Praying our Goodbyes

Even as we enter the season of Advent, for many of us, there are still so many reasons to seek help with our ever present grief.  Truthfully, the season brings that grief forward for many of us — the loved ones lost, the opportunities missed, the dreams unrealized. The sparkling lights and merriment all around, these things meant to illuminate and dazzle, often, instead, shine a less than welcome spotlight on the emptiness and pain that lies just below the surface of our daily living.

I myself continue to be in one of those dark places where, when the light of the season sneaks in, the first response is pain, not joy or hopeful expectancy.  And so I seek out books to be my companion as I walk through this time in my life.  One such new friend is Joyce Rupp’s Praying our Goodbyes:  A Spiritual Companion Through Life’s Losses and Sorrows (2009).  I picked it up as I looked for help to guide me as I struggled to get back to a prayer practice after a recent loss.  The book has some lovely suggestions about how to create rituals, services for times in life when we need an almost liturgical acknowledgement and for which our society (and often our churches) offer none.  These are powerful offerings on these pages, but not the most precious gift the writer had to give me.  She offered me not just ritual, but understanding.

The simple question, “What does the life and message of Jesus tell us about the goodbyes in our lives,” was one that I had never asked.  I should have, however.  It is a very useful question.  You see, Jesus, like we, his incarnated brothers and sisters, walked what Rupp calls “the hello-goodbye-hello pattern of the human journey (32),” just as we each do.  At the time of his baptism, Jesus walked away from what we believe was 30 years of security in his family home.  He walked into the desert, saying goodbye in order that he might say hello.  As Rupp describes it:  “Life became one continual journey of deep investment and letting go, of rooting and uprooting, of settling down and moving on (32).”  That hello-goodbye-hello pattern was his life on Earth as he took his message through Galilee and all the way to the Cross.  He was torn between his desire and call to be one with his father,  and the love of his friends.  But  Jesus, you see, knew that the ultimate hello awaited him, if he could just move through the goodbyes.41ftubm7h7l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Most of us will never have the faith and strength of Jesus in the face of the goodbyes of our life.  And the irony for many of us is that at the moment when we most need our relationship with our faith and our God, we are often unable to access that relationship.  At the darkest moment, we are often angry and we doubt the presence of God in our lives.  The so often asked but unanswerable questions are all we have:  “Why did God let this happen?  What did I do to deserve this?  Why would God take someone so young? Why didn’t we have more time?”  Rupp suggests that this is just the moment that we must begin to pray our goodbye.

Praying our goodbye can help us move away from hurt and towards healing.  Rupp offers four elements as essential to such a goodbye:  recognition, reflection, ritualization and reorientation. We must begin, she says, by naming the loss we have experienced.  Naming the hurt can increase our momentary pain, but without the act of naming we cannot take the second step in our goodbye. That second step is an act of making time to reflect, to sit with the pain and not look away.  This step may be the most difficult for most of us in Western cultures, but there can be no healing without putting our full attention to the loss that we have named and without taking the time to sit with that pain.  This is not time to be nice about things, particularly not with God.  The people of Scripture let God hear their anger and confusion, their frustration and their disorientation.  To fully pray our goodbye, we must be willing to do the same, to pour out our feelings to the only One who can truly hear.  And as we rage and cry, we must also listen:  “At first we may only hear our own hollowness and emptiness and dryness.  Maybe we will feel swallowed up in our painful feelings and have to move away from prayer and forget the process for awhile because it is just too much.  But we need to keep coming back.  Gradually we will learn to hear God’s quiet, gentle, persistent, hopeful voice. …Slowly we will catch glimmers of hope, of peace, of understanding, of acceptance (67).”

As we reflect, we can perhaps begin a ritual that will help us move through it.  For Rupp, this ritual includes two elements — the use of images or symbols and some kind of movement in our prayer.  For me, the ritual of goodbye to my beloved Gracie came after we received her ashes.  One day, with her dog walker and a few others, we took the wagon that had carried her in her last days, and with that wagon and her ashes and her favorite cushion, we went to the park where she loved to walk.  Placing the ashes in the wagon with her toys and her cushion and her picture, we walked her favorite path and told stories about her life and cried many tears.  Then we returned home and had a human version of her favorite dinner — pan-seared duck with cherry sauce followed by ice cream.  Finally, we took the box of ashes and placed it next to a candle, and laid a stick on top of the box (because she loved to carry sticks home from the park).  The box still sits in its place of honor, where we can see it and touch it and remember her blessing on our lives.  That ritual was the beginning of my reorientation to a life without her.

