourselves – where do we want to arrive, and what do we want to take with us?