Father Dan on Grieving

Father Dan delivered this homily on Palm Sunday, March 23, 2009, the week after Bishop Richard Lennon announced the closing of his churches, St. Cecilia and Epiphany.


I think as we watch Jesus struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and grieving is necessary in order to move forward.

maxresdefaultThe whole process of life is trying to get our minds and hearts and bodies in touch with what we know and feel. It’s trying to get what we can’t see in touch with what we can see. But this won’t happen just because we want it to. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a whole process that we have to go through—even Jesus himself had to go through—in this struggle that we call grieving, recognizing that in each moment of life something has died, something stays the same, and something is new. There’s this constant change going on. And each passing thing, good or bad, has to be reckoned with—that it was here, and now it’s not here. The child that was me is not here. He’s turned into the teenager that’s me. The teenager that’s me will turn into the young adult that’s me. Each stage of life passes on, and each stage needs to be recognized for what it is. Each dream needs its own time to call us forward.

As Jesus came into Jerusalem, he was not anxious to get there, because he knew when he got to Jerusalem, people were waiting to kill him. The apostles knew it, too, and didn’t understand why he wanted to go there in the first place. But then he got a message. The friends he hung out with in Bethany, where he used to kick up his heels, a nice place where he could get away from the crowds with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sent word: Lazarus is sick. He needs you. Your friend needs you now.

And he didn’t go. I don’t know why he didn’t go. He didn’t go. That upset them, as we hear later on in the reading, but he didn’t go then. Two days later, Lazarus was already dead.

And then he went, and he came into Jerusalem, and there was all the triumph, and he said, “Unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the earth it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” He said this, and he knew it: part of him and his life and his message was about dying. This is what he said to his disciples over and over. He made three clear predictions in John. I am going to die. I am going to be lifted up. I am going to chase out the ruler of this world, and I am going to build a new world. They didn’t understand, and even he didn’t understand fully. He just said the words.

And finally when he got close to Jerusalem, what did he do? He wept. This wasn’t just a few tears. This was really weeping. He looked at Jerusalem and said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I would have gathered you together like a mother hen gathers little chicks! But you stoned all those who came to you. Every solution I had you threw away.” And he mourned the loss of Jerusalem and mourned the death of his friend Lazarus.

Grief doesn’t come with just one thing to hurt about. It’s cumulative. It keeps building up. When it rains it pours. You lose somebody who’s significant in your family, and all of a sudden you lose your job. And then someone steals your car. It goes on and on.  We all have that experience over and over and over again.

We see Jesus going through the grieving experience. When he got close to Bethany, Martha, in her typical way, came running up to him like a child and said, “Lord, why didn’t you come? If you would have come, I know you could have done something.” She still had so much faith. She could still say the words: “I know he‘s going to raise up on the last day.” We see her whole struggle there. Jesus assured her, “Martha, put your trust in God. It will be okay. What is needed is trust, not fear.”

But both sisters were mad because he didn’t come. Mary hung back, seeming to say, “I ain’t getting up off my chair for him! He can come to me.” And he came to Mary and got into the same conversation. He told her that he is the life and the resurrection and that even if someone should die,  our life is life everlasting. So when he came to Mary and saw she was upset with him, he accepted her struggle, but he knew he wasn’t going to do things their way. They had a plan. They had a vision, and they had a confidence that was now was shaken, and in that moment they had nothing left to stand on.

Then Jesus said, “Where is he buried?” He went to the tomb, and what did he do? Once again he wept–wept uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus. All the people were saying, “What gives? Why is he crying? Surely he could have done something if he wanted to. What is wrong with him?” What was happening was that catching-up process. His flesh, his body, his human self was catching up with the divine message, a divine message of hope. That does not happen easily or quickly or the same in anybody’s life. It happens over and over in different ways for different people.

There’s a church in the Holy Land right above Jerusalem called Dominus Flevit, which means “The Lord wept.” They have a whole church built to say that Jesus wept. He wept several times. He wept in the Garden: “If it’s possible, take this cup away from me!” It was hard for him to deal with all the loss. All the losses–big and little. Sometimes you can have five big losses, and your pet canary will die and it will throw you over the edge. It just keeps building and building inside. I think we often don’t know what to do with grief.

We see what Jesus does: he calls everyone to a belief. He calls himself to believe. He calls himself to believe in the power to bring Lazarus forth from the tomb. He says, “Roll back the stone.” In the seminary, when we used to read the Scriptures in Latin, we’d read this expression, “Iam, iam fetet.” That’s what Martha said when Jesus asked to open the tomb. It means, “Surely he stinketh.” (Or, “she stinketh,” or “it stinketh.”) Well, we found that was a very useful phrase for a lot of life. “Iam, iam fetet!”  It became our mantra when a whole lot of bad things would happen, one after the other.

Martha, saying, “Iam, iam fetet,” was still stuck in her old way of thinking. She was saying, “It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be the way that we want it. It’s not going to be something we want to deal with.”

But Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.”

