John 16:16-24 – From Grief to Joy

Light Shining in Darkness
“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 take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

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. (NIV)

Jesus tended to say things that were neither expected nor wanted. That was even true of Christ’s own disciples who walked and talked with him for three years. Jesus consistently told them there must be suffering before glory. Getting them to buy into such an idea is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to write their names 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 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.

I tend to think in metaphors, so I like that Jesus uses one to bring some context about leaving and returning. And I resonate a lot with his metaphor. My dear wife spent 128 days on total bed rest before our youngest daughter was born. During those four months, we agonized over the health of our little peanut in the womb. I was also in a constant state of concern for my wife’s health. This kind of pregnancy we were not expecting. Those months were hard not only for us but also for our two daughters who needed to step up and participate in family life in new and different ways.

There were months of pain and hardship, not to mention the actual pain of childbirth. Finally, our little girl was born – a bit small, yet, quite healthy. Our grief turned to joy. Nothing could ever take away that joy. We prayed hard back in those days. We asked. We received. And our joy was complete. When I look back on those days, I can remember the anguish. Yet, what prominently stands out is the joy because true unmitigated joy has the power to swallow grief and despondency whole.

In talking through with his disciples about their disappointment of his leaving and their grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy 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 have its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, we still experience heartache along with the joy of new life. It can be confusing living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind that the grief is temporary, and 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.

Christ is risen! Therefore, we need not wait to be happy or expect that everything must go our way to have joy. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family kind 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 in the days of the new normal and continual change. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of the disciples walking with Jesus, 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 is able to 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.

Genesis 6:5-22 – The God of Emotion

flood of tears

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. Sothe Lord said, “I will destroy all human beings that I made on the earth. And I will destroy every animal and everything that crawls on the earth and the birds of the air, because I am sorry that I made them.” But Noah pleased the Lord. 

This is the family history of Noah. Noah was a good man, the most innocent man of his time, and he walked with God. He had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 

People on earth did what God said was evil, and violence was everywhere. When God saw that everyone on the earth did only evil,he said to Noah, “Because people have made the earth full of violence, I will destroy all of them from the earth. Build a boat of cypress wood for yourself. Make rooms in it and cover it inside and outside with tar. This is how big I want you to build the boat: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make an opening around the top of the boat that is eighteen inches high from the edge of the roof down. Put a door in the side of the boat. Make an upper, middle, and lower deck in it. I will bring a flood of water on the earth to destroy all living things that live under the sky, including everything that has the breath of life. Everything on the earth will die. But I will make an agreement with you—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives will all go into the boat. Also, you must bring into the boat two of every living thing, male and female. Keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, animal, and crawling thing will come to you to be kept alive. Also gather some of every kind of food and store it on the boat as food for you and the animals.” 

Noah did everything that God commanded him. (NCV) 

When I was a kid, the picture of God I had in my little head was of a white-bearded old guy sitting in the clouds looking bored and paying little attention to the humans below. Maybe, once-in-a-while, he would take his divine BB gun and shoot people in the backside, just for some fun. Although I have considerably moved on from that type of theological vision, it seems to be a common caricature of God that he is often indifferent – and even more so that God lacks emotions (except maybe anger). 

The Holy Bible says a lot about humanity. It says even more about God. In fact, Scripture is primarily about revealing who God is – the Lord’s character, attributes – and, yes, emotions. Much like my childhood misunderstandings of God, I am not sure why so many people tend to view God as lacking in feeling and emotion. Maybe the Enlightenment with its focus on reason, logic, and classification simply drained all emotion from God. It could be that contemporary humans project on God their own stoicism toward emotions. Perhaps we see emotions as unreliable and fickle, characteristics that God would not possess – and, so, we jettison any thought of God as feeling deeply about things. Whatever the reason, we will fail to know God as God unless we come to grips with a verse like this:  

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”(Genesis 6:6, emphasis mine) 

Broken Heart

Rather than our emotional human nature being a result of the Fall, it is instead a part of our original design of being in Paradise with God. As God’s image-bearers, we carry the mark of God with feeling deeply about things, just like our Creator. In those times when sadness seems as if it might swallow us whole, we just may be closer to God in that moment than any other. God has a heart, and that heart has been hurt and broken more times than we could ever imagine. God’s emotions moved him to action. God’s sorrow led to destroying injustice. 

The thoughts, attitudes, and actions of violent and unfeeling people very much trouble God – to the point of being heartsickIt is our emotional makeup which connects us and bonds us with the divine. The inability to feel is the ultimate disconnect from God. 

