In the Gospel Reading for All Saints’ Sunday, Jesus says (among many other “blessed’s”) “Blessed are those who mourn…for they shall be comforted.” Jesus takes two things that we don’t generally associate with one another: grief and blessing, and he places the two side-by-side.
It is a fact that the prospect of death and other life events that bring grief are difficult to talk about. They make people uncomfortable…even people who should know better. Our default mode of thinking is that death and sadness should not be allowed to intrude into life. As a result, we fail to give grieving people the time and opportunity to just be who they are. Ken Haugk, the psychologist and Lutheran pastor that founded Stephen Ministry, tells a story in his book Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart that exemplifies the problem. Haugk remembers on one occasion as he attended a dinner for an association of local psychologists, the association president was late. This was because the man’s wife was in the later stages of cancer, and he had just been at the hospital with her. He arrived after the dinner was over, barely able to get a cup of coffee. Just as he took his seat, someone asked him how his wife was doing. “She’s dying,” was the answer. A psychologist sitting next to him, a woman who happened to be teaching a university course at the time on death and dying, said in reply, “We’re all dying.” Her statement was, of course, 100% true. We ARE all dying. However, “her statement—no matter how true or profound—was not what the association president needed to hear at that time,” Haugk writes. “Everyone misses the mark—sometimes even the whole target! Friends, acquaintances, highly trained professionals, religious people, lovers to their beloveds, you, me—everyone who means to offer comfort sometimes manages instead to pile more weight on an already burdened heart” (Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart, 13–14).
Jesus helps us envision such a thing as good grief in his Sermon on the Mount because one day his empty tomb…the place where tears of grief would be turned to tears of joy…would have the last word. I’m reminded of that as I think back to the days of my early ministry in Okinawa, Japan. An Okinawan family, who had just lost a son in a tragic accident, were visited by church members immediately after the young man’s death became known. No words were exchanged. No attempt to say “the right thing” to banish grief was made. Time was taken first just to sit with this couple and be privileged to share their grief. When the time came, the promise of God’s gift of abundant life in Christ was something that we would hear and hold close to our hearts together. When you think about it, there are no words that can or even should take grief completely away—at least, not on this side of eternity. Jesus' words in his Sermon remind us that our attempts to banish grief aren't the point. God’s promise is that HE will one day wipe away our every tear (Rev. 7:17). In the meantime, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we simply hold fast to the hope that we share, weeping—and rejoicing—together.