Great mourners can be great rejoicers.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). With his second Beatitude, Jesus uttered one of the strangest sentences imaginable. What sense does it make to declare happy those who are sad? We would congratulate those with eyes lined by laughter; Jesus congratulates those with eyes flooded by grief. We would congratulate those with mirth in their hearts; Jesus congratulates those with an ache in their guts. What sense does this make?
Very little, if we share the values of our culture.
A few years ago, Russell Baker commented that “the number of places a person can escape entertainment becomes smaller every year.… It used to be, for example, that a man could go to his dentist and count on an undisturbed bout of suffering which helped him to grasp the transience of life and perceive the agony of the flesh. No longer. Nowadays, while the drill bites at his nerve endings, he will be entertained by an invisible orchestra playing ‘The March of the Wooden Soldiers’ through a hole in the ceiling. The invisible orchestra is spreading across the country like the chestnut blight.… A people forced to live with Leonard Bernstein in the elevator, Doris Day at 30,000 feet, and ‘The Animals’ on the commuter bus is a people that will have precious little to smile about at the end of a hard-day’s entertainment. To restore entertainment to its proper role in society, we must restore the right to brood undisturbed.”
And, I would add, we must restore the right to be sad. The stampede toward entertainment begins, so often, with the flight from sorrow. Better to have something pleasant distract us, we might think, than have something painful destroy us. Too many hurts seem ready to ambush our emotions and beat them senseless if given half a chance. So off we go to the movies or the mall, the boat or the ball game, the pool or the party—off to almost anything at all promising protection from sadness and the possibility of happiness.
If we’re beating our hooves in this stampede, we have defined happiness much too narrowly. Authentic happiness does not mean absence of sorrow. In fact, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.”
Mourning, Not Moaning
Mourning: Jesus was not referring to the sadness I feel when, say, the Padres lose three straight games, or when a patrolman pulls me over and my fast-talking preacher mouth can’t get me out of a speeding ticket. He was not even referring to the sadness I feel when I have hurt my wife’s feelings, or when I have been short-tempered with my daughters. I feel bad about these things, but I don’t mourn.
The word used here is the strongest one for sadness in the Greek language. It is used for mourning the dead, for the passionate lament of a broken heart. It is intense sorrow. “Happy are the mourners,” Jesus said.
Happy are the mourners, not the moaners. Some find pleasure in complaining. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” they sing, and they enjoy the effect their music has on others. They like the attention; they wallow in the concern of others. But these people are mostly manipulators, more to be pitied than congratulated. Moaners are too content with their shallow pleasures to move into deep happiness.
But the mourners will be happy, according to Jesus. Why? We would not expect this. After all, mourners have had a great hurt penetrate them; a sharp suffering has lanced their spirits, leaving a gaping wound to bleed grief all over their lives. Why are they the blessed ones? How could anyone consider them worthy of congratulation?
The first and obvious thing we can say about mourners is that they have enough sensitivity to hurt. That, in itself, deserves praise.
It is not easy to escape the conspiracy to save us from suffering. A host of saviors waits to serve us: psychologists to numb our neuroses and pastors to absolve our guilt, doctors to heal our diseases and insurance agents to calm our worries, the surgeon general to save our lungs and Jane Fonda to firm up our flab. And we are separated from the suffering of others, too, by comfortable neighborhoods to protect our families, hospitals to care for the sick, and funeral homes to tend the dead. Deliverance from discomfort may be the most bullish industry in contemporary America. A team of people, like maintenance workers at Disneyland, is quick to sweep the garbage out of our lives to make our visit to the Magic Kingdom as pleasant as possible as we go from one entertainment to another.
But Jesus congratulated those who have left the Magic Kingdom to enter God’s kingdom.
When the poor in spirit, having given up on themselves and their attempts to find happiness, turn in humility toward God, they discover they have been seized—wholly seized—by the grace of God. Kingdom people, therefore, mourn. God transforms their values and changes their perspectives. They cannot live under God’s authority in a sinful world without mourning. As their hearts begin to beat in rhythm with God’s heart, their hearts begin to break over the things that break God’s heart.
And the paradox is this: Great mourners are great rejoicers. In opening the door to pain, they also open it to joy. People who do not mourn, who slam the door on all sorrow, never feel the deepest delights. Their lives, like freeways on which they speed from one entertaining distraction to another, are too hard for anything but the most superficial pleasures to pass over. But those sensitive enough to be crushed by sadness are those who also can be lifted by happiness.
Surely few have grieved as deeply as Mother Teresa over the wretched poor on the streets of Calcutta. But what do visitors to her Home for the Dying report? They testify to a joy so authentic, so palpable, that words of description drop like arrows falling short of a target. The great grievers, I am convinced, are the great rejoicers, for opening eyes in the night have enabled them to see clearly the shafts of light breaking through to harass the darkness.
