19 January 2015

Grief, and learning to be good Christians

As we begin to feel grief well up in our hearts we too often have a tendency to attempt to stifle it, to push it down, or even to ignore it. We do not have time to grieve, we think. We should not let others see our wounds, we think. They just don't understand, we think. All this may be true, but if we do not allow our grief to surface, if we do not allow ourselves again and again to feel the love we still bear for those who have gone before us, we can miss an opportunity to be of help to others.

Such was my experience yesterday after receiving so many good wishes, prayers, and virtual hugs through Facebook after I posted my reflections on a day for looking strange and seeming to see things far away. I've written about my grief before on this blog, both over the death of my mother and of my father, but for one reason or another the combination of the words I used yesterday seemed to particularly touch a good number of people. This, in turn, brought great comfort to me even in the midst of my grief on a day when it was felt especially keenly.

In our grief, as in any pain, we are sometimes tempted to turn inward, to focus too much on our own losses and sufferings - real and significant as they are - and to think that I am the only one who knows this particular grief, this unique pain, this specific suffering. Rarely, though, is this the case; I am not the only member of the walking wounded and neither are you.

If our grief teaches us anything aside from the beauty and strength of love it is that we need each other, that we are united in love, and even united in suffering. Saint Paul expressed it well when he said, "If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy" (I Corinthians 12:26).

Speaking with young Filipinos, Pope Francis recently said, "If you don't learn how to cry, you cannot be a good Christian. This is a challenge." It is a challenge, I think, from two different angles.

It is first a challenge to those not grieving their own losses at this particular moment. Will they look out with eyes of compassion to see the walking wounded in their midst? Will they offer an encouraging word or, often better, a silent presence? Will they seek to share in the grief of those around them and so lighten the burden of grief?

The walking wounded are not difficult to see, especially if you are already one of them. Reaching out to them with a knowing look, a warm embrace, or an encouraging is something at which I can and need to improve greatly. As Rich Mullins sings in his song, "A Place to Stand," "There's a lot of love locked up inside me that I'm learning to give."

It is second a challenge to those who are grieving their losses at this particular moment. Will they muster up the courage to let their guard down and allow others to grieve with us, to show compassion toward us, to learn to cry with us and so to be good Christians? I also have a lot of room for improvement here.

To me, one person stands out above all others when it comes to crying with others and so being a good Christian. On my first Great River Teens Encounter Christ retreat weekend (#162 in 1995), one of the women on the adult team must have sensed the hurt and pain I had kept bottled up for so many years. On the last morning of the retreat, Kathy sat down next to me and said, "It's okay. Let it out."

At her invitation and even, maybe, against my will, my tears poured out and it seems to me that I cried on her shoulder for more than an hour. Perhaps two. It's all a bit of a blur now, really. I just know that I cried and cried and cried and cried a bit more. And as my tears flowed my heart lifted and I have not quite been the same since. Since that day I have had the opportunity to thank her a time or two, but I will nonetheless be eternally in her debt.

The example of her compassion places the double challenge of learning to cry so as to be good Christians squarely before us with two questions: Are we willing to say to others, "It's okay; let it out"? Are we willing to hear from others, "It's okay; let it out"?

If we dare to love, we risk the pain of loss and the grief that inevitably comes with it. The pain can be deep and the grief heavy, but the love endures. Let us strive to help each other remember this in times of grief. Let us strive to help other place our wounds within the sacred wounds of the Lord Jesus. Let us help each other take refuge within his pierced heart.

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