The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
--Psalm 34:18 NRSV
A recurring theme in conversations I have had with church folks this week is sadness over not sharing the Thanksgiving table with loved ones this year. Due to the alarming increase in COVID cases in our area, people are justifiably limiting their guest lists and either inviting only a few people or none at all. Even as we look forward to the hope of vaccines enabling us to return to our usual holiday traditions next year, we nonetheless must acknowledge our grief over what has been lost this year.
For far too many people a limited Thanksgiving dinner is not merely a precaution but a necessity, because they have loved ones who have died from COVID or who are currently suffering from it. For them, this week is a time of mourning and/or a time of intense anxiety and helplessness. Their pain is magnified as others around them in person or in the media deny the reality they are experiencing in the present moment. Our separation from one another keeps us from sharing normal rituals of grief and comfort such as funerals,
memorial services, visits by friends and family to the hospital rooms or bedsides of those who are ill, etc. The grief of those directly affected by this pandemic must be respected and acknowledged.
Then there is the grief of the many who are not directly affected by the virus but nonetheless affected by the separation and isolation of these days. For those of us fortunate enough not to have loved ones suffering from COVID, there may be a sort of tension in our emotions. On the one hand, we may be thankful for the health of our loved ones, while on the other hand we grieve our separation from them. Rather than feeling our grief in such cases is inappropriate, I believe we can hold on to both grief and gratitude at
the same time. When we sit down at our Thanksgiving meals, we can offer thanks for our loved ones even as we feel the weight of their absence around the table.
For many of us, disrupted Thanksgiving plans are a powerful reminder of all the plans which have been disrupted throughout 2020. Everything from travel to weddings to funerals to school to work has been put on hold or cancelled. Our grief over what has been lost mixes with our grief over what still will be lost in the coming months. I found a helpful article online called "It's Okay to Grieve the Time You've Lost in 2020." In it, I found a quote by
clinical psychologist Dr. Emma Hepburn helpful. She says, "Our brain is a planning and future-anticipating organ so we can experience loss not just about what has gone from our past or present but what has potentially gone from our future too." We evolved as human beings to try and control our futures. For example, the future harvest meant safety, security and survival. As much as spontaneous events may offer unexpected blessings, our
ancestors knew unexpected events more likely meant danger for ourselves and our families in the forms of disease, natural disaster, famine or war. Even though we have reasons to hope for an end to the pandemic, knowing there is more disruption and pain to come means more grief in the meantime.
As is the case when we grieve any loss, there are things we can do to deal with our grief in healthy ways.
Number six seems especially difficult and maybe even trite in the face of loss and pain. I believe however, (and so does pretty much every spiritual thinker out there) that gratitude and thanksgiving are powerful strategies for dealing with grief and pain in our lives. Even as we grieve the absence of loved ones and feel pain due to the loss of traditions and rituals this Thanksgiving, we can develop deeper gratitude for the people we love. We can discover the ways we take for granted those who mean the most to us. We can learn that the grudges and grievances we hold against loved ones are not as important as those loved ones themselves.
As Christians, finding blessings in our lives can become a vital part of our devotion to God. We find purpose and meaning in our lives, even during grief, by remembering all that we have been given by a loving God. Even as we wrestle with the mysteries of why a loving God allows suffering, we can focus on what is not mysterious but plain as day before us, the blessings of love, relationship and connection which remain in our lives no matter our losses.
The great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, wrote about such thanksgiving in the midst of grief in a recent column on the wonderful web site Church Anew. He shared about the history of the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God." He writes:
I suggest that the hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God," [is] a welcome model for a life of disciplined gratitude.
Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother's arms hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us!
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
(Prayer Book and Hymnal (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1982)
This warm, intimate, trusting poetry was written by Pastor Martin Rinkart as a table grace during the Thirty Years War that devastated all of Europe. His wife had died of the pestilence and he wrote this for his children. The hymn affirms that we, along with Pastor Rinkart and his children, are on the receiving end of God's goodness even in the most dire of circumstances.
This Thanksgiving may God "keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed and free us from all ills in this world and the next."
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851