Grounded in Our Grief
“Grounded in Our Grief”
March 13, 2022 | FPC Auburn
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I’ve always found it a little frustrating that for those of us whose lives are intertwined with the academic calendar, the season of Lent is inevitably interrupted by Spring Break. We begin Lent reminded that this is supposed to be a reflective forty days leading up to Easter where we commit to practice that involves sacrifice and discipline in order to grow closer to God… and then it’s all put to the test with a week where we’re either traveling or scrambling for childcare or simply out of our regular routines.
Or perhaps you didn’t even know it was Spring Break this week but for a variety of other reasons just haven’t really settled into the spirit of the season.
Whatever the case may be, if you are now a couple weeks into Lent, and feeling as though you’re “doing it right” I promise you are not alone.
I have to wonder if Abram (more often known to us as Abraham) might not have been having some of these same feelings in today’s text. His life was most certainly grounded in covenant with God but at the same time, the actual experiences of his every day life were leading him to some difficult questions in his faith.
Just to recap:
Earlier in Genesis, after humankind repeatedly goes astray and disobeys and tries to take things into their own hands, God decides to take a new approach and chooses one specific family through which God will bless all other families. God chooses Abram and Sarai (who later become known to us as Abraham and Sarah.)
God reaches out to this faithful couple and says, “I will make if you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
And when they hear this repeated promise: “blessing”, Abraham and Sarah’s minds quickly begin to form some very specific ideas as to what “blessing” will look like:
Land and children.
Because in their day, that’s what everyone believed to be a sign of God’s favor. Land and children. If you possessed these two things it meant God’s favor was upon you. That you were doing something right. Grounded in a covenant with the Lord meant you had lots of crops and lots of kids (specifically, lots of sons.)
But as it so happens there comes a terrible famine in the land so Abraham and Sarah have to go to Egypt — the routine is interrupted — not exactly part of the plan. However, throughout it all God keeps repeating the promise, not just one but multiple times:
“I will give you and your offspring this land.” God says.
“I will make of you a great nation.”
Land and children.
Land and children.
So we get to our passage today and once again Abraham has this vision in which God says, “Never fear, Abram, your reward shall be very great”
But instead of replying with a compliant: “Yes, Lord, thank you Lord…”
Abraham finally works up the nerve and says:
“Hey, look, not that I’m not grateful for all these promises… but I’m not getting any younger and Sarah sure isn’t getting any younger and all along you’ve said ‘land’ and ‘children’ ‘land’ and ‘children’ and so far we have neither of these, so… what’s the deal?”
At this moment, it would be easy to question Abraham’s commitment to his faith.
Is he questioning God promises?
Is he doubting God’s plan for his life?
But instead of a complaint, another way of looking at Abraham’s response is as a lament.
“Lament” is a great word that’s fallen out of style in our everyday lingo perhaps because it’s not something we necessarily enjoy. It’s definition: “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow” is somewhat counter to our happiness-seeking, “best-life-now” culture. But the Bible is FULL of lament.
Scripture is filled with faithful people who passionately grieve.
We might not always recognize this as we’re sitting in our Sunday School classes or reading through our devotional books because grief is a tricky emotion. It doesn’t always present itself the way we think it ought to.
Ask someone to draw a picture of grief and they will likely make a sad face, add some tears and there it is: grief.
But grief often also presents as anger: frustration, jealousy, criticism, rage.
Or fear: anxiety, embarrassment, even confusion.
Or in the case of today’s story, Abraham’s grief presents in the form of questioning, challenging — “God what is happening? I don’t understand and this is upsetting.”
In a culture not all that different from our own that placed inordinate amounts of value on what a person possessed, land and children were the greatest signs of blessedness, nearness to God, a sign of God’s love and commitment.
So even though logically Abraham knew God was near, without the “children” piece of the status symbol, he and Sarah couldn’t help but feel as though they had been misled.
“All these years, Lord. You had led me to believe my life is going to look one way and I’m starting to lose hope that will ever happen.”
Of course we can relate to this.
Some of us understand the exact grief Abraham and Sarah felt of longing for children.
