Understanding Grief

Psalm 31

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord,

for I am in distress;

my eye wastes away from grief,

my soul and body also.

10 For my life is spent with sorrow,

and my years with sighing;

my strength fails because of my misery,

and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,

a horror to my neighbours,

an object of dread to my acquaintances;

those who see me in the street flee from me.

12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;

I have become like a broken vessel.

13 For I hear the whispering of many—

terror all around!—

as they scheme together against me,

as they plot to take my life.

Grief has the power to isolate.  It can create a sense of loneliness that leads to despair.  As unwelcome as it can be, grief can also be a source of spiritual growth.

But in order to navigate our grief in ways that are life-giving, first we need to recognize certain truths — some of which will help to neutralize its power to isolate us.

One, grief is universal.  For a variety of reasons, grief can have a stronger hold on us from time to time and for some people the experience is far more intense.  It can be further complicated by chemical and psychosomatic challenges that vary from person to person that may even require the attention of a physician.  But everyone experiences grief sooner of later.

Two, grief is not a sign of spiritual deficiency.  Grief can accompany wrong-doing, but its mere existence is not evidence of spiritual deficiency.  Even people of considerable spiritual maturity can experience grief.

Three, grief is evidence of the world’s brokenness.  The sorrow, anxiety, or sense of loss that we experience in times of grief is a evidence of the world’s brokenness.

Four, grief can even be evidence of the deepening work of God in our lives.  Some people have asserted that grief at the loss of a loved one is evidence that we do not believe strongly enough in God.  That is, quite simply, dangerous nonsense.  We are made to live in intimate connection with God and others.  We are also made for life.  When we lose someone dear to us, it is a painful reminder of how incomplete that experience is this side of the grave.  The more we understand the will of God for us, the more the incompleteness of it all is likely to trigger the experience of grief.

Five, not all grief is the same.  Some grief is unavoidable and occurs in the course of life — the loss of loved ones, our own deaths (if we have some forewarning of them).  Some grief can be precipitated by the choices that we make and it is possible in some cases to make amends for those choices.  Some grief can spur us on to good work, providing the impetus for efforts on behalf of others and for that reason could be called “good grief.”  Other kinds of grief — if it is chronic and debilitating — can be dangerous.

As with so many experiences in the spiritual life, if you are experiencing grief, the ability to name and understand the shape of the experience is the first step to finding freedom .

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.


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