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Rev. Amy Ziettlow Headshot

Psalm 46 and Living After the Death of a Loved One

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"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble." --Psalm 46:1

I am currently in the throes of a research project called "Homeward Bound: How We Live When Our Parents Die." I spend most days listening to the stories of adults whose parent or parent-figure died a year ago. Each individual is unique, with a unique family history. Some speak of how proud they are that their mom and dad were married for more than 30 years. Some speak of how much they long to know the son that their father never claimed or included in their family. Some speak of how a step-parent included them in the funeral and treated them like her own child, some speak of how they haven't spoken to their half-brother since the funeral. Each family offers a snapshot of the diverse families that exist and that are learning to cope in our world.

Despite the diversity of detail in each story, one common theme resonates: Death is final. Death closes the door on opportunities for connection and reformation of relationship in a way that most changes in life do not. You will never hear your mom's voice again. You will never sit beside your father again. Death is final, and that finality strips away all pretention and opens a space for honesty with yourself, with others and, most importantly, with God. Finality is not something that is absorbed quickly or easily; finality must be lived through tears, through times of solitude, through community, through laughter, through talking, through silence. Finality can bring you to the edge of despair and change your inner make-up. Those changes can be both painful and seem endless but also can give life; a bit like child-birth.

In many cases, this honest look at life and death opens a space for grace that leads to reformation.

Now, let me be clear, these are not necessarily stories of dramatic transformation, like Paul on the road to Damascus, but I believe that they are stories that reflect the true legacy of the Reformation. Centuries ago, a faithful monk, Martin Luther, decided he wanted to discuss how the Church could be better. He saw and experienced spiritual beliefs and practices that were in need of reformation. Dramatic changes ensued at that time, but the legacy has been one that reminds us that God's word speaks anew each day in our lives and in our communities and calls us to be ever-changing for the better. To quote Luther's "Freedom of Christian," through faith we are not only free from sin but also free for service to our neighbors. In being set free from the power of our innate brokenness and inward-turning, we are free to grow, change and hope to be a living example of faithful reformation for the sake of others.

We live in a time when people see the need for change all around us. From President Obama's campaign of three years ago to the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, the need for change is being discerned and enacted all around us. And I ask myself, are these attempts merely change or are they moments of reformation?

There is a difference between mere change and reformation. Change can be actively chosen or passively experienced, while reformation demands vision and a plan to which we commit ourselves. Change is inevitable, while reformation is a choice. Change happens, while reformation presents us with an opportunity to improve, to grow, to change for the better.

I always appreciated that Martin Luther was a realist. He said clearly that we are sinful. In today's parlance he would say, "Name it and claim it, you are a broken sinner." He knew that the "wages of sin are death," and that death is real and final in a way that other changes in life are not. However, Luther also said that in the midst of death, there is life. In faith, death does not have the final say. This belief does not remove the pain of death but enables us to survive and hope to thrive again one day.

Although I have been a Protestant Lutheran my entire life, I think I first began to grasp the meaning of Reformation in the ballet studio. Standing at the ballet barre each day, inhaling the music, ordering my steps to the beat, allowing the mirror and my teacher to act like the law that Paul speaks of in Romans, a tool to expose my brokenness, I learned the hope of reformation. Hope that small, daily, disciplined actions can shape an intentional life of beauty and grace where the spirit flows through us. Although the body is fragile and imperfect, ever-aging and ever-changing, my ballet teacher, Moscelyne Larkin, would remind us that we return to the studio and stage because "dance is the breath of life made visible." Committing ourselves to grow in beauty and grace was a choice that was made each day, each moment, in the midst of joy and sorrow, alone and together.

Verse three of Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," inspired by Psalm 46, speaks of our confidence in God's grace in the face of a reality that tries to convince us of its utter finality.

"We will not fear for God has willed the truth to triumph through us

The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them;

Their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure:

One little word shall fell them."

May you choose to be a force for life-giving reformation this day, knowing that in faith, nothing is final.

To read more on the Homeward Bound: How We Live When Our Parents Die Project, visit FamilyScholars.org.

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