The Slow Way: Grief and the "Wild Divine"
Sometimes the thing we thought was faith was actually our act of clinging to the wrong story. This here, my grief, this is the real story. What will faith look like now?
Last week was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 74. Last year, on his 73rd, he was a few months after brain surgery and in the middle of treatment for cancer. My brother arranged for a tour of one of the three houses in Texas designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, our dad’s favorite architect. (Our dad was freshly retired from a lifelong career in architecture.) The owners of the house (in my hometown) opened their home to my family and he celebrated his birthday there. It was perfect.
This week we as a writing community marked the third anniversary of Rachel Held Evans’ death. The gap she left is still so painful to accept. Some heartbreaks seem otherworldly. Also, today would have been my friend Ali’s birthday She passed away almost six and a half years ago, when she was barely older than I am now. So many anniversaries in one week.
This year on my dad’s birthday I woke up, had a good cry, went shopping for a tree to plant in my yard in his memory, and thought a lot about grief and what I’ve learned about it in the past five months. We now have beautiful, delicate redbud growing in our front yard. And I have a head full of thoughts on sorrow, faith, and what makes us whole.
It felt right that, this same week when we’re remembering Rachel, the organization she helped found, Evolving Faith, was back with a new podcast season. (If Evolving Faith Podcast is new to you, check it out. I adore both Jeff Chu and Sarah Bessey, and think they are the best nerdy-Jesus duo out there.) And their first episode with Barbara Brown Taylor’s talk from their conference in 2019 had me taking notes on pieces of scrap paper in the laundry room.
In her talk she considers the disciples, whom Jesus took with him up to the Mount of Olives the night before his crucifixion to pray with him. “But they fell asleep and . . . it was out of grief,” Barbara Brown Taylor says. “They kept hoping Jesus would make the mountain less steep, the desert less hard, the cloud less scary. But he wouldn’t – he couldn’t? – do it. Because those were the places where God changed people. After they’d run out of everything they could do for themselves, after all their old certainties had bit the dust, then and only then were they empty and confused enough for something new to take root in them.”
Emptiness and confusion can do a powerful work in us, can’t they? I think a lot about my old certainties in light of what it turns out is actual reality. Or as BBT says in her talk, “When you said you had faith, you meant you had faith this wouldn’t happen to you…you had faith that God would come up with a better plan.” This rings so true to me. Sometimes the thing we thought was faith was actually our act of clinging to the wrong story. This here, where my grief is, this is the story. What will faith look like now?
Long before my dad got sick I had left behind (mostly) the notion of God making some divine plan out of our most horrible realities. I didn’t want to be part of a divine will that left babies dead at birth, or that allowed 3-year-olds to get cancer. Not a divine will that determines who gets born into a dangerous family environment, allows children to be abused, or intends for an entire community to be devastated by drought, floods, or war. I don’t want to believe that God had a special will that included my friend Ali dying of cancer at the age of 43, or Rachel dying suddenly at the age of 37. What I cling to is a faith that says there is a Holy One who makes all things new. There is a Spirit who reaches into the devastation (why the devastation happens is a mystery) and creates life in the death. I want to believe that every good and perfect gift is from above, whether or not I understand why there are ugly and devastating things that happen simultaneously, along with all the goodness.
Barbara Brown Taylor says faith is not about securing our old certainties, but allowing the death of our certainties to make room for something new. “Maybe it wasn’t even new,” she considers. “Maybe it was the saved seed of an old, divine, wildness in them that had been paved over too many times, shoved down every time it raised its head, that needed a good long stretch in the wilderness to come to life again.”
The “old, divine, wildness in them.” Goodness, that’s beautiful. What does grief create in us? Maybe it doesn’t create anything. Maybe grief just wears down our defenses and our pretenses enough to reveal that Wild Divine underneath the answers that no longer hold up, underneath our privilege, underneath our attempts at safety.
Brown Taylor quotes Francis Weller when she says, “Almost everyone who falls off sorrow’s wild edge spends a lot of time wanting the grief to go away, so they can go back to where they were before. But we are not meant to go back.” That leads her back to the Beatitudes, where you know I love to go: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to cultivate a way of being with God and one another that is lean enough to live in the wilderness for as long as necessary? . . . ‘Subsistence spirituality’ may even be what Jesus had in mind when he said a blessing on the poor in spirit. I don’t know anyone who wants that blessing…everyone I know wants to be rich in spirit! They want the kind of faith that can move mountains, not the kind that moves into the shadow of one, or enters the cloud on top of one, with no assurance of coming out in one piece.”
It seems to me that those of us who live with grief, disability, broken relationships, or mental health struggles — that is to say, all of us — have the opportunity to understand that no one wants the “poor in spirit” blessing. But it seems to be where Jesus always starts when inviting us to the authentic love and relationship that what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “subsistence spirituality” just might provide. It’s a place where there are no answers, but there is holy presence.
And, as my kids’ old Sunday School lessons always reminded us, we can come so close to God and God can come so close to us that we can be transformed. I think grief just might be a door to that transformation.
A Slow Practice
Can we consider that Wild Divine part underneath all the easy answers, privileges, and safety-seeking that life and grief can strip away?
I want us to reflect on a poem from Ranier Marie Rilke, who lived in the late 19th century and wrote in Austrian. And whose Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (trans. By Anita Barrow and Joanna Macy) has been a lifeline for me.
Sometimes the practice of prayer is found in doing, whether it’s following a script, an ancient prayer, or simply responding to the Spirit with words. But, often, we just need to receive. Today, I invite you to read this poem out loud for yourself. It may ring true to you. It may not. This poem is not claiming to be divine truth! But it is a powerful image to me of remaking a life of faith, of crystallizing what is left when the fluff has been removed.
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want you to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
After you’ve read this out loud, will you take time to sit with it, wonder about it? Consider what speaks to you and what doesn’t. Then come back to it and read it aloud again, asking how these words speak to your own situation.
Read it again.
Is there a word or phrase that you want to sit with a little longer? Set your timer for three minutes, and hold that phrase in the presence of God. You don’t have to gain some great insight, but maybe something will settle in you about why you’re drawn to that phrase.
Close with this prayer: When you, the nameless one, draws near to us, let us be among the wise ones. Amen
A List of Things
This past week on The Lucky Few, Heather Avis and I had a thoughtful and fun conversation about Self Care: What we mean when we say “self care,” what it is, and what it is not. This in an episode for everyone, not just parents of kids with disabilities. Find it here!
Are you participating in Laura Tremaine’s social media challenge #onedaymay? I can’t keep up with everyday, but I’m tracking and sneaking into my instagram with the challenges from time to time this month. It’s a fun way to stretch your share habits, and also a way to find new online connections.