What happens when what we want turns out to not be what God wants? What does it feel like when our dreams of grandeur and prestige turn out unlike any of God’s dreams, either for us or for Themselves?
The David story is one case study after another in just that. He is chosen as a boy for his heart, and every king thereafter is measured against him. While he united the Kingdom of Israel and is a warrior of great renown, his misdeeds are equally well known. Most egregiously, his desire leads him to rape a married woman, then kill her husband to cover it up. And in this week’s reading, David’s dream of being the builder of a house for God is so alluring it leads even the prophet Nathan astray.
“Did I ever ask you to build me a house?” God asks, in a tone that may as well have said, “Ew, David.” God’s is not a real question, but a way for Them to launch into a detailed explanation of what David should be focusing on going forward. HINT: it’s not about you, David. God’s got something much bigger than you in mind.
Those who follow the call of God with any seriousness will recognize this kind of moment. Discernment of God’s will is tricky business, and the closer one is to the seat of power, the tricker it gets. Our pride, our security, and our comfort get in the way of God’s will for us, or, more dangerously, for those we lead. Like David, we want to build something with our own hands that will last, that will maybe even be talked about by future generations.
This amounts to building idols, however, for whenever what we build is about us and for us, we are tempted to trust our own building instead of our God.
The course corrections we receive from God are part of the deal of discipleship. However, just because we are getting what we signed up for doesn't mean we should ignore the real grief that comes with having our misguided dreams dashed. It has been my experience that I learn most about discerning God’s will by failing to do just that. And it is okay to grieve a failure, as long as you don’t get stuck there.
So go ahead and be sad that what you want isn’t the same as what God wants for you. Rage against God’s revealing Their will in such a slow and piecemeal way. Wallow in the depression that follows a dream-dashing. Try to bargain with God so that you both can get some of what you want.
But don’t forget the final stage of grief, in which you make meaning out of your loss. This is the part God is best at, after all, making meaning where there seems to be only chaos and pain. This is the hardest work of faith to make such meaning, but it also has a reliable starting point.
The entry into meaning-making is always what God offers David after nixing his grand house scheme: a reminder of God’s forever love and arching salvation story. You are bound up by God’s promise into something beyond your most beautiful dreams. You are loved beyond measure and without end. God holds you in Their heart, prideful visions and misguided desires and all. And as long as you are there, in the very heart of God, you will live to dream again.
This is one of my favorite chapters in the whole bible, and reading it now through my grief further enriches its meaning. This is a story that makes me not only love but like God, for They seem so relatable. Like, who hasn’t wanted to destroy the people who’ve betrayed them? I know I have, so I get God here. And I also get Moses, because I’ve also been the one talking a friend down from their vengeance.
God and Moses are in the midst of a holy getaway from the very irritating Israelites. They are sitting on the mountain together having beautiful conversations about how to create a community that both loves God and each other. God has just given Moses the Law, which was shared with the people, who responded enthusiastically “Everything the LORD has said, we will do!” (Ex. 24:3).
After sealing this covenant with blood, Moses goes back to the mountaintop with God for 40 days and 40 nights. We already know that the Isrealites quickly forget the goodness of their God, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they decide that a God they can’t see is not a good enough God to worship.
What is surprising, however, is how quick Aaron is to gather up the people’s gold and re-form it into a golden statue. It should rightly be Moses who feels betrayed in this story, but God’s immense anger overshadows whatever his right-hand man might be feeling. And Moses proves himself a true friend of God by talking the Almighty down from his homicidal plans.
I like to call this stage of grief that God experiences in Exodus 32 the “rage-sads” (h/t Disrupt’s co-founder Elizabeth Rawlings for coining the term for me). It’s when the sorrow of grief expresses itself in a blind rage, often because the circumstance causing your grief involves betrayal at the hands of the loved one. The rage-sads are particularly familiar to women, I think, who find themselves inexplicably crying while trying to express their deep anger.
