GRIEF AND AN APOLOGY
When I was sixteen years old, Daryl’s grandmother Emma passed away. Our families attended the same church and she was a huge influence in my life. She had been a big part of the church’s history too, active in just about everything you could imagine. She was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly after we’d gotten a new pastor at our church. In fact, this was Philip’s first church. Within six short months Emma was gone. Pastor Philip did her funeral service two days before Christmas and did a fine job, even though he hadn’t had much time to really get to know her. A couple of years went by, and tragically Pastor Philip’s 8 year old nephew was killed in an accident at a construction site near his home. He was devastated and everyone in the church could see it. The congregation helped him through the grieving process as best we could. And during that process Pastor Philip did something interesting. He went back to visit every family that he had performed a funeral for in the time he’d been at our church. That included Daryl’s family. Why? To apologize to them. He apologized because he was afraid he had handled things too casually, too flippantly when their loved ones passed away. He apologized because he remembered thinking that sometimes people seemed to mourn too long. In his early 30s, he had never experienced the death of a family member or close friend. But he realized from his own grief that as he had dealt with grieving families before, he couldn’t even begin to fathom the depths of their loss and their mourning.
THE PAIN AND GRIEF OF MOURNING
The second Beatitude says: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Many of us know what it is like to mourn the loss of someone that we love. We are not talking about waking up in a bad mood. This is not about a mild disappointment. This is even beyond being sad. We are talking about mourning. In the Scriptures, when Jacob was given the false report that his favorite Joseph had been killed, Jacob put on the uncomfortable garment of sackcloth, which was a sign of hopelessness and despair. When his family tried to comfort him he refused to be comforted (Genesis 37:34). King David was able to move beyond the death of one child (2 Samuel 12:20-23), but the death of another son Absalom brought weeping and mourning so deep that he could not fulfill his responsibilities. He even cried out that he wished he had died in Absalom's place (2 Samuel 18:31-19:4). In Scripture, mourning is characterized by a neglect of appearance, by withdrawing from those nearby, and by deep, relentless grief.
We recognize it in our own tears and stunned silence and this persistent ache which will not go away. We are talking about mourning, the kind of shaking of the foundations which C. S. Lewis described in A Grief Observed. Lewis wrote of his wife after she died of cancer, "Joy's absence is like the sky, spread over everything. There is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss." One of the biggest issues for those who are grieving is that the loss seems to color everything else that you experience; meanwhile the world keeps turning and other people seem to have moved on. So we often shove our pain and grief way down deep inside and try to move on too. I did that after each of my grandparents died but I couldn’t do it this time because the loss was just too great.
THE VALUE OF MOURNING
You only have to read a few of the Psalms to understand that the writer clearly knew what it was to mourn. Rather than language that is safe and mundane and socially acceptable, the Psalms employ language that voices our deepest pain. The Psalms are not about denying our losses in the name of keeping things running smoothly. They are concerned instead with people who need to express their anger and grief and heartache. However, using language like that in this day and age makes people uncomfortable. It’s much easier for us to deny our pain than speak honestly about it. One of the songs that has meant the most to me is one by Mandisa called “Just Cry” and in it she says “Go ahead and take off your brave face” which is what society tells us to do and keep going. But there is some value in mourning, even before we get to Jesus’ promise in the second Beatitude.
Certainly a valuable part of mourning is found in allowing the community of which we are a part to enter our pain and share our loss. I understand now why it used to be tradition years ago for those who were mourning to wear black for the first year after a major loss. Because it helps remind people on the outside, what you are still dealing with on the inside. Mourning also allows us the time to push past denial and anger and start dealing with our grief and working through our loss. It doesn’t bring instant healing, but it does create a space where healing might happen. Mourning also gives us a chance to reflect, remember and celebrate the one we loved.
THE DIVINE GIFT OF COMFORT
There is value of mourning, but these words from the lips of Jesus promise us more: “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” We just aren't talking about readjusting. We aren't speaking merely of getting by. We are talking about more than simply making it. We are talking about being comforted.
