Grief. Loss. Sorrow. These are familiar words in the practice of ministry—sometimes all too familiar. And they have been on my mind with some frequency in recent weeks.
As the nation’s health crisis escalated and events were cancelled and more and more things were shut down, I found my datebook and church calendar littered with a collection of horizontal lines slashing through words and numbers that had been on those pages.
A visit with friends in Washington. Gone. A planned trip to Japan for a wedding. Gone. Our camp auction, my work at a local college, dinners, other special events, and, of course, being face-to-face with my congregation for worship and fellowship. All gone, one by one, like a quickly falling line of dominoes. Some will be rescheduled, while others are lost to time. I’ve heard it from others, too, like a college senior mourning the loss of closure in her final semester or a retirement home resident no longer able to have visitors.
I found some comfort and resonance when I happened across a post by Liz Bidgood Enders, pastor of Ridgeway Community Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa., who wrote about experiencing similar feelings. She said, in part, “I want to acknowledge the loss that comes from dreams deferred, hopes put aside, celebrations and rites of passage put on hold. Like other losses, they will be integrated into the fullness of life, but like visiting a cemetery, when I see reminders of what was and is no more, sometimes I simply need to allow the tears to fall.”
As she notes, there are much larger losses out there: The growing number of people who have become ill, the many thousands who have died, the multitudes who are out of work, the businesses that are struggling or gone, the sacrifices of health care workers, and so much more. I’ve been fortunate that, as I write this, only a few of my friends and family members and church members have been directly affected. Yet nearly everyone is feeling loss in some way.
And while I’m grateful for technology that allows us to maintain some semblance of connection with alternate worship approaches and conversations in the midst of it all, I wonder at times if we have moved so quickly to replace what had been that we have failed to allow enough space to grieve the voids in our lives, individually and as the church—like telling a grieving family member at a funeral that they need to move on while their broken places are still raw.
Psalm 137 records the emotions of the Hebrew people after they were carried off into exile: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (NIV). They were still God’s people, but they were feeling profound loss as they were disconnected from almost all they had known.
In some ways, Brethren have good resources built into our theology to deal with such times. The Radical Pietists who shaped our heritage believed in the “invisible church,” bound together not by buildings or structures but by love and their common commitment to Christ. While we are physically apart during this time, we know that the bonds of heart and soul continue. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Invisible threads are the strongest ties.”
So by God’s grace, we carry on. We check on our neighbors, and especially the vulnerable. We offer support where we can. We find the rays of sunshine and occasionally even bits of humor in our situations. We endure short-term pain for the greater good of our communities and world. We pray and worship and sing. But we also acknowledge that in some moments our words are tinged by tears. We recognize the torn places in the tapestry of our communities.
In the words of author Robert Fulghum, “Love is a fabric which never fades, no matter how often it is washed in the water of adversity and grief.” May our love endure during these troubled times, but may we also be willing to enter those hard-yet-necessary waters of grief.
Walt Wiltschek is pastor at Easton Church of the Brethren (Easton, Maryland) and a member of the Messenger editorial team.