Time for another installment of “True Confessions” with your pastor.
Some of you may remember this one, though I certainly wouldn’t expect it. The way this story goes is that I started in this pulpit midway through Lent two and a half years ago, and then, about two weeks after my ordination, on Good Friday 2013, I got the news that my grandfather had passed away.
It wasn’t surprising. It wasn’t tragic; I am soundly of the opinion that there’s nothing tragic about the loss of of an old man who has lived life to the fullest. But still. Our family was in grief. My mother was in grief. I was in grief. All these old memories from childhood came flooding back, when he seemed larger than life itself, so yeah, I was in grief. But it was Easter weekend, and my job was to come into this pulpit and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ triumphant even over the grave. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of room for grief in my role on Easter Sunday.
And so I left it at home, and I came here, and I didn’t say anything. I just did my job.
After church I pulled aside a couple of elders just to let them know what had happened, and to say that I would be heading out of town to be with family. And then later that week I was on the phone with an elder in this church who told me in no uncertain terms: you know, I understand why you felt like you needed to leave your grief at home. But you don’t have to. We want to get to know you, all of you, not just the face you put on on Sunday morning. And this elder didn’t have to say the rest of it. It was pretty well implied. You know, you’re not the only one who brings grief to church. Even on Easter Sunday. I mean, especially on Easter Sunday.
And most days I’m pretty sure that particular elder is right. I know the next week I came back and asked for prayers in my grandfather’s memory as openly and honestly as I could. But still. The call of the preacher on Easter Sunday morning is to show up and tell the good news of great joy. So what do you do when grief leaves you completely at odds with the thing God calls you to do?
It’s precisely the corner in which David finds himself in today’s moment of his ongoing biography. We’re not quite done with David yet, but today concludes this prolonged story of betrayal and civil war between him and his son Absalom. I won’t fill in all the details between where we left off and where we’ve arrived; suffice to say that David’s armies have defeated Absalom on the battlefield, and Absalom himself has been killed despite David’s explicit instructions to the contrary. He told Joab not to do it, and Joab did it anyway. No room for clemency with treason on the line, apparently. So David finds out these twin pieces of news — one, that his armies have been victorious, and two, that his son is dead, and the latter report sends him into one of the most naked expressions of grief anywhere in scripture. He hides in the palace, and throughout the city they can hear him cry ”O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!
No matter what you may think of David by this time in his story, it’s hard not to empathize with him in this particular moment. He is never more human. He is never more vulnerable. He is never more exposed. Even when they were enemies there was always something special about David and Absalom and now his son is gone and he is broken. But the real problem is that he’s not supposed to be grieving at all! His armies have won! The nation is restored! The people who have followed David through thick and thin are trying to celebrate in the streets! They’re trying to pick up the pieces of this country that has fallen apart yet again! And meanwhile David is cowering in the tower and they can hear him crying “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son,” and if I’m in their shoes I’m thinking wait, Absalom? You mean the traitorous scum who got us in this mess in the first place? The guy whose armies are responsible for all the new graves we just had to dig? Our king is mourning that guy? I know he wants his son back. But I kinda want my king back, too.
So what do you do when grief leaves you completely at odds with the thing God calls you to do?
In David’s case, Joab shows up to talk some sense. Not without irony, of course, since Joab’s the one who killed Absalom in the first place, but leave that behind. Joab shows up because he’s the only one left who can tell David the truth. Your grief brings shame on all of us. We fought to save you and you mourn him instead. And then the killer line, his words exactly, “I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” Who’s to say whether he’s right. Who’s to say what David would choose; he’s not an uncomplicated man, and it’s not like he doesn’t like being king. But the point is, he’s still the King. You have to go be the King. “Go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” Which is saying something. I know you’re in grief. I know it hurts. But you have to do your job. The job God called you to do. The job these people called you to do. The job these people fought so that you could do. You have to go do your job. You have to get up off the couch. You have to get up in the morning. You have to dust off your feet and comb your hair. You have to get out of the house. I know you miss your son. You still have to go do your job.
Of course it’s not like David ever completely leaves his grief behind. It’s not like any of us ever completely leave our grief behind, even when we do dust off our feet and get up off the couch and go back out into the world. This week the magazine GQ published a remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian about to take over The Late Show from the retired David Letterman. Colbert is not someone particularly prone to letting reporters into his inner emotional life and frankly I don’t think his fans very often want to go there. He’s a performer and we expect him to show up with his mask securely fastened over his face, and the pressure of doing that day after day and the night after night must just be completely exhausting. What makes the interview remarkable then is his total candor about the grief that he himself carries. Colbert is the youngest of eleven children, and when he was ten years old two of his brothers, the ones closest to him in age, and his father, were all killed in a single plane crash. The family, of course, was devastated. You don’t just get to let that kind of thing go. It burrows down. It sits at the very core of who you are.
