(The following article originally appeared in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics)
The Need for Mourning
Recently my aunt died, and I traveled to attend her viewing and funeral. Funeral related travel offers a mix of emotions – sadness over the loss of a loved one, fond memories of my aunt from my youth, and genuine gladness over being able to see family that I don’t get to visit with very often due to my living many hours away.
Like most funerals, there is a richness in the rituals and liturgy that acts like a guide for our mourning. There is comfort in the ability to mourn collectively for a time. Showing emotion is socially acceptable and appropriate. Funerals though seem to be the only part of mourning that we have any attachment to in our society. In most cases, the expectation is that loved ones move on quickly from the pain of loss and get back to “normal” as if nothing happened.
As a society, we are terrible at meaningful and intentional mourning. It’s not just society either. I have said many times that the church is really good at funerals but is terrible at mourning. A funeral is an event that encompasses a few days. It gets us started, but funerals were never meant to be the full measure of what is means to mourn. That’s because mourning is much more complex and prolonged than a funeral service. This is true of mourning whether it is for the death of a loved one or for a change in our church.
Mourning could be described as the long, intentional process of acknowledging and embracing what was, or what we believed was, and is no longer. It’s not a matter of whether the past was better than the present. Mourning requires us to look to the past for what it was and bring it with us into the present, not in an effort to recreate it, but rather to fill a hole that has become vacant within us and to fill it with something meaningful while we figure out how to live under new circumstances.
We need mourning as individuals, and we need mourning in communal settings as well. Remember not that long ago when we lost hundreds of thousands of people to COVID-19? Those aren’t just individual losses of life. Loss on that type of a scale has a communal effect. Often our public leaders take on a role of leading us in public mourning rituals when we experience loss that has a public impact. But too often these periods and events of mourning are short lived. All too often it feels like we jump from one tragedy to the next without having really taken in the effect of such tragedy. When do we actually have time to properly and fully mourn?
Mourning after Congregational Change
Before I started my current call, I had several months in which I did supply preaching at various congregations throughout the synod. It was a wonderful opportunity to experience a variety of congregational settings, to meet people, and to listen to their hopes and challenges both individually and for their congregation. What I quickly learned was that there are several groups of people in a congregation that has undergone a large change.
There are those who are openly struggling with loss. They remember when the church was full of people, families, youth, and more. They remember when people would willingly serve and saw it as their duty to serve. They remember when the congregation was the center of community. And they miss all of that and lament what has been lost. Often, they have suffered loss in other parts of their life too – relationships, purpose and meaning, identity attached to the church. Through it all, they have not had the opportunity to mourn those losses, or even know how to ask for this opportunity.
Then there are other groups of people I encountered who struggle with loss but do not define it that way. There are people who have lost belief systems that guided them before. They are often illiterate in relation to the stories of the Bible, the creeds, the doctrines and more. None of these things hold all that much meaning for them. Their faithfulness wasn’t tied to any of that. But something has been lost and they often do not even know what it was.
Also, there are people who hide their loss from themselves so very well. They have energy and drive; they can see how the church and what it stands for can transform lives. But what lies underneath all of that positive energy is, also, unacknowledged loss. Transformation often comes because something within us has died and we have to let it go. Often, we want to skip over the death part and get right to the resurrection. But we cannot get to resurrection without going through death.
And the last group are the frustrated people. They have lost their sense of control. Things moved either too fast or slow for them – they weren’t in control of changes or they feel like they didn’t have a voice in the processes.
All of these people can benefit from intentional mourning and in the process, the church itself would benefit. Because when we come out on the other side of mourning, we can accept the reality of where we are now. We are able to see a possible future and have hope in that future. Faith is ultimately believing that the best is yet to come.
Learning to Mourn from Scripture
Scripture offers a variety of passages on mourning and loss. I want to focus on just one of these stories: the story of the death and raising of Lazarus found in John 11:1-45.
There’s a funeral, a mourning process, and ritual along with a communal response that is baked into the story. It’s easy to miss these parts as they seem so routine and assumed. But these are essential parts of the story.
Mary and Martha are mid-way through what is called shiva, which is a week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives. Shiva is just one portion of intentional mourning in Judaism. There is a thirty-day period and a year-long period of mourning along with a yearly remembrance – all with their own customs that help mourners do the work of mourning.
According to Shiva.com, which is a website designed to help families prepare for their shiva of a loved one, it starts immediately following the burial. “The primary purpose of the shiva tradition is to create an environment of comfort and community for mourners; It helps guide friends and family members through the loss of a loved ones. Throughout the weeklong shiva period, mourners come together in one family’s home to offer their condolences and support.”[i]
Martha leaves the shiva, which is highly unusual. She’s supposed to be in her house where there aren’t any distractions from the work of mourning. We are told that Mary leaves the shiva as well and finds Jesus, and like Martha, expresses her sorrow and pain with her weeping. She is accompanied by mourners who were also weeping alongside her. We are told that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, and he began to weep. He is mourning with them in a communal way during a ritual time of mourning.
He knows he is going to bring Lazarus back to life, and at the same time it doesn’t take away the reality of the pain of what they are experiencing in that moment. It’s real, present, and needs to be felt. Death came to their door.
Dan Shapiro, in his book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, wrote the following: “to heal, you must feel. You can’t bear witness to pain if you tiptoe around it.”[ii]
While Shapiro wasn’t writing about John’s story about the death of Lazarus, I think, in this moment, Jesus very much bears witness to the pain that Mary and Martha and what the entire community was experiencing in the loss of Lazarus. Jesus was feeling what they have lost and could not have again.
Shiva ends early for Martha and Mary and those gathered – because of Jesus. But not without recognition of the pain of the loss that they were experiencing. It wasn’t about ignoring or brushing aside those feelings as if they were false or didn’t matter. There was no expectation that they would get over their loss and return to normal after a few days. Jesus is there with them in the midst of their pain, is deeply moved by it, and shares in it with them. He mourns with them. How very powerful that is. Nothing can take away the pain of loss that we feel. We feel that pain because what or who we have lost was so very important, loved, and impactful. And in this story of the death and raising of Lazarus, we hear Good News – the pain of death is not the end of the story. It is not the end of the story for us either. It’s a part of the process.
Shapiro also wrote this line in his book – “Notice what you have lost and what can never be again…To mourn is to come to accept what was in the present is now in the past.”[iii] In other words, things have changed. But what about resurrection? Resurrection isn’t about rewinding to the past. It’s not going back to something. Lazarus still died. You can’t get to resurrection unless you go through death. With death comes the pain of mourning the loss. Resurrection is new life after death.
A Path for Congregational Mourning
So what does this mean for us and for the church? We need to mourn as a church in very intentional ways.
This mourning will look different in each context. Here’s a few questions and suggestions to help guide a congregation in the process of mourning after a change.
What has changed? I invite you to actually and literally name what has changed over the last several decades or years. Even the small things or what seems obvious – name them. And name what was important about that change and what was lost as a result? Was it a feeling? Was it a person or group of people? Was it something tangible? What did that thing or person represent?
What did we believe about the past? Sometimes what actually was and what we believe was don’t match up. It’s important to name what we believed about the past in our churches and to talk about what those beliefs meant in terms of what we did as a congregation, how we talked, how we lived our faith and lived in community. Name what we have lost because the belief changed or died.
And lastly, what would it look like to intentionally mourn these losses? How can we incorporate our mourning into our liturgies and worship services? How can we set