Psalm 31 & Romans 12: 9-18
“Self-Discovery in the Wilderness (Part Three): Grief, Sadness, Despair and Hopelessness”

 “Self-Discovery in the Wilderness (Part Three): Grief, Sadness, Despair and Hopelessness

Psalm 31 & Romans 12: 9-18 ~ Northwood UC ~ March 20, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook  

As we commence, I want to begin by sharing how pleased I am that YOU are here. That you are taking time for this exploration. Because, as we look at the topic before us on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, as we see the image before us on the screen…we know that grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness are not emotions that quickly draw one to church, or to tune in to worship. Rainbows, unicorns, and sparkles might be more compelling; however, we gather because we do not want a ‘candy-coated’ theology that is devoid of all the depth and meaning of fully-lived life. We desire a rich life that engages all aspects of our humanity, and finds God amidst that journey that includes grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness.  

To be sure, this is a hard and deeply personal conversation which we navigate as we wade more deeply into our Lenten journey. Dr. Joseph P Forgas, a Professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, Australia proposes that “evolutionary theory suggests that we should embrace all of our emotions, as each has an important role to play, under the right circumstances. So, though you may seek ways to increase happiness, don't haphazardly push away your sadness. No doubt, it is there for a good reason.” And so, we consider some of these more difficult emotions as we find ourselves deep, deep, deep into the Lenten path we walk. We are now 19 days, almost half-way, into the 40 day season of penitential preparation. If we were to think of a literal journey, you have likely used up a lot of the supplies that you packed; perhaps some items have been damaged and others depleted; perhaps, your body is growing sore; and at the half-way mark, you are beginning to rely on the land to provide shelter, nourishment, and a path through to the journey ahead. Marathon runners speak about the challenges that occur deep into their race: the initial energy of the race has worn off, the finish line is no where to be seen, and their body is beginning to show signs of exhaustion. And so, we consider the emotions of grief, sadness, despair, and hopelessness amidst the journey we walk.  

The painting on the screen, and in the bulletin, was created by August Friederich Albrecht Schenck And it is titled: “Anguish.” Hanging in the National Art Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, it was twice voted his most popular work. Once in 1906 and then again a little over a century later in 2011. The pain of a parent overlooking a young one as a murder of crows draws nearer is a hard image to take in, indeed. And anguish is at the foundation of the emotions we explore this morning. Have you felt powerless with the situation in front of you? Have you felt unable to change, reverse, or negotiate what lies in your path? And as we all nod our heads, we are aware that anguish has, and perhaps for some, is a reality of the path that we walk. We look in front of us and we know the emotions of grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness.  

I think that this is the reality that Paul spoke of in his pastoral letter to the Roman church. These words Deborah read will be familiar to many. They are often quoted by people of faith. Many know I am a second-generation Pastor, and I can recall the blessing my father offered each Sunday as being his signature version of this beautiful passage: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…” And through Paul’s pen, we hear wonderful…challenging…grace-filled words for life…almost as if they were written for life today!  

But, as I hear them this morning, in the context of our emotional awareness journey through Lent, what I am hearing most strongly is the call to community through these challenging emotions we are considering. Listen with me to the call to an awareness of the other in this text: “Contribute to the needs of the saints” ~ the saints were the larger community of faith; “extend hospitality to strangers” ~strangers, of course, were those faces without names who they were called to reach out to in love. Then Paul gets a little more challenging: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” ~interestingly, the text does not tell them to lay down and accept persecution. It instructs them to bless the persecutors, to pray for them, to provide room for God’s transformation to come. And finally, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” ~This is a true call to authentic community where the weight of such tremendous emotions might begin to be navigated…together. Where we rejoice together; where we weep together; where we live in harmony together.  

I think the most difficult part of the ‘Anguish’ painting is the image that depicts the mother sheep alone. Her breath freezing in the cold air. There is no warmth or comfort to be found. She is standing over the dead body of her little lamb. There are no other sheep around, only a murder of crows drawing ever closer. The sky is dark, and no sunlight is shining down. A trickle of blood is running from her mouth into the white snow. And she seems to be completely alone. Paul’s message to the Roman Christians who lived amidst such profoundly challenging times, and felt grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness was to not let themselves be alone. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another”.  

These last two years have been profoundly difficult on people because we have, out of necessity, needed to isolate and be alone. We learned the importance of social distancing, of having very small social bubbles…and we are now realizing the tremendous cost that we have paid. Psychologists in my network are turning away clients because they are so busy! People have paid a tremendous cost at the hands of Covid and the emotions of grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness are very real.  

We are just now experiencing the easing up of restrictions and pondering what wise choices will look like for us as we move ahead, given our personal considerations. As you know, we hosted a benefit concert for relief in Ukraine featuring Gina Williams last Sunday. We all wondered…would anyone come? Or…would EVERYONE come and we would reach occupancy limits and need to turn people away? We put all the chairs out and we found the warmth and grace of something we haven’t felt much at Northwood in the past several years. We found the community of a very full church! We welcomed representatives from the Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainian churches, and they sang with Gina as we all stood for the Ukrainian national anthem. People from the larger Surrey area gathered with their own feelings of grief, sadness, despair and hopelessness…and together, we found the grace in community. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another”.  

Many of us are parents, and grandparents. And all of us seek to uphold the good of society’s members. The challenge that I always find in my role as a parent is how to prepare my children for the path, not to prepare the path for my child. The best parents I admire are the ones who empower their kids to figure out things as part of their own journey, as they (of course) are developmentally ready. And that is why we do not gather around a ‘bubble-gum’ theology when we walk through Lent. We don’t profess a theology that promises the delivery of all things shiny, happy, and wonderful. Part of the journey we walk is one that is filled with the emotions of grief, sadness, despair, and hopelessness. Yet, as we were reminded, at the beginning of this conversation, by Dr. Forgas from the University of Sydney, it is the embracing of all of our emotions that plays an important role, under the right circumstances, in our full experience and growth in life. While our world teaches us to seek only happiness, don’t just put the sadder emotions away. Because, we will find that there is a good reason that this emotion is present.  

And so, we continue to embrace the spiritual path that is ours. A path that also includes elements of grief, sadness, despair, and hopelessness. We do it, though, knowing that we do not walk alone. As our opening song reminded us, we are fellow pilgrims on a journey. Fellow travelers on the road; here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. Sister/ brother let me be your servant; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. May we ““rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” as we live that one wonderful life that God blesses us each with.