While anger in this biblical story, and many other situations of grief, is justified, it can also be destructive. Like God here, when we are betrayed, our first instinct is to hurt the other person as much as we’ve been hurt. This anger must be expressed, partly to let the sadness that undergirds it come to the fore.
Thank God for Moses, who is just the friend God needs in his moment of rage. “Whoa, my Divine Dude,” Moses says, “The Israelites really do suck; I’ll give you that. But, YOU DON’T, remember? You’re literally the best. Don’t give the Egyptians the satisfaction of seeing you slaughter your people.”
It is easy to forget who we are in the midst of righteous rage. It is easy to do things in those moments that we’ll later regret. Apparently, the same is true for our God. The Divine Being, as well as those made in Their image, needs good friends to remind Them who They said They want to be. Ours is a God who continually makes Themselves vulnerable for the sake of covenantal relationships, and this means that God allows Themselves to be hurt by us. It is often said that grief is the natural consequence of love, and this is never more true than for God. Because God has opened Their heart fully to imperfect people, that heart is continually broken.
Yet God keeps Their heart open, even if They sometimes need to be talked into it by Their friends, and that is when grief becomes transformative. When we allow the pain to be all that it is, when we allow it to shatter us completely, we find there is a reconstructed life on the other side of it, a resurrection even.
It is this kind of shattering and re-making, I think, that leads God to choose incarnation in the person of Jesus. Every time God’s heart is broken by God’s people, they remake Themselves and risk love again. Every new covenant is another attempt by God to let the grief They’ve experienced with their people transform Them, in hopes that the people too will be transformed. The cross represents the ultimate shattering of God, in Spirit and flesh together, so that it is not just God who breaks this time, but the whole unholy system of betrayal and atonement.
The question for the people of God in every age is this: are we willing to follow the lead of God who allows themselves to be shattered by grief and re-made for the sake of the world? Are we willing to trust that the shattering will not destroy us or those we love, but lead us deeper into love?
In this week’s reading, we hear one of the most central stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery in Egypt, and the inauguration of the Passover festival which celebrates God’s mighty act.
The problem here, from a grief perspective, is that this great liberation comes as a result of the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians, the final plague loosed by God on an obstinate Pharoah. So while the Israelites are preparing for a new life, and celebrating justice done by the God on whom they have waited their whole lives, the Egyptians are grieving more loss than they’ve ever experienced, including at least one member of every family. While the Israelites set out in freedom with God in the lead, the Egyptians are left without their firstborn, their crops and livestock decimated, their family heirlooms plundered.
Please don’t mistake me here: I am not asking you to have compassion on the slaveholders, on the oppressing empire, in their grief. I am simply noticing that this story is emotionally complicated, as most stories are, and wondering about how that kind of complication is still impacting our congregations, communities and nations today. The empire’s grief shows itself to be a powerful force every time the status quo is challenged.
When a woman accuses a powerful man of sexual harassment and/or misconduct, the old boys club grieves the “jokes” they can’t make anymore. When a white person uses an outdated and racist colloquialism they grew up using and gets called out for it, they grieve the rise of “political correctness”. When a pastor calls God “She” or “They” or “Mother”, congregation members grieve the loss of the God they identified with, which they identified as theirs.
This kind of grief is born of sin, of status quo that has always been antithetical to the ways of God, but it is still grief. And if there is one thing I am sure of in grief, it’s this: Grief doesn’t care whether it is right or wrong, whether it’s feelings or thoughts can be justified. Grief simply demands space to be what it is, and not allowing that space is dangerous to our individual and communal health.
The church is rife with such grief, largely unacknowledged and often judged by its clergy as inappropriate or unbecoming of “good Christians”. So it festers in silence, manifesting in passive aggressive actions, anonymous notes to the pastor and leadership. It creates silos inside and between our congregations. Grief is the number one force that makes our congregations resistant to change, even if most of that grief is anticipatory, based on the fear that change means losing something precious to us and gaining nothing.
