Menke, Lloyd, 2012. Candle Flame (Digital Photograph) (Menke, L. own private collection.)
What are the times when you have felt most blessed?
One of the things we do on All Saints day is remember the blessing we have received from the special relationships we have had with those who have gone before us in death. We remember with fondness and affection our departed loved ones. We remember the affection we felt – the good times we shared – the kindness and help we received – the love that connected us. We remember how we were blessed by our loved one’s presence in our lives.
Our remembering is often bittersweet. While it is good to remember, we also find ourselves aware of the hole that is left in our lives by their death. We grieve. The blessing our loved ones were to us makes us aware of the what we have lost.
And yet, it is good to remember. There is value in remembering. In one sense we are blessed that we were privileged enough to have something to grieve. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says: “Blessed are they who mourn.” While we might see Jesus pointing to value of remembering when he says, “Blessed are they who mourn.” But, I believe Jesus wants us to receive even a greater blessing than we receive from remembering. I believe Jesus is telling us about how God works in the world.
What is your experience in times of deep grief, great pain, and overwhelming difficulty? There seem to be two universal experiences. These times can leave us feeling alone, abandoned, and defeated as the darkness seems so strong and overwhelming. Jesus knew this very human response. In his deep pain and grief, he cried: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross. There are times when comfort only comes in the next life.
And yet, there are times amid great pain and grief that we discover a peace or sense of blessing that is surprising and in some way beyond explanation to anyone who has not experienced it. As Jesus prays in anguish at the Mount of Olives, moments before his arrest and trial leading up to his crucifixion, the gospel of Luke tells us, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” As a pastor,
I am privileged to hear the testimonies of people who have experienced a sense of blessing and comfort in the midst of difficult times. One person shared talked about how uplifting it was to receive angels and assurances of prayer from people far and wide when her daughter was in a coma. Another talked about having received a hug from the Holy Spirit when her father died. Another talked about prayer sustaining her when daughter was dying. But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Caring Bridge is full of these testimonies.
Here is one from a woman whose 47-year-old husband is dying cancer. In her post she spoke about her husband being too weak to get out of bed and asleep most of the time, so her mother-in-law has come to help. How family had gathered. Children returned home. Throughout her various posts she speaks often about how she feels blessed. Blessed by the prayers and kind words of others. Blessed by the help from her mother-in-law. Blessed by the people praying for her family and humbled by the support she has received.
Some of you remember, our former intern Sue Gravelle. She was diagnosed with cancer. She has been posting about her journey on Caring Bridge. She also speaks often about feeling blessed in the midst of her diagnosis and treatment for cancer.
What kind of blessing is this? In most cases it was not the removal of the pain, grief or suffering. Rather it often about connection and relationships. Experiencing the care of others. Discovering a deeper connection, trust and reliance on God. Experiencing God’s presence.
We have been so trained by our culture to measure value in physical and material terms. The blessings these people speak of are more intangible, but none the less real. If we think about our relationship to God as consumers – view it in terms of what we are getting out of it – or only in terms of God’s ability to roll back the darkness in our lives – we are likely to find these testimonies of blessing incomprehensible. But, none of us who have this experience the blessing of God’s presence despite the darkness need to be convinced of the validity of this kind of blessing. Seen from the right perspective the blessing of God’s presence only grows deeper in the midst of grief, pain and difficult.
Have you ever noticed that a single light shines brighter the darker it gets? My wife, Gaye, has started using her cell phone as an alarm clock. It is still dark out when the alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning on the days she goes to work. The other day she decided to look at something on her phone since she had it in her hand. The brightness of the screen was too much – it was almost blinding. But, the brightness setting was the same as she used during the day. What made it blinding was how dark the room was. Some new cellphones and e-readers now have sensors in them that adjust the screen brightness depending on how much light is in the room.
Jesus is telling us there is something similar when it comes to experiencing God’s presence. The experience of grief is not good in and of itself. Jesus is not telling us it is something we should seek. But, Jesus is telling us in the midst of the darkness of our grief there will be comfort. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps not as soon as we would like. Perhaps it will come in ways we do not expect. But, there is something about the very darkness of our grief that allows us to be more sensitive to, and better able to see the light of God’s presence and comfort.
Nora Tubbs Tisdale has an interesting way of talking about this. She is a professor of homiletics at Yale Divinity School. She talks about, thin places. She says:
“On the coasts of Scotland and Ireland there are certain sites that the locals call “thin places.” Thin places are not so named because the altitude is any higher or the air any thinner there. Rather, they are called “thin” because it is believed that in these places the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and the veil between the two worlds is so “thin” you can actually perceive something of heaven itself. The ancient Celts – sensing the deep spirituality of these sites – built many of their worship places on them, some still marked today by circles of stone. Later Christians also built churches and monasteries and cemeteries there. And people who visit these sites today sometimes say they lose all track of time and space while there, and they know – deep down inside – they are on holy ground.
For in thin places, boundaries of time and space fade away. There is no yesterday, today or tomorrow–only eternity stretching forth in a timeless continuum.”
I am not saying there are physical places where the distance between heaven and earth become thin. But, there is something to the experience feeling God’s presence. Understood in that sense I have experienced the truth of this thinness in some of my darkest times.
In quantum physics there is a phenomenon known as entangled particles. There is a mystery around them. Entangled particles remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances. The phenomenon so riled Albert Einstein he called it “spooky action at a distance.” The transfer of state between Photon A and Photon B takes place at a speed of at least 10,000 times the speed of light, possibly even instantaneously, regardless of distance.
The ancient Celts, and modern scientists, acknowledge the presence of forces and connection that we can’t see. Why is it that we have such difficulty trusting that there is something more at work in the midst of our darkness – in the midst of death itself?
As we celebrate All Saints we come together to hold those who are grieving. We gather together to celebrate memories, yes, but also a light that shines in the midst of our darkness. It is a light that doesn’t necessarily take away the darkness of our grief, but rather, shines brighter because of it – in the midst of it – and despite it.
Today we celebrate the presence of a power greater than our immediate experience. A power beyond what we can touch, taste, hear, see or feel. God’s power is at work in the world, in our lives, and in our departed loved ones. Today we celebrate – life after life. Not just because the thought provides comfort, but because Jesus rose from the dead.
Today we pause, humbly asking God to break in again and allow us to catch a glimpse of a thin space – to have heaven and earth draw a little closer – and give us an assurance that our lives are entangled with Jesus and the power of the resurrection is not just words – but a living reality for us and for our loved ones. We gather today with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven to receive a foretaste of a great banquet – and receive again a tiny glimpse of the reality of God’s presence and the power of life in Jesus name. May you be blessed by God’s presence and power. Amen.