LOSS, GRIEF, AND LAMENT

Following a span of four days in which we had three funerals at our church I saw an article that got my attention. Written by Ed Stetzer and entitled Recovering the Good in Seasons of Lament, I thought this is a piece I need to read. I read it and I’m glad I did.

The reality is that everyone experiences losses in life and grieves those losses. The losses we face, however, are not limited to the passing of loved ones. I have moved three times in the past 40 plus years and as excited as I was about where we were moving to, leaving each place was a significant loss.

Grief and lament are not limited to our losses, but they are part of life. Perhaps another way to say it is that we all do and will go through times of discouragement, confusion, uncertainty, pain, disappointment, and failure.

Even though they challenge us, such seasons should not surprise us. A verse I often emphasize in my teaching is Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” That suggests to me that our decision to trust and follow Jesus does not mean we will be exempt from things that hurt us – things that cause us to grieve and lament.

As much as we wish it were not so, and as much as it grieves us, neither should death surprise us. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us “each person is destined to die” (NLT). We can prepare for it and expect it, but neither takes away the loss death deals us.

Stetzer notes that when those close to us experience loss “it’s natural to want to step in and provide encouragement,” but we don’t know “what to say or how to go about saying it.” And giving me as a pastor some comfort, Stetzer rightly notes, “The truth is that we don’t have all the answers.”

Offering a challenge that makes sense to me, Stetzer surmises, “Perhaps the church needs to allow space for people to lament – to wonder why, to ask questions, and to work through their grief. Maybe we needn’t be a people of quick answers but instead of soft hearts and listening ears.”

To grieve and lament in life is appropriate. In Ecclesiastes 3:4 the teacher notes, there is “A time to cry and a time to laugh.  A time to grieve and a time to dance.” The shortest verse in the Bible tells us that at the grave of Lazarus “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). That’s an example I have often followed in my own grief and one I will continue to follow in the future.

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ARE YOU SURE THEY ARE BLESSED?

I am currently teaching a Bible study in which we are considering Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). In these verses Jesus pronounces blessed those who have and live out eight qualities and aspects of life.

At first reading, at least four of the characterizations Jesus affirms do not strike us as describing someone who is blessed. On the surface, not many of us would associate “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” and “those who are persecuted because of righteousness” as blessed people.

By the way, although some suggest the word “blessed” can be translated “happy”, I think that devalues the idea of being “blessed”. The idea of “blessed” is that God congratulates those who have these qualities and that his favor is on them. Max Lucado writes about the beatitudes with a book entitled The Applause of Heaven suggesting God claps for those with these characteristics.

Out of the four that seem contradictory, the one that seems most paradoxical to me is “Blessed are those who mourn.” If we use the popular translation of blessed some use, the description reads “Happy are the sad.” “Those who mourn” are those who suffer pain and loss, who grieve, and whose hearts are broken. Jesus tells us they are blessed—and we want to ask, “Are you sure they are blessed?”

In preparing to talk about this beatitude, I was struck again as I reread something John Stott wrote in his book about the Sermon on the Mount. Commenting on this second beatitude about those who mourn, he wrote “we need to observe that the Christian life, according to Jesus, is not all joy and laughter.”

The Bible does not tell us that if we worship and love the Lord, have faith in Jesus and follow him we will live problem and pain free lives. As a matter of fact, Jesus said the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). In Romans 12:15 Paul instructs believers to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” And in the Old Testament there is a book of five chapters entitled Lamentations!

Most commentators note that when it comes to mourning there are different levels. We mourn our own sins, the sins of those around us, and the condition of the world. But we also grief our personal losses. Dealing with pain, suffering, loss, and grief is a part of life. Is there anyone reading this post who has not suffered a loss? It seems like I have had more occasions to mourn the last 10 months than usual.

Dr. David Gallagher reminds us “God never promised an easy journey, but God did promise to be with us through it all.” A little later he warns us, “A major misunderstanding we sometimes face is that grief is our enemy to be avoided. In reality, grief is a dear friend.”

We may not realize it at the time, but perhaps part of the blessing of mourning is the capacity to hurt and grieve—to know and feel sorrow. And maybe part of the blessing is having God with us in our grief, even though he doesn’t immediately take it away.

Let’s keep wrestling with Jesus’ pronouncement that those who mourn are blessed. I’m confident he’s sure we are—and I’m making progress in understanding it.

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IT STILL HURTS

Eighteen months ago I stepped down from the church I planted and led as pastor for 30 years. Since then numerous people have asked me how I am doing. Here’s my response: I’m doing well and I believe I made the right decision, but it still hurts.

Our elders and I planned and carried out the transition over the period of about three years. I knew leaving the place, the people, and the wonderful privilege of doing what I was doing—all of which I loved so much–would be a loss to me. I just didn’t know then how big a loss it would be.

I read something yesterday that gave me some insight into my loss. The authors suggested that being a pastor is a role in which many place their entire identity in the job; and when they let go they feel they have lost their identity. I suspect that partially explains the loss I felt but it’s about much more than my identity.

Early in the last 12 months of my ministry I read a book entitled A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. It’s about the tragic experience of the deaths of his wife, mother, and daughter in a car accident. My loss in leaving Discovery Christian Church pales in comparison to his loss, but his book was a great help. Inside the front cover I wrote “reread chapter 6—good for any loss.”

In the preface to the first edition of his book Sittser wisely observes “Sooner or later all people suffer loss, in little doses or big ones, suddenly or over time, privately or in public settings. Loss is as much a normal part of life as birth.”

Is there anyone who will read this post who has not experienced loss? I distinctly remember the loss I felt both the night I graduated from high school and the afternoon I graduated from college. I remember the loss I felt when I left Bridgetown Church of Christ as youth minister and when I left Delaware Valley Church of Christ as minister. When I think back on those times of loss I still feel some sadness even though I had something new just ahead.

During our almost 42 years of our marriage Jan and I have had three dogs we loved and love who were all an important part of our family, two of which have died. Readers who have had beloved pets know the pain of losing one.   

One of the greatest losses we experience is the death of a loved one. At the age of 65 I have lost numerous relatives including both my parents as well many friends who meant much to me. During my years as a local church pastor I led many funeral and memorial services and shared the grief of those left behind. One thing I often said to a surviving spouse that I hope became helpful was “You’ll never get over this. With the passing of time you will adjust, but you will never get over your loss.”

In the preface of his book Sittser suggests it is not “the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives” but “how we respond to loss that matters.” Like I used to tell surviving spouses, Sittser says his “book is not intended to help anyone get over” their loss. His “aim is not to provide quick and painless solutions, but to point the way to a lifelong journey of growth.”

It hasn’t been easy, but I think I have grown through every loss I have experienced so far. And I know I will experience more losses in the years ahead. How I respond has been and will continue to be what matters. But even though I have grown through my losses, including my stepping down from Discovery, it still hurts.

If you think others would appreciate these thoughts share them on social media. And feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email (bobmmink.com).

Photo courtesy of the boy’s mother, my daughter.