1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
November 21, 2004
© John M. Connan
I can’t find it. It’s somewhere on my bookshelves: a graduated list of crisis events. Some are totally traumatic: the death of a spouse or a child. They rate a 10. But divorce, a broken engagement; business failure; redundancy; home destroyed by storm, fire or earthquake; loss of a body part; leaving home to get married, selling the family home, moving into a retirement village; an exam failure; the birth of a child; getting a new job – all lead to stress, major or minor, graduating from 10 to 1. If loss is involved, whether it’s a 10 or a 1, grief results.
In 1987 the Connans were on a visit to America. We went over the Mexican border to Tijuana. We came back over the border and sat down to wait for the trolley to San Diego. The boys wanted to put coins on the track. The trolley came in and I was up to make sure the boys were safe. We jumped aboard. 45 minutes later we were walking back to the car park in San Diego. Suddenly I realised I didn’t have the Canon camera I’d inherited from my father. No, it wasn’t on the trolley. I must have left it on the San Ysidro station. I was convinced I’d never see it again. It was probably a 0.5 at best, but it was a loss!
I snapped at the kids. I took wrong turns on the freeway.
Loss leads to grief.
In the end it’s not so much the loss that matters – but the way we handle grief.
Grief is normal and natural. It’s part of being human. We experience loss early: the moment we’re born. We lose the warm safe place close to our mother’s beating heart. From that moment we experience loss after loss after loss – until we die: experiences of grief for us; experiences of grief for those we leave behind. Grief seems to isolate us: we feel terribly alone. Yet no one stands apart. Others have felt what we are feeling. Grief is the one experience that unites us with every other person on the planet.
Grief has always been with us. We should expect to find it in the Bible – and we do: it’s mentioned 61 times in the Old Testament and 41 times in the New.
Grief engulfed the disciples when Jesus was taken from them – until they realised he was with them for ever, and they would be with them for ever. It’s a theme in Jesus’ preparing the disciples for his death, as John records his last conversations with them.
Grief engulfed the early Christians, as they faced persecution and the death of fellow-believers. Peter deals with it. Paul deals with it more than once.
In his first letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki Paul encouraged the believers who were concerned about the fate of those who had died as they waited for Jesus to come again. “We don’t want you to be in the dark … and grieve like people who have nothing to look forward to.”
Even in loss and grief there is something to look forward to. In this letter Paul suggests it is meeting with Christ.
In Romans he deals with death in chapter 8. He ends that magnificent paeon of praise with this confident assertion, “Neither death nor life, nothing thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Lord has embraced us.”
Something to look forward to – hope’s certainty – makes the difference.
In his second letter to the Church in Corinth Paul acknowledged the upset and grief he’d caused through earlier letters. But he saw positives coming from their grief.
“I know I caused you grief… I felt awful at the time… Now I’m glad: not because you were upset, but because you were jarred into turning things around. You let your grief drive you to God, not away from him. The result was all gain, not loss. Grief that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain… Isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this grief has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible.”
Grief can carry us to new strength and new quality of life – if we allow it to drive us to God, so we can be turned around.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously gave grief five stages: denial – “it’s not happening to me”; anger – “it’s someone’s fault, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened”; bargaining – “if only she’d come back, things would be different this time”; depression – “life will never be the same again”; acceptance – “whether I like it or not, it’s time to move on.”
Today I don’t want to talk about the grieving process, how it’s different for everyone, or how long it takes. I want you to think about achieving “hope’s certainty” and “turning around.”
And let me begin by saying five practical things to do when grief has struck:
- It’s okay to express your feelings. It lets others share.
- It’s not just okay to talk, it’s an absolute necessity to bring out what you’re thinking, and to bring it out clearly and honestly to those who’ll listen – and keep on listening.
- Keep life as normal as possible. Keep to the normal routines in the normal places.
- Look after yourself. Eat well. Sleep well. Relax. Exercise. Be careful: accidents happen more readily when we’re under stress.
- Laugh. Laughter is the best weapon against the devil.
One book on grieving suggests “CPR.” Major losses are a threat to emotional, physical, social and spiritual well-being. Life can come to a standstill. There’s a need for resuscitation: CPR is needed.
Grief can shut us down. Communication can disappear. Grieving people sometimes become silent, talking to no one about their raging feelings. “I just can’t bring myself to talk about it.” If you don’t talk about it when your grieving begins, those who might have listened then may no longer be in the mood to listen later. Nor should you imagine that talking to friends about your grief is an imposition. Talking about what has upset you and brought you to this state of grief is the beginning of recovery.
Talking to God is even more important. Never imagine that God doesn’t want to hear your anger. God’s heard it before. The psalmist, even Jesus, raged against God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – before finding peace.
Getting back to familiar routines is a vital step towards recovery. Take it slowly, but get involved again. Getting back to the usual can involve anxiety. “I might break down!” Never fear to display emotions, but if it worries you, take one step at a time back into the routine. As pone counsellor suggests: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of feeling, than it is to feel your way into a new way of acting.” Get involved, participate before you feel you’re ready – or you may never be ready.
Mark is the earliest written record we have of Jesus’ life. As Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to anoint Jesus’ body they were confronted by “a young man dressed in a white robe. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “Jesus has risen. Go, tell the disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee.’” It was as though the advice to the grieving disciples was “Get back to you old routines – and wait for the new to happen.”
And we know it did!
An American study showed that the average woman could immediately name more than four other people with whom she enjoyed deep, meaningful and intimate relationships. The average man could name no one. We all need relationships – particularly in times of trouble, loss and grief.
In the depths of grief we need all the friends we can get. We need to receive. But once the acute stage of grief is over, it’s time to start giving as well as receiving.
I like the suggestion given to those with few relationships: ”Go to the nearest old people’s home. Ask if there’s a lonely person you can visit. And, when you visit, spend twice as much time listening as talking. When you leave, tell the person how grateful you are and how much richer your life is for the sharing!”
Relationships can stale. Revive them. Take an interest in others. Be open with them. Express gratitude for their friendship. Share a meal. Give them a call. Write a letter. Share pictures and small gifts.
But remember love, relatedness, purpose and meaning in life have their source in a relationship with God. In 1 John 4 we find: “Friends, let’s love one another, for love comes from God.” Without a relationship with God as the Source of all relationship, re-establishing relationships may be hindered.
But let’s remember when grief strikes, the griever can be powerless to do all these things on their own. It can take another person to bring about the CPR of recovery, renewal and returning. That other or those others can act as catalysts to bring about transformation.
A fellowship of others can help the griever concentrate not on what has been lost, but on what is left in life: the certainties of hope; the possibilities on new strength and new quality of life when we allow God to turn us around.
Finally let me say this. I’ve not been talking only to those who have been grieving for the partners they have lost in recent times. I’ve been talking to you all, as we all face the “loss” the amalgamation of Deep Creek and Wesley seems to bring. CPR may be necessary for us all: communication; participation; and relationship. But the same certainties of hope and probabilities of new strength and new life are also there – if we allow God to turn us around.
 1 Thessalonians 4: 13.
 Romans 8: 38-39.
 2 Corinthians 7: 8-11.
 Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34. Read the rest of Psalm 22!
 Mark 16:6-7.
 1 John 4:7.