The church community that I am privileged to be a part of has recently lost two wonderful men of God, seemingly before their time. We have been reminded of and comforted by the words of the Psalmist, “precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints;” for we know that our great loss is heaven’s great gain. But in the midst of this truth, these losses are still felt as consuming; threatening to swallow us whole. The celebration they are receiving in heaven does little to speed the time while we remain on this earth. For me, it is easy, even default, to turn to cynicism. To say with the voice of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
Yet there is still another way.
Very few other cultures think as little about death as we do. We grieve well in the moment, sending flowers and baking casseroles, but as Lauren Winner notes, “We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss.” So it should be expected that rich examples of mourning well would also be found outside of my own experience. And for this, Lauren Winner again comes to my aid.
In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, she tells of the Jewish conception of mourning. Through their rituals, they acknowledge the complicated emotions and experiences that are wrapped up in grief. In the space between death and burial, the rabbis teach that no comfort can be offered because, felt in a very real sense, the death is still happening. Then, for a whole week after the burial, friends and loved ones come and “sit shiva” with the family, offering comfort of their presence. When silence is called for, or weeping, or speaking life into memories of the dead, the community is there, no more or less real than God himself.
The part of this process of mourning that most comforts my soul is the full year of mourning that is marked by the community. Grief so often rises during unexpected times, and acknowledging this as a community seems to be a proper manifestation of the call in 2 Corinthians 1 to “comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Yet surprisingly, this year of mourning is not marked by weeping or open grief, but instead, by praise. The mourner is called, in community, to recite the Kaddish twice a day for a full year. The prayer begins:
Magnified and sanctified may God’s great name be. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised and lauded be the name of the Holy One, Blessed is He beyond any blessing or song.”
Lauren Winner explains that “even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise…You do not have to feel praise in these intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day, every day, ensures that eventually, you will come to remember the truth of those praises.” Its an odd picture of grief – vocalizing praise as we move through anger, numbness, bitterness, callousness, and emptiness, but Lauren writes what God insists – that “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised.” As each new day dawns, the mourner is called to not to ignore their grief, but to acknowledge a greater truth.
And so, as we stand and recite these words in community, within the arms of the body of believers, we are to be reminded that we are not alone; that God has not abandoned us, and that these praises are true.
Jason Gray reminded me of these truths while I was listening to his album, “Acoustic Storytime.” In his introduction to his song, “You Are Mercy,” he says:
Jesus chooses to make himself present to us through each other. We are the body of Christ. We are his hands, his feet, his heart. And what that means, when two or more are gathered, that means that when you are going through a difficult time, when you are hurting, that means that I can bring Christ in me to you, and bring you his love, his mercy, his comfort. You can experience Christ’s love when I bring it to you in Jesus’ name. And that is humbling, isn’t it? But it’s also terrifying because we know that it means there’s a responsibility there.”
We do not yet do this well. But I pray that as these families that I love continue to grieve, that they would fall back into the arms of the body of Christ and not find them lacking.
And let it begin with me.