And we see Lazarus coming out. And Jesus said, “Untie him.” For a moment, just for a moment, they could celebrate that the power to bring life to those who were dead was in their midst, that Jesus was who he said he was. For a moment, they could see that there truly was something more to life.

But what you see doesn’t necessarily change your heart. Very soon, they had to deal with the crucifixion! Probably by the time of the crucifixion, Lazarus was dead all over again. Jesus had to mourn his apostles going different directions, as the Zealots were going one way and Judas another. He had to mourn all the people who hated him and wanted him dead. All of these things just kept piling on and piling on and piling on.

I think as we watch him struggle, it affirms in us that grieving is natural and necessary in order to move forward. Tears or rage or whatever it is–we need to share it. But there are some parameters. I don’t deal with grief a lot in our community, and I have been made aware that I can be a real pain in the butt when other people are trying to grieve. I can be so positive, and I can be so far ahead that I can’t deal with the reality of the present, and I know that.

I also know that over the last thirty years, especially, I have developed a terrible, terrible fear of grieving. I’ll tell you what my fear is. Grief should not make us change everything in our life and our way of thinking. We ought not to change what we know about  who we are and whose we are, regardless whether it’s easy, regardless of how angry we are with God. Whatever happens, we still know God is there. And we still know who we are, as people called in his name. I think that is so important.

What scares me is something I have watched over and over and over. A young man grieving the end of a relationship with his girlfriend went to her house and shot himself with a rifle and blew off his head. A young man who was having struggles with his family and lost his job hanged himself. I’ve known people to run their cars off the road, or punch their fists into walls so they damaged their hands permanently, or walk away from their jobs because things were so horrible. They complicate the lives of their family. I have seen grief act in these ways, because of the emotions of anger and depression, and so that makes me afraid.

And at the same time I’m afraid, I also know we need to call each other to a healthy grieving like Jesus, a grieving that catches up our body with our mind. I can tell you something about my own grieving process, something I haven’t developed easily. It’s been over the long haul. I can tell you that the way I am today is purely, absolutely purely, thanks to the elders of the African-American community, who showed me how to deal with the grieving that they went through in their lives.

One of the things they taught me is to repeat certain mantras no matter how bad you feel. Many of those mantras are songs, like “Blessed Assurance” and “Yes, God Is Real.” Many of those mantras are things like Harry Robinson used to tell me, from my very first day in this church: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” And he would keep saying that to himself. Even in the nursing home, as his mind is fading, it doesn’t matter. He still says, “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

They used mantras. They got together, and they sang and they prayed about who they were, and that carried them through. In that singing, in that praying, which came with weeping, which came with all kinds of different emotions for different kinds of people, as they came together, sometimes in the midst of the pain, as with Lazarus, there were glimpses of hope, glimpses of a vision of where we can go from here.

You know, I often shed tears when I’m talking. That’s happened to me a couple times at funerals this week, and it will happen over and over again. It will happen in all kinds of strange places. But the tears help me by reminding me to take time to grieve. If I can clear out one grief, at least for a moment, then I can move on to the next one, and one thing that helps me a lot is music. I’ll take songs like “The Way We Were,” the songs from Fiddler on the Roof, along with so many of the spirituals, like “Come Ye Disconsolate” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” so many of the spiritual songs, as well as songs that really bring up memories. That’s another one, “Memories.” I’ve been playing that a lot lately.

Anyhow, I’ll play a song until I can’t play it any more. Because I start crying, and that’s okay. And I try to let the loss sink into my life–what it means and what is lost. I try also to remember and to treasure what has been lost as a story that is finished. Every time a story is finished in my life, I try to look back and write that story, sometimes just for myself. Look at the story as it’s finished, and it can bring up whatever emotions it brings up.

There are times where I am overwhelmed and so unmotivated to answer the phone, to answer the door, to do any of the things I’m supposed to do. In those times, then I have to look to Jesus, and again I have to remember who I am and whose I am. Then I say, “There is a person out there at South Pointe or at Charity or at University Hospital that is dying. Waiting for somebody. And I can sit here in a snit or I can make a difference.” And so I ask him to use my sufferings, to let me take up that Cross and push me forward where I don’t even feel like going, and I go, and he’s always there.

Those are just a few thoughts today, as we move into Passion Week. The things that we’ve lost, the people that we’ve lost, the youth that some of us have lost, the figures we’ve lost…all of those, everything! It’s all important, what we lose along the way! But if we can find a way, then let our spirits speak, share the loss with one another, and take what we’ve lost, look at it, and keep it as a story, because it exists forever. Tell the story. Share the story, and maybe somewhere  in the midst of the sharing of the story, maybe somewhere in the midst of our tears, a smile comes out, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we know that, yes, our God is real.

