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Swiftie Sunday: Taylor Swift and Learning how to Grieve
In February I had the honor of preaching at Resistance Church a Taylor Swift-themed sermon.
Below is the video of my preaching as well as a transcript of the sermon.
Songs and Scriptures used:
Scripture: Psalm 31:9-10
Scripture: Psalm 31:9-10
Scripture: Revelation 21:3-6
4. Begin Again
exit song (if we have time)
One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn is that whether one is mourning the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job or a dream, there are no shortcuts when it comes to grief.
In 2019, my life as I had known it, fell apart. After weeks of experiencing bullying and harassment, I was kicked out of the Ph.D. program I was in. I had spent years upon years in school earning various degrees and keeping a high grade point average, only to be told by my advisor that I was too difficult.
Difficult was code for, I, as a brown, queer person, refused to take my place at the bottom of the academic hierarchy and keep my mouth shut about racism in academia. Anyone who knows me knows that keeping my mouth shut is not my strong suit. So, I was given the choice between leaving with a master’s degree or leaving with nothing, but either way I needed to leave. I chose the first option and mastered out.
I was devastated. I had worked for years to get into a Ph.D. program and my dream was crushed in a matter of minutes. I didn’t know how to handle my grief. Back then, I had two main responses: I would explode with anger and sadness and spiral down, and/or I would repress my emotions.
I promptly did both. First, I let my emotions overcome me and acted in ways that were not particularly helpful or healthy then when covid started, I decided I was going to stuff my grief down and move on. That seemed the appropriate response especially in light of a global pandemic that made my personal problems look so meaningless and small.
Here’s the thing: I learned the art of minimizing my grief from Evangelical Christianity and white Western society which overwhelmingly teaches us to look on the “bright side,” to trust that God is in control and everything that is occurring is because of God’s plan.
. And to be sure, there is nothing wrong with holding onto hope. But too often in predominantly white Western Chrisitan spaces, hope is conflated with toxic positivity when in reality the two have nothing to do with each other. Toxic positivity requires that we deny and minimize our grief, it requires us to tell ourselves, “things aren’t that bad.” And sure, I guess in the grand scheme of things we could say that, after all a giant meteor hasn’t recently hit the earth and destroyed all life.
But denying our grief just because there are other potentially worse catastrophes that could befall us, isn’t hope. And arguably, refusing to confront our grief and pain head on, makes it difficult to move on by forcing us to be stuck in the past.
We keep trying to stuff our feelings down, they keep bubbling up to the surface, so we keep telling ourselves things aren’t that bad, we will get over it, and the cycle continues in an indefinite loop. We need to be willing to allow ourselves to experience the fullness of our grief no matter what the underlying cause is.
Arguably, Taylor Swift’s music can help us embrace our grief and sadness. Taylor Swift has been accused of only writing cheesy breakup songs, though we Swifties know that’s not true.
But even if it were, why would that be a bad thing? The reason, again, is we live in a society that treats grief as a waste of time. There are different types of grief, and of course, the grief that comes with the death of a loved one is necessarily much more intense and devastating than the grief that accompanies divorce, or the loss of a job. But the point isn’t that all grief is equal, but that we are often encouraged to ignore our pain. The gospel of forget it and move on is preached daily.
But one reason I love Taylor Swift’s music is that she ignores that advice. She will write songs that encompass the full range of sorrow from the fear she experienced when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, to the sorrow of losing a loved one, to the heartache that accompanies the demise of a relationship. She provides music that gives us permission to mourn.
Her songs “Breathe” and “My Tears Ricochet” capture different aspects of relationships that have broken down. In “Breathe” she captures the sadness of having to create a life without the person she thought she would share it with. In this song, there’s no blame, just sadness and the acknowledgement that “people are people and sometimes things don’t work out.”
In “My Tears Ricochet” her sadness is tinged with anger. There is clearly blame to be assigned and she argues that the pain she experiences will bounce back and also hurt the one who caused her suffering.
Taylor Swift gives us permission to express the many facets of grief which include not just sadness but also anger and disbelief. In a similar way, the Biblical text acknowledges the full scope of human experiences. The book of Psalms in particular has no qualms about expressing anger, fear, or sorrow.
The writers often call out to God and demand action. They also are not afraid to be honest and state ‘I am miserable.” Yes many of the individual Psalms go on to express hope in God’s promises and presence. For instance, the writer of Psalm 31, goes on to express trust in God and describes God’s abundant goodness, but before the writers get to that point they first express their frustration and anguish.
Going back to when I got kicked out of the Ph.D. program, when I decided to ignore my emotions and pain, I became caught up in a cycle of suppression and explosion. I would suppress my emotions only to explode and then I would get scared of my emotions so I would suppress it again and the cycle continued. It was only when I allowed myself to confront my grief did the pain lessen. I talked about my experiences and refused to be silenced. I called what I experienced by name: racism and bullying.
Being able to name sadness and pain matters. It won’t lead to magical healing, but the hope is that we will eventually get to the place where we are no longer utterly devastated. And it’s a process. In Taylor Swift’s song, “Clean” there is an acknowledgment of this. Yes, eventually she feels “clean” and the memory of the one who hurt her is washed away, but first there were months of drought and there were moments where she felt as if she was drowning in all the pain.
