Tag Archives: grief

Wrestling in the Night, Blessing in the Morning

nightbeforedawn

Today would have been the 8 month birthday of our granddaughter, Eliana. (Happy Birthday, Precious Little One!) She was born on February 17, 2016 and died 6 months ago yesterday, on April 16. In one of those not infrequent coincidences, the first lesson appointed for yesterday told the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32). It’s a mysterious story, and one that has received a broad range of interpretations through the  centuries, both in Judaism and Christianity. As I taught through the lesson at two of our bible classes this past week, it touched me deeply and resonated with the wrestling I’ve gone through in the past year.  In yesterday’s sermon, my own story provided the launch point for thinking and talking about an elusive God, about questions that remain unanswered and griefs that remain unresolved, and the God revealed in Jesus. The reference to a parable of Jesus near the end is from the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 18:1-8.  You can also listen to the sermon on Faith’s YouTube channel .

Today marks the 6 month anniversary of the death of our granddaughter, Eliana. She was born on February 17 of this year with a genetic skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Aside from the extraordinary pain that was a constant in her life, she was prone to infection. Her 3rd encounter with infection ravaged her little body and she could not overcome it. On April 16, she died. In these 6 months, I have been Jacob, wrestling with God in the darkness. Some of my fundamental assumptions about faith and about how God works in the world and in peoples’ lives have been called into question. There have been times when I didn’t want to pray, when I couldn’t pray. There have been times when I have wondered even about prayer itself, wondering if prayer works or what, exactly, it is. For all of my struggles and wrestling, I don’t feel like I know very much more now than I did in those first raw days after her death.

In our first lesson this morning, Jacob the conniver becomes Jacob who wrestles with God. The Conniver is going back home. Jacob is the one who decades earlier tricked his way into his brother Esau’s birthright, stealing it outright. Jacob posed as his brother and their aging, nearly blind father fell for the trick. To escape the wrath and vengeance of his brother Jacob left home. Life in a faraway land had been good to Jacob. He had become a wealthy man. But he yearned for home. He prayed for safe travels and he prayed that his brother might receive him in love. But frankly he was worried. Now just before the crucial time when he was to meet his brother Esau, he sent his large family and his servants and his cattle and his sheep and his goats and his donkeys across the River Jabbok onto his brother’s land. And he stayed one more night on the far side of the river. He will meet his brother tomorrow; tonight he must wrestle with God.

This image of Jacob wresting with God gives us a different picture of God. This God is an elusive God, one who comes in the dark of the night and will not let himself be fully known. This God throws Jacob to the ground and holds Jacob’s arm behind his back and puts him in a headlock. This God will not let Jacob get to tomorrow without a struggle. When morning comes and the wrestling is over, Jacob walks with a limp. His hip joint was injured in one of those moments when God threw him to the ground. His encounter with God left a mark.

In my own struggles of the past 6 months, I have never believed like God was not present. But I have felt more acutely the things I cannot know about God. I realize that what I thought I knew about God and about how God works in the world is clouded in ambiguity and mystery. My mind has been changed. My heart has changed. And my faith has changed. Wrestling with God leaves a mark. In fact, I don’t think we can ever have an encounter with the divine and remain the same. I think God is always with us in the middle of struggle and doubting and questioning and seeking; but that doesn’t imply that we remain unchanged in the encounter. The pain we experience in the hard things of life leave a scar, a limp, an empty space. I was talking with someone this week who is grieving and they said they feel like they need to move on. I don’t know if we move on as much as we just keep walking. Sometimes with a limp. Doing the best we can.

When Jacob and God get to morning, they have wrestled to a draw. God has not defeated Jacob, nor has Jacob overcome God’s divine power. For Jacob, wrestling with God to a draw feels like a win. At least he’s alive; to get to morning after struggling with God all night is saying something. So Jacob asks for a blessing. What I think he was asking for was more of the same — the material blessings of sons and cattle and sheep and goats.

God gives him a blessing, but a blessing of God’s choosing, not of Jacob’s choosing. Instead of more material wealth, God gives Jacob a new life, a new name, a new identity. No longer will he be Jacob; he will be Israel. As the father of a people, he will be given a measure of that divine power and will be instructed to put to use for the good of all. 

At the heart of our own life with God is the new name and new identity that God has given us. You are Christian. You are marked on your forehead with the cross of Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, in the waters of baptism we participate in the life-giving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Joined to Christ in the baptismal waters, you have a new identity and a new life. That new life is given brand new every day. We wake up in the morning, remember our baptism, make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our new identity, receive the forgiveness of sins. We are given a measure of divine power and instructed to put it to use for the good of all.  It may not always be the blessing we seek, but it is the blessing that gives us life and sustains our life.

