Take That, COVID

Survivor's guilt and the power of defiant joy

Last Sunday, I preached twice at Bedford Presbyterian Church - for the morning service and for the installation of their new pastor in the afternoon. The arrival of a pastor is liturgy of celebration. I confess: I wondered how the tone of joy would resonate with a congregation in these days of COVID.

My first sermon was on gratitude, and the congregation listened carefully, appearing to appreciate it. Afterward, we sang (appropriately masked and distanced) a hymn, one typically sung at Thanksgiving:

Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving
To God our Creator triumphantly raise,
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,
By guiding us on to the end of our days.
God’s banners are o'er us, Pure light goes before us,
A pillar of fire shining forth in the night.
Til shadows have vanished, all fearfulness banished
As forward we travel from light into light.

I got all choked up - especially with the line about the God “who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us, by guiding us on to the end of our days.” Indeed, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude, so incredibly thankful to be alive, and knowing that every person in that congregation had made it through the pandemic to that moment. The sanctuary seemed aglow with the spirit of a God who had protected, stayed, and guided. The Light who banishes all fearfulness.

The joy was palpable. And so was something else - a strange sense of guilt for feeling grateful when so many have died. Is it right to feel thankful to have survived?

* * * * *

Survivor’s guilt is a relatively recent concept, more widely identified and studied by psychologists following the Holocaust. Professor Raymond Bergner has noted that it is “guilt without perceived wrongdoing. . . Survivors don’t feel guilty because they did something wrong. They feel guilty because they lived.”

There are, of course, different degrees of survivor’s guilt and differing symptoms of it (here’s a helpful guide to understanding survivor’s guilt). Whatever the specific circumstances, however, surviving a trauma results in profound “why” questions: Why did so many die? Why am I still alive? Why did God let this happen? Why did God protect or heal some and not all?

For people of faith, individual feelings of survivor’s guilt often flow into significant theological questions. As I stood in the chancel singing, thanksgiving gave way to sense of shame over gratitude and the sadness of loss brought the theological concerns to mind. In my own heart, I struggled back toward gratefulness - all the while wondering if it is even appropriate to giving thanks right now.

There’s been a lot of talk in church circles about the post-pandemic church being a community of grief and lament. Indeed, one of the ways that therapists enable people to resolve survivor’s guilt is through appropriate practices of grieving. There’s some good guidance in these Twelve Tips for Coping with Survivor’s Guilt for spiritual leaders and pastors to help heal pandemic trauma in their congregations - as well as individuals who want to move forward into new wholeness.

* * * * *

But grief and lament can’t be the whole story. Or maybe they can’t even be most of it. Two of the twelve tips stood out for me:

Accept that there may be no answers

We all want to know why something happened. We run ourselves ragged trying to understand something. But, unfortunately, sometimes there are no answers. We may never know why the gunman chose that day and place. We may never understand why that illness took our family member. And we may never understand why some live and some die. Don’t get lost in the “whys” – instead, focus on living your life to the fullest, as a way of honoring those whose lives were cut short.

And . . .

Embrace life

As hard as it may be, celebrate your survival. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having survived a traumatic event. In fact, your family is likely very grateful that you did. You’ve been given a gift that others were denied. Don’t push it away – embrace it. Most of all, remember that you can be grateful for your own life while also feeling grief for those who died. These two feelings can co-exist. You aren’t negating the importance of other lives because you are thankful for your own.

These points stood out for me because I worry that mainline and liberal religious communities will too easily accept the call to “grief and lament” without honestly engaging the “why” questions and downplaying the transformative power of gratitude. Too often, liberal congregations emphasize the social sins that bedevil us - bypassing gratitude in favor of guilt. Indeed, I’ve preached on joy and thanks recently only to have some gloomy Presbyterian or Lutheran sternly tell me that “the pandemic isn’t over and people are still dying” or “joy and gratitude are only signs of privilege.”

Honestly, do we really want congregations of Jeremiahs? Lament isn’t an end in itself. And grief doesn’t ultimately serve as a stable foundation for community. I love the prophets, but you really wouldn’t want to hang out with them at coffee hour. Mainline churches can already be glum, and now we’re wanting a post-pandemic church of grief and lament? To be truthful, an abundance of joy isn’t really our problem.

I’ve been sad alone in my office for so many months now that I’m actually craving joy. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person longing for being in community to sing thanks - and to be encouraged to embrace the fullness of life. The problem in America right now isn’t that we need more grief. The problem is we’ve so few places to celebrate the gift of life.

From this perspective, you can understand the popularity of those big evangelical worship rallies. They aren’t just people flaunting health protocols for political purposes - they are speaking to the longing for celebration. Those pastors, despite whatever sort of “toxic positivity” they preach (as one of my Twitter followers called their gospel), have actually identified a core human need - joy - to overcome the trauma we’ve suffered. We’ve plenty of grief that does need to be rightly processed - but encouraging communal grief is tender and even dangerous business as it easily results in despair or grievance, the very emotions that brought America the whole MAGA movement.

Gratitude and joy are absolutely necessary to move a traumatized, grieving people toward liberation - into the light of fearless living.

Embracing our humanness, with its mixture of sadness and joy, with thankfulness and all the questions of survivor’s guilt, fosters vulnerability and authenticity and takes us toward maturity and deep compassion. “Gratitude,” insisted Catholic theologian Mary Jo Leddy, “does not dispel the mystery of suffering and evil in the world and may even deepen it.” Gratefulness takes none of the pain away. It isn’t a panacea of positivity. Gratitude and joy aren’t magic anti-COVID pills. They don’t vaccinate us from the questions or the pain. Rather, they point to a path beyond despair and rage.

Remember the ancient wisdom: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:16-18).

Joyful. Prayful. Thankful.

* * * * *

And so, I sing:

Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving
To God our Creator triumphantly raise,
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,
By guiding us on to the end of our days.
God’s banners are o'er us, Pure light goes before us,
A pillar of fire shining forth in the night.
Til shadows have vanished, all fearfulness banished
As forward we travel from light into light.

Take that, COVID. Take that, all the loss and division and illness and death. I’ll be the preacher with tears of joy running down her cheeks wetting her mask. Last Sunday, the questions faded, the guilt (for a moment at least) receded. Gratitude. Joy.

This has become my mantra for these hard days as we continue to grapple with the pandemic:

Focus on living your life to the fullest.
You aren’t negating the importance of other lives because you are thankful for your own.

Focus on living your life to the fullest.
You aren’t negating the importance of other lives because you are thankful for your own.

Focus on living your life to the fullest.
You aren’t negating the importance of other lives because you are thankful for your own.

And don’t be gloomy church. Be the defiantly grateful and joyful church.


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INSPIRATION


To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives - the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections - that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.
Henri Nouwen

There is a moment each day when it is morning before it is morning. Darkness still hovers over the deep. Those who wait for the dawn can hear it even before they see it.
Mary Jo Leddy

Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge - from which new sorrows will be born for others - then sorrow will never cease in this world. And if you have given sorrow the space it demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich.
Etty Hillesum

Bless the poets, the workers for justice, the dancers of ceremony, the singers of heartache, the visionaries, all makers and carriers of fresh meaning - We will all make it through, despite politics and wars, despite failures and misunderstandings. There is only love.
Joy Harjo


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