Liturgy and the Grieving Heart

I’ve been silent for a while.

In March of 2017 I heard news that would change my life forever. It was bad news. Really bad news. It weighed deep in my mind, my heart, and my soul, robbing me of all joy of everyday life. My work, which used to be a great source of joy and excitement, withered into a dutiful chore. Food, a source of delight, pleasure, and energy, lost its taste, and my appetite was half of what it used to be. I started losing weight, which was not a good thing. Minutes seemed like hours, and days like years. Every day was drudgery. I remember just trying to get to the end of the day to get to sleep – a short rest from the pain of conscious life. When I did sleep, it was sporadic at best, and I often woke up before the sun came up with thoughts racing through my head. This was darkness. I now know the pains of Psalm 88:

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

What follows are thoughts I wrote in the darkest moments of grief – I wrote these words in April of 2017. Now that I’ve learned to stand and breathe again, I’ve felt compelled to share these thoughts from this very dark time. I hope that these words draw others to God during times of grief and suffering.

I run to the scriptures. I’m a Christian, so I know how I’m supposed to trust God. I cry out to God in prayer but it didn’t make me feel any better. There was no “inner peace” that helped me rejoice in this suffering. I have never experienced pain like this and did not know when it would end. As a worship leader, I felt completely useless. How could I lead others in praising God when all I want to do is throw rocks at the sky and curse his name. How does one hope, when the circumstances around them seem utterly hopeless? I swear, if anyone quotes to me Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord”) or Romans 8:38 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good”) in the midst of this grieving, I might just punch them in the face. I know I’m supposed to rejoice in all things, but I just want the pain to stop.

In my grief, I turned to the book of Lamentations, which, unlike the verses above, don’t run around or away from suffering, but sit in it.

He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;

Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.

So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

This verse seemed different than the go-to Christian advice. It acknowledged the depth of my suffering (especially all of chapter 3). It acknowledged the distance I feel from God. It also doesn’t rush to cheap consolation. It acknowledged the cries of my heart that God is not acting to fix, restore, heal, or help the situation. But God is still not absent. Though I, and the author of Lamentations, do not feel God’s presence or help, He is still in the story.

It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.

Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
    there may yet be hope. (Lam 3:27-29)

My eyes will flow unceasingly,
without relief,
until the Lord looks down
from heaven and sees. (Lam 3:49-50)

God will certainly not take away my suffering, but God sees. By confronting the raw pain, and by honestly speaking of this experience of suffering, hope can be real. I think the most faithful thing one can do in the midst of grief or suffering is to be honest to yourself and to God, even if that means addressing your anger directly at Him. I think the God we know through scritpure would rather have us beat him up and blame him than to turn away from him. I think this because the God of the Bible showed us that he loved us by sending his Son Jesus, who received our blame, our mockery, our abuse, and continued to love and forgive. He took the beating and the blaming, because of his love for us. So, for a while, I was angry at God. Sometimes I still am, and this is a good thing.

For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

From this place of honesty and brokenness I can take a step forward. I went to church one Sunday, and wept through most of the liturgy. I wept not because of my sadness, but because of the amazing contrast between the words of the liturgy and my own experience at that moment in time. And of course, I remembered why I love liturgy. It is there precisely for that reason – as an antidote to personal experience. When my world is crumbling before my eyes, it is a gift to run to words that tell us about God, who is always faithful, always loving, infinite and unchangeable.

The opening prayer of an anglican service reads:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thought of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

God knows all of us – even our deepest desires and secrets. He knows how much I can’t stand this pain right now. He knows I want to run to things other than Him to self-medicate and numb the pain. He knows I want to run to sin because though my life is out of control, it makes me feel, at least for a moment, that I am in control. And yet I ask him to “cleanse the thoughts of my heart,” not so I feel less of the pain, but that I may worship Him perfectly.

Okay God. Let’s do this. I’m here – broken and humbled.

We hear the law of God, given to us in the Ten Commandments, which begins “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, the land of slavery…”

Then we hear the commandments and respond saying “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” You need not ask me to say this. I’ve got this one down pat. I’ve been crying this all month. I’ve been shouting this at God through tears. But now I get to have the church say it around me as I can barely open my mouth through the tears. Even as I type this I began to sob again. What is mercy? Does it mean taking away the suffering? Does it mean removing the pain which I utterly deserve? Does it mean fixing the situation or leading me through it barely alive?

It is a gift to sing hymns from centuries past, unfiltered by modern day consciousness. And to this, simply copying hymn texts here do not fully communicate their effect. It is one thing to read the text of the hymn, “Praise to the Lord! the Almighty, the King of creation!”, but another thing entirely to sing it with a congregation. God’s goodness and mercy is not just an abstract thought, but a reality made known through community. We are not just brains, we sing and make music to make sense of the world. The tune is important. The harmony is important. Singing together is important. When I am fighting back tears and cannot open my mouth to sing, I hear dear friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike all around me singing these words. Though I can’t see how my “desires e’er have been Granted in what He ordaineth”, maybe others can, and maybe God is still good. Maybe.

At the church I attend, we weekly recite a simple benediction from Kenya, which says:

All our problems,We send to the cross of Christ!

All our difficulties, We send to the cross of Christ!

All the devil’s works, We send to the cross of Christ!

All our hopes, We set on the risen Christ!

I never thought too much of it. When life is good, it’s just going through the motions to say we send our problems to Christ. But let me tell you, when you can barely get out of bed in the morning, to be able to shout these words out loud in the liturgy is a gift. Then we hear the pastoral blessing: “Christ the son of righteousness scatter the darkness before your path; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always. Amen.”

Maybe I will get through this.

 

 

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Author: adamkurihara

Director of Worship and Community Life at Trinitarian Congregational Church, Wayland, MA.

2 thoughts on “Liturgy and the Grieving Heart”

  1. Powerful stuff- thanks for posting this – probably was difficult, but good to do, as you realize, for us all.
    Mom

  2. Adam – If I could take this from you – I would. And I know that it sounds so cliche but time will heal your wounds. What I do know, as a Christian, that even the most awful moments of our life have meaning. And that God will use those moments for good. If I had a crystal ball – I would look into the future and tell you why you had to experience this – unfortunately – in life, there is no crystal ball. You WILL get through this and Adam – you have family that would gladly share your pain with you. And Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Sending you love and hugs.

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