Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Great Sadness

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We spend a lot of time and money trying to avoid pain in order to secure a happy and carefree life. But have you considered the possibility that mourning and sadness might be one of God’s greatest gifts? Today, I want to speak to those of you who are sad and grieving, and are tired of apologizing for it. I also want to share a word with those of you who are not grieving...but who are called to love those who are.

Let's begin with a simple truth we can all agree on, that sadness has a place in every human life. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We will all experience sorrow. In Wm. Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, it’s called "The Great Sadness" (always written in capital letters) and we first learn about that Sadness when Mack walks down his icy driveway to the mailbox and finds a cryptic note: “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” A wave of nausea rolls over Mack as he reads, because the shack is the dark symbol of his grief. That the note is signed “Papa” (his wife Nan’s favorite name for God) makes it all seem like a sick, disgusting joke.

That's because in the first four chapters of the book, we learn that The Great Sadness was the abduction and murder of his six year old daughter, Missy, on a Labor Day camping trip. The murder, as we discover later, happens in an abandoned shack in a remote wilderness area. We read: “Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness…draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but…heavy quilt … slowly tightening around his chest and heart like crushing coils” (The Shack, p. 27). Now, as a pastor, I prefer to focus on joy, peace, and happiness, not sadness; but as Gary Thomas points out in Authentic Faith,“There is no spiritual sensitivity in this world without a corresponding pain and sadness." It’s too easy to become indifferent to the pain in this world, if not our own. Jesus was not indifferent to pain and suffering. We're told again and again that “Jesus wept” as he did at the grave of Lazarus. And if Jesus wept…so should we.

Of course, sadness and grief have many faces. One of the biggest misunderstandings about grief and sadness is that it must look a certain way; that there is a right and a wrong way to grieve. In fact, grief has many faces…and many expressions. When David’s traitorous son Absalom is killed at the hands of his own men; he is overwhelmed with sorrow and regret: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you….” (2 Samuel 18:33). Regret is one of the most common emotions that we feel at the death of a loved one, the loss of our health, a job, a relationship, or a dream. We feel the weight of what might have been; what we could or would have done differently. “It’s so easy to get sucked into the if-only game” Mack thinks to himself. “If only he had decided not to take the kids on that trip; if only he had said no when they asked to use the canoe; if only he had left the day before; if only, if only, if only” (The Shack, pp. 66-67). Is there anywhere to go from “if only”? Is there anywhere to go from regretting what we can’t change? Consider Ruth & Naomi...

The Book of Ruth begins with a triple tragedy. An Israelite woman named Naomi, and her Maobite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, all suffer the death of their husbands and the loss of everything of material value in Moab. When Naomi decides to return to her homeland, she urges Orpah and Ruth to stay behind: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house….it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me. And they wept aloud” (Ruth 1: 8-13). In response to the grief of losing her husband she withdraws from her daughters and from God…and concludes that God himself has turned against her; that God is punishing her.

For perhaps most of us, it’s easier to “trust” in God’s goodness when things are going smoothly and life is trouble free. So, we’re not surprised that Mack feels a growing rift between himself and God; and tries instead “to embrace a stoic, unfeeling faith…He was sick of God and God’s religion” (The Shack, pp. 67-68). Have you ever felt like Mack, sick of God and God's religion? What Mack was sick of was a religion that seemed to make no real difference in people’s lives. His personal tragedy made him hungry for the true God; a God who was alive and real; and a faith that made sense of a hurting world. In his pain and grief, Mack withdrew from people and from the God he thought he knew; but withdrawal is not the only expression of grief....

Like her mother-in-law, Ruth also suffered the death of her husband, but she refused to leave Naomi and vowed to follow her with words of lasting devotion: “Where you go I will go” she tells her, “Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16). Was the pain of Ruth’s grief less than that of Naomi’s? No. But instead of drawing away, Ruth chose to draw near. Instead of questioning her faith, it was reborn in the act of loving Naomi. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to focus all the energy of our grief into a deep compassion and love for others who are suffering like we have suffered!

One more example of grief from Scripture is that of Job, whose entire family is taken from him along with his health and worldly possessions in one chapter. He is famous for saying “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” but that doesn’t mean he stops wrestling with God. Through 42 chapters, Job teaches us that we can question God and wrestle with God, that we can cry out to God, “Why? Why?” and still surrender to him, still accept his sovereignty over all of life (Job 1: 13-21). Jesus' cry from the cross was "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). He knew the loneliness of the desert and the isolation of the cross...yet he expressed that loneliness in the act of prayerful surrender, saying not only "Why?" but "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

The Bible illustrates many tasks in the process of grief (anger, regret, drawing away, drawing nearer, prayer, pleading, doubt, faith and acceptance). None of us can avoid the tasks of grief; but we can choose how they turn us. We can let a tragedy be the catalyst for despair, or hope; resentment or forgiveness, cynicism or compassion; for giving up or standing up. No one said it better than the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 7-11:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.

