February 7, 2017

Steamroller Grief



There’s that scene in Austin Powers – hilarious scene – in which the bad guy is about to be run over by a steamroller and the look on his face is one of terror. Well, when I say “about to” I mean he has 31 seconds to get out of the way.

Powers’ steamroller is going at such a slow pace that the bad guy has to pause several times in his long scream of “Noooooo!”, regather some oxygen and his wits, and then belt out another anguished wail.  Interminable. And all the while Austin is going “Move, move, get out of the way!”  It’s like “Come on, get crushed already!”

All to no avail.  Steamrollered – eventually.  Knowing it was coming, but doing nothing about it.

I’m there now.  With grief.  Steamrollered by it.  Over the last month I’ve waited and waited and waited.  And apart from a sternum-wrenching half hour watching Dad labour for breath on his second last day, nothing.  Grief was pushed to the background by the spacefiller of “have to’s”.

The new rental house move had to happen.

My father had to be buried.

The holiday away had to be had and was had, interspersed as it was by funeral arrangements, funeral leading and a couple of days of sleeping afterwards.

The old house of 17 years had to be be cleaned, gardened, emptied and handed over.

All of dad’s legal paperwork had to be signed and I was, just yesterday, relieved of my duties as dad’s administrator.

Work had to be recommenced.  I had to preach my first sermon, and like the curate’s egg, it was good in parts.

And now – only now – the grief is starting to kick in.

Delayed grief. Feeling a little steamrollered by it.

Steamroller grief is not the same as that sudden sharp impact of an unexpected death of someone young.  And in a sense I feel a bit of a charlatan feeling so grief stricken now.

Dad had been dying – noticeably – for some time.  It was coming.  But, as usual, when it came it shocked me. Shocked us.  As death should.  Away with such nonsense that death is a natural part of life.  The sickly father panting for breath on the Sunday was completely gone when I saw the waxen, immovable corpse the next day.  He no longer looked human.  Didn’t look at peace.  Looked like a discarded extra from Madame Tussaud’s.

Death is a brutal, disgusting enemy.  And as those who worship a God who cursed with death,  we should not diminish its impact, as if to tell God his curse “’tis a mere flesh wound”.

For, ironically, if we do that then we diminish the blessing of resurrection that he also gave so magnificently through his Son. If death is not so bad, resurrection is not so good.

My delayed grief is not the delayed grief of those who have no hope, to add a layer to St Paul’s thoughts to the 1Thess4:13.

So what has life looked like in Steamroller Grief?

It’s been a period of reflection. Time to think of my own mortality, that I am a mere twenty years away from the dementia that struck dad and killed him over the ensuing four years.  Looking back twenty years to when I was thirty, the time has sped past.  Another twenty will speed by even quicker.  What percentage of our world thinks this way?  So many live as if they are the exception that proves death’s rule.

It’s been a period of acknowledging mystery.  Our pre-packaged, metered secular age sucks the life out of mystery or bottles its faux version and sells it to us at exorbitant prices.  But death – the mystery of it all – strips that away.  I have pondered again the mystery of God and who He is, why He works the way he does. I have leant into him in a different way than normal.

Not long sessions of prayer and reading, but more a constant awareness of God’s proximity, nay his sheer presence.  In our “immanent frame”, as Charles Taylor puts it, the rational mind relegates all of this to the irrelevant.  It’s easy to allow that to happen, even as God’s people, and this grief, this Steamroller version of it at least, has given me a chance to soak in the “enchanted world” (another Taylor aphorism).

Oh, and listening to that amazing God-fearing artist, Sufjan Stevens, particularly his 2015 album Carrie and Lowell, a series of reflections on the death of his mostly absent, dreadfully broken mother.

Sufjan’s no conservative evangelical that’s for sure, so he’s the perfect bloke to say what many conservative evangelicals feel, but perhaps are too pious to say.  No Shade In The Shadow of The Cross bears reality to the fact that the shadow of the cross doesn’t mean we avoid suffering, and it’s confronting when we do.  There’s mystery to it all.  And the final stanzas of Casimir Pulasksi Day:

All the glory that the Lord has made/and the complications when I see His face/in the morning in the window.

All the glory when he took our place/but he took my shoulders and he shook my face/and he takes and he takes and he takes.

Yes he “took” our place indeed.  Yet, still, he takes.  One by one he takes us. Sometimes in large, horrific groupings.  Sometimes silently and solely. But the same Lord that giveth, taketh away.  And in this haunting album as I have listened to it, Sufjan Stevens captures that ambivalence, yet still manages to bless His name.

And then, outside the alone time, there are God’s beautiful, kind people.  I helped bury the loved ones of several of my church congregation last year, and grieve with their grief.  And they have done the same to me, pastoring me in ways that perhaps I didn’t even pastor them.  To see how God’s people face you in your grief and love you!  But hey, let’s just get on with bagging the church eh?

And some precious evenings sitting with Jill thinking and talking about grief and death and the pain we feel and the journey we are on, and the idea of what it would be to lose each other that way.  Or more to the point that we will lose one of us that way some time. And that making us yearn for something more, something beyond even each other that will somehow enrich even that that we have.

And preaching. Preaching as a dying man to dying men and women takes on new meaning. New urgency.  Something mysterious in how this God and Bible and salvation thing just works.  I indeed scorn the scornful rationalists who insist the Gospel renders us otherworldly and ethereal.  It does exactly the opposite.  I hear it said so often that Christians have their heads in the clouds, but the only realist funerals I have been to are Christian ones.  All of the others seem in deep denial about what has just happened.

Steamroller Grief hasn’t done with me.  The build up has been slow, so I expect it to recede slowly.  But Sufjan’s reflective words ring in my ears as I write:

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon/Why do you cry?/Make the most of your life, while it is rife/While it is light

Before he finishes with the seventh-repeated refrain

We’re all gonna die 

And that’s right and true and sobering and honest.  So make the most of your rife life. While it is light.

And then when it is dark, we wait, steamrollered by grief, but in hope of a new dawn.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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