the shape of leadership

Mourning with Those Who Mourn

Acknowledging grief is the first step toward healing

Karen Huber on June 8, 2017

Though I sat behind the couple nearly every week in church, I didn’t know them. Then one week, he was gone.

His widow stood near me, swaying, arms raised, black pumps gently stepping in place. Her long arms folded through the air around her, gathering something I could not see. Soon, a church leader came near. Then two or three women joined alongside her to pray.

In a single moment, our church blended corporate worship with corporate mourning. Even those of us who did not know this man grieved: for him, for his wife and for losses we had borne.

As I write, the world is reeling from several recent international tragedies. From Manchester to Kabul, Portland to Manila, communities and countries are navigating a sea of sorrow. At times, it feels like everyone everywhere is hurting.

Grieving openly is hard, and walking through a period of mourning with those who have endured great loss can be awkward and painful. As Christians, we want to focus on eternal glory rather than the earthly sorrows around us. But trying to turn the tables of grief to present an ill-timed gospel message or force pop-up joy isn’t helpful.

Yes, it’s true that we do not grieve as those without hope, but we grieve all the same. Yes, joy comes in the morning, but the morning may not dawn for a long while.

Paul tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Rejoicing is easier than mourning, but both are part of the human experience in this fallen world. And both are part of ministry.

“When Jesus gives us, His ambassadors on earth, an opportunity to represent Him through comforting those experiencing loss, we must not take it lightly,” says Scott Attebery, a ministry leader whose wife, Jill, died from an automobile accident in 2008. “That’s why I think it is vital that every church think through their own care plan now.”

When tragedy comes to your church or community, consider these four ways to mourn together:

Offer open, intentional and extended prayer time. Make room in your service and your calendar for open-ended intercession. When words fail us, remember that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans,” (Romans 8:26).

Clichés offer little comfort in times of trauma. Ask the Holy Spirit to minister through you when you don’t know what to say.

Relate examples of sorrow from Scripture. The Bible gives us moving — perhaps even shocking — examples of deep lamentation poured out before the Lord, from David’s grief in the Book of Psalms to Jesus’ weeping over Lazarus in the Gospel of John.

Yes, joy comes in the morning, but the morning may not dawn for a long while.

God is no stranger to the cries of His people, and through His Word, we see a cycle of lament that traces a path from pain to healing.

G. Brooke Lester is an assistant professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, Illinois). In his book Psalms of Lament, he writes, “lament gazes unflinchingly at the present reality of pain and at God’s apparent slowness to save.”

Psalm 13 is one such example, as David first addresses God directly, presenting his complaint and petition, then acknowledges trust in Him and ends with thanksgiving.

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.”

Take your time. Don’t feel you must immediately focus on the eternal reality, but honor the earthly loss, allowing time to move from a season of sorrow to peace, and then to hope.

“Church funerals, when they tell the truth, not only remember lovingly the lives of the departed, they also preach the gospel,” writes Lauren F. Winner in her book Mudhouse Sabbath. “What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss.”

Winner, who grew up in a Jewish Orthodox household but converted to Christianity in early adulthood, relates the details of the Jewish tradition of communal mourning called avulet. Starting with aninut (the days between death and burial), shiva (the week after burial), and shloshim (the first month after death), the grieving process culminates in yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of the death.

“This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works,” she writes. “Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning rituals create.”

Remember. Attebury reminds church leaders to literally make note of the death or traumatic events on the church calendar.

“One of the most difficult realities for grieving people is the realization that others are forgetting their loss,” says Attebery, who suffered his own loss when his wife died. “A timely note in the mail or call on the telephone can bring incredible joy.”

Remembering the weeks, months and years after a loss is an act of loving devotion to a broken heart. Honor the remembrance of a person’s grief and the different forms mourning takes through the years.

The widow of the man I did not know spoke not a single word that day in church, but those who knew her responded to her grief, and her praise. They followed her lead and stepped into the pain with her — and together, we sang him home.

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