Hope for the Grieving (Jeremiah 31:15-22)

Orthodox icon of Rachel weeping for the children

This is what the Lord says:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

This is what the Lord says:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
    and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
    “They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
    “Your children will return to their own land.

“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
    ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
    and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.

“Set up road signs;
    put up guideposts.
Take note of the highway,
    the road that you take.
Return, Virgin Israel,
    return to your towns.
How long will you wander,
    unfaithful Daughter Israel?
The Lord will create a new thing on earth—
    the woman will return to the man.” (New International Version)

The bereavement of losing someone you care about is awful. A parent experiencing the death of a child is next level grief. There is no bereavement like it.

As a hospital chaplain, I occasionally attend to a grieving mother who just lost her baby. I have shown up for premature and stillborn deaths, full term births, then death, sudden infant death, and more. The grief is indescribable.

On some level, there is no comfort – and never will be. I know that, for me, providing grief support to mothers who are enduring the death of a baby or young child has profoundly changed me and forever impacted my soul. So, I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother.

Many Christians will recognize the verse of Rachel weeping for her children as part of the early story surrounding Jesus:

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”(Matthew 2:13-18, NIV)

It’s really hard to have hope when you’re in the throes of lamenting the death of children. We need hope. It’s necessary to life. We cannot survive, let alone thrive, without it.

It is possible to simultaneously experience hopelessness and hope. At the same time, we hold both despair and desire, anguish and anticipation, in our hearts. While we may never forget who we have lost, we make it through our days believing that another child can change the world for the better. We place our faith in the Christ child, in Jesus.

Wily old King Herod massacred innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation. But the old King’s sinister plan didn’t work. 

Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John stated:

The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5, NIV)

Satan wars against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

There has been bad blood, ever since the Fall of humanity, between the serpent and the seed of the woman. The Old Testament Israelites were continually being threatened with extermination; they were constantly tempted to conform to pagan ways for handling their suffering and grief. 

Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness. The devil knows that his time is short; and he uses twisted persons like Herod for his insidious schemes.

Many people experience hell on earth because Satan is on a rampage; mothers and their children are often the collateral damage.

The holiday season is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom you will not spend another Christmas with. And yet, there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever.

Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has lost its sting because of Jesus. Death does not have the last word; resurrection does. And this hope for the future helps us in the present to keep going and not give up.

The prophet Jeremiah was dealing with children lost in war to the invading Babylonians. His words are a lament in the context of the hope that captivity and exile will not be forever. 

Matthew wants us to see that the exile is over for us; Jesus has arrived, and the tears that were shed will shortly dry up. There may be a time of suffering that we must endure, but there is glory ahead.

Jesus is the Great Deliverer who brings us out of the grip of death, grief, and lament and into the promises of God. Christ is our hope. Amen, and amen.

How Can I Move Through My Grief? (Lamentations 1:7-15)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Her people recall the good life
    that once was theirs;
now they suffer
    and are scattered.
No one was there to protect them
from their enemies who sneered
    when their city was taken.

Jerusalem’s horrible sins
    have made the city a joke.
Those who once admired her
    now hate her instead—
she has been disgraced;
    she groans and turns away.

Her sins had made her filthy,
but she wasn’t worried
    about what could happen.
And when Jerusalem fell,
    it was so tragic.
No one gave her comfort
    when she cried out,
“Help! I’m in trouble, Lord!
    The enemy has won.”

Zion’s treasures were stolen.
Jerusalem saw foreigners
    enter her place of worship,
though the Lord
had forbidden them
    to belong to his people.

Everyone in the city groans
    while searching for food;
they trade their valuables
for barely enough scraps
    to stay alive.

Jerusalem shouts to the Lord,
“Please look and see
    how miserable I am!”
No passerby even cares.
Why doesn’t someone notice
    my terrible sufferings?
You were fiercely angry, Lord,
and you punished me
    worst of all.
From heaven you sent a fire
    that burned in my bones;
you set a trap for my feet
    and made me turn back.
All day long you leave me
    in shock from constant pain.
You have tied my sins
    around my neck,
and they weigh so heavily
    that my strength is gone.
You have put me in the power
    of enemies too strong for me.

You, Lord, have turned back
my warriors and crushed
    my young heroes.
Judah was a woman untouched,
but you let her be trampled
    like grapes in a wine pit. (Contemporary English Version)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The only way to the mountain is through the valley. The only way to make the pain go away is to move through it – not by avoiding it, pretending it’s not there, or trying to move around it. Pain and suffering are inevitable; misery is optional.

