There was Michael Brown and Ferguson. And Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Tony Robinson, and Freddie Gray. And the nine Black parishioners of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church who were murdered by a White supremacist during a prayer meeting. And books and conversations and news articles and blog posts that reminded me how muchsuffering African Americans have endured—and continue to endure—that I was unaware of.
There was cancer, and the deaths or illness of several people I knew personally or knew of through a good friend or family member.
There was the challenging ministry season my parents were in—perhaps the hardest of their 40+ years of doing ministry as a couple.
There was the massacre of Christian college students—some of whom were part of a sister movement of ours—by terrorists in Garissa, Kenya.
There were friends who moved away.
There was a weighty workload and pending team changes.
There were my own demons and my own sin.
There was loneliness, expounded by my singleness in the midst of engagements and marriages around me.
There was winter in Wisconsin. (Enough said.)
And one evening in early May, it all came pouring out while I sat on my couch.
Where’s the blessing?
I’m someone who feels things deeply, but I don’t cry all that often. Mostly, I just get quiet (or quieter than usual). In those times of mourning, I experience what I call The Deep Sadness. A sadness that can’t be expressed in words.
I’ve always been somewhat sensitive to sorrow, even as a young child. One day when my dad was walking me to school for my afternoon kindergarten class, I noticed that the American flag on the front lawn was halfway down the pole. I asked him why, and he explained that some astronauts had died when their space shuttle exploded. My five-year-old mind tried to absorb that for a minute, and then I said, “It’s kind of like the flag is crying.” Yes it is, he agreed.
I remember also being disturbed by the injustices done to Native Americans and African Americans in the U.S. from a pretty early age. And, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, I saw in vivid ways the messiness that results from people’s own sin and brokenness and from the sins of those around them.
I had hope, though. I understood, on a basic level, that God hates injustice. I knew that favorite of all verses to memorize: “Jesus wept.” I received God’s forgiveness for my sin and experienced his comfort in my sorrow.
As I’ve gotten older, my capacity to understand God’s anger over injustice and his compassion for the sorrowful has increased. But so has my understanding of the scope of the world’s brokenness. There is so much more pain in the world than I could ever have imagined at 5 or 15 or even 20. There is suffering and pain I still can’t comprehend.
Which is why Jesus’ oh-so-familiar words in Matthew 5:4 still give me pause:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed is not usually the word that comes to mind when tears and snot are running down my face. Nor does fortunate, which is what scholar Craig Keener says is a better translation in his IVP New Testament Commentary on Matthew. Loss—and the mourning that comes with it—hurts in a way nothing else does. Often comfort seems impossible.
And yet it’s been right smack in the midst of the sadness of this year that God has affirmed the truth of Jesus’ words here. I’ve discovered four ways that mourning makes us “fortunate.”
1. Mourning means our hearts are still tender and open to the Spirit. Jesus isn’t just referring to those who are sad about the brokenness of the world here. He’s referring just as much to those who grieve over their own sin. Mourning means we are still sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s gentle, truthful conviction about our heart. And it means that we’re humble enough to acknowledge, like Nehemiah did, that we have played a part in the sins of those we’re connected to.
2. Mourning is an invitation to truly be family with others in the way the church is meant to be. Having the capacity to mourn means our hearts are open not just to the Spirit’s conviction of sin but also to the suffering of others. We’re not willing to look away from someone else’s pain, or write off their suffering as unjustified, or detach ourselves from hard things, simply because we want to enjoy our lives unencumbered. Instead, we listen to and believe their stories, and enter in to the deep pain of others, standing in solidarity with those who have been wronged and fighting for God’s justice in places where it hasn’t come yet.
Being willing to mourn with others is not an easy invitation to accept. But I can say that it is a deep privilege. As I have lamented with friends this year over the lack of racial equity in the U.S., I’ve felt honored to be able to walk with them in their pain. My life is so much richer from hearing their stories of suffering, and learning from their perseverance and hope. I am truly fortunate to call them friends and to be invited to stand in solidarity with them.
3. Our vulnerability in moments of mourning opens us up to receive God’s grace, love, and compassion in deeper ways. That’s what happened to me on that May evening. I’ve sensed God’s support in my sadness before, but that night I had a deep sense of Jesus simply crying with me. No words between us. Just me crying on my couch and him sharing deeply in my deep sadness. It was a gift, and a comfort.
4. Mourning keeps us rooted in the truth about God and the reality of his kingdom. To mourn is to declare and acknowledge at a soul level that something should not be. And implicit in that is a declaration that God created the world to be different than it is—and that he is, at this very moment, working through Christ to restore what was broken at the first act of rebellion against him so many years ago. When we mourn, then, we are serving as a prophetic voice that points toward the world as it was meant to be and as it will be one day when Christ comes in his glory.
Weep, Wail—and Hope
There will be more to mourn. Every day, probably. Summer has brought more sadness for me. Sandra Bland was killed. Married friends separated. Just a few days after I wrote this and sent it to a coworker for editing, I found out about several friends who are in significant pain. We will continue to grieve.
But we don’t mourn like those who have no hope. Because there is this promise of a day that’s coming:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21)
And there is also inexplicable comfort today, through Jesus, God-with-us, the one who wept over his friend’s death and mourned Israel’s sin. His presence with us gives us a foretaste of the fuller, complete comfort that’s coming—and it is enough for the pain of today.
Images by Matt Kirk. Graphic by Laura Li-Barbour. Thanks to all the kids who volunteered for the images, and whose expressions helped us more deeply understand the Beatitudes.
This is the second in a series of posts exploring the Beatitudes, pronounced by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount and then recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Check back each week for a new post in the series. See the first post on the poor in spirit here.