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9 Responses to Father Dan on Grieving

  1. Pingback: Kathy Ewing › Welcoming the Stranger

  2. Kathy says:

    Thanks very much for your Izaac-Walton-like reply. It was very moving to me. Father Dan’s whole life was a sermon, and he would have agreed with my saying that. He thought all Christians’ lives should be sermons. I always noted that what he said and what he did were almost perfectly consistent. So I could listen to his sermons and think, “Oh, I get it. That’s exactly what you actually do!” So when he talked about welcoming the stranger, for example, I could think of a dozen examples: the welcome we white interlopers got when we swooped down on St. Cecilia, the number of African and other foreign priests he would befriend and have stay at the rectory, the neighborhood children he raised in the St. Cecilia rectory, his insistence that Narcotics Anonymous be allowed to meet in our church basement, and so on.

  3. Kathy,
    Asking me to “say some more” about preaching is like asking Izaac Walton to say more about fishing. Preaching was my obsession as well as my profession for 45 years.

    Philips Brooks defined preaching as “Truth through personality” because, for some reason, the Christian gospel is conveyed not through a book, although we constantly refer to the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures; nor through an institution, although a Christian faith that doesn’t form community is an oxymoron; the Christian faith seems to be conveyed by one fallible human being testifying to others about his or her faith. So, the truth of the gospel gets transmitted through human personalities.

    It appears to me that the truth of the gospel must have shaped Fr. Dan’s personality in ways that people could see, as he preached, that what he was saying about hope and faith was true for him and therefore, could be true for the listener as well.

    In this particular sermon, for example, I have no doubt that, on that particular Sunday morning, he must have been feeling the way he describes when he says he doesn’t want to answer the door or the phone, or get out of bed. Yet there he is, standing in the pulpit. His presence testifying to the power of the prayer he says that he says when he has to get up and go to a hospital to administer the Last Rites.

    Another thing about preaching, good preaching like Father Dan’s, is that it is contextual and that context has to do with holding a community together. It is one aspect of a larger role – pastor.

    This is an odd thing about Christianity and makes us different from our close cousin, Judaism. My daughter-in-law and her father are both rabbis. A person can be a rabbi without a congregation, because “Rabbi” means “teacher”, and a congregation can exist without a rabbi. The primary role of the rabbi is to study the scripture and interpret it to others so that they may live ethically and perform rituals faithfully as servants of God. As congregational rabbis, my daughter-in-law and her father have performed roles similar to Christian pastors in many ways and have done much of what I describe below, but would not consider it to be the primary or ultimate expression of their ordinations.

    Although a priest can be a priest without a congregation, he is not a pastor without a congregation and congregations do not exist for long without a formal or informal pastor who shoulders responsibilities for the organizational and emotional/spiritual life of the congregation. You can see this in the construction of this particular sermon.

    Ostensibly, Fr. Dan is focused on his text in John 11 and he is scholarly enough to give us a way to say “shit happens” in Latin. I suspect that was new to all but one of his congregants that morning.

    But that wasn’t the point of his sermon, because underneath he was focused on what his congregation was experiencing that particular Palm Sunday morning.

    Someone outlining this sermon would have a heckuva time trying to figure out if he was being inductive or deductive. They would look in vain for a thesis sentence much less follow an argument to a conclusion. He conflates gospel texts. He jumps from one thing to another and then circles back. It fails as an essay or as a lecture.

    It succeeds as a sermon.

    That’s because he is preaching less from his head to the heads of his congregants than from his heart to their hearts, knowing that Pascal was right: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

    He is doing this in the most difficult of all circumstances. He is talking to people who, when their loved ones died or walked out on them, when they lost their jobs, when they lost their faith, or failed to live up to their own standards – much less God’s standards, when their children marched off to war, and when the towers fell, showed up at St. Cecillia’s to find some way to put the pieces of their lives and their world together again.

    Now St. Cecillia’s was being taken from them. He was not being over dramatic in using two stories of people who committed suicide in the face of grief to implore people to take a different road.

    He does that, not from what he learned in seminary, but what he learned from people who had suffered more than he had. He testifies to their testimony to how the gospel so infused their lives that cliches become life preservers and pop songs become requiems.

    He is like a good friend who is trying to talk you into stepping back from the edge of the bridge and to put one foot in front to the other and go home. You don’t judge what he has to say by the faithfulness of his interpretation of the scriptures, the literary quality of his illustrations nor the eloquence of his word choice. If he says one thing that makes you think that maybe there is a reason to go on with life, you say, “That’s the best sermon I’ve ever heard.”

  4. Kathy says:

    Does that mean the preacher’s using his personal life in the sermon, Roger, or conveying his lesson by his actions and personality? I’d like to hear more about this.

  5. Sandra L Cummings says:

    Thanks Kathy. As usual his message was right on time.

  6. Phillips Brooks, who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and who was one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century defined preaching as “Truth through personality”.
    This sermon is one of the best illustrations of that truth that I have seen.

  7. Ruth Copola says:

    He’s still giving us the guidance that we need RIP our precious shepherd Thanks for sharing

  8. Michele garrett says:

    Thanks Kathy, this came right on time

  9. La Verne says:

    Thanks for being a guardian of Fr. Dan’s important messages. I shall carry the meaning of this epistle with me always.

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