Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Happiness Project: Good Grief

Matthew 5:1-2, 4
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 20, 2004)

Some of you may have read a true story I told in a recent column. A friend of mine had gone to a funeral home viewing. The wife of a high school classmate had died and my friend wanted to pay respects. Later, he went to a family function and his twin brother asked why he’d been late. He mentioned the viewing and his twin, who, of course, was also a classmate of the widowed man asked breezily, “Oh yeah, how’s he doing?” My friend was a bit taken aback by his brother’s insensitive attitude. He began to reply, “Well, as you’d expect. It’s pretty hard.” But his twin brother was incredulous. He couldn’t understand how this classmate could be grief-stricken. With some condescension, the twin said that as a Christian, the classmate had a hope for resurrection and with that, he had no reason to feel grief. My friend was so thunderstruck by his brother’s words that he didn’t know what to say.

Grief comes in many forms in this life. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Relationships end. Friends move away. Cherished dreams go unmet. And even the ardent follower of the God we know through Jesus Christ isn’t exempt. Even Jesus grieved. He wept bitter tears in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was arrested, knowing that soon He would lose His life. He wept at the gravesite of His friend, Lazarus. He poured out a grief-stricken lament over the hardness of heart of Jerusalem, saddened that so many would turn from God and so throw away their eternal lives. Even though all who follow Jesus have an everlasting hope of life with God forever, we still are subject to grief. We mourn.

But there is a difference in our mourning. This is the second installment of a series we're calling The Happiness Project. We're exploring the elements of the happy life that Jesus illustrates during an intimate time of teaching His closest followers. It's found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The twelve verses we’re exploring are often called The Beatitudes. Last week, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This week, He tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Now, as I mentioned last week—and will probably mention every week of this series, the word that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as blessed can equally well be translated as fortunate, blissed out, or happy. But it's fair to ask: What on earth is there to be happy about in mourning? Not a thing. But you and I can go through either good grief or bad grief. It’s those who can go through their grief well who are the happy people of the world. They're happy because God comforts them.

We all know about the bad ways people grieve, I suppose. One bad way to grieve is to deny our sense of loss. We try to gloss over our pain with religion or fake optimism or a hard-shell. The problem with denial is that it doesn’t work. Eventually, the pain catches up with us. When suppressed, grief may lead us to unrelieved depression, physical illness, or to closing ourselves off from the outside world.

Another bad way to grieve is to develop what I call, rather indelicately, emotional diarrhea. It’s the polar opposite of denial. The mother of a woman I knew died. The woman and her mother always had a strained relationship. Angry, bitter words passed between them all the time. The mother hurled the most insulting, cruelties you can imagine at her daughter. But at the funeral home, the daughter began a sob-fest that could only be described as a phony show. For a long time afterwards, she would weep uncontrollably over her mother, not because of her loss or a sense of regret, it seemed obvious, but because this gave her attention.

That’s bad grief. But, according to Lutheran pastor and chaplain Granger Westberg, good grief—mourning our losses healthfully and well---has four results (my paraphrase):

1. We emerge from our grief at a higher level of maturity.
2. We become deeper people because despair has taken us to deeper levels of experience.

3. We become stronger. Grief is like a spiritual obstacle course, where we learn to rely on God and God gives us greater spiritual muscle.
4. We come out of our grief better able to help others because we understand something of the pain they’re feeling.

Jesus says that His followers can be comforted when they mourn. They can experience good grief. My observation is that this happens in three basic ways. First: We let Christ have access to our sorrows. We surrender to Him. One of my favorite incidents in the Bible happens when Jesus is met by a man who asks Jesus to cast a demon from his son. He begs Jesus, “if you are able,” please help him.

Jesus said to Him, “If you are able—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

It’s hard to surrender to Christ, especially when we may feel tempted to blame our grief on Him. But we remember that Jesus is, as the Bible tells us, "a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief." We remember that even when we don’t understand, He understands us and what we’re going through. The Man Who went to a cross knows what it is to suffer through no fault of our own. He knows about grief. We may not feel capable of surrender. But if it’s our desire to place ourselves in His strong hands, He will catch us. He will see us through. When we want to surrender, all we have to do is to want to want to do just that!

In 1986, Merton and Irene Stommen lost the youngest of their five sons. He’d gotten through college and seminary and was just a few months away of achieving his life-long dream of becoming a pastor. He’d taken a group of young people to a Christian camp in Colorado when an afternoon thunderstorm came along. David Strommen, full of faith and promise, was struck by lightning and killed immediately. Mert Strommen is a devout Christian, pastor, and research psychologist. Irene, also a committed Jesus-follower, is a counselor. Their sense of loss was enormous. They’ve learned that no matter how deep one’s faith, you never “get over” loss. But, when we place our grieving souls in the death-scarred hands of Jesus, He will carry us, strengthen us, and renew our capacity for living.

Second: We grieve well when we let others help us with our grief. In both Old and New Testament times, they had elaborate rituals for people to use as they grieved. In fact, whenever the Bible uses those words grieve or mourn, it’s referring to both the saddened heart that goes with loss and to the formal rituals used to acknowledge the loss. Many of these rituals can be a huge help, especially when loved ones and friends we invite to take some of our journey through grief with us, are able to come alongside us. A buddy of mine had just lost the love of his life. She’d gone to be with another man. I felt inadequate as we sat together. All I did was listen and tell him how sorry I was and that I would pray for him. Later, he told me, that was all that he’d needed.

Finally, we grieve well when we have hope beyond today, the hope that Jesus gives to all who follow Him. Not only is the sun likely to come up tomorrow, God’s only Son Jesus has said that beyond life on this planet, all who turn from sin and follow Him will be with God forever. True story. The Rogers family were devout Christians. During their family prayer times, the parents often asked the children in their family to express how they knew they had eternal life. Seven year old Jimmy said:

[I think heaven will be like this.] One day when we all get to heaven, it will be time for the big angel to read from the big book the names of all the people who will be there. He will come to the Rogers family and say, “Daddy Rogers?” and Daddy will say, “Here!” Then the angel will call out, “Mommy Rogers?” and Mommy will say, “Here!” Then the angel will come down to call out Susie Rogers and Mavis Rogers, and they will both say, “Here!” And finally, the big angel will read my name, Jimmy Rogers, and because I’m little and maybe he’ll miss me, I’ll jump and shout real loud, ‘HERE!’ to make sure he knows I’m there.”

A few days later, a car struck Jimmy Rogers down. He was rushed to the hospital and the whole family was called. The doctors said they’d done all that was possible. The family gathered around Jimmy, motionless and unconscious, and they prayed. Late in the night, Jimmy stirred. They saw his lips move and form a single word. But what a word. Jimmy rasped out, “Here!” and he died.

Grief comes to us in many forms in this life. But when surrender ourselves and our sorrows to Christ; when we let others share our griefs; and when we let God give us a hope beyond the grave, we experience good grief. God gives us a happiness that nothing can destroy!


[The true story of Jimmy Rogers is told in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. I heartily recommend this book as well as the others mentioned in this message.

[My understanding of the Biblical definitions for the words blessed, mourn, and comfort all were strengthened by consulting the monumental and, for any preacher or theologian, essential, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Kittel.]

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