Reorientation, you see, is the last element of Rupp’s process of praying a goodbye. It is the part of the process that takes the longest time to embrace, and the part that continues, most likely, for all our remaining days without the person, or the pet, or the job, or the friend, or the whatever-we-have-lost.  Somewhere I read that a loss like this is actually an amputation.  We are forced by that loss to re-balance our lives, to re-consider our identity, to adjust and to change our course, just as a sailor tacks against the wind in a sailboat.  Reorientation offers the possibility that hope will come again.

Sunday is the beginning of the second week of Advent, traditionally for many the Sunday of Hope.  We will hear the hope of that comes from the birth of one of the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-10), and the hope of the Psalmist who talks of the God who does wondrous things (Psalm 72), and we will hear the great benediction of the hope of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:4-13).  We will hear the story of hope and all we will feel is like the chaff in the Gospel reading, burned with an unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:1-12).  Grief does not have to extinguish hope, but it may delay it for a while. As Rev. Amelia Dress wisely suggests, “…if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heaviness.”  Take this time, pray your goodbye.  And hope, my friends, will come again.   Amen.

Turn my mourning into dancing…

“You have turned my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11),” such beautiful, comforting words.  I am, right now, in the middle of one of those difficult times in life, a time when mourning and grief fill my heart and my days, and sit alongside the joy of remembrance and the continuing if somehow diminished presence of a deep and abiding gift of love in my life.  The current state of my life is the topic for another forum, but, this present experience has caused me to seek comfort in reading, as usual.

It is often a long path to the right words. My search began with questions that arose during my ecumenical experience at Kenyon College’s Beyond Walls program a few weeks ago.  The time we spent together in prayer, experiencing morning prayer in many traditions, led me to further research into healing services and traditions in the practice of Judaism. And that research led me to learn that, in much Jewish prayer practice, it is the custom to begin each day by reading the text of Psalm 30 I quoted above:  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:11-12).”

That might have been enough for some, but, sometimes, friends, I just can’t let an idea go.  This was one of those times.  My focus on Psalm 30:11-12 210937led me to — surprise — a book:  Turn my Mourning into Dancing:  Finding Hope in Hard Times, a collection of Henri Nouwen’s sermons and writings, compiled and edited by Timothy Jones in 2001.

Jones constructed the volume around the theme of “Five Movements through Hard Times,” and in it, we read Nouwen’s thoughts about the dance between suffering and grace, the pain we cause ourselves by holding too tight, the pain we inflict when we make idols of illusory things, the destructive role of fatalism in modern life, our manipulative human spirit, our need for acceptance, and finally, the last and most difficult chapter, “From a Fearful Death to a Joyous Life,” a chapter that I will need to read and read again and read again.

I think that if I were to choose one quotation to sum up the writings gathered here, it would be this:  “Life is a school in which we are trained to depart (p. 95).”  We may fight that lesson along the way, but we will all eventually complete the course. Nouwen’s words just give us some suggestions for homework along the way that might just make the class a little easier on us.

These years since Nouwen’s death have seen the creation of many of these composite volumes of his writings, drawn from his lectures, sermons, and private notebooks.  Most of these compilations, like this one,hold to the promised theme only lightly.  It is in the first section, “From Our Little Selves to a Larger World,” that Nouwen embraces most closely, and most comfortingly, the images of Psalm 30:

Mourning makes us poor; it powerfully reminds us of our smallness. …And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it.  We stop centering our lives on ourselves.  We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. …As we dance and walk forward, grace provides the ground on which our steps fall.  Prayer puts us in touch with the God of the Dance (12, 14).

I cannot read these words, and the words of the Psalmist, without thinking about the words of Sydney Carter, the American hymn writer who gave us the words to “Lord of the Dance (1963),” words I have sung so often set to the American Shaker tune Simple Gifts:

Dance then, wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

As Nouwen puts it, “If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived (17).”  My job, along the way, is to remember those last words of the Psalmist: “…you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:12).”  Homework, indeed.

I know, that with the gift of hindsight, I will find the beauty in these days of pain and letting go, but Nouwen’s words do help me find a little perspective in the present moment.  Maybe, just maybe, the music of the dance is not so far away.