Nancy E. Petty
Sex, religion, politics, and money are typically considered taboo topics in American culture. If you don’t know the company you are in very well, and even if you do, it is advisable to stay away from these subject matters. While sex is a huge theme in American media and movies it is not a topic usually discussed in casual conversation, and especially not in church. How many of you felt your body tense up when the first word out of my mouth was sex? You thought, oh no, is she going to talk about sex on Mother’s Day. And those of you who didn’t tense up, well, you woke up. Didn’t you?
Religion is another one of those topics we have been taught to steer clear of when in conversation with folks we don’t know well, and again, those we do. Religion and religious views are very personal so we are taught to avoid discussing them so as to not offend another. And it is the same with politics. We have learned this lesson in spades these past two years. As we all know well, a friendly conversation on either religion or politics can quickly turn into shouting matches and frayed friendships.
While the mention of sex, religion, and politics can quickly turn a conversation south, they almost don’t register on the seismograph compared to the simple question: How much money do you make? Most people would rather be asked how often they have sex, or give a dissertation on their religious views, or reveal who they voted for before they will talk about how much money they make or have.
Any poll or research conducted will name these four – sex, religion, politics, and money – as the four greatest taboo topics in American culture. And while I tend to agree with the research and know this to be true, I what to suggest to you this morning that there is another American taboo subject, along with its companion, that ranks right up there with these four. What is this fifth American taboo topic? Death and its companion grief. While every single human being is in the process of dying and most of us grieving on some level, have you noticed how no one wants to talk about death and dying and grief?
Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to talk about death and dying, and the grief that goes along with death; and not just the death of a loved one but the grief that accompanies dead dreams and dead hopes? How did we become a culture that doesn’t know how to talk about death and its sibling, grief?
One writer described it this way: “Americans are known for their go-getter, rough them up, take victory attitude. The culture of the United States lies in the power of the individual, the might of one person against the world, as is proliferated by various media (including ones where we are portrayed as saving the day). As such, it is reasonable to conclude that death would be viewed as profoundly “un-American,” since it is the cessation of existence and the ultimate “defeat” of the self.”
The American dream seems to want the good without the bad. We want pleasure without pain. Success without struggle. Joy without sorrow. Laughter without tears. Hope without disappointment. Light without the dark. Love without loss. Life without death. And when it comes to grief – the grief that goes with the death of loved ones, and the death of our dreams and hopes and broken lives– well, grief in our culture is something to avoid, to keep silent, an exercise to do all alone. We can hear our collective culture’s resistance to grief and grieving in the things we say to one another. “This too shall pass.” “You’ll get over it.” “Think about how lucky you were to have 67 years together.” “God has another plan for you.” “It could be worse.” “Just think about the happy times.” Why is it so hard for us to say to one who is grieving: “Sadness sucks.” “I’m sorry you feel so lonely.” “I’ll hold you if you want to cry.” “If you want someone to sit with you in your grief, I’m here.” And why is it so hard to just sit with someone grieving or with our own grief and not have to say anything? Why is it not acceptable to call into work and say, “I am grieving today and I need to stay home?”
I am aware, especially on this day – Mother’s Day – of how gratitude and grief mingle together in profound ways. There is gratitude for our mothers who birthed us. Gratitude for mother figures who nurtured us. And there is grief for our mothers who have died. The grief of mother daughter/son relationships that didn’t meet expectations. Grief at the loss of never being called mother. And in many places today it will be the gratitude that gets expressed. And we will cry our grief in silence.
When I read the story of Tabitha in Acts I thought of this mingling of gratitude and grief and all the ways we want to hold onto life without facing death – without recognizing what other cultures know: that there is beauty and meaning in death and in dying and in grief. I’m not talking about a romanticizing of death and dying and grief. That would be the American approach. No, the beauty I’m thinking about is more about how death and dying and grieving can be profound moments of accompaniment and witnessing and relationship deepening and trust and faith and the affirmation of a love that never leaves us – in life or in death and in life after death.
Luke tells the story of the death of a woman in the community named Tabitha. In all honesty, we probably should just stop here for a moment and note how unusual it was for the patriarchy to identify a woman by her name. As readers today, our ears perk up when we hear her called by her name – and not just referred to as “a woman.” One might think that Luke identifies her by her name because she held a unique place in the community. And maybe she did. Or perhaps she was simply a normal person who took following Jesus seriously. We are told that she was a disciple devoted to good works and acts of charity. We are told that she was a seamstress of a sort – making tunics and other clothing. Tradition has painted her with bright colorful fabrics. And we are told that she became ill and died.