We’ve been focusing on the different faces of grief…but I want to end by talking about how we can give special grace to others in their sadness. Consider the fact that the Son of God (our Savior and Lord) on the night of his arrest, “said to [Peter, James, and John] ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me’” (Matt. 26:38). There are 3 gifts Jesus teaches us to give to the grieving.
The first is the gift of simply being there. Jesus shows us by his example, that our presence with those who grieve is a tremendous gift. There is a powerful scene early in The Shack when Mack must walk into the very place his daughter was murdered and identify her clothing. It’s unimaginable…but we read: “Although Mack didn’t hear anything, he suddenly felt Emil and Tommy each take one of his arms as they turned and followed the special agent down the short path to the shack. Three grown men, arms locked in some special grace of solidarity, walking together, each one toward his own worst nightmare (The Shack, p. 65). On the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus needed friends who would simply “stay awake” with him. Each of us needs “the special grace of solidarity” – the gift of “garden friends” who will be solidly with us and for us. Some of us have suffered grief alone. We were hurt, or judged, or abandoned in our sadness. That can leave a deep scar of anger and bitterness. We need to be reminded (by garden friends) of the truth that Jesus was there, and is with us now.
The second gift we can give to the grieving is the gift of our patience: Many of us to try to fix people who are heavy with grief…to help them “get over it.” Why? Often it’s driven by our discomfort. The grief of others can bring our own fears and anxieties to the surface. Read carefully: the last thing the grieving need from us is pressure to “get over it” or someone to talk them “out of it.” Give those you love the gift of your patience as they work through their grief; knowing that you will need the same one day.

The final gift we can give is the gift of our faithfilled prayer: When we are in grief, it’s often hard to pray alone. We need others to pray for us or with us. In Mack’s life, Nan was the spiritual anchor. At the loss of their daughter, we read that “they held each other and wept as Mack poured out his sorrow and Nan tried to hold him in one piece” (The Shack, p. 56). Whether it’s the loss of health, a job, a relationship, a family pet, a dream etc., my prayer is that you will take the opportunity this week…to share that burden in a small fellowship group…with a spouse or a garden friend; pray, and experience God’s comfort.

We’ve been considering the gifts that others can give us in our sadness; but don’t forget that sadness itself is a “special grace” from God; that God can do miracles through those who mourn their losses, their sins, and the wrongs of this world that God wants to make right. My wife Lisa, whose father died 4 years ago, now leads a special grief group for middle school children; and a grief group in our church. Her personal experience of grief has given her a new sensitivity and compassion for those who mourn the death of a parent or loved one; and she knows how important it is to have someone who can listen and pray for us.

Gary Haugen, the President of International Justice Mission, loves his own children very much…but it’s his grief and sadness over the Missy’s of this world, over the abuse of other people’s children, which moved him to take action. At a White House address, Sharon Cohn of IJM said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized every day, our work will always be about the one. The one girl deceived. The one girl kidnapped. The one girl raped. The one girl infected with AIDS. The one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us" (cited in Gary Haugen, Terrify No More).

Gary Thomas tells about a man named 'Mark' who made an unusual confession of faith: “I’m a Christian because for once I feel pain. For the first time in ten years, I feel sadness. That’s why I’m a Christian” (Authentic Faith). Mark was a man who lived a ruthless, self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking life. But when his heart was awakened by faith he experienced two things that were strangers throughout his life: mourning and sadness. “I’m a Christian because for once I feel pain.”

What Scripture seems to be saying and what experience confirms is that great sadness is one of God’s greatest gifts, that it has an important place in every life, that it has many faces, many expressions; and that God offers special grace to those who mourn, through us. One day, Isaiah says, God will wipe every tear away from our eyes...but that day has not yet come. Until then, sadness and sorrow are a gift from God. It would be a frightening world indeed where there was no sorrow over death, no sorrow over the pain we’ve inflicted upon others, no grief over our sin, no sadness over the wrongs which God wants to make right. "Godly sorrow," says the Apostle Paul, "brings repentance which leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow and sadness...are often the first fruits of a life that can be used by God to bring healing in a hurting world.

In his grief and sadness, Mack received a message: “It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” Or as Jesus said, “Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted.” May God grant us to know the blessing….of both.

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