Feeling pretty good about this encounter with God, Jacob goes one step further. He wants to know intimately this God with whom he has wrestled. “What’s your name?” Jacob asks. In that question, Jacob wants to bridge the distance between himself and God.  Jacob wants to remove the mystery, Jacob wants all the answers. Just like the couple in the Garden of Eden, Jacob wants to know God on his terms, not on God’s terms. In response to that question, God changes the subject and then turns and walks away. It’s the question that God will not answer.

Though we may wish it be otherwise, God is still God, and we are still creatures. Much of what we would like to know about God and about our place in the world and why things happen and what God is doing about the pain in our own lives and the evil in the world, lies behind the veil. Not every question will be answered. Not every struggle will be resolved. Not every grief will be healed. Not every problem will be solved. Most of the answers to the questions that begin with “Why. . .” will not be answered this side of eternity.  God is still God and we are not. There is still much about God and God’s ways that remains a mystery.

And still somehow we go on. Somehow, still, by God’s grace we trust in God’s goodness. Somehow, in the midst of all we don’t know about God, we do know this about God. That God has come to us in Jesus. What we need to know about God, we know in Jesus. In the God we know in Jesus, there is grace and mercy and peace and hope.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable that is supposed to teach his followers to pray always and not lose heart. A widow keeps asking a corrupt judge for justice until he grants her request, just to get rid of her. When we talked about this story in confirmation class on Wednesday, one of the students asked, “Does praying more increase the chances that your prayers will be answered?” I think it’s a pretty logical question, but one that we know from our experience is not true. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this story. I think Jesus knows that things will sometimes be hard. And for whatever reason, the answers we seek are not available to us. The story ends with Jesus asking if he will find faith when he comes back to bring all things to fullness. Maybe that’s a key to living faithfully in the wrestling. To know and to trust that in the midst of things that are hard, things that we cannot fully understand, things which bring pain and sorrow, God is at work, God is good, and God will carry us through.

When daylight had come and Jacob’s combatant had left,  Jacob took a moment for worship. He sang a song, said a prayer, and built an altar to mark the spot where he had wrestled with God. Peniel he called it, literally, the face of God. “I have seen the face of God.” It was time to get across the river, and get on with the business of meeting his brother, and whatever the coming days had in store for him. This morning, we sing a song, say a prayer, come to this altar. And then we go, confident that whatever limp we walk away with, whatever grief or pain we carry, whatever questions and doubts still linger, we have seen the face of God. And we will walk across that River Jabbok facing our own tomorrows in hope, secure in the love of God.

Sermon at Eliana’s Funeral

IMG_0086On Sunday afternoon, we held the service to commend Eliana to God’s care. It was a hard and beautiful time. The church was packed beyond capacity; so many family and friends came to help us sing Eliana across the river: family from all over, friends, neighbors,  members from Faith Lutheran Church where I am the pastor, members from Acacia Park Lutheran Church where Chris is pastor, pastoral colleagues from across the Chicago area, colleagues and partners in our community work. It was a glorious gathering. Todd Carrico, our music director did a fabulous job of leading the song, and did the assembly ever sing! They sang for us when the words were stuck in our throats or held back by tears. 

I don’t usually publish my sermons as part of this blog. Sermons are contextual and best heard in the assembly as they are preached. This one is no exception. However, in some ways, this sermon is a continuation of what I have written in the past few posts I’ve shared here, thoughts about promises and resurrection and what all that could mean as we grieve Eliana’s death, a life too short and in which there was too much pain. 

The sermon was based on the lessons Chris and Liz chose for the service: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 4-7, 18-19, Psalm 139:1-17, Romans 8:26-27, and John 4:1-15. Often in the sermon, I use what in the printed word seems to be an ambiguous “you.” In most cases, I’m addressing Eliana’s parents, Chris and Liz Honig.

Eliana Frances Honig. Eliana. God hears. What a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl. Eliana’s world was pretty small and pretty limited. Nearly her entire life was spent in the confines of a small room on the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit of Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago. Yet, she was Eliana. There is both joy and a deep sense of sadness today. Only in her death do you get to introduce her to the world. When you penned her obituary, you told us about a beautiful, brave little girl who was a fighter, who sparred with her nurses and had her own unique way of curling up her feet and touching her bandaged hand to her cheek, who in spite of her near constant pain tried to soothe herself, and was responsive to the gentle sound of your voice and touch, even when there were so few places you could touch her.  I think she must have been the most well-read 8 week old on the planet.

What you have described is Eliana, a girl with her own personality in spite of her EB, a unique human being who was not defined by her disease. God created Eliana. God created her in God’s image. From the very beginning God knew her and God loved her. While her skin disorder made her life difficult and painful, she was formed wonderfully, and you, her parents, were able to see how extraordinarily she was knit together, how remarkable and complex she was. She was, in spite of her disease, in spite of her short life, a precious human life with consciousness and will and the ability to connect with those few people who were able to come to know her.