It is not every pastor’s job to tend this grief. In fact, for those whose grief is caused by the status quo the church wants to maintain, it is violence to ask them to tend the grief of the other side. But for those who understand (and maybe even share) their members’ grief about the ways the church and world are changing, perhaps the most important pastoral work they have is to help members process this grief. There can be no moving forward as a whole when a portion of the body of Christ is mired in what they’ve lost.
I can’t imagine that Pharoah made space for the grief of the Egyptians, since he acts out of his failing power to send his army after the fleeing slaves. But I can imagine a present-day empire, either the church or America, which makes space for some to process their grief over what is no longer, while others build a future that will cause fewer to grieve.
Though the Joseph story can be resonant for many life situations, today it feels like a story about what happens when the favored child of a church dares to speak God’s vision of change to those they have only known as siblings. That is partly because this old story is playing out afresh in my own denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) right now, as our current favorite child (and Disrupt contributor), Rev. Lenny Duncan, is speaking the vision of a program of reparations given him by God, which will mean as big a change in power structures as Joseph’s dream of bowing sheaves.
If the church is a family, it is easily as dysfunctional as Jacob’s, and tends toward singling out an identified patient on which to dump all its blame and point to as the problem which needs fixing. How often are these identified patients in our churches also the ones God has called to lead? How many churches have turned on their pastors when they dare to speak their God-given visions of a changed system? How many church leaders have felt betrayed by those they consider family when they reveal the call God has placed on their lives?
Such grief is acute and faith-shaking, when the people with whom God has called you to work cannot (or will not) hear what God has sent you to say. I and too many other faith leaders know that pain intimately, and have invested energy toward our own healing that should have gone toward realizing the visions God’s people wouldn’t see.
I wonder how long after this betrayal to slavetraders it was before Joseph was willing to speak the dreams God sent him aloud again. It is very likely that if the brothers had come to Joseph asking for forgiveness within a few years of this incident they would have found him much less compassionate. I wonder who tended Joseph’s grief in its early days. I wonder if he had flashbacks to the betrayal of his brothers when he felt called to speak his dreams to the baker, the cupbearer and finally Pharoah.
However it happened, it is clear when we get to the resolution of this story, that Joseph has processed his grief thoroughly and used the pain of it for his own transformation. He understands that his brothers’ betrayal could not ultimately stop the visions of God, even if they were derailed and their realization more painful than it was meant to be. He speaks his famous (and oft-quoted) line about God using for good what humans intend for evil, and the story seems to wrap up with a happily ever after feel.
I will leave my suspicions about how long that happy ending lasted aside, and end with a caution instead. Though Joseph may proclaim God’s ability to take evil intent and turn it to Their good purposes, and however much I may believe that does actually happen, such a proclamation should never be made while one of God’s people are in the depths of tragedy. It is violence to suggest to a person who has been wronged by God’s people, or by those they considered family, that God will use their tragedy for good.
God did not desire Joseph’s pain anymore than God desires mine or yours. That is not who God is. When people are betrayed by those they love, by the church, by the people who call on God’s name, that is evil and needs to be so named. There may be time later to talk about how God was able to use the pain of those situations for transformation, but it comes much later. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all, and a tragedy is not redeemed.
Let us not rush to make every story like Joseph’s, even though some are. There are just as many times in Scripture that the people succeed in killing God’s messengers, including Jesus himself. Tragedy is still tragedy and evil is still evil, even when it is ultimately redeemed.
When we set out on a journey, even one as unknown as the one to which God calls Abram, we set out with expectations. In Abram and Sarai’s case, those expectations are given as a covenant promise by their God, giving them more reason to set their hearts on a particular outcome for the journey. Yet, when we meet them three chapters and however many years after God called them out of their comfort and away from their family home, a grief has settled over them. It shows privately in Abram’s anger and cynicism. And worse, it shows publicly in the couple’s continued infertility. The serpent’s question from last week’s text must have echoed in Abram and Sarai’s hearts year by year as they remain childless. “Did God really say…?”
