One of my auntie’s used to say that when people say something cruel to you and then quickly counter with “just kidding,” 99% of the time they are not. People tell a lot of the truth about how they feel and then cover it with “I’m just playing with you.” This is unfortunately true in the church during seasons of grief. Of course, this is not a practice limited to church, but there are those who will take advantage of someone who is mourning in order to take somebody they feel is deserving down a peg or two. An example of this is the implication that God is using a loved one’s death to punish you for whatever infraction; usually one that has offended them. Two things you can count on experiencing among church folk: there is always someone who finds fault like there was a reward for it, and there is always someone who has claimed the office of Holy Ghost, Jr. with speech peppered with things like: “the Lord put on my heart to tell you…” Add these religious microaggressions to the lack of grief ministries in the many churches, and we are already in trouble.
We live in a society that can be grief-illiterate: we don’t know what to say about grief, and we don’t know how to speak about it. I believe there is a subtle difference here. We can say things that can be interpreted as insensitive, such as “this used to be a quiet neighborhood” after a tragic event has happened. The concern seems to be more for the illusion of safety than for the person (or persons) who was hurt. And often when people are hurting, we don’t know what to say to them at all. When we don’t have a grief language, we can fall into the habit of something I call “Christianese.” Christianese is church communication that uses pithy sayings as an escape from talking about things we don’t want to talk about. Much like the “just kidding,” we will make statements like these:
“The Lord works in mysterious ways…”
“God never puts more on you than you can bear….”
“God is good…all the time…”
“You can’t see it right now but God has purpose in this….”
“It is what it is…all we can do is just run on…”
I’m sure you can add your own to this list. I fully understand the desire to comfort someone when they are hurting and the overwhelming need to say something. There is nothing wrong with empathy, and there isn’t anything particularly wrong with these sayings in and of themselves. However, grief seasons may not be the best time to share them. Comments like these can be as involuntary as saying ‘bless you’ after someone sneezes. The issue that I have, having been on the receiving end of them while I was experiencing the physical separation of a loved one, is that they leave no room for questioning God. They do not present an opportunity to deepen one’s own faith journey by leaving the question of faith a bit more open-ended than officially settled. This is important because anyone who is in a grief season is probably questioning everything they thought they knew about God, church, religion and faith.
Maybe we don’t have a place to talk about grief in the church is because we don’t have a place to question faith in the church. Maybe we cover up our fear and questions about what we purport to believe with pithy sayings because we have learned to mask our feelings of faith inadequacy with faith bravado.
I do not believe it offends God one bit if and when we wrestle with whether or not God is good ALL of the time. Faith is a muscle; it has to be in action in order to gain strength and its strength can waver if we don’t keep working it. The Bible is replete with stories of people who were greatly used by God, who witnessed things we wish we could witness, and yet there were times when they questioned their faith. John the Baptist is a good example of this. Here is someone so committed to the task he lived the most minimalist life available: he ate locusts and honey, wore clothing of camel’s hair, was one of the first to articulate the coming of God’s kingdom, when his mother Elizabeth was pregnant with him and she greeted her cousin Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus at the time) infant John leapt inside her womb, and years later, when John baptized Jesus, he not only recognized his own need to be baptized by him, he saw the Spirit of God descend upon him. But after he spent some time in King Herod’s prison on death row, he began to question everything he thought he knew about Jesus. While he was in jail, he sent these words to Jesus by one of his disciples: “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3, NRSV)
I think John the Baptist had a faith crisis, and it was okay. If even he had moments when his faith wavered, we should not feel isolated or ostracized when we do. I think a lot of church flight has to do with some churches making people feel as though their faith challenges are something to be ashamed of. And this right here is why grief is often not addressed in the church because we might have to wrestle with our theologies a bit. It is in these wrestling moments that that we can begin to talk about grief. The Christian journey does not have all of the answers for everything; there is no faith without unanswered questions. I believe the Christian walk means having ‘assuredness’ of step. However, it does not mean never having unsure steps. We will all have moments when we won’t know which way to go, in the name of Jesus. Hope lives in God’s promise to be present in both our surest and most unsure moments. Presence is a wonderful gift. When my father came home from the hospital and told my brother and I that our mother was dead, the first call I made was to my best friend who lived across the street. She rushed right over and spent the entire day with me. She didn’t say anything, she was just present. In my own grief season, no gesture meant more to me than that.