The Breathing Space to Grieve--May 22, 2019
"When [Paul] had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship." [Acts 20:36-38]
As a word of pastoral counsel and a personal favor to me, let me make a hugely important request of you. Please do not short-circuit someone else's grief or hurt.
Christians are Easter people, people of hope and of new life, to be sure, but it is not ours to rush someone else through their grief or pain because it makes us uncomfortable to see them not "fixed" yet.
We are people who believe, not only in our own resurrection from the dead, but that we will be reunited with those who have gone before--and yet, we still ache in the present moment when we have to say goodbye.
We are people who trust that God is both good and just and will right the wrongs of history--both the world's and ours--but still it hurts to live through the days when it seems that rottenness wins the day.
We are people who look to a day when, as Jesus says, "everything that is hidden will be revealed," and as Paul says, "we shall know even as we are fully known," but it does not mean there is no struggle now, in this time when some truths remain hidden, some lies have gone unexposed, and some deceivers have not yet received their comeuppance.
So, because we are not yet there at that day when our hopes are realized and our longings are fulfilled, please, dear friends, let us not decide for ourselves that we need to rush other people through to a smile and a feeling of serenity because we are uncomfortable being around the wounds that are not done healing yet.
This is one of the lessons I take from this lesser-known scene from the book of Acts. This episode comes near the end of the book, as Paul the apostle prepares to journey to Jerusalem on a trip to bring relief and aid to the people living through a food shortage there. But Paul knows that there are folks waiting for him there who are looking to arrest him and get him put on trial--which will likely mean death when the sentence is rendered for being a holy troublemaker who spreads the news of a different King other than Caesar. So as Paul loads up his suitcase and stands at the docks saying his goodbyes to the leaders of the church in Ephesus where he had been living and serving, everybody knows this is their last goodbye, this side of glory. So of course, there are tears.
This was a difficult moment all around. Paul had stayed in Ephesus longer than in anywhere else in his pastoral career to date, and that meant these were the longest lasting, deepest relationships he had built since coming to faith in Christ. And even though nobody quite knew how or when he would end up in handcuffs, the metal bars of a prison cell cast a long shadow backward onto this moment, and everyone knew that this was their last time to see one another, likely before a long and difficult time in Paul's life.
Now, what is telling to me in this painful moment is that Paul, despite his role as pastor and leader, doesn't stop his sobbing friends from grieving with a well-meant inspirational cliché. There is no point in his farewell message where Paul trots out the "Footprints" poem to make everyone remember that they're being carried, nor does Paul tell them that "God won't give them more than they can handle," either. Paul doesn't tell them to stop and look at the bright side, or tell these folks not to be sad... or hurt... or angry.
And honestly, all of those are perfectly understandable responses to this situation. They could have been angry at God for letting Paul be taken away on this voyage knowing that danger was at hand, or hurt that Paul hadn't told them before this moment that he wasn't coming back again. They could have been sad for what was in store for Paul, or sad that they were losing a friend (and wouldn't even be able to check up on him through Facebook!). They could have been heavy-hearted knowing that Paul had carried the burden of knowing he was headed for trouble as a secret in his heart and mind all this time, or they could be upset that he hadn't told them what he knew was in store. Maybe they were all of the above at the same time, and maybe so was Paul.
But what is striking to me is that Paul doesn't short-circuit that grief and lament by shoehorning in a message about resurrection and Easter hope at this moment. It's not that it isn't true. It's not that Paul doesn't believe they'll see one another again in glory--honestly, Paul probably believed Jesus was coming back any day and they all might see each other in the resurrection life very soon. It's not that Paul didn't want to help his friends in Ephesus heal, either. It's just that he knew, right then and right there, that they weren't ready for a "Chin-up!" kind of message. They needed to hurt and to be sad for a while, and he needed to let them. As much as Paul may have wanted to be able to speak a magic word or wave a wand to fix it all, this was a time when they just needed to be able to lament... even while they also believed in the Big Picture sense that they would be reunited in glory and that all would be well.
This is a difficult dance for us to do, too--it's rather like a high-wire act for us. We are people who, like Paul, have a hope in resurrection, in redemption, and in restoration. We believe that God will at the last right everything that is wrong, mend everything that is broken, and renew everything in this whole creation that is aching for wholeness. And yet we are also people who feel the pain of this life, of this present moment, in whatever heartaches and sorrows there are. Sometimes in the name of looking religious, we think we have to hide the tears and make others do the same. Sometimes in the name of appearing devout, we think we have to interject an optimistic message or put a positive "spin" on things when others simply need to complain, or grieve, or name their wounds. And this scene from Acts offers us a wiser, ultimately more compassionate approach: sometimes we need to let the pain be the pain, and simply share it with those who hurt, rather than appointing ourselves God's press secretaries to do damage control to God's reputation. We are Easter people, yes, but that also means we are called to have the patience to accompany people who are living through Holy Saturday. Indeed, it our hope for Sunday that allows us to stay in Saturday's pain and heartache for as long as others need us to be there with them.
So today, when you run into people who are struggling--whether at a turn of events in their lives, an estrangement with another person in their lives, or even with anger at God--maybe we can learn from the apostle Paul here, and hold our tongue before we rush someone else to have a happy face simply because sitting with the pain makes us uncomfortable. Honoring someone else's pain, and giving them the breathing space to feel it, to acknowledge it, and to say it out loud, is not a denial of our Easter hope. It simply means we believe in Easter hope so firmly that we believe Christ can bear the full brunt of someone else's lament and heartache, rather than making them skip over the hard work of grieving.
We do not grieve as though we have no hope, the apostle says elsewhere; that is true, but we do still grieve.
And if we believe that Jesus is not just going to be alive in the future, but actually alive and risen and present among us now, then we can wait with others who hurt today, like Job's friends sitting in silence on the ash heap, trusting that Jesus is there in the hurt as well, right now, too.
Please, friends, let's not short circuit someone else's grief because it makes us uncomfortable--but let's allow the presence of Jesus to give us the strength to go through the pain with them. That's what it will look like to be Easter people on a day like today.
Lord Jesus, before we rush to say shallow sentimentalities because we don't know what else to say, give us the wisdom and love to know when simply to be silent and let others pour out their hearts, and to trust that you are there in tears as much as in the time for wiping them away.