Matthew 5:4 – Blessed are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (NIV)

Throughout most of human history, there have been groups of people, typically women, who occupy a special role within their respective societies. Sometimes paid professionally, and many times not, these folks had an important function – so important was this vocation that a unique skill set was needed to support an entire community of people.

What is that role, that function? To be a mourner.

In Scotland and Ireland, they were referred to as “keeners.” Keening is mourning, and keeners were employed to help others grieve and lament the death of a loved one. Through their emotional wailing, family members could feel as though someone was putting a voice to their grief. It was also considered a way to honor the dead and share their accomplishments. 

The keen is a bygone practice, along with many of the funeral practices of other cultures. With the advent of modern institutional funeral homes, beginning in the nineteenth century, there has been more and more distance to the raw feeling and emotion of death. Keening was a tradition which included songs of lament, at least one of them being composed specifically for the occasion.

For millennia, cultures have recognized and affirmed the need for and importance of wailing and crying and deep grief to have its say.

Jesus believed mourning to be significant enough to include it, right off the bat, in his Sermon on the Mount. Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ mourn.

Mourning, in the Beatitudes, is the emotional response to spiritual bankruptcy. To be a spiritual mourner is to weep and wail over sin… loudly! It is to see that sin in all its foulness and degradation is terrible and destroys relationships. Because of this, we experience personal grief over both the world’s sin and ours.

The Christian disciple, the true follower of Jesus, knows death is coming, and must be faced. God is coming and will be known by all as either Savior or Judge. Sin is present all around us, even in us, and it is unspeakably ugly and black in the light of God’s holiness. Eternity is real, and every living human being is rushing toward it.

The alternatives of eternity are inexorably coming – life or death, forgiveness or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are all realities which will not go away. The person who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses self and the world, cannot help but mourn.

They mourn for the sins of their nation and neighborhood. They mourn over the erosion of the very concept of truth. The keener mourns over the greed, the cynicism, and the lack of integrity all around. Indeed, the Christian mourner mourns that there are so few keeners expressing the biblical mandate to mourn.

I wonder if sin causes us to weep, even to wail. I am curious if the presence of sin in the world and within ourselves keeps us awake at night, or not.

If individuals can only locate sin out there somewhere and are never close enough to see lost souls entrenched in sin, needing a Savior, then they must come back to the first Beatitude of knowing their spiritual poverty and wrestle with putting pride in its place and fully embracing a humble spirit.

Those who do not mourn have a hard heart because mourners are sensitive to sin.

“But I’m not really a person who cries.” Perhaps you ought to explore why that is so. It could be that a thick callous has developed over the heart. The telltale signs of this are being comfortable with watching violence and having no problem with uttering violent speech.

Many Christians pray for revival; it will not occur apart from the way of the spiritual beggar who mourns over the violence, oppression, bigotry, arrogance, and injustice of the world. 

If there is to be any transformation of heart, it will come through seeing myself for who I am and seeing the sins of this world for what they are.  Without this, there is no hungering and thirsting for righteousness, no mercy, no purity, and no peace in the world or the church. 

Jesus told a parable to illustrate true righteousness versus self-righteousness, saying:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)

Jesus says the mourner, the keener, will be comforted; she will find the remedy to alleviate guilt and shame in her own life through Jesus, as well as the answer to the ills of the world, in Christ.

We do not need lots of money, a high position, a particular gender, or even be a faithful practicing religious person to be a mourner. Anyone can be one. And this is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God.

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have sinned and strayed from your ways like lost sheep…. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…. We acknowledge with great sorrow our great and many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against your divine majesty…. O Lord, have mercy upon us.

Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are cut to the heart and are sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us…. Forgive all our past wrongdoing; be merciful to us now in the present; and extend your kindness to us in the future, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on. It’s actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment. The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, compound the anger and sadness:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. They can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on. In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes: his mother, his wife, and his daughter. Sittser writes:

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five year old son to a mountain climbing accident. He has no explanations – just grief. At one point he expressed a profound insight: 

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved. His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion. The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health. Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

But you have to be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot. They are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More at home with themselves and with God. 
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us. Slow down. Let it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

Psalm 130 – Believe, Hope, and Love

I cry out to you from the depths, Lord—

my Lord, listen to my voice!
    Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
If you kept track of sins, Lord—
    my Lord, who would stand a chance?
But forgiveness is with you—
    that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes,
    and I wait for God’s promise.
My whole being waits for my Lord—
    more than the night watch waits for morning;
    yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord!
    Because faithful love is with the Lord;
    because great redemption is with our God!
He is the one who will redeem Israel
    from all its sin.
(Common English Bible)

Throughout church history, the book of Psalms has been used and understood as the Church’s prayer book.  Indeed, the psalms are much more than a collection of beautiful poems, words of assurance, and songs of praise – they are designed and meant to have regular and ongoing use as prayers. And I’m not just talking about the psalms being somebody else’s prayers; they are my prayers and your prayers. 

There are times when words fail us – where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to pray. Our stress and/or anxiety is so high, we can neither think straight, nor form anything coherent with our mouths. It’s in such times that the psalms present themselves to us as the path forward. 

What’s more, psalms are meant to be spoken out loud and more than once. And I’m not talking about saying them with a quiet mumble or a flat monotone.  No! These precious prayers of Holy Scripture are meant to be declared with full voice and a large amount of flavor!  They are to repeatedly roll off our lips with all the emotional and spiritual gusto which resides within us!  Tears and yelling are both appropriate and encouraged. 

For we do not possess a mere heady faith of thoughts and ideas; we also possess a faith that is robustly heartfelt, and dwells down deep in the gut where our bowels of compassion have their abode. 

Even with a cursory reading of today’s psalm, we can easily observe there’s more going on here than beliefs of faith, hope, and love. 

The psalmist is expressive, clinging to faith with a patient longing for God to make good on divine promises. It is chocked full of emotion, a prayer coming from the depths of the gut. The whole being is involved, and rightly so, because our faith affects the entirety of a person and everyone in the community of the redeemed.

If this psalm resonates with you in any way, let your proclamation of it be with the expanse of feeling inside you. After all, as people created in the image of God, we share God’s own deep sense of love – and love is genuinely love when it is outwardly expressed with a sacred combination of words, actions, and feelings.

Waiting, watching, hoping. We as humans do a lot of that. While we anticipate God’s response, we keep up the praying. We keep reminding God to be God. We encourage others to watch and wait and hope, all the while encouraging ourselves, as well.

Whenever we are stressed, more often than not, we thrash about, like a desperate swimmer in the middle of a lake, just trying to keep his head above water. Yet, the psalm tells us to do the counterintuitive: Don’t do something. Just stay there and relax. Why, in heaven’s name, should I do nothing?

Because the Lord will act.

And that action of God will redeem, renew, refresh, and revitalize. It will be new, like the morning dawn. A fresh day, that will not be like any other day before it.

God does his best saving work in the worst and most impossible of circumstances. We need not fear the overwhelming depths of difficulty and trouble. We can trust the Lord.

Perhaps the most awful of deep holes are emotional – deep depression and/or anxiety – a lostness inside oneself because of mental disorder. In such a dark oblivion, and terrible morass, one tries to survive into another hour, not just another day. Like a watchman waiting for the night to dissipate and dawn to break, there is a longing for God.

Deliverance and rescue seem slim. Hopelessness begins to calcify the spirit. Only love can release the hardening situation; the steadfast love of God is a gentle hammer, picking away at the grief.

This is a love which never gives up.

Today’s psalm begins as a desperate cry for help. It ends with an awareness of the need to trust, hope, and wait….

Blessed Jesus, in the comfort of your love, I lay before you the memories that haunt me, the anxieties that perplex me, the despair that frightens me, and my frustration at my inability to think clearly. Help me to discover your forgiveness in my memories and know your peace in my distress. Touch me, O Lord, and fill me with your light and your hope. Amen.

*Above painting of Psalm 130 by Virginia Wieringa

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.