The reality is that, when experiencing catastrophic loss, you and I will grieve forever. We shall never “get over” it; we only learn to live with it.

Yes, I do believe there is spiritual and emotional healing. Significant change and grinding loss doesn’t need to define who we are. We can rebuild ourselves around the loss we have suffered.

Yes, you and I will be whole again. However, we shall never ever be the same again. It isn’t possible – nor should it be.

The prophet Jeremiah, the exiles in Babylon, and the remaining people of Jerusalem faced a tremendous and heartbreaking adjustment to a new world full of changes and losses. Expressing that grief was central to not becoming stuck in the past, living in the here and now, and moving into the future.

Grief is the normal mental, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical response to any significant change or loss. Grief is not optional but necessary. It is our personhood’s way of facing the pain and moving through it to a place of finding renewed meaning, support, and purpose in life.

How do people move through the grief?

  • Community: Grief needs a witness. It must be expressed. We must tell our stories of life, love, and loss. Otherwise, the grief just sits unmoved deep within and eventually becomes gangrene of the soul.

Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.

Galatians 6:2, GW
  • Connection: Grief doesn’t so much go away as it morphs into fond memories of remembrance through ritual behavior.

Then Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV)

  • Character: No one is defined by their grief, their disease, their mental disorder, their disability, or their addiction. In many religious traditions, people are identified as carrying the image and likeness of G-d.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.

After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. (Romans 8:29-30, MSG)

  • Care: Practice caring for yourself. Give yourself the grace and the permission to be happy… or sad… or angry – to feel what you need to feel. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

  • Compare not: Please do not compare your grief and loss with anyone else’s. The truth is this: The absolute worst loss is your loss, not somebody else’s.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NIV)

  • Count: Count your wins. Count your blessings. Say them out loud. Write them down. Share them with a friend or loved one.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

    who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. (Psalm 103:2-4, ESV)

Sometimes, prayer is the only possible way forward. Maybe the Lord will once again hear us and respond, as of old:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people… I have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows.” (Exodus 3:7, NET)

May the presence of the Lord melt your fear and discouragement. May God strengthen and help you. May the Lord lift you and hold you in gracious and compassionate hands. Amen.

Lament Your Losses (Lamentations 3:19-26)

“The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

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.”

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord. (New International Version)

“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.”

Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

None of us gets off this planet without experiencing terrible grief. It is endemic to the human condition.

Grief attaches itself to any significant change or loss – bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and so much more – bring grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

The worst response to 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 respond that way because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.

Lamentations is an entire book of the Bible given to a single purpose: lamenting a grievous loss.

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

Jeremiah is a melancholy messenger who preached 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.

In his terrible grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple.

It was only after an extended time of grieving that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God. The Lord’s compassions become new every morning. And the renewal will happen without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

Cheap hope tries to circumvent grieving and lamenting of loss. Genuine hope knows the true path of renewal is through the grief, not around it.

There are two popular phrases in Western 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, are harmful:

  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 of grief, unable to effectively move through it because others expect them to be joyful and victorious; but they really feel downright awful – and now also feel guilty for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. But 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. Broken spirits and broken hearts, like broken bones, need time to heal.

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, emotional problems today. 

“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, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss

We all accumulate 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. 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. Remember our afflictions and losses. Avoid superficial responses to significant events. Acknowledge, own, and feel the pain of the loss. This is the path to realizing new life.
  2. Pay attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the grief process. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified 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. Do not minimize your 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. Know that Jesus grieved. Messiah is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3) At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. (John 11:35) 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. (Luke 13:34) 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?” (Matthew 27:46) Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

Grief and lament is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and essential for 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. 

We must 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 submitted to grief and lamented their losses are:

  • Patient with others and able to wait on God
  • Kind and compassionate
  • Lack pretense and have no need to impress others
  • Comfortable with mystery and don’t need all the answers
  • Humble, gentle, and meek
  • Able to see God in the mundane, banal, and lowly
  • 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 grief catch you. Express lament. Allow grief and lament to do its deep and powerful work within you, to the glory of God. Amen.

Psalm 6 – Our Tears Find a Better Way

Please, Lord,
    don’t punish me when you are angry;
    don’t discipline me when you are furious.
Have mercy on me, Lord,
    because I’m frail.
Heal me, Lord,
    because my bones are shaking in terror!
My whole body is completely terrified!
        But you, Lord! How long will this last?
Come back to me, Lord! Deliver me!
    Save me for the sake of your faithful love!
No one is going to praise you
    when they are dead.
Who gives you thanks
    from the grave?

