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Grief and gratitude in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Lynne Baab • Friday November 12 2021

Grief and gratitude in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Gerard Manley Hopkins

A few days after my always-helpful husband, Dave, proofread my recent book on grief and gratitude, he told me that he was seeing grief and gratitude everywhere. He was studying Ezra and Nehemiah, and they are full of both, he said. As the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon, there were so many challenges and so much to grieve: Jerusalem’s city walls and temple lay in ruins, the rebuilding took much longer than expected, and the people kept falling into idolatry. Yet the first celebration of the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles presented such lovely opportunities to express thanks for God’s mighty acts in the Exodus. Those festivals also provided the opportunity to compare the ways the return from exile mirrored the Exodus – and to thank God.

My new book is based on a quotation from psychotherapist Francis Weller, who argues that a mark of maturity is learning to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, allowing ourselves to be stretched large by both. “Grief and gratitude are everywhere,” Dave said. “After reading your book, I see them.” In a world that emphasizes optimism and getting things done, the challenge is to rest in grief and gratitude long enough to let them stretch us.

I was surprised how clearly grief and gratitude are present in a favorite poem, God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). It was written in 1877, during a time of increased industrialization. The poem lets us know that Hopkins, an English Jesuit priest, was concerned about the way factory workers are “smeared with toil.” We don’t have to look very far to see the way the world is “bent,” a word Hopkins uses in the last line of the poem.

Yet God continues to give us enormous joy through nature, which Hopkins describes so powerfully. And who wouldn’t benefit from taking time to remember the Holy Spirit’s presence in and through everything? As you read the poem, watch for things to be thankful for and to grieve.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
     And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

If you’d like to read more about the imagery in the poem, I found this description helpful.

In my short new book, I explain the patterns of grief and gratitude I see in the Psalms, Jesus’ teaching and interaction with people, Jesus’ journey to the cross, and the apostle Paul’s letters. I also describe the societal patterns and inner messages that can keep us from sitting with grief and gratitude long enough to be stretched large by them.

Each chapter concludes with discussion questions, so I am hoping small groups and churches might use the book in Advent or Lent. If you could consider that for your church or recommend it to someone who could consider it, I’d be grateful.

I am praying that this picture of holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other will be as fruitful for readers of the book (and this blog) as it has been for me.

(Next week: when do we hold grief and gratitude in two hands simultaneously and when does one hand take precedence? Illustration by Dave Baab: Corner Peak, Lake Hawea, New Zealand. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

In last few months of 2019, shortly after I discovered the two hands quotation, I wrote a series of blog posts about it. Here are the early posts in the series:

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