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Sermon illustrations

Grief

The Christmas Gift

A preaching professor at Harvard University tells the story of the year his 5-year-old son was working on an art project in his kindergarten class. It was made of plaster, resembled nothing in particular, but with some paint, sparkle and time in a kiln, it was ready to be wrapped as a gift. He wrapped it himself, and was beside himself with excitement. It would be a gift for his father, one three months in the making.

Early in December, when the child could hardly contain the secret, the last day of school finally came. All the parents arrived for the big Christmas play, and when the students left for home, they were finally allowed to take their ceramic presents home. The professor’s son secured his gift, ran toward his parents, tripped, and fell to the floor.

The gift went airborne, and when it landed on the cafeteria floor, the shattering sound stopped all conversations. It was perfectly quiet for a moment, as all involved considered the magnitude of the loss. For a 5-year-old, there had never been a more expensive gift. He crumpled down on the floor next to his broken gift and just started crying.

Both parents rushed to their son, but the father was uncomfortable with the moment. People were watching. His son was crying. He patted the boy on the head and said, “Son, it’s OK – it doesn’t matter.” His wife glared at the great professor. “Oh yes, it matters,” she said to both of her men, “Oh yes, it does matter.” She cradled her son in her arms, rocked him back and forth, and cried with him.

In a few minutes, the crying ceased. “Now,” said the mother, “let’s go home and see what can be made with what’s left.” And so with mother’s magic and a glue gun, they put together from the broken pieces a multi-colored butterfly. Amazingly, the artwork after the tragedy was actually much more beautiful than what it had been in a pre-broken state.

At Christmas, the gift was finally given, and as long as he taught at Harvard, the professor kept the butterfly on his desk. It was a constant reminder that grief is real, and that loss hurts. It was also a reminder that from great loss, great beauty can eventually emerge.

Andy Cook 

Grief in Modern Life

In 2011, the online publication, Slate, surveyed its readers about their experiences of grief. Apparently, grief was a hot topic for many readers because they received nearly 8,000 responses within one week.

One of the contributors who published the results is a psychologist who specifically studies grief. In reporting the results of the survey, she noted that one of the strangest aspects of grief is the gap between what we experience privately and what we express to others in public. The result of that gap is that grief can be a deeply isolating experience. We feel alone like we are the only ones going through it and no one else really understands.

The survey revealed the following:

  • One-third of the respondents reported they had experienced their loss eight or more years ago, suggesting the ongoing presence of the felt loss.
  • Only 7 percent of mourners felt it was “completely true” that they received adequate support from others.
  • A significant theme emerged in how people felt their grief made others uncomfortable. People grieving felt others rapidly tired of their sad mood and the support they did received quickly waned under the expectation that they move on.
  • Nearly 30 percent felt alone with their grief most of the time.
  • 13 percent said they felt alone in their grief all of the time.

Written by Jason Baxter, Source Material from Slate, “What is Grief Really Like: Analyzing the Results of the Slate Survey on Loss by Leeat Granek and Meghan O’Rourke.

Love Turned Inside-Out

In an interview discussing her most recent book Hamnet, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell shares a great analogy on grief. It started with research she needed to do on embroidery, an area in which she was previously unfamiliar. O’Farrell approached a friend with experience on the subject, and as she recounts, 

We were looking at this beautiful thing she had made and she turned it over and the back was much more complicated, quite messy,” she says. “In a sense that’s what grief is: you turn love inside out, like a sock or a glove, that’s what you find, isn’t it? Grief is just the other side of love.

Interview: Maggie O’Farrell: Severe Illness Refigures You-It’s Like Passing Through a Fire, Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, March 27, 2021.

A Need to Heal the Past

One of the challenges, at least in the western church, is an inability to deal with our wounds in a healthy way. Our training as Christians has been focused on Bible studies, small groups, and Sunday worship. But little thought has been given to the connection between our emotional and spiritual lives. This, I believe, is why seemingly pious saints can wreak so much damage on the church. There’s tons of spiritual head knowledge, but without healing the wounds of the past, they are unable to experience healthy relationships. The Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser describes this budding awareness of our unhealed past:

Once the sheer impulse of life begins to be tempered by the weight of our commitments and the grind of the years, more of our sensitivities begin to break through, and we sense more and more how we have been wounded and how life has not been fair to us. New demons then emerge: bitterness, anger, jealousy, and a sense of how we have been cheated. Disappointment cools the fiery energies of our youth, and our enthusiasm begins to be tempered by bitterness and anger . . . where once we struggled to properly control our energies, we now struggle to access them.

Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (New York: Image, 2014), 6.

Platitudes not Necessary

Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy in a book called The Bereaved Parent. When her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, “I know that this is a painful time for you. But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden than we can bear.

God only let this happen to you because He knows that you are strong enough to handle it.” She looked at the pastor and drew the logical conclusion. “So,” she said, “if only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive?”Every pastor and mature Christian learns, sooner or later, that there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to cry together.

Andy Cook

Talking to God During Great Grief

The first funeral I officiated was for an eighteen-year-old girl killed in a car accident. To this day I’ve never experienced a more difficult funeral. And as I spoke and looked out into a sea of grief, one face stood out—that of her boyfriend. I met with him shortly after the funeral and learned that days before the accident he had purchased an engagement ring and had been planning to propose.

Neither of us spoke much during that initial meeting; words felt treasonous. But in the meetings that followed, we gradually opened up to one another, and he asked me how to deal with all the anger and grief. He told me prayer had never come easily for him. He never knew how to talk to God, and at this particular moment he had nothing nice to say. So I gave him a Bible, put a small bookmark in Job 1, and suggested this was a good place to start. We met a few weeks later, and when I asked him how the reading was going he said, “I didn’t know we could talk to God like that. If I can talk to God like that, maybe I can talk to God.”

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer p.36. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Time to Lament

In a time of acute crisis, when death sneaks into houses and shops, when you may feel healthy yourself but you may be carrying the virus without knowing it, when every stranger on the street is a threat, when we go around in masks, when churches are shut and people are dying with nobody to pray by their bedside – this is a time for lament.

For admitting we don’t have easy answers. For refusing to use the crisis as a loudspeaker for what we’d been wanting to say in any case. For weeping at the tomb of our friends. For the inarticulate groaning of the Spirit. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice,’ said Paul, ‘and weep with those who weep.’ Yes, and the world is weeping right now. The initial calling of the Church, first and foremost, is to take our place humbly among the mourners.

Grief, after all, is part of love. Not to grieve, not to lament, is to slam the door on the same place in the innermost heart from which love itself comes.

N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, Zondervan, 2020.

Who Else?

A good friend of mine lost her child recently. Unspeakable, seismic sadness. When she called, I listened in stunned silence as she told me what had happened. My mind was racing, trying to comprehend the reality of it and thinking about getting a plane ticket as soon as I hung up the phone. I had received the phone call just as I’d pulled up to our house, and I sat in my car long after we hung up, crying in disbelief and pain for my friend.

For the next few days, before I left for the funeral, I wondered, Who else? As I walked through crowds at the store and went to meetings at work, I thought, Who else near me has been through this kind of horror and buries it below the surface because no one wants to see this kind of pain up close?

Were there scores of people I was rubbing elbows with who were a part of this club that no one wanted to join, but I just couldn’t see it? I remember when one of my friends had a miscarriage, she was amazed by the women who came out of the woodwork with “me too.” She’d had no idea. One of the rules of membership was silence until another member was recognized.

Nancy Ortberg, Seeing in the Dark: Finding God’s Light in the Most Unexpected Places, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

See also Illustrations on HealingLossPainSuffering

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Grief. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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