Those who have experienced infertility have special difficulty with the miracle birth stories throughout scripture, from Sarai here to Hannah to Jesus’ mother Mary. They have prayed for their own miracles, maybe even trusted that children were part of God’s intention for them, and those prayers and promises remain unfulfilled. It is tempting for us to skip over this painful part of our ancestors’ story, rushing to the promise’s fulfillment. We who don’t know better think that the birth of a child cancels out all the pain that leads up to it. When we rush, when we cancel others’ pain unknowingly, we leave no space in our communities of faith for the aching grief that is all over the stories of God’s people. Those grieving infertility need their preachers to name this grief aloud, to say that even the heroes of our faith experienced it, that there is space for them to be angry with Abram and Sarah before their God.
Whether we have experienced infertility or not, each of us have a story of unfulfilled promises. In my own life, I have experienced this grief in pregnancy loss, in both my marriages, in unsupportive congregations to which I was called, in confidences broken between friends.
There are systemic ways in which promises are not kept also, and it is no stretch to say that our BIPOC siblings in this country have been grieving the unfulfilled promises of white people for centuries. Treaties with indigenous peoples have never been honored. Slaves were set free only to discover that freedom severely limited by a racist system of laws. The social contract between police and those they are sworn to protect only applies to white people.
This text opens space for us to name such griefs, personal and systemic, before the same God who meets Abram with compassion when he is angry and disappointed. God does not shame Abram for his questioning, nor rebuke his anger at God’s seeming faithlessness. God simply calls Abram forth again, this time from the confines of his tent to look at the wide and sparkling sky above him. God waits patiently as Abram counts each twinkle, and when he eventually loses track and gives up counting, God renews the promise. “So shall your descendants be.”
Abram’s faith is renewed because God opens space for his grief, holds Their tongue as he attempts the impossible counting of stars, then speaks the promise again when Abram has nothing else to say. The text calls this moment righteousness, but it is unclear whether the righteousness is Abram’s for believing God’s word or God’s reckoning to Them by an old man whose grief was held and honored.
As the Narrative Lectionary cycle begins again, I’m starting a new project. Using the weekly texts from Year 3 (Luke), I’ll be offering reflections rooted in grief. I hope these will be helpful to those trying to locate their own grief in the stories of God, as well as to those who are supporting loves ones as they journey through grief’s wilderness.
Year 3, Week One: Creation and Fall (Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8)
If grief is an expression of love, then God sets Themselves up for grief from the very beginning. In this second account of creation, God forms the adam (the human) from the adamah (the ground/dirt/dust) and blows into them the breath of life. And though God has made an abundance of creatures alongside the adam, this first human is dissatisfied with what God provides from their first moment. Though God intends Themselves to be the human’s helper, the adam searches in vain for another.
It is God’s grief I can’t stop thinking about here. How much does God know ahead of time, before a thing is created? Is every beautiful moment ruined by anticipatory grief for Creator, and They await the pain of Their creatures’ betrayal? How many days did the adam and their God walk together in the cool of Eden’s evening before the woman was created and took the Helper’s place? Was God ever awaiting the serpent’s question, and hoping against hope that the adam would not be tempted?
I wonder about the grief between the adam and chava (Eve) after he throws her under the first ever bus, blaming her for his disobedience. She trusted him, not only as her partner, but as the one who had heard God’s command about the fruit before she was created and reported it to her as law. Surely she mourned not only her own choice, but the loss of trust between herself and the adam. And of course, the couple together must grieve the loss of Eden, where their life was simple and easy. Put out into the wilderness, their lives are bifurcated, the path between before and after blocked by a cherubim and a self-brandishing.
Still, the grief that grabs me in God’s, as They are forced to restrain the love they have for the humans in consequence of their disobedience. Yet, as any grief traveler knows, love does not stop seeking an outlet just because the beloved is no longer available. Thus, God’s love is stitched into the garments the first humans wear into the wilderness. Unaware, the humans carry on their very bodies the proof of Love that lives beyond all death and its attendant grief.