My friend Tim asked me to speak at his church yesterday about mourning, and how it can be a pathway to God.
It got me thinking that we Americans don’t make a lot of room for mourning. Unlike some other cultures, we don’t have embedded traditions that make space for grief and loss, besides the brief funeral. We are generally entitled to happiness (is that entitlement related to our high rates of depression?) and we generally expect ourselves to keep moving. Stoicism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is part of the fabric of our national history. I recently watched an old movie with my kids called Seven Alone—a true story about a family on the Oregon trail. When both parents died on the way, the caravan stopped briefly to bury them and unsuccessfully tried to send the children back home with relatives. The self-determined children set off on their own, (with their infant baby sister, of course) and miraculously made it to Oregon in the dead of winter, barely alive. The message about loss was: just keep moving, even if you’re 5 years old. Now that’s American!
Somewhere along the way, I internalized the expectation of stoicism too. But being a follower of Jesus is freeing me to be fully human, as Jesus was, able to grieve and connect with God’s longing. Most of us are inclined to try to fix ourselves or distract ourselves from pain, and try to get on with it. But the call to a follower of Christ is different: it is a call to a softened heart, a heart that is pliable for God to shape.
It’s like the story of the student who complained to his Rabbi that he was just tirelessly memorizing words and concepts, and not being transformed. The Rabbi assured him that one day his heart would break, and then the words would fall in.
Dr. Martin Luther King tended to his broken heart, and put it to work. He let it bleed for others. He quoted the prophet Jeremiah in his journal: Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous; but I said, ‘Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it.’ He stressed that the most important resolution to disappointment is to refrain from rationalization. Like the Psalmist cried, deep calls to deep. God’s longing for the restoration of the world is reflected in our own longing. Jesus demonstrated it when he grieved the rejection he was experiencing in his own country: “O Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Alive with God’s longing, Dr. King was motivated to press on in hope for a world that could reflect the love and mercy of God. He grieved not just individual prejudice, but the national sin of greed that created systems of racism, militarism, and materialism that lead to economic and soul poverty. He urged people in power to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. Unfortunately, it seems that our commitment to materialism is stronger today than it was in Dr. King’s time, with dire implications worldwide. The over 125 armed conflicts we’re involved in around the world (mainly to protect our economic interests) reveals our ongoing commitment to militarism. Racial tensions smolder across the country in reaction to entrenched systems. We long for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness.
I think that all of our longings—for love, security, honor, peace, sex, intimacy, adventure, rest, success, wholeness—are at our core a longing for the fullness of God. God is present now to us, but we walk by faith and not by sight through the death, decay, and separation we experience. That’s why Paul says things like as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. While we are in this tent (this body), we groan and are burdened because we wish to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed. Even in suffering and loss, we are being made alive in Christ and embodied with the good news of redemption and resurrection.
If you want to grieve with Dr. King today, go ahead and don’t rationalize it. You’ll be gathering yourself under the wings of a God who lifts up the needy, and doesn’t hold back from expressing the fullness of love. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.