No one likes to grieve. No one feels lucky to mourn. So when Jesus tells an eager gathering of disciples “Blessed are those who mourn,” I’m not sure church growth gurus would see that as the strongest recruitment strategy.
Mourning in the Jewish imagination is not a foreign emotion. Mourning has deeply historical connotations for the Hebrew People of God.
Mourning in the Drama of God’s People
The majority of the time mourning is spoken of in the Old Testament, it is intrinsically connected to the feeling that God is absent. There are passages like Lamentations 1 – “Zion’s roads mourn, for no one comes to her, all her gateways are desolate, her young women grieve, bitter anguish is her voice. Her children have gone into exile with no one to hear their cries. The Lord has left us in grief.” The writer of Psalm 22 says “My God, My God why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from my cries of anguish? I cry out by day but you do not answer me?”
There are numerous snapshots of this theme running through the drama of God’s people. To be in a place of mourning is to grieve the perceived loss of God’s presence.
This statement might make us feel uncomfortable since we cling to sentiments like “God will never leave you nor forsake you.” Yet life does pummel us- at times stripping us of any sense that God is available- our prayers become dry, our circumstances are not remedied, and our existential crisis increases.
Scripture, and the silence in between the Testaments, displays the overwhelming scope of grief that the People of God felt. There are 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testament, in which we have no record of any prophetic utterances. A Jewish Rabbi says of this time that “God was a world away.”
Although we are now deep in what the Liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time,” I’m still working to apply the lessons I learned from Lent. I’m more convinced than ever that we need healing space in our real-time communities for the season that people journey through. We must permit people to confess their complicated emotions that God seems to have let them down. To feel this should not drive us out of community but draw us deeper into belonging.
When God is away from Missional Community
In the formation of our Missional Communities we need safety to say “God is a world away.” This does not make us any less Christian. These words “Blessed are those who mourn…” are an invitation to participate in the deep groans of Kingdom Come.
Jesus steps into the skin of his own teaching when he exclaims at the center of the passion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is not play acting or putting on a theatrical show. Jesus is genuinely experiencing the depths of human suffering: the startling remoteness of God. This is a timeless cry of staring into an empty abyss.
John Stott once said, “I could not believe in God, if it were not for his human struggle. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”
We do not live in this Holy City yet. In Revelation 21, John the Seer says, “I saw the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will live with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning for the old order of things has passed away.’”
We are caught in the tension that King Jesus has triumphed but God is not fully here yet. We cannot wear plastic pretense or fashion cryptic theological systems to convince ourselves God will always smooth over our pains.
I don’t think Christian culture is comfortable with this dim space. Much of our language about God is tangled up with unmitigated optimism, positive thinking, absolute confidence in progress and the obsession to control all aspects of life.
God’s proximity is unpredictable.
I spent some time in remote parts of Kenya investigating refugee children who were part of the LRA. Many times I was crushed with the inner question “God, why don’t you stop this?” as I took in the deformed faces of children butchered in the brutality of war. Mourning is intertwined in the desperate longing for God’s arrival.
I don’t believe that mourning the absence of God should be extrapolated to typify the whole of the Christian life, but I do think we need to understand that the Disciple’s life includes leaning into this piece of the Sermon on the Mount.
Mourning is not spiritual immaturity. Mourning is growing up in Jesus. Mourning is not a denial of Christ’s Resurrection victory, but it is an appropriate response to beholding the awfulness in the world.
Jesus is calling us to come and follow. Together we will smack into this mystery as Jesus himself did. In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann eloquently said, “For whatever reason, God allows mankind to be limited and vulnerable to suffering, but he had the courage to take his own medicine in Jesus.”
Our comfort, our healing balm comes in our immersion with a community that is hospitable to mourning. We can discover God’s earthy, tangible grace as we dwell with each other.
We will not apprehend supernatural comfort alone in isolation, solo in private prayer, buried in Bible verses. Jesus put himself at the center of the trial of human existence. As we garden communities in the neighborhood, we must discern how to cultivate the soil for soul-care when God is seemingly on the other side of the world.