As a pastor, I’ve had the privilege and pain of sitting with families in anguish over the death of a loved one. I have often witnessed the unlikely marriage of tears and laughter. We’ll be seated in the living room, say, planning Bill’s funeral. The silence of sorrow surrounds each sentence. “Why did he have to die so young?” Sharon says. “With two little children, with so much of a future ahead of us?” And maybe I mutter something to the new widow, or maybe I just cry with her.
Then George, who has just flown in from Denver to be with his sister, after a blast from his nose that might very well have raised Bill himself from the mortician’s table, says, “If I’d known there were this many tears in the world, I’d have bought stock in the Kleenex company.” Silence follows, for about two seconds; no one’s too sure how to respond, given the circumstances and the minister’s presence. But then, a snicker from one of the kids. It’s enough. Like bubbles rising from the bottom of a kettle sitting long over the fire, the laughter rises to the surface until the whole room boils over with mirth far out of proportion to the humor in the comment.
It is a release of tension, of course. But I think more, too, as I see Sharon’s eyes: She’s looking at her big brother—the boy who had tried to force-feed a lizard down her screaming throat, the teenager who had begged for her help when he was going down for the third time in a sea of algebra, the college student who telephoned (collect) once a week for no reason other than that he missed her, and the young man who had cried like a baby at her wedding—her big brother who wishes he had bought stock in the Kleenex company—her big brother whom she loves with an ache almost as great as the ache in her heart because of her husband’s death.
Who can understand the strange union of grief and joy in a moment such as this? Sorrow pierces the soul, cuts through protective defenses, leaves feelings exposed, vulnerable—and joy slips in.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Congratulations to them, for they have sensitive hearts.
Children Of God
Now let’s take it a step further. Mourners feel something more than a passing sorrow for events that remain external to them; mourners have allowed pain to penetrate their lives. In this way, they show they are children of God.
Not every sad thing causes me to mourn. Some things pass over my life like rainwater over oilskin, without soaking into my being. The evening news tells me of a flood in Bangladesh, a mass murder in a schoolyard, and a terrifying increase in AIDS cases, and I shake my head over the tragedies of life. But then, without so much as a moment’s reflection, I go into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, on the way tickling my daughter and asking my wife if she picked up the dry cleaning. For the most part, this may be fine; a person, after all, could not function if every tragedy pierced the heart.
Mourning, though, is different. I grieve deeply when something penetrates deeply. When I sat at Garth’s bedside, for example, I mourned. My normal defenses were no match for this tragedy, though God knows I would have preferred to keep a professional distance. But there is no such protection when it’s your cousin’s son lying there with his head smashed and swollen because a drunk driver ran into a car full of Westmont College students on their way to a mission project. I had just told his parents, who were waiting to board a flight from Seattle to San Diego, that no life remained in their firstborn’s brain, and I had promised to stay with him until they arrived. So I did. That is what destroyed the professional distance—sitting there, hour by hour, next to the pumping and wheezing technology of an intensive-care unit and next to the silence of God, too, as I wondered why such things have to happen. There was plenty of time to think. I remembered how his mother and I had played together as kids, how his father had been in my wedding, how I had been the first to suggest his name, and how his dad had told me, just months before, how pleased he was that his son loved the Lord. And I mourned.
I didn’t really feel all that blessed. But according to Jesus, I was. Why? Because when we mourn in this way, when hurt slices through us like a woodsman’s ax, we are being true to our heritage as children of God.
Jesus Christ, according to the witness of the church, revealed the character of God; in the apostle’s words, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). What the Father has shown through sending the Son is a divine being, not safely separated, but profoundly pierced by the suffering of the world. So we see Jesus weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus; we see Jesus filled with compassion, suffering with the sick and dying; we see Jesus taking the sadness of the entire world into himself and dying of a broken heart on a Roman cross. “A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Congratulations to them, because they are like Christ, because they prove themselves to be children of the God who mourns.
In addition, mourners, like Jesus Christ himself, are more likely to become instruments of God’s healing in this world; they may transform their tears into action. Behind every hospital and hospice and food bank and school and social-service agency was someone who grieved over a human need—who grieved deeply enough to do the hard work of making a difference.
Martin Luther mourned the church’s erosion of simple faith in the grace of God; John Wesley mourned his contemporaries’ lack of disciplined piety; William Wilberforce mourned the slave trade; William and Catherine Booth mourned the conditions of the poor in London; Albert Schweitzer mourned the suffering of Africans; Dietrich Bonhoeffer mourned the church’s captivity to nazism; Martin Luther King, Jr., mourned racial prejudice; Candy Lightner mourned the death of her daughter and formed MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Congratulations to them, because they may hurt enough to do something about it.
God At The Broken Places
Happy are the sad? I have suggested several reasons why mourners are blessed. They have sensitive hearts; they prove themselves children of God; and their tears may be turned into healing action. But there is a more important reason, the one Jesus gave—“for they shall be comforted.”
Comforted by whom? Comforted by God.
