Good grief?

Grief by OnTask
Grief, a photo by OnTask on Flickr.

Given at One New Man
Sydney, February 2014

When a man plans a talk to be given at a gathering like this, our monthly One New Man meeting, a wise man would always choose topics that are uplifting, like joy or happiness, like love (especially since this Friday is Valentine’s Day) and faith or hope. See? Sound good, right? So, when I tell you that tonight’s topic is “Grief”, your first thought is … what? Despair. Sadness. Death. Loss. Second thought: What a downer! What else can I be thinking about rather than what the guy up front is addressing?

But I promise, if you listen with your heart, and open your Bibles and read along, if you take on board what God has to say about grief, you will be upbeat when you leave. You will be a better person. You will be improved. And that is why you attended tonight, right?

Take a look with me at some photos. This first one was taken in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, LA. One of the most photographed and talked about statues in Metairie Cemetery is inside the mausoleum of Chapman H. Hymans.
The interior of the mausoleum, modeled after the mausoleum of Queen Louise of Prussia, is lit by 2 blue stained glass windows that cast a soft light on the statue of a young woman with angel wings head down on her arm and overcome with sadness. The beautiful marble statue titled, "Grief" was made in Carara, Italy. It is a replica of "Angel of Grief", an 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story, which serves as the gravestone of the artist and his wife at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy. The intensity of the blue light in the mausoleum changes during the day and with cloud cover but "the blues" never leaves this sad but beautiful tomb.

I suppose a classical statue and art itself has a beauty we can and should appreciate. But we are not thinking about artwork tonight; we are thinking about the subject of grief.

And that’s appropriate for us as Jews, who have experienced great grief throughout our history, both corporate (Holocaust, Inquisitions, pogroms…) and many can talk about individual histories of grief.

Lon Solomon is a Jewish man, about my age, who grew up in the American south and who also like me is a Jewish believer in Jesus. He is pastor of 10,000 people at the McLean Bible Church in suburban Washington DC. He has three sons and one daughter. The boys are professionals: a doctor, a lawyer, and one involved in Homeland Security. But it’s the daughter Jill, born in 1992, about whom I want to speak for a minute. She was born with mitochondrial disease. She has had tens of thousands of seizures all her young life, and as a result has had massive brain damage. Lon wrote the book “Brokenness” to help all of us deal with our situations, our sufferings, our grief. In fact Lon writes of his own disappointment (and that of his wife Brenda). “There was the grief, of watching our dreams and plans for our little girl vanish. There would be no shopping trips to the mall, where Brenda and Jill could laugh and buy clothes. There would be no piano lessons, dance lessons, first dates, prom nights, or teaching Jill to drive. I was never going to walk my daughter down the aisle or watch her become a mother.”

So when I talk tonight about grief, let me be clear. Grief is not only the pain of loss at the death of another, but at the loss of something we hold dear. Grief then is the gut-wrenching intense suffering and our commensurate inability to smile at life’s pains.

                                           On the left is a replica of the famous statue by Mr. Story, this time in Menlo Park, California, by Stanford University. It looks so clean and neat. The surrounds are beautiful gardens as you can imagine all over the campus. It’s sterile. And empty.  That's not to say anything against the pristine surrounds of the campus.

On the right we have the original statue by Mr. Story in Rome, Italy. A bit more aged. A bit more tired. A bit more real. Like grief, I suppose. A very harsh environment and a very harsh reality.

This angel from a London cemetery is weeping. And that makes sense to you, doesn’t it? But think about it. Where in the Bible do we read of angels crying? Anywhere? But we have put human emotions into the art world and that makes sense. And we would not even be shocked if we saw God crying. I remember in the movie, “The Passion of the Christ” when Yeshua died, and the camera panned up to the view from above, we saw a single tear fall. That tear crashed into the crucifixion scene, causing calamity, despair, disorientation, earthquakes, a torn curtain in the Temple and massive confusion.  One tear can cause the world to stop. According to Mel Gibson.
More dramatic for us, are the times in life when we cry, when we are struck with joy by a piece of music, feel awe at the beauty of a landscape, or are overwhelmed with emotion by the kindness of others. Then, there are those really fun moments of complete abandon when our sides ache and tears roll down our cheeks from the laughter that comes from a hilarious comedian. Clearly the salty water that flows from our eyes is an important part of the human experience.