I’m worn out from groaning.
    Every night, I drench my bed with tears;
    I soak my couch all the way through.
My vision fails because of my grief;
    it’s weak because of all my distress.
Get away from me, all you evildoers,
    because the Lord has heard me crying!
The Lord has listened to my request.
    The Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be ashamed
    and completely terrified;
    they will be defeated
    and ashamed instantly. (Common English Bible)

“Don’t ever discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes they are the best words the heart can speak.”

William Paul Young, The Shack

Sometimes, even oftentimes, our tears find a better way.

It seems as if many folks don’t know this. Whenever someone is distraught, discouraged, or in the throes of despair, the advice given to them is often unhelpful, and even hurtful.

“You just need to be strong,” “Keep your chin up, I’m sure you have a lot to be thankful for,” and “Don’t cry, everything will work out okay,” are statements which betray we are uncomfortable with tears and are unsure what to do with them in others.

It can also be worse than that, with exhortations which only harm and don’t assist. “Dry up those tears or I’ll give you something to really cry about,” “Being sad and depressed like that is a sin, you know,” and “God wants you to be happy, so just put a smile on your face and fake it until you make it,” are a misuse of words and an abuse of language’s power.

So, I say again: Our tears find a better way.

To hold back our tears, to stuff our sadness and grief, does not make it go away. It’s still in there. And, if left there for too long, will come out sideways in harming others or even ourselves.

Whenever we put away our tears, we’re setting aside God’s most powerful means of healing, health, and wholeness. Tears are the conduit of integrating body and soul, where what’s going on inside is expressed on the outside.

Often, you don’t even need words when you have tears. The presence of the tears themselves becomes a form of language. They’re just there, and they are beautiful. Tears are evidence of brokenness, and more importantly, of healing and of strength, not weakness.

Tears are the body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration. Like the ocean, tears are saltwater. They protectively lubricate the eyes, remove irritants, and contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes.

Dr. William Frey is a biochemist and an expert on human tears at the University of Minnesota. He states that our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. Reflex tears allow the eyes to flush noxious particles when they’re irritated by smoke or exhaust. Continuous tears are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated and protected from infection.

Emotional tears were the experience of the psalmist. Whereas reflex tears are 98% water, emotional tears contain stress hormones that get excreted from the body through crying. Emotional crying stimulates the production of endorphins – the hormone necessary for happiness and a decrease of pain.

As the only creatures carrying God’s image and likeness within us, humans alone shed emotional tears. And that’s because God cries.

Jesus wept. Real tears. Emotional tears. Tears of genuine feeling and solidarity with the community, lamenting at the death of a dear friend, Lazarus.

“The Teacher is here,” Martha said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him.When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept. (John 11:28-35, NIV)

The Lord Jesus came to the village three days after Lazarus died. He knew exactly what he was about to do: raise Lazarus from the dead in a miraculous resurrection. Yet, he did not come all smiles stating, “Hey, guys, don’t be sad! Watch what I’m going to do!”

No, instead, Christ participated fully in the sisters’ and the community’s grief. Only until he had done this did he proceed to performing the miracle.

The tears, just as much as the resurrection itself, were redemptive.

There was a time, long ago, when the word “loser” meant exactly what the word says – that someone had lost someone. It was a descriptive word recognizing the aching hole in the heart that one experiences from the death of a loved friend or family member.

Now, however, the word “loser” has taken an insidious twist over the years – meaning someone who hasn’t won, somebody who didn’t have what it took to be a winner. It is now a negative term that nobody wants to wear as a moniker, at all.

Perhaps that is one reason why so many people wear plastic smiles, pretend they are strong, and insist on keeping up appearances… And it is killing us with unprecedented numbers of depression, anxiety, and outright despair with nowhere to place it.

Our tears show us a better way. It was the way of the psalmist. It is the way of our Lord. It is the way of life.

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.

Psalm 56:8, NLT

Beloved God, since all communion with You is prayer, my tears are psalms of petition and canticles of praise to You. The prayer You value greatly and always hear is the prayer of my tears; for You are a compassionate and kind God.

Surely, all truly great prayer rises from deep inside and springs spontaneously to the surface in the form of weeping. Perhaps, then, our tears are the purest and best worship of all.

May Your people not be ashamed of their tears; may they flow naturally and freely to You, my Blessed Redeemer. In times of joy or sorrow, blessed be the tears as the holy prayers of our hearts. Amen.