GOOD GRIEF: MOVING FROM SORROW TO JOY
(Sermon of The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, New York 11373 last November 8, 2015)
|Henri J.N. Nouwen's celebrated book highlights Jesus' ministry in the image of "The Wounded Healer."|
Good morning. Today I would like give a special sermon entitled “Good Grief: How to Move On from Sorrow to Joy.”
I would like to address this message to a friend who lost a son from accident and the pain and sorrow seem too hard to bear. I would like to address this message to an acquaintance who recently lost a child from a car accident. I would like to address this message to some of you who lost parents, who lost a job, who lost something precious. I would like to address this message to some of you who experienced a failing health or a broken relationship.
As your pastor and priest, I would like to address your concerns, hoping that the words from my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts will bring light to your darkness and become a healing balm to your aching souls. I have chosen this verse from Isaiah 61:3 which says “He gave me beauty for ashes, an oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”
This verse is part of the scroll from the Prophet Isaiah, which Jesus Himself read in Luke 4:“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn,3 To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
As human beings, we are made by God to somehow bear pain and sorrow and even tragedy. However when sorrow is overwhelming, we are sometimes shocked, anesthetized and traumatized. Oftentimes, grief may linger for a few days but sometimes due to the severity of pain and sorrow, the feeling of grief may linger for weeks or months---and became abnormal or neurotic grief. When this happens, we need to extricate ourselves from the bondage of grief and sorrow. We need to wrestle openly and honestly to the grim reality of our loss and get out of the stranglehold of depression. We need to resist being sucked into the hole of existential darkness and move on to the grieving process that leads to light. Then coming out of grief, we put on the garment of praise and become stronger, deeper and better able to help others in their pains.
There are three steps from sorrow to joy.
1. CRY: The first thing you have to do when you lose something or someone precious is to cry. Yes, cry! Cry and cry and cry until tears wash away your pain, your guilt, your grief.
You know what children do when they lost a game? They cry, they cry and cry until the pain is gone. Then they move on and play again.
As children of God, we are gifted with tear glands and they are there to be used when we need them. And in grief, the tear glands are there are water faucets to be used in washing away our sorrow and pain, our guilt, our shame, our grief---especially when our grief is overwhelming.
In many of our societies, it is very difficult for men to cry and express their emotions because we have been taught as children that boys don’t cry. My father was a soldier during the Second World War and maybe in their military training, they were made tough and strong and to treat crying as a sign of weakness. And so he taught us not to cry. When my brothers and I would come home crying after a fist fight with neighboring kids, he would belt us up until we stop crying. Yet for my sisters, it was okay to cry. We got the impression that crying was for babies, for “sissies” and for girls.
And so when my father died, I shed no tears, but deep within me, my heart was bursting! I repressed my emotions as some sort of respect for him but I know deep in my soul, it was not right! From then on, I felt a depressive spirit within me that gnawed my soul. I appeared happy on the outside, I laughed on every happy occasion but later on that depressive spirit would hang down on me like a black drape to suppress and repress my joy.
My deliverance from this depressive spirit happened when I meditated on the Scripture about the humanity of Jesus. There is a verse in the Bible, which is considered the shortest verse. And that scripture is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus wept when he was informed that Lazarus, his friend, was dead. In this instance, the image of Jesus is not a superman who is invulnerable from sorrow and pain. He is not even pictured as a man who controls his emotion and struggles to be strong and immovable. In this image, he is fully human,
That ”Jesus wept” is an image of a normal man, an authentic man, a man who can be overwhelmed by sorrow and pain---and because of that He can also minister to those who are overwhelmed by their own sorrows and pains. The bible further says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his stripes we are healed.”
That crying like Jesus became my own model when I visited patients in hospitals. At St. Luke’s Hospital in Manila, I ministered to a cancer patient, the first time I came across the reality of this dreadful disease. The hospitalization took too long with various surgeries, chemotherapy, cobalt radiation until she became terminally ill. It took a toll on the family’s finances, the health of her husband and the pitiful struggle of their daughter. One day, as I was praying for her as she agonized in pain, tears just welled down from my cheeks. She and the family were a bit surprised, as if that was the first time they saw a priest crying. But the patient smiled and said that the pain had miraculously disappeared. She eventually went home and died peacefully. The bereaved family moved on with their lives, but the image of Jesus weeping would remain to me, to be the very heart of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus wept!
So when necessary, cry. Cry, Cry! It is human to cry. It is good to cry. It is Christ-like to cry. Cry away your grief and sorrow. Like Jesus, express your emotion, your love, your compassion and remove the dross and impurities that clog your heart, the lump that clog your throat. Cry until your tears wash away the darkness that covers your mind; cry until your tears wash away guilt and shame. "So foul a sky clears not without a storm," wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Let your crying storm out the clouds from your soul until the sun rises up and breaks open a new day.