God comes to the brokenhearted in a way that sustains and renews. Karl Barth introduced a section of his Church Dogmatics with these words: “We must begin by saying something about the nature of the man who is in some sense illuminated by the light of the kingdom of God. What kind of man is it to whom Jesus turns in this particular activity? The answer is obvious. It is the man with whom things are going badly; who is needy and frightened and harassed.… The picture brought before us is that of suffering—the demon possessed, the relatives of a sick friend who is dear to them, the bereaved and those who walk in the fear and shadow of death.”
Jesus turns to the one for whom things are going badly. I have witnessed this, again and again; I have seen, coming from those in crushing grief, surprising peace and even startling joy.
The first time I saw Al outside of church was at the beach. I had just run about six miles and had the raised chin and easy stride of a man clearly in charge of the world. Good pace, I told myself. Pretty Hot Stuff.
And then a voice brought me out of my silent self-admiration: “Hi, Pastor! Great day for a run!” I looked up to see a trim, sweat-soaked, white-haired man in his midsixties.
“Well, Al,” I responded, “I didn’t know you’re a runner.” That’s what I said, but this is what I thought: How wonderful for an old guy like you to be out getting a little exercise. Pretty Hot Stuff pulled in his stomach and made sure he wasn’t breathing too hard. “How far have you run today, Al?”
“Eighteen miles,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Eighteen. I’m doing a lighter one today. It’s my training schedule. I’m getting ready for another marathon. How far you going today?”
I muttered something about a sore calf, and limped away—not from a wounded muscle but from a chastened spirit.
Al became my hero. Whenever I ran, he came to mind; by God’s grace, I wanted to grow to be just like him. Running 18 miles at 65! The very thought of it lightened my feet and enlarged my lungs.
Then one day the church receptionist buzzed me on the intercom. Al had stopped by, she told me. Did I have a few minutes to chat? A man always has time for his hero, so I told her to send him up right away.
“Uh, well …” she faltered. “Perhaps you had better come downstairs.”
When I saw Al seated I sensed something was wrong. He didn’t look quite right, and I felt my spirit sinking even before he reached out and said, “Pastor, can you help me up? My legs aren’t working very well.”
His weight bearing down on me, as we hobbled down the hallway like two hopeless runners in a gunnysack race, was nothing compared with the weight dragging my spirit onto the floor. How could this be? In a way, I felt some of my own dreams being crippled with each halting step we made.
But then his words lifted me and held me, and to this day they hold me still and keep me, well, if not flying with eagles, at least walking without fainting. What he said was this: “Pastor, about a month ago I noticed myself slowing down on my run. Things have happened rapidly since then. The neurologist says I have A.L.S.—Lou Gehrig’s disease. I don’t know how long I have to live.
“But you know, Pastor, God is good. I feel such peace. It’s incredible. I’ve never felt closer to God. I know my life is in my Savior’s hands, and I’m ready for whatever he has for me.”
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they shall be comforted.” That’s what Al had: the comfort of God.
And that’s what Frank felt, too. Just hours after a highway patrolman told him that his 20-year-old daughter had been killed on the freeway, he looked up at me and said, “Don, I don’t like it. I’m mad. I don’t understand why God would allow this to happen. She was on her way home from helping lead a Young Life Club! I don’t understand! I will never understand. But Don, it’s going to be all right.” And then once more, with tears streaming down his cheeks and his voice raised as if he was speaking past me and his wife, Joan, and past his own anger and doubt to some place behind it all where the company of heaven was bearing witness: “It’s going to be all right!”
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they shall be comforted.” Simply put, it’s better to mourn, to have your heart ripped out and stomped to bits by the spiked boots of tragedy, than never to mourn and miss the comfort. The God revealed through Jesus Christ and present in the power of the Holy Spirit comes to the broken places and holds the loose ends together with his powerful love.
Mary Magdalene has been one of the most maligned women in history. Popular tradition holds that she was a prostitute. Pope Gregory the Great (sixth century A.D.) started the rumor when he decided she was the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saved from death, and his opinion stuck to her like a bad reputation. But there is absolutely no scriptural evidence for this.
We do know, however, that she had the courage of a great mourner. A faithful disciple to the end, she followed Jesus to the Passover celebration in Jerusalem and mourned as he was hauled before the authorities on charges of blasphemy and sedition. She mourned as the wretched procession marched outside the city gates and up the skull-shaped hill. She mourned when the nails sunk deeply into his flesh. She mourned when he cried out in agony. Peter and the others could not handle it; they ran for safety, from the horror of it; they ran back to tax collecting and fishing, back to families and homes. But Mary stayed with her grief.
So to the tomb she went early that morning, simply to be there like a widow goes to the garage and runs her fingers across an abandoned workbench—remembering; or like a father sits in an empty bedroom trying somehow to fill an aching emptiness within, remembering. Through the dark, empty streets outside the gates to Jesus’ tomb, she went to continue her work of mourning.
She stayed with her grief and didn’t run from it; she let herself be drawn into the pain and tragedy of Jesus’ death.
Do you know the end of the story? To whom did the resurrected Lord first appear on Easter morn? Who felt the Comforting Presence before anyone else? Mary. It was Mary, who stayed with her grief until the comfort came. Blessed Mary.
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