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 71:1-14 – Tuesday of Holy Week

O Lord, I have come to you for protection;
    don’t let me be disgraced.
Save me and rescue me,
    for you do what is right.
Turn your ear to listen to me,
    and set me free.
Be my rock of safety
    where I can always hide.
Give the order to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the power of the wicked,
    from the clutches of cruel oppressors.
O Lord, you alone are my hope.
    I’ve trusted you, O Lord, from childhood.
Yes, you have been with me from birth;
    from my mother’s womb you have cared for me.
    No wonder I am always praising you!

My life is an example to many,
    because you have been my strength and protection.
That is why I can never stop praising you;
    I declare your glory all day long.
And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.
    Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.
For my enemies are whispering against me.
    They are plotting together to kill me.
They say, “God has abandoned him.
    Let’s go and get him,
    for no one will help him now.”

O God don’t stay away.
    My God, please hurry to help me.
Bring disgrace and destruction on my accusers.
    Humiliate and shame those who want to harm me.
But I will keep on hoping for your help;
    I will praise you more and more. (NLT)

Today’s psalm is a lament. It is included in Holy Week because the Christian can imagine Jesus saying these very words in the last days of his earthly life and ministry.

Lament is both important and necessary. Without lament our grief comes out sideways, inevitably harming others with our snarky vitriol. Lament gives expression to our deep grief. It enables us to come to grips with what has happened or is happening to us and within us.

  • A lament is an expression of personal grief to any significant change or loss; it is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss.
  • Lamenting is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and living into a new identity after the loss or change.
  • Expressing grief through lament is personal; there is no one-size-fits-all.

Psalms of lament have a typical structure to them, including:

  • Addressing God: Crying out for help. Some psalms of lament expand to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past. (Psalm 71:1-3)
  • Complaint: Telling God (said with some flavor!) about our problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to the change or loss. (Psalm 71:4)
  • Confession of Trust: Remaining confident in God despite the circumstances. Beginning to see problems differently. (Psalm 71:5-8)
  • Petition: Proclaiming confidence in God. Appealing to God for deliverance and intervention. Keep in mind that petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss. Rather, it is a legitimate seeking of help. (Psalm 71:9-13)
  • Words of Assurance: Expressing certainty that the petition will be heard by God. (Psalm 71:14a)
  • Vow of Praise: Vowing to testify in the future to what God will do with praise. (Psalm 71:14b-24)

I urge you to do the following spiritual practice this Holy Week – set aside some time and craft your own psalm of lament. Choose an event from your past which created grief for you. It can be recent or from years ago. Using the structure of lament psalms, thoughtfully write out each element as I have outlined it. Then, read it aloud to God. Perhaps even take another step by reading your lament aloud to a trusted family member, friend, or Pastor.

Our grief needs the outlet of lament. Grief which is not expressed only sits in the soul and eventually, over time, can easily become putrid and rancid, poisoning our spirit, and compromising our faith. Sharing your story through lament is biblical, practical, and I will insist, necessary. Let me know how it goes…

Luke 19:41-44 – The Place of Tears

Man of Sorrows by James B. Janknegt, 1990

“As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, ‘If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.’” (CEB)

There are Christians who believe in as much withdrawal from the world – its earthly political and cultural realm – as is humanly possible this side of heaven. There are yet others who believe in as much accommodation as possible to the world, its structures and society. And there are others who believe that the world and the church are simply two distinct realms which Christians simply move back and forth within, like taking one hat off and doffing another.

Let us leave that all aside for a moment and just observe the pathos of Jesus. He came to the city of Jerusalem, a city which was both deeply religious and very worldly. Jesus stood and looked affectionately and longingly at the city… and he wept. This was not a quiet shedding of a tear. No, the word “wept” means that Jesus openly cried aloud over the city. Think of the kind of crying which takes place when a person is in the throes of grief.  These were great heaves of loud weeping.

The reason Jesus was lamenting with so much feeling was that the city did not recognize they had a gracious visit from God. The Lord looked at the city and saw all the future disaster which was coming. He knew it could be different, and he was emotionally undone by the city’s inability to see God, right in front of their own face.

Now let us return to our view of the world and our involvement in it. Taking some cues from our Lord Jesus, the first and foremost posture we are to take toward the worldly city is not separation, accommodation, or dual citizenship – it is, rather, to grieve and lament.

The longing Jesus had in his heart was to see the city of Jerusalem annexed and incorporated into the kingdom of God. The way of peace, of shalom on this earth, is to bring all things and all the world under the benevolent reign of God. It is as if there are Twin Cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which exist side-by-side but have different municipal structures. 

The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God exist next to each other. Jesus wanted to bring the earthly kingdom into the peaceful and gracious realm of God’s kingdom. But the people would have nothing to do with it. Both the religious establishment and the secular authorities of the city wanted their own municipal conceptions of how things should go – and they both rejected the Christ who could bring them all true harmony.

We are about to enter the season of Lent. It is a time set aside in the Christian Year for repentance and preparation to receive King Jesus as our rightful benevolent ruler. Let us lament the world full of both religious and secular people who do not recognize the time of God’s visitation. Let it be a time to journey with Jesus and follow him in his Passion for this world and all its inhabitants.

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Trinity whom I serve – the world and even sometimes the church is estranged from grace – they have not recognized your gracious coming and presence. I lament such a state of things, and ask you, blessed Spirit may draw all people to the Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  Amen.