Often, people report that a good cry can make them feel better and more at peace. In one survey, 85% of women and 73% of men reported feeling less sad or angry after crying. As a result of this kind of information, psychologists and scientists are doing research to discover what the content and purpose of tears may be. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis has conducted some of this research in an effort to discover the chemical make up of tears. Frey compared tears induced from sadness with tears caused by chopping a raw onion. He found that the tears caused by emotional stimuli contained more total protein than those that resulted from irritation. Frey proposes that the emotionally based tears contained high levels of cortisol, which is the primary hormone released during stressful situations. This suggests that we may be literally removing toxins from our system when we cry, and that crying itself may support our overall good health. Dr. Frey discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones, which get excreted from the body through crying.

After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins, which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.” Interestingly, humans are the only creatures known to shed emotional tears, though it’s possible that that elephants and gorillas do too. Other mammals and also salt-water crocodiles produce reflex tears, which are protective and lubricating.

Dr. Judith Orloff writes: “Our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. For instance, reflex tears allow your eyes to clear out noxious particles when they’re irritated by smoke or exhaust. The second kind, continuous tears are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated--these contain a chemical called “lysozyme” which functions as an anti-bacterial and protects our eyes from infection. Tears also travel to the nose through the tear duct to keep the nose moist and bacteria free. Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.” (Adapted from “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life” (Three Rivers Press, 2011) She is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA.

Psychologists intuitively have understood the healing power of tears and often encourage people to allow their tears to flow freely, unobstructed by any internal sensors that might shut them off.

So you say, “Bob, all well and good about tears, but tonight we are talking about grief. And sometimes grieving is not therapeutic at all; it feels terrible. It’s just wrong.”

I get it. I hear you.

Consider Joelle, a dear friend of Jews for Jesus who lives here in Sydney. She has three beautiful kids whom she home schools. Last year she was pregnant with her fourth, and after full term, she lost the baby girl. Dead in her arms. SIDS, no doubt, but whatever the 
-->cause, grief came. Serious, almost suicide-watch grief came upon her. And that’s reasonable. And painful. Can you imagine what she went through, carrying the baby, anticipating the joy of a 4th child, and then all hopes dashed. And the only thing to fill the void was heart-wrenching tears.  Here is the cemetery where her baby is buried. It’s empty. Her life was empty. Shattered.

This poem, entitled “Broken Hearts,” was sent to Joelle, and she found relief there.
Grief can be good, then, can’t it? And we cry good grief when exasperated, but think about it. What makes grief good? What makes grief bad?

Consider Hamlet, concerning his mother, who after his father died, less than a month afterwards, she was marrying his brother. Hamlet feels that his mother Gertrude betrayed his father by marrying his uncle Claudius so quickly after the father's death. His mother cried, deep sentimental tears at the funeral of King Hamlet, the daddy, The Ghost, but they weren’t real. Or so says the son who feels betrayed at what he calls the incest of marrying uncle Claudius.

And Hamlet is at war with his own feelings of whether or not, or how to avenge his father's death, it almost seems like part of him is betraying him sometimes and he has to keep talking himself into keep up his motive for revenge.

I don’t want to spend too much time on Shakespearean questions, but to ponder again what grief is good, and what is bad? Ideas?

One more photo: Most people like perfume in some measure. Do you know how perfume is made? Designing a new fragrance is a complicated process involving a combination of various oils, herbs, and spices. And of course, flowers. To make the most of a flower’s fragrance, you have to crush it. When the petals are crushed, broken open, pulled apart, that’s when the truest, richest, deepest fragrance spills out.

Let me help us with some Bible verses:
In 1 Samuel 2, God through ‘a man of God’ approaches the priest Eli and tells him that even though Eli’s sons are going to die and have miserably failed, God doesn’t want Eli to grieve in soul, I will add, too long. And how will that work? By God raising up another in their place.

God spoke to Samuel to stop grieving over Saul since God had rejected his leadership.

And the final one, which is in my mind tonight, the ultimate in more ways than one:
1Th. 4.13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

What is the apostle saying about grief here?
1)  Grief is universal
2)  Grief is natural
3)  There are types of grief: good and bad
4)  Good grief has hope; bad grief is hopeless
5)  Informed believers have good grief and thus hope because God will act!

What do you do with your own grief? What do you do with your own tears? (Sharing time ensued)

The general consensus was that grief can be good if we use it as a steppingstone to help others, to grow and mature, to learn, to ‘make perfume’ in other people’s lives.

We closed with prayers for our relatives/ friends for whom we grieve.

Next month we celebrate Purim (2 Adar). Listen to this text from Esther: Esth. 9.22 because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies, and it was a month which was turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor.

Look forward to being with us on 12 March for Purim in Sydney.


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