Next, the story tells us that the grieving community sent two men to fetch the pastor who was visiting in the next county over. They arrived with an urgent plea: Come quick Pastor Peter, Tabitha is dead. So Peter, knowing he would have to finish writing his sermon later, got up and went with them. When he arrived he found everyone standing around crying and they began showing Peter all the shirts and dresses and coats that Tabitha had made for them. Having listened to their memories of their friend, Peter asked everyone to step outside the room for a moment. And without any other explanation, the story tells us that Peter knelt down and prayed and then told Tabitha to get up. With that, we are told, she opened her eyes and sat up. Then comes my favorite line in the narrative, “He (Peter) gave her his hand and helped her up.”
As the staff discussed this story in worship planning I made the comment, “Have you ever thought: What if Tabitha didn’t want to be resurrected. What if she was tired of dealing with whatever illness she had and was ready for death and nobody wanted to talk with her about that?” It was at this point that one of my colleagues said, “Yes, this was a nonconsensual resurrection.” Um, nonconsensual resurrection! Since then I have been thinking that that is how our American culture deals with death and dying and grief – through nonconsensual resurrection. Through medical intervention, after medical intervention, we try and stave off death for as long as possible. Our approach is…no matter what you might want we are going to resurrect you. We don’t talk about death and dying. We shield ourselves and our children and youth from it by choosing hospital rooms instead of bedrooms; by dealing with our dead dreams and hopes with the next new car or house or vacation or latest technology gadget. And we put ourselves and others on a grieving timeline. We whisper, “You know it’s been six months, don’t you think they should be doing better.” In our anxiety, we push people to get back to “living” to resurrect themselves and get on with life.
The story of Tabitha, at least for me, stands as a reminder that nonconsensual resurrection is not how I want to deal with death and dying and grief. And not just the death and dying of people I love and the grief that comes with that; but of the death and dying and grief of lost dreams and hopes and aspirations and expectations. The death of the mother I wanted to be and the grief I feel around the mistakes I made as a parent. The death and dying of the America I thought I lived in and the grief that I feel in realizing we are not and have never been that America where we treat all people as being created equal. When I read the story of Tabitha I am aware that those early disciples and pastors struggled with death and dying and grief, too. Death was defeat. Resurrection was the miracle. Belief assuaged, if not, replaced grief.
Earlier, I said that my favorite line in the Tabitha story is the verse that reads, “He (Peter) gave her his hand and helped her up.” He gave her his hand and helped her up. That’s how I want to approach death and dying and grief. I want to approach death, in whatever form it comes, with my hand outstretched in a gesture of openness. I don’t want to ignore it or silence it. I want to give my grief and your grief a hand and help it up so that it is recognized and honored and respected. I want to make space – safe space – for us as a community to talk about our deaths and our dying and our grieving without giving it a timeline or proper words or set stages to get through.
My mind turned this week to thinking about how we might create a ritual for our community that would symbolize or embody a commitment and an openness to consensual death and grief rather than to nonconsensual resurrection. In other words, how do we convey our willingness to share with one another those things in our lives that are dying or have died and the things we grieve? An image came to mind. I thought about the pictures I have seen of the Wailing Wall – that sacred place where people of all faiths have stood and wept and prayed. Where they have tucked small pieces of paper in the tiniest of cracks with their prayers of gratitude and laments to God. Maybe, I thought, for a time we could benefit from such a place – a place where we could roll up small slips of paper and in tiny spaces place our griefs and our prayers when someone we love dies or when a dream or hope dies. A visual that says our community is open to talking about death and dying and grief. And so I had this piece made for us. Our own wailing wall of sorts.
And so I close this sermon with an invitation. You are invited to write on that slip of paper in your worship guide a grief you are holding – the death of a loved one, the death of a hope, the dying of a dream. And once you have written it down, you are invited to roll up that little piece of paper and come place it in one of the tiny holes on our grieving wall. In doing so, you are offering your willingness to share your grief and the grief of others. You are coming out of the closet and saying that it is important to talk about death and dying and grief in all the ways we experience it. You are also reaching out your hand and saying to your fellow Pullenites, I am here to offer my hand to help you up – to listen when you want to talk about the death of someone you love, or when you feel dead on the inside, or when you are grieving a fading hope; and I promise to forgo nonconsensual resurrection. I will not say this too shall pass. I will not say it will get better or God has another plan. In this community of faith may we commit ourselves to sharing and shouldering each other’s grief with respect, dignity, and openness.
Take your time, write your grief (your prayer) and then come and place it in our wailing wall.