And she was loved. Oh, was she loved. She was loved by mama and papa, Grampa Frank and and Gramma Luann, Grampa Jim and Gramma Sheryl, Aunt Shannon, Uncle Tim and Aunt Stacey, nurses Kate and Ursula and Sara and Stephanie, Dr. Henna, Dr. Mancini, Dr. Chamlin. Oh, that child was loved. And not because she was any of those amazing things that appear in her obituary. She was loved because of her life. Your love for Eliana allowed you to see those amazing things in her. The mutual love of child to parent and back again brought joy to you and to everyone who got to know Eliana.

That joy is muted today because the sad truth is we are not intended to bury our babies. I have no words to make sense of why we have to do that. For all of my faith and all of my theology, I have never been able to put together a cogent explanation for the kind of suffering that Eliana experienced, and the suffering of parents who lose their children.

At first glance, the gospel lesson has little to say to those who are grieving the death of a child. Jesus is enjoying a little verbal sparring with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. They happen to be at the old well of Jacob in the middle of the day. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman should be talking to each other. Yet the conversation goes on and in response to the woman’s questions and yearnings, Jesus talks about water and thirst and the possibility of never being thirsty again and about how one’s deep thirst can be slaked by a water that brings eternal life.

On April 7, on the morning before she went to surgery to have a feeding tube inserted, Eliana was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Though it wasn’t an abundance of water, it was water with the Word that brought to your precious daughter the gushing springs of life. It wasn’t exactly the baptism that you had imagined. It was not at church, and beautiful Eliana traded a lacy white baptismal dress for Aqua-phor soaked dressings that wrapped her wounds. Still, in the application of water of from a tiny plastic vial along with the words of the gospel, it was living water; it was water that gave her springs of life with God.

When we mention this promise of eternal life, though, I hope we won’t immediately and automatically fall into the pious platitudes that offer little help when our grief is so raw. “Well, she’s in a better place,” some are quick to say.  I say that being held in her parents arms would be a fine place. There is truth in the promise of eternal life. We don’t have to speak of Eliana as if she has disappeared, disintegrated into nothing. She lives, having passed through the gateway of death into life in God’s nearer presence. God has welcomed her with the loving arms of one who says, “Fear not, precious little girl. I have called you, Eliana, and you are mine.” The pain that was so much a part of her life her on this side of the river is over. She has been made whole. Her baptismal promises she has received in all their fullness.

Those promises, true though they may be, seem small consolation in the face of Eliana’s death. Her death came way too soon and it leaves us feeling empty and cheated. I’m not ready to hear words that tie it all together in a nice clean bow so that now we are expected to make sense of it all and move on.

So many people were praying for a miracle. Frankly, I would have settled for less than a miracle. I would have settled for a little luck and a little time.  Those gifts were not given. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why. If asking God for healing is something we are allowed to do, then why are some prayers answered and others not? Another theological conundrum for which I have no answer.

Is that why you chose the passage from Romans? Because words for prayers have run dry after the one thing you so desperately prayed for has been denied?

The Spirit will hold you up. The Spirit will gather your sighs and your cries, your bone-deep sobs and your anger and the sadness and take them to God and God will hold them in God’s heart, loving you in the midst of what is inexplicable. The promise that the Spirit will hold you is nearly identical to the strong and gentle words of the prophet: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Somehow God was with Eliana through her ordeal and she has had her homecoming. Somehow God is with you in the midst of facing her loss. And here’s what gives those promises their teeth, what makes them more than nice, empty words.  When God chose to come among us in Christ, God risked becoming vulnerable to all that this broken and fallen word might have to offer. In the last days of his life, Jesus experienced the worst that a broken and fallen world could throw at him: abuse, and beating and mockery and finally a cruel, torturous death. There is no place we can go where God has not already been; there is no horror we can experience that God has not already endured. In Eliana’s cries of pain, God was not distant but by her side. In your grief and sorrow, God has not abandoned you, but is in fact carrying you. When you pass through such unspeakable loss, God says, I will be with you, I will carry you.

Look around you Chris and Liz. Look around you at the community that has carried you and promises to carry you into the future. When you can’t believe, they will believe for you; when you can’t pray, they will pray for you. When you don’t feel like taking even one step, they will be here to walk with you. The loving arms of God hold you fast through the people of Acacia Park Lutheran Church, Faith Lutheran Church, your family, your friends and all the others gathered here today. We are holding you today.

In a few moments, you will be invited to this table to receive the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We will sing. With saints and angels we will sing. We sing because that’s what we do when there is nothing else that we can do. For a brief moment, the curtain that separates us from those who have already crossed over is opened and we join the saints and angels in their song. Eliana is singing that song, and we sing with her. She is enjoying that feast of victory at the banquet table of the Lamb. When we receive our morsel of bread and taste of wine, we join her at table, she eating the feast of victory, and we a meal in which God promises to sustain us for the journey that for us is not yet over. In the bread and wine comes the promise one more time: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.