But there are other things too - markers not just of success but of “blessing” in our culture. Things we’ve come to believe that if we are doing the “right thing” the “faithful thing” we should have in our possession.
But very often these things don’t happen, either when we hope they will or sometimes even at all. And when we pause to reflect is often when our grief surfaces. Sometimes as tears, but also as resentment, regret, disappointment, and disillusionment.
And sadly, sometimes we (and others) can mistake grief for a lack of faith.
But here’s another way of looking at today’s exchange between God and Abraham:
By sharing his grief with God, Abraham is seeking a deeper relationship with his Creator.
Abraham makes himself vulnerable when he comes before God and says, “Why isn’t this happening the way I thought it would? I’m frustrated and sad and to be honest a little mad.”
And guess what? God doesn’t shame Abraham for his honesty.
In fact, I don’t think God has ever wanted followers who simply comply and blindly follow, never questioning or seeking to understand more deeply.
In fact, God seems to welcome Abraham’s struggles, coming alongside him in this moment to embrace the hurt and struggle.
Instead of saying, “How dare you question me, Abraham!” we see this beautiful tender moment where God patiently and gently leads Abraham outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God says to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
And, we are told, Abraham believed. He believed that even if he still didn’t really understand, that God still welcomed him in his doubt and would end up remaining faithful to him and Sarah.
When we love someone, we hope they will share the hard stuff with us. Often these are the moments that ground our relationships much more deeply than the fun and easy moments of life.
When we love someone, we know that when they make themselves vulnerable to us it is an act of trust — a holy moment.
If we think through all the various moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry revealed to us in the gospels, they aren’t stories of Jesus walking through a happy thriving town as people are nailing their spiritual practices and living in harmony with one another.
Instead, they are stories of Jesus entering into the hot mess that is humanity. It is Jesus embracing people who come to him at their worst, offering not their shiny best selves but their deepest hurts and greatest fears. And he welcomes them with extraordinary love and unending faithfulness.
When they bring him their grief is when they because grounded in the reality of his grace. And when they offer him their brokenness it is because they have come to believe Jesus might truly make a difference in their lives.
This past Friday Nick and I attended a Memorial Service for one of our colleagues in the presbytery, Rev. Tom Winter, who also happens to be the father of our former Associate Pastor Rachel Winter. Tom and his wife Patti met when they were students here at Auburn. I know some of you were there and others attended virtually.
It was a beautiful service, filled with grief and joy and hope all wound up together, but there was one particular moment that I asked the Winters if I could share and they graciously agreed.
Tom’s son Mark gave a thank you on the behalf of the family. It was a packed house — because you see over the years various members of the Winter family have served a long list of churches throughout the presbytery, sat with others in their struggles, been through countless Lenten seasons of reflection and lament and joy.
Mark shared that even though the family is grieving, he knew they were going to be OK. And he knew they were going to be OK because Tom had helped give them this life where they were surrounded by a community of faith that they know is there for them in all circumstances. And although he didn’t use these exact words, what I heard in his testimony is that Tom taught his kids - through words and actions - what it means to be members of the body of Christ.
It means that when we find ourselves grieving, there are people ready and willing to stand with us in the grief. They do things to try and make us feel better: bring food and give hugs and run errands. But they also sit in the moment with us, welcoming our struggles, guiding us gently and every once in awhile pointing us to the stars - the promises of hope that we have because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
All this is to say — if you have found this season of Lent to be a challenge. If your grief is bubbling up in ways that aren’t the most attractive. Sometimes the greatest spiritual practice we can undertake is to acknowledge the brokenness in our lives and share it freely with the God of Redemption and the community of faith that surrounds us.
To be grounded in grief doesn’t demonstrate a lack of faith. Especially when, in that grief, we find the courage to come before the God of Hope we know through Jesus Christ and pray like the Psalmist:
Lord, listen to my voice when I cry out—
have mercy on me and answer me!
Come, my heart says, seek God’s face.
Lord, I do seek your face!
Please don’t hide it from me!
Hope in the Lord!
Be strong! Let your heart take courage!
Hope in the Lord!