It made the young Stephen Colbert into a very serious man. He fell into the theatre. He wanted to do drama: “I wanted to share my pain with everyone around me,” he says. But then Colbert discovered improv comedy, and it changed everything. He was drawn to it for reasons beyond his understanding, but it worked. He joined up with the legendary Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, and on his first night as a professional improv comic the director told him this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.” You have to learn to love when you’re just failing on stage. As Colbert explains it, it’s not because you’re going to learn something; not because you’ll “get it next time.” You learn to love the bomb, you learn to love the suffering of it, because then you don’t have anything else to be afraid of. I’m failing, but it can’t kill me. I’m bombing, but it can’t kill me. I’m still in grief, but it can’t kill me. Even the tragedy in his own family. Colbert says, even that, “Boy, did I have a bomb. Quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
It doesn’t make the grief go away. It’s not supposed to. It just means that grief sits maybe little closer to gratitude than we usually give it credit for. It just means that grief and gratitude maybe are two sides of the same coin — we learn love the things that we most wish had not happened. We learn to love the bomb.
And maybe this sounds crazy but I submit that in fact this connection between grief and gratitude sits at the very heart of the Christian story. As moments of pure unrefined grief go, the only Biblical match for David’s cry over Absalom is of course the cry of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross — Father, Father, why have you forsaken me? Just a few moments later Mark tells us that Jesus gave another loud cry and breathed his last. Mark paints Jesus’s death in unflinchingly tragic terms, almost as if he knows that we will so quickly jump to the “good” parts of Good Friday: it hurts. He cries out. There’s grief here, and pain, and trauma. There should be, for a body unjustly strung up on the cross. But of course there’s good, too. We know what that sacrifice means, that God so loved us. That God gave his only son. Even in the tragedy of it there’s something worth being thankful for. Which means I think we know quite a bit about loving the thing that we most wish had not happened.
And then, of course, Jesus gets right back up and goes back to work.
It doesn’t erase the grief and trauma of his own death. Those cries echo well into the pages that follow. But still, even with the grief, even with the pain, even with the agony of it, Jesus gets right back up and goes back to work. That grief’s not going to kill him. That bomb’s not going to kill him. Not even that death is going to kill him. This story of grief and gratitude together feels just a little strange but of course it is the story at the very center of what we believe, of God who suffered and died, for us, of God whom we crucified and to whom we give our thanks, of God who rose again and went right back to work for us, that not even the shadow of death itself can separate us from the love of God, and from the call of God. It turns out that God needs grieving disciples. God also needs thankful, gracious disciples. God needs disciples who can do both at the same time.
Especially in the church, God needs disciples who can have grief and gratitude at the same time. In 2015 it seems like grief cuts to the very core of who the church is: we are told every day that the church is losing its relevance, is losing its authority. We are confronted by the ghosts of people who used to be here and the grief of what has seemingly been lost. In 2015 it seems impossible to go to a Presbytery meeting or read the news of the church world without hearing dire warnings of the end of days, membership decline, denominational decline, church closings, scandals, budget lines running on empty, all echoes of David, locked in his tower, grieving over his lost child: “Oh, my church, O my church, my church, my church.”
But of course grief is nothing new for the body of Christ. Grief is nothing new for those first called together in the shadow of the cross. And just as for David, who rose up, stood up, carried his grief with him into the work God had set before him, and just as for Jesus himself, who rose up, stood up, carried his grief with him into the work God had set before him, so too, the church, this church, every church, the task for our time is not simply allowing ourselves the space to grieve what we have lost, as though we could possibly avoid it. The real task for our time is to rise up. To stand up. To carry our grief with us into the work God has set before us.
And we know what the work is. David knows what his job is, and he will be a better king for the grief he now carries with him. Jesus knows what his job is, and in fact central to what we believe is that he now knows the grief and suffering we all carry with us.
We know what the work is. We know we are called to do justice and love kindness, to walk humbly with God, and we can stay in the corner lost in our grief or we can get out and do this good work that God calls us to do.
We know what the work is. We know we are called to love our neighbor and teach our children and honor our brothers and sisters of every time and place, and we can stand around commiserating about all the things we’ve lost or we can get out and do this good work that God calls us to do.
We know what the work is. We know we are called to put our trust in the one who rose triumphant even over the grave, and we can stand here in the cemetery, waiting for him to come back, or we can stand up. Rise up. And follow him into the world.
And not even just on Easter Sunday.