Grace Presbyterian Church
December 19, 2021, SWH
What They Leave Behind
Psalm 102 is one of those psalms that feels a little too on-the-nose when we suffer times of grief or distress. The extremes of physical malady even to the point of withering away like grass, the sense of being persecuted or tormented in some way, the way nothing tastes right; all of these are more accurate, probably, than we want to let on. This of course follows a direct, urgent plea expressed in the simplest terms in verse 1: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you.”
In particular, it seems that a time of grief, especially grief at the loss of a loved one or grief at some new ominous diagnosis, seems to throw everything askew. Nothing sounds right, nothing looks right, nothing tastes right or smells right or feels right. Everything is off. Nothing works.
And if you’ve ever gone through such losses, you know that the smallest or most unexpected things can set off those sensations or reactions in ways for which we simply cannot be prepared. Yes, words or silences or music or any number of such, but also actual physical things, items, objects that in some way are connected to the one we’ve lost. Some object, ordinarily nothing special, sets us adrift in grief again maybe in a moment when we thought we had achieved a brief rest or equilibrium.
That’s perhaps the most striking thing in this account from Acts, after the death of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). It might feel a bit of a cheat to use this passage in a service like this one, as just a few verses later Peter will raise the woman from the dead. But this moment caught in verse 39 leaps out, unique in the scriptural accounts of situations anything like this. The ones who are present, grieving this loss, do not (as far as we are told) actually say anything to Peter; instead, they show him pieces of clothing she had made with them, or maybe for them, in her lifetime. They show Peter the things she left behind.
This time of year, perhaps this coming week specifically, can be a time when those things left behind strike deepest. The place at the table; the old sweater; the slippers; the favorite chair; it can be anything. The grief rises.
In truth, such grief never truly goes away. It doesn’t always manifest itself so painfully, and with time even takes on a tinge of joy, joy at the memory of the one we’ve lost. The objects either are eventually discarded in some way or saved for particular memory-making. We live, not without grief, but with grief transforming into something that is part of life itself.
One of the most thoughtful words spoken about grief in the past year really did come from a television show based on characters from superhero comic books. I am not making this up. I won’t even try to provide background or context – we would be here all evening – but simply state it: “But what is grief, if not love persevering?”
It stands out for provoking us to understand our grief differently. Those things they left behind become not merely spikes of pain, but reminders of the love we knew for that person. The pain, ultimately, does not endure. It may flare up on round-number anniversaries or other such provoking occasions, but it does not become the permanent state of life – not when that grief is borne of love. We love; we feel the pain, but we continue to love. And the things they leave behind remind us of that love, and if we’re doing it right, remind us to love more.
For the things they leave behind, Thanks be to God. Amen.