1 I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word
3 On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
4 All the leaders of the earth shall praise you, Holy One,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
5 They shall sing of Your ways,
for great is Your glory.
6 For though the You are high, you regard the lowly;
but the haughty you perceive from far away.
7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
8 God will fulfil God’s purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O God, endures for ever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
It was about 6pm when my pager went off. I was a hospital chaplain resident, aka chaplain-in-training in Brooklyn, New York and I was on call overnight. That meant that I stayed at the hospital overnight and received automatic calls on my pager for every death, every cardiac arrest, every pregnancy-related crisis and any other requests from staff or patients for a chaplain. I received an average of 2-4 calls each night.
This particular night, an usually jostled nurse was on the other end of the first page. She was calling from a day surgery unit. These were usually pretty low risk procedures. So when a man died unexpectedly during a routine heart procedure, it shook everyone. She asked me to come immediately as the daughter of the man was “out of control.” I arrived to find a white woman in her 50s indeed out of control, throwing herself against the walls of the room she was in and pounding them in her grief yelling, “No no no and why, why, why???” at me, God and later at her father’s body. Grief and shock had left her in a bewildered rage at us all.
Another night. Another hospital room:
It had been decades since their divorce. He had remarried and lived a gorgeously full life since then. A love beyond what he knew could be real. And still when the mother of his children died, he felt a grief he didn’t know he still had. He was back in the days and weeks following her request for divorce. He remembered his voice, what it smelled like that summer day and the exact drink he had craved when he hung up. Mostly, the question of “why?” had returned to haunt him with a vengeance. Why did she want a divorce? Why didn’t he ask her? Why did it he care so many years later? Why, why, why?
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, the most common thing people asked me was a variation on this question: “Why?” “Why is this happening?” “Why did God do this to me?” “Why is this a part of God’s plan?” Why, why, why.
I didn’t have an answer to that question. I didn’t believe in a God with pre-decided plan for each life, or a God that would foist suffering on anyone wither. I didn’t have the right theological logic for these questions, and they also felt WAY beyond my pay grade. And, as my supervisor once said, “It’s not your job to give anyone a theological transplant. Their theology is serving a purpose in their lives just like yours is.” My job was to listen for that purpose behind the words and find a way to speak to it.
Over and over again, I found myself with a new question to offer in response to this question of “Why?” “Where is God in this – this moment, this hospital room, this news, this horror, this grief.”
After she saw her father’s body, we came back to the waiting room where her mother, now a widow after almost 60 years of marriage, was sitting quietly with her purse neatly tucked on her lap. The daughter raged on. The mother sat nearly silently. After some time, I began to ask them both about the man – the husband and father – who had died. The question I was really asking was, “Where was God in this man’s life?”. The body I had seen on the operating table turned into a beloved father and husband in the stories they wove. I remember almost nothing they said now. But I remember this one line from the mother as one of the most tender things anyone ever said about a beloved in that hospital: “I’m going to miss him complaining about how I made his tuna sandwiches too dry.” Grief had transformed even the annoyance of his complaints into gratitude. Grief didn’t diminish in gratitude’s presence, but grief had company, holy company. God was so palpably present in that room.
“Where do you think God was in your divorce?” I asked in another room, on another night, down another hospital hallway. He looked at me with eyes wet with tears and began to tell me about his second wife whom he never would have met if this divorce hadn’t happened. And after some time, he told me about where God was even in that first marriage. And after some more time, where God was in this moment we were in. The tears continued. So did the grief. So did the gratitude.
As one of Kayla’s care team wisely noted the other day as we were processing her death, “Grief has a way of welcoming all the grief of one’s life. [A friend’s death] means we say hello to the mother we once lost and the others we once lost before.” Thank you, Sarah Kuhnen. In other words, we feel loss cumulatively, one loss triggering memories in our minds and bodies of another. But the good news is that I think gratitude is cumulative also. One gratitude leads to an opening in our beings towards God and to more gratitude. Grief and gratitude are are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be exquisitely braided together.
The psalms are some of the best sacred models of that weaving. Even the psalms of lament hold in them gratitude for God. And the psalms of Thanksgiving, like the psalm we honor today, hold the knowing of grief and loss and times when God didn’t feel so close. This is why I love the psalms – they are alive with complicated reality of human experience and feeling.
I also love them because they are in themselves a ritual of gratitude. When we speak them, our mouths take on the shape of gratitude for God even when our hearts don’t feel it yet. “I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart,” says the psalmist. I have no idea what that writer’s life was like, but I imagine it wasn’t all that different in feeling than my own, or any of the beloveds I met in hospital rooms in Brooklyn. Thousands of years a part, we all surely know the ache of grief in our bones, though the causes were different. “I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart.”
Like the Love Rev. Rebecca talked about last week, gratitude is not just a feeling. It is a choice. And we have to practice making that choice through ritual. That’s why we have the psalms. They are like strength training for the muscle of praise and thanksgiving to God.
“I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart.” “I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart.”
We say them until we feel them. We praise God until we feel God. And then we might actually want to keep on saying them.
Beloveds, life is filled with grief and loss. Even if you are not feeling it personally or acutely today, our country and our planet are swimming in it so you are swimming in it. My challenge to you is this. Instead of asking yourself “Why?” ask yourself “Where” this week. Where is God? Where is Love? Where is new possibility? Where is subversive creation? And how can I be a part of it? And when you get stuck, open up a bible. Find a psalm, and read it. Or just say to yourself until you feel it, “I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart.” “I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart.”