Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Transforming Ruins into Foundations — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached July 25th, 2010

There is a lesson that I have learned as a Chaplain Resident with Rainbow Hospice.  It is a lesson that I see clearly both in the book of Lamentations and in the words of the Psalmist that we read a few minutes ago.  It is a lesson that I have seen in the lives of families and patients countless times over the past year.  And, it is a lesson I have seen in my own life.

We never grieve just one thing.  When we mourn any loss, we also mourn the countless other losses of our lives.

My first experience serving as a Chaplain was at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in 2006, as a Chaplain Intern.   Among my duties was to spend at least one night a week in a busy trauma center and emergency room, being with families of patients as they were taken care of by the medical staff.  I sat with them while they worried about their loved ones, and I cried with them when they learned their loved one had died.

The surprising part for me was, that the end of each shift, I could not just let it go.  It was not my loved one that had died.  I did not even know the person.  It was not my family that was grieving.  I would probably never see any of them ever again.  I had done all I could for them, and they had thanked me as they left the hospital.

So, why was I driving home with tears in my eyes, so that I had to stop by the side of the road until I could see?  Why did I spend those three months of that Chaplain Internship feeling as if it was my own loved ones who had died?

Over time, I came to realize that I felt that grief and loss so profoundly because it was my loved ones that had died… just years before.

You may have heard an old saying, that “Grief is contagious”.  I think that points at a truth, but does not get us all the way there.  It might be more true to say that grief finds other grief for company.  And that each of us carries many griefs with us, each and every day of our lives.

Through listening to the stories of many of my patients this year, I’ve come to believe we are formed as human beings more by our losses than by our gains, more by our failures than by our successes.  Perhaps that is because when we gain something, when we win, when we are successful… those moments require little for us to understand.  And yet when we have lost something, when a loved one has died, when we have lost a job or failed to achieve a dream, we seek to make sense of those moments in a way and to a degree we never have to with our successes.

So much of who we are as human beings is made up of what we have lost.

I began to realize that the grief of my families in the trauma center was connecting with the grief I had over my father’s death some 12 years before, from an unexpected and massive heart attack.  I began to realize that the grief those families shared with me was connecting with my own sense of loss of possibility, when I gave up several dreams in order to pursue a call to the ministry.  I began to realize that being with a grandmother and granddaughter mourning the loss of their daughter and mother in a car accident was reminding me of the grief I felt at the death of a friend in high school, who also died in a car accident.

We never grieve just one thing… because so much of who we are is made up of our grief and losses.

As I thought about my own grief during those summer days in Tennessee in 2006, I began to think of it like the ruins of an ancient city.  The people of my life who had died, the dreams I had given up on, the hopes that had been dashed, the friendships that had ended… all of these and so much more lay buried within me.  Some pieces of these many losses stuck up from the ground of my life, but most were buried under the soil of daily experience.  I often pretended that this grief was not there.

That is, until another loss came, and like an earthquake shook the soil loose enough that more of my grief was visible.  The gift of that summer in the Trauma center was that new grieving came so often that it shook the soil around my old griefs, my old losses so loose that I had no choice but to see them, and to begin learning to live with them.  To make all those old losses, and the new losses, a part of who I am.

There is a gift in this time when someone we love has died, and we are mourning their loss.  The gift is that the new grief we feel at their loss will help us find and connect with all the other grief that lies buried within us.  The new grief can help us to learn to live with all those other losses, to make them a part of who we are rather than burying them and pretending they are not there.

For, as we think of our loved one, as we think of what they taught us, as how we are a different human being for having known them, as we think of ways, some good, some not so good, that they have shaped who we are, we begin to see how we are shaped by so many other losses that are buried within us.

As we see those connections, we unearth those ruins and make them a part of the temple of our lives.  They cease to be ruins, and instead become shrines.  They become the foundation of who we are.

This is the gift that our loved ones who have died have given to us… the opportunity in our grief and our mourning to discover ourselves anew, and to engage in living again.  To see how who we are is formed not just by knowing them when they were alive, but by learning to live again without them.

It is our work, to allow this time of grief to guide us to unearth the ruins of all our past losses, and from them to make the foundation for the temple of our lives.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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