2. HOPE: The second step to move on from sorrow to joy is to hope.
As human beings, we are created with built in mechanism to bear pain, sorrow and loss. In fact, within our body are built-in systems that can bring healing without outside intervention. For instance, if you cut your skin, all you have to do is clean it up, bondage it to prevent infection, and the broken skin would close up and heal itself.
But there are times when wounds are deep and we need surgery and antibiotics. It is the same with sorrow and loss. There are times when sorrows are too overwhelming that we go into shock, panic, depression and mental break down. It is at this point that we need to remember that there is hope.
Hope springs eternal within us but extreme pain and sorrow suppress it. Recently in South Korea, we visited Jeju Island and one of the things that fascinated me are the underground springs. Some of these fresh water springs burst out from the sea. Hope is like a fresh fountain that wells within us and we can allow it to spring forth even when we are experiencing a salty feeling on the surface.
There is a scripture in 1st Thessalonians 4:13 which says, “Grieve not as those who have no hope.” The proper way of reading it is not “Grieve not” but “Grieve, grieve! But not as those who have no hope.” Grieving is as natural as breathing. Every person has and will experience griefs. There are minor grief and major grief. But there is also such thing as normal grieving and neurotic grieving. Normal grieving is to grieve with hope; neurotic grieving is to grieve as there is no hope.
One of the ways to understand hope is to understand who you are. You know that I travel a lot due to my job as Asiamerica missioner in the Episcopal Church and every time I am on the plane some 35,000 feet above the earth, I am always conscious that when I am up there, I am no longer Fred Vergara but I am an SOB---a “Soul On Board.” The thought that I am a soul enables me to overcome my fear of flying and erases my fear of heights. That is why I can sleep soundly and even snore in the plane ---to the envy of my wife who can hardly sleep (either from worry or hearing my snore) ---while on the plane!
St. Teresa De Avila, the great mystical writer wrote that “we are not material beings with spirits but we are spiritual beings with bodies.” In other words, we are like aliens in this world, immortal souls inhabiting temporal and mortal bodies. Nowadays politicians are talking about illegal immigration. We are all immigrants in this world. Our mortal bodies are passing like undocumented immigrants crossing the borders of Mexico.
One of the striking phrases in the Bible is “and it came to pass.” Yes, everything must come to pass. This gnawing feeling inside must come to pass. This pain, this sorrow, this grief will come to pass. They will come to pass because they are temporary. The Bible says, “All flesh are like grass and like flowers in the fields. The grass withers, the flowers fall. Only God remains forever.”
So I look to the hills from whence my help comes? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Lord is my light and my salvation. I put all my hope in you my God.
Yes, hope. Hope! To paraphrase John Wesley: “If you lose money, you lose nothing; if you lose health, you lose something; if you lose a loved one, you lost a great thing. But if you lose hope, you lose everything.” So don’t lose hope. Eventually, all shall be well.
3. PRAISE: The third and final step to move on from sorrow to joy is to praise. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below!
One of the greatest persons of praise was Job. Job was a righteous man. He always do the will of God. He loved God with all his heart, his soul, his mind. He loved his neighbor as himself. The bible says there’s no one as righteous and as obedient a servant of God as Job. God was so pleased with Job and bestowed upon him blessings after blessings: seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheeps, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys and many servants.
But one day, in some strange twist of faith, Satan and God had a conversation that led to Job’s destruction. Satan claimed that Job’s righteousness and godly obedience was due to God’s blessings. And so if God removes those blessings, it would likely mean that Job would become like any other man. He would be just as bad and evil. God agreed that Job would be tested and said to Satan, “Do anything you wish but just spare his life.”
So the reversal of Job’s fortune happened. Overnight, he lost his family, he lost his possessions, and then he was sick with boils all over his body. The physical pain, the emotional sorrow, the spiritual trauma, you name it, Job had suffered every one of them. But what did Job do? Job cried out, tore his robe, shaved his head and said, “Naked I came out from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Praise be the name of the Lord.”
We’ll I am not anything close to Job. My righteousness from the start is like filthy rags. I am a wretched sinner in Christ’s redeeming. But I too had shares of grief as Job had. At age 7, I lost my grandpa who brought me up; then I lost a childhood friend from a drowning accident right before my eyes. I lost my Dad while I was in Singapore; and while in New York, I lost my Mom and my two sisters to cancer in just a span of two years. Then I was sick with cancer myself. At that moment, I have a taste of Job’s agony. And some of you, or all of us, for better or worse have some shares of pain and agony.
The story of Job did not end in tragedy. It ended into a restoration of joy with blessings double what he had before. As for me, the loss of my parents and sisters, are restored because as a priest in this and many other churches I served, I have many fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. Like Jesus, every Christian who has overcome grief has the opportunity to be a "wounded healer" and everyone who suffers and grieves can always look to the One who was acquainted with grief, who bore our sorrows and pains, and the One from whose stripes we are healed.