What was eventually a cleansing, at first felt like a nightmare storm. In a similar way, naming and confronting our pain often feels like it is making things worse. When we are so used to hiding our pain, expressing it feels unbearable. And yet we need to remember two things 1) When we get to the other side, there is liberation. What that looks like is different for everyone and depends on the type of grief one is experiencing.
And 2) God journeys with us. That knowledge of God’s presence is what separates hope from toxic positivity. Toxic positivity downplays and denies anguish, it says, “Things aren’t that bad.” Hope says, “You know maybe things are as bad as I thought, but I do not walk through this journey alone.” Hope acknowledges reality, names it, but still moves forward. Hope also acknowledges the love that undergirds grief.
. We mourn the death of a friend, family member, or coworker, because we loved them. Their presence brightened our life and now we have to create a life without them. We mourn the end of a relationship or a marriage, because even if things weren’t that great, at one point there was love and joy. We acknowledge the bad that occurred and the reasons for the relationship ending, while still holding onto the good that the relationship once held.
We mourn the loss of a dream because the dream contained our love and hope for the future. Grief and sorrow is nothing to be ashamed of. Suppressing grief is an attempt to minimize the pain. But loving deeply risks being pained deeply. When we are in the midst of sorrow, however, it is tempting to believe that we will never be able to love again. When we try to suppress our grief, we often shut ourselves off from experiencing love. Hope is the courage to continue loving even in the midst of sorrow.
In Revelation 21: 3-6. The author writes about a new earth and a new heaven, about a place where mourning is no more. It is a beautiful passage. But the path to get to there is one marked by death, destruction, grief, and loss. It is one marked by challenging institutions of power and facing the consequences. It is a path marked by the ugliness in life.
The Biblical texts offer us hope and encourage us to trust in a God who will make all things new, but it also is blunt about the fact that in order for the new to occur, the old has to pass away and that is a painful, long process filled with mourning what was and what could have been.
And it does no one any good to deny how painful and long the process is. When it comes to grief, there are no shortcuts. But there is hope that as we journey with God, something new will be made. What is new will mot replace what is lost, but walking through grief, may enable us to one day recognize beauty again.
In the song “Begin Again,” Taylor Swift talks about the beauty found in the start of a new relationship. She had thought that the last relationship that burned out spectacularly, was representative of love in general: all love eventually dies, she had thought. Her old love often pointed out what was wrong with her and she expected the same in a new relationship. But this new relationship helps her to see love again in a new light. She is coming through the other side of grief: of pain, of sorrow and is able to let go of the past to embrace something new. But in order to experience this love, she had to open herself up again.
When I first was forced out of academia, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My whole life was so entangled in becoming a professor that when that option was no longer on the table, I thought my life was over. What else could I do? Plus, I still heard the cruel words of my advisor telling me that I was a horrible student and a disappointment.
They let me know there was something inherently wrong with me. But when I finally spoke about my pain and sorrow, when I refused to be silent, other people surrounded me and told me I was loved. They told me that what my PhD program hated about me: my queerness, my outspokenness, my brownness, were gifts from God. And they showed me that the ending of one chapter didn’t mean my whole story was finished.
Sharing my sadness over my shattered dream with others didn’t make the pain go away. Not initially at least. But it allowed me to open myself up to the care and compassion of others. Yes, opening up was a risk. There were those who told me to “get over it” or who tried to defend a racist institution, but there were many more who embraced me.
The Biblical texts we hold dear repeatedly tell the stories of grief, anguish and sorrow. But they also urge us to open ourselves up to love and hope. They encourage us to believe that the love of God and other people, will empower us to move forward.
Finally, let’s talk about Taylor Swift’s song“State of Grace.” It is a song that captures the excitement and thrill of unexpected love. She talks about a love that is wild, painful, and still worthwhile. What I appreciate about this song is that pain is no longer viewed as an enemy to be vanquished but as something that comes with the territory of life and love. In this song, she isn’t looking back at an old love, but she is enveloped in this new and exciting love.
Not all of us will come out on the other side of grief being able to forget the past. and depending on the type of grief, we may not want to forget. But as we slowly work through grief, we can get to the point where we are no longer trapped in it. Where we can still remember what we have lost but we can also experience the beauty and joy before us in the here and now.
In Isaiah 43 God is the reminding suffering Israel that God journeys with them through the fire, the rivers, and promises they will not be destroyed and God is also saying, “Don’t become trapped by the past. You have made it through. Here is something new and beautiful.”
Hope is believing that eventually the edges of grief won’t be as sharp, that we will be able to experience beauty again. Hope is the willingness to open ourselves up to love again, knowing that it may cause grief, but believing we will be able to navigate that grief if and when it occurs.
Of course, in reality, working through grief isn’t as neat as portrayed in some scriptures and in this list of Taylor Swift songs chosen tonight. The process is not as linear as we would like it to be. We often take steps forward only to be forced back. But we do keep moving forward. And the hope we hold onto is not that things aren’t as bad as we imagine, but that even in the midst of the worst catastrophe God is with us. That we do not go through this pain alone and that eventually, even if it’s months, years, or decades in the future we will be able to experience joy again.