Jesus also felt deeply about a great many things – so much so that he died from a broken heart. Recall that ithe seminal Sermon on the Mount Christ’s first words to the large gathering of people were: 

“Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4)  

We underestimate the importance and the power of emotions to our peril. Biblical writers often purposefully contrast differing persons in their stories. In today’s Old Testament lesson, that contrast is most vivid between God and wicked humanity. Humanity had gotten to a point where they felt nothing. The violent behavior was a direct result of their emotional selves split-off from the rest of them. People were bifurcated, their humanity chopped as if a meat cleaver separated their feelings from themselves. Whenever we observe belligerent bullying, hate speech, meanness, and oppression – there you find a paucity of emotions. It is not the presence of feelings that brings about wickedness; it is the lack of emotional awareness and the absence of feelings which is the highway to a watery grave. 

We are in the “Last Days,” that is, the time before the final event in the Christian tradition’s understanding of historyChrist will return to judge the living and the dead. The righteous will enjoy God’s presence forever; the wicked, not really. These days are too often characterized by the kinds of behavior which lack the emotional depth of godly love and a heart of compassion: 

There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NIV) 

For me, learning to name my emotions and to observe where I carry those emotions in my body has been most helpful in connecting with my feelings – and connecting with my GodAnd, I must add, such an emotional awareness and kinship with feelings has brought personal wellness and compassionate ministry to others. 

So, receive this blessing today: 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, stirring his heart with compassion. 

The gaze of Christ sees your heart, your joy and sorrow. 

The gaze of Christ sees your future, filled with the healing of emotions expressed. 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, filling his heart with adoration. Amen. 

Psalm 102:1-17 – Depressed

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Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer. (NRSV)

Author and teacher Marianne Williamson told the story (most likely apocryphal) concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees.  Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression.  The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%.  You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead. The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who attend to the inner person and know there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply. Rather than being merely a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as an asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger. That means there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who believe depression is a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

hope in the darkness

Consider the following biblical characters: When the prophet Elijah became depressed, it served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel.  Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land. When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

And when we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the emotionally ill people around them. It’s almost as if depressed people make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture.  When we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the biblical Psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the key which unlocks us to freedom. Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal.  Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a medieval gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are depression-free ought to pay attention. We need also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.  After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours. In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And, teach me what I need to learn in this darkness. Through Jesus Christ, my Savior, I pray. Amen.

“I Have Seen the Lord!” – John 20:1-18

“Christ is risen!”…  “He is risen, indeed!”

Welcome friends.  Simply click the video below and let us celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell by means of a mighty resurrection.

You may also view this video on TimEhrhardtYouTube

To extend our recognition of this glorious day, here are two links for you:

I’ve Just Seen Jesus sung by Larnelle Harris and Sandi Patty is an oldie, but still a wondrous goodie.

Hallelujah Chorus arranged by Quincy Jones is one of the most celebratory arrangements you’ll find on this classic Handel song.  Sung by the Singin’ Black and White choir, if this doesn’t bring you to life, you still think Jesus is a gardener.

Finally, here is the full version of the original hymn written by Carolyn Gillette (sung at the beginning of the video):

This Easter Celebration (to the tune of “The Church’s One Foundation”)

This Easter celebration is not like ones we’ve known.

We pray in isolation, we sing the hymns alone.

We’re distant from our neighbors — from worship leaders, too.

No flowers grace the chancel to set a festive mood.

 

No gathered choirs are singing; no banners lead the way.

O God of love and promise, where’s joy this Easter Day?

With sanctuaries empty, may homes become the place

we ponder resurrection and celebrate your grace.

 

Our joy won’t come from worship that’s in a crowded room

but from the news of women who saw the empty tomb.

Our joy comes from disciples who ran with haste to see —

who heard that Christ is risen, and then, by grace, believed.

 

In all the grief and suffering, may we remember well:

Christ suffered crucifixion and faced the powers of hell.

Each Easter bears the promise: Christ rose that glorious day!

Now nothing in creation can keep your love away.

 

We thank you that on Easter, your church is blessed to be

a scattered, faithful body that’s doing ministry.

In homes and in the places of help and healing, too,

we live the Easter message by gladly serving you.

 

Tune: Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1864 (“The Church’s One Foundation”)  (MIDI)

Text: Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

Email: carolynshymns@gmail.com     New Hymns: http://www.carolynshymns.com/

This new hymn is a prayer to be used in Easter 2020 worship services, while most churches are closed and people are remaining in their homes because of the pandemic. It can be used for online worship or in online written communications from a church to its members. Permission is given for free use.

Bitmoji Air Hugs

 

What Will It Take to Change the World?

Image result for grieving together

Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

Image result for well in whoville they say the grinch's heart grew three sizes that day

If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

Image result for julian of norwich stained glass and quote

The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.

The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  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 this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s 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.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put 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 both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only 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 the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when 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.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“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.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  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 had 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 can 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.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  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/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only 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 sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is 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 “Okay 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 reconstruction of 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 need 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 have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.