I returned from a wonderful family reunion in Pinetop to face that two long-time members of St. John’s had died: Donna Romanowski and Connie Parli. I have worked closely with both of these leaders over the last 14 years and when you work closely with someone, you can’t help but know them well and care for them deeply. When you care for someone deeply, the pain of their death is especially sharp.
That pain is grief. Most people aren’t very good at managing grief, including myself. We expect people to soldier on, to distract themselves with work or to get counseling, but to keep the sadness and pain hidden. Most of us are uncomfortable with expressions of sadness, especially tears and sobbing, and prefer to avoid those who are hurting.
I suspect that our avoidance of other people’s grief is because we have trouble facing our own grief, whether it is the death of a loved one or the many hundreds of tiny “deaths” we experience as human beings throughout our life. When we lose a job, it is a little death. When someone is no longer our friend, it is a little death. When arthritis means we can’t pick up small objects, it is a little death. When we can’t walk distances, it is a little death. Each brings grief. How do we express it? Who will receive our laments?
Two things we can be sure of: first, God receives our cries of grief, even our crying in the night. Almost a third of the Psalms are laments, such as Psalm 13:2, “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” or Psalm 88:1, “at night, I cry out in your presence.” Jesus receives the grief of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died and wept with them (John 11:35). Through the Psalms, we are trained to be aware that God receives the pain and sadness of our griefs.
The second thing we can count on is that Jesus has conquered death. He is alive eternally! Our griefs, although they are many and at times feel overwhelming, are not eternal. Our pain may feel like it lasts a long time, but resurrection not grief is truly eternal!
But we don’t always feel comfort from the idea of Christ’s resurrection, which can feel distant and abstract. So, the community of believers surrounds us with their presence and God’s promises. When Martin Luther’s young daughter Magdalena died, he could not sing God’s praises, so he wrote his friend George Spalatin and asked him to praise God because he could not. Trusting Christ’s resurrection does not take away our sadness or pain. We still hurt and cry. But we are surrounded by a community that receives our grief and supports us with the promise of resurrection.
Following Jesus means receiving other’s grief. Because Christ saves us from death, we can face the grief of others (see Romans 12:15). The first few times are the most uncomfortable as you learn to face your discomfort and powerlessness with another person’s sadness or tears. Try to just sit quietly and listen if they want to talk. Don’t be in a hurry to leave. If you do speak, ask questions, such as, “can you tell me what you miss most?” rather than try to offer simple platitudes that may sound dismissive of their pain. There will be a time to say, “Christ is risen,” but like Martin Luther when his daughter died, they may not be ready to respond, “he is risen indeed.”
The day for shouts of joy will come; but in the midst of grief, we can trust in God receiving our pain and need people around us willing to receive it too.