Do you remember the old nursery rhyme that the children used to recite? It went: "Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town, Some in rags and some in tags and some in velvet gowns."
Somehow I think that we have to be honest with ourselves and come to grips with the fact that all of us are hiding some grief underneath velvet gowns, manicured lawns, beautiful automobiles, and mink stoles. These do not cover the deepest pain in life, and let's understand that.
Some grieve because they never knew their fathers; others grieve because they did. Some grieve because they have never made it in their chosen profession; others grieve because they have made it and have found that it's empty, and they stand at the peak of their profession and, like Peggy Lee in her song, cry out: "Is that all there is?" Some grieve because they never had children; others grieve because they did. Some grieve because they miss the hometown, the neighborhood school, the high school football days, being a cheerleader, lost youth, and that those days can never come again. Others, like old all-Americans, look over their shoulders and, fondling their trophies one more time, realize that baldness and grayness and stooping shoulders must come to all. Some grieve because they have left home; others grieve because they can't. But whatever it is that causes your heart to be heavy, whatever the situation may be, the church ought to be a place where people can come together and grieve.
Early in my ministry I preached a sermon on the subject of grief because my people were going through some heavy difficulties. Later in the week, I was confronted by a gentleman who had heard the sermon and was livid with anger. With fierce emotion in his eyes, he looked at me and said: "The church is no place for anybody to talk about grief." I finally realized that the sermon had activated his unresolved grief concerning the death of his mother several years before. 1 think my friend did not understand the truth of the Spanish philosopher, Unamuno, when he observed: "The proper use of a Temple is to provide a place where people can grieve together."
If the church is going to be anything, it must be a place where we can come together and bring our sorrows and griefs. In fact, as I looked at the Old and New Testaments, I was overwhelmed by the fact that we talk about Jesus, the man who was acquainted with our grief, who has borne our sorrows. We talk about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter of God. We talk about our not being ignorant about those who are departed. The New Testament is clear in its understanding that God gives comfort to those who go through difficult places. But in the stupidity of twenty-first-century America, we have a crazy idea that people are never supposed to show their emotions. If anything ever goes wrong in your life, don't ever tell anybody. The idea that church is a collection of people who have been victors in life is wrong. It's not even Christian.
I get terribly concerned with people who seem to think that because life has dealt them a body blow, they can't come back to the household of faith. I wish that all of us could attend church dressed in rags one Sunday so that we could bring into the open what we're trying to hide inside.
Grief is a universal experience. You're thinking: I haven't lost anybody; there have been no funerals at my house lately. That may be true, and you may somehow think you're immune. You may live in a big house that's half paid for. You may command a salary that's greater than you deserve. You may have an incredibly good education, and you may be getting great advancement in business. I am not talking only about those who have lost loved ones in that ultimate difficulty called death, but most of us hide things that are so deep we cannot utter them anyway.
I want the church to come to grips with the fact that the church ought to be a place where we can be honest enough to grieve together. You may grieve because there's no feeling in your life. You may grieve because there's too much. But all of us go through it. There are various stages of it.
All of this is enough to drive us to despair, to drugs, to drink in order to forget our minks and automobiles. All of this, when we come to realize the heavy load of pain that most people carry, is enough to make us like Job, thinking about cursing God and dying. When ultimate loss and separation come into a life, as Granger Westburg has noted in his book Good Grief, there are several approaches that people use in attempting to handle grief.
First of all, when a person realizes grief has come, there is a sense of shock. "I can't go on. I can't believe it." Then there's a sense of emotional relief when maybe tears or laughter or another kind of emotional expression breaks through. Then there's the third stage when people begin to feel terribly depressed, isolated, cut off. Sometimes physical symptoms move in. One study I read indicated that 38 percent of the people in a certain hospital were patients who had suffered a significant loss prior to their hospitalization. The fourth stage is a sense of guilt. Someone says, "If only I had done this" or "If only we had done that, then this would not have happened." The fifth stage is a sense of anger. People do not always follow this uniformly, but there's a sense of anger when you reach out. The doctor is wrong, I'm mad at him; or the church didn't do something and I'm mad at it. Something is wrong; in anger you reach out and fight at the world for what's happened to you. The last stage is a sense of hope where the cloud breaks and hope emerges. You begin to understand what Paul meant when he said: "Grieve, but not as men who have no hope."
As Christian people in a Christian community, we grieve as those who do have hope, for we've learned that the gospel moves in at a time of need. Look in the Old Testament, and you realize that when heavy grief moved upon the people of Israel, God took them out of their bondage. You look in and see that when Job, brokenhearted and his body filled with sores, sat on the ash heap, God came in and gave him a sense of hope. When Jeremiah wept over a country that he had lost, God moved in and gave him a sense of hope. When Isaiah was weeping over the burdens and sorrows of the Israelites, he came to the place where he was able to utter that magnificent cry, "Surely he will bear our sorrows."
And Luke, the talented physician, understands God in the ultimate way when he says: "He came to heal the brokenhearted." And I would say in parentheses: "Not to congratulate the successful, but to heal the brokenhearted." And the early Christian community echoed Paul: "We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that ye may not grieve as others do who have no hope."
You see, the Christian is not immune from grief, but the Christian wants to turn bad grief into good grief. The Christian wants to go through the stages of grief with hope. The Christian wants to pass through the pain of grief with understanding that there's more out there than the emptiness—the empty room.
There's more there than the emptiness of a life where relationships have been severed. The Christian goes through this with an understanding that God has not abandoned him. I want you to view grief not as ultimate pain but, hopefully, in a Christian stance as opportunity.
It is difficult in the grief experience to recognize any good at all. Sometimes it is only in a crucial situation like grief that the depths of our personal, inner resources are tapped. We never know the strength and sureness of our faith until we have to search our very souls and measure our ability to cope with this situation. It is like a general in the army who really never can tell how disciplined and well-trained his troops are until the battle is raging. Grief can either conquer you or push you forward into new frontiers of personal growth.
Remember that when God talks to the church, He says things like: "He was despised and rejected by men. He was a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief." As one from whom men hide their faces, "He was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted, but he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. With his stripes we are healed." Grieve. Let it flow. Tell God about it. Grieve, but not as those who are without hope. The church, the proper use of the temple, is to make it a place where we can grieve together.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the practical resource, Survival Kit for the Stranded by Carolyn Shealy Self and William L. Self. The entire book is available for purchase at <www.ministerialassociation.com>.