This does not mean we quit crying, or that we no longer miss the person, or that we have somehow gotten over the loss. No, it means quite the opposite. In fact, there are some things we may never get over, but we can learn to live with them. Comfort is not the erasing of a memory, but having our pain soothed to the point that we can remember. Comfort is not a drying of the tears, but a peace that allows us to remember and give thanks even while we cry. The promise of Jesus as he gave his farewell address to the disciples was that God would send to them the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. We too are promised the Comforter, whose constant breath of new life empowers us to continue living in ways that would honor the memory of the one has died.
The Bible has much to say about the ministry of divine comfort and shares with us several important truths we would do well to remember:
1) Comfort comes from knowing God draws near to those who hurt. After my dad died, a friend sent me this Bible verse on my facebook page that has stuck with me - Psalm 34:18 - “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And when Jesus talked to the disciples towards the end of his ministry about leaving them, he promised that “(he) would not leave (them) comfortless; I will comfort you” (John 14:18). Here are promises of God’s special presence in the midst of our pain. Through the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, the Lord himself draws near to us in times of great suffering. We sense his presence in a way that goes beyond the natural. We hear his voice though there is no sound in the room. Many Christians can testify to this special sense of God’s nearness felt during a time of great grief. For as Paul wrote to the Romans, for a Christian, “there is nothing, not even death, which can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
2) Comfort comes from knowing God shares in our sorrow and grief. Our first Scripture lesson from John demonstrates this as no other Scripture can. Jesus – our Lord and Savior, our Good Shepherd – stood at the grave of his good friend Lazarus and he was so moved and disturbed by the death of his friend that he wept. Christ grieves over the sorrow and pain of earth, but he is not a spectator, he is a participant. He knows all earth's sorrow and pain and loss. He even experienced death. But unlike us, he conquered death and sorrow. Thus he is able to enter into our pain and give us power in our sufferings.
The old hymn, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” asks the question: "Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?" We know there is only one. Jesus’ wonderful invitation draws us to his arms of comfort when he says, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Comfort comes from the presence of the One who suffered for us and suffers with us. Comfort comes from being assured that we and our loved ones are in Christ with all His love and mercy always.
3) Comfort comes from knowing that nothing in our experience is ever wasted. In our second Scripture lesson from II Corinthians we are reminded that “God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” The word translated “comfort” in this verse is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 5:4. He uses our sufferings to comfort us so that when we are better, we can then minister to others in his name. Why? Because no one knows the pain of losing your job like someone who lost his job. No one understands cancer like someone who has been through it. No one understands divorce like a person who’s been through it. No one understands the pain of a miscarriage like a mother who lost her child.
There are people in this church who are superbly qualified to minister to others. They are the ones who have been deeply hurt by the troubles of life and through it all, have discovered that God is faithful. Those folks have an important message to share. They can say with conviction, “God will take care of you. I know, because he took care of me.”
4) Comfort comes from the assurance of an eternal home and a family reunion. Finally and most importantly, we must remember this: Comfort comes from the assurance of an eternal home and a family reunion. In John 14, Jesus reminded the disciples: "Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe in me; in my father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you I will surely come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there you may be also."
John tells of the home eternal where God dwells with His people--where all of our sins and sorrows and pains and decay will be removed and we will experience the most incredible of family reunions as we go home to be with our Heavenly Father.
The pain and grief of mourning can be a heart-breaking experience. And the absence of those we love dearly may always be felt. But Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes promise that even in our darkest times of mourning and grief we will be comforted.
- God draws near to those who hurt. We have the blessing of a personal God who seeks to be in relationship with us as a Father cares for his children. Therefore, we can rest assured our God cares about our grief and pain.
- God shares in our sorrow and grief. Think God doesn’t understand? He does. Even Jesus wept as he stood near the tomb of his friend. And God watched his only beloved son die upon a cross to pay for our sins. God understands and sorrows alongside of us.
- God wastes nothing we experience. He can work through even the worst of situations and bring some good. We can share comfort with others who are experiencing losses as we have, reminding them that God got us through and he will get you through also.
- God promises us an eternal home and a family reunion. For people who profess Jesus Christ as their Savior, this world is not our home. And our death is not the end. Rather it is a beginning – the beginning of an eternal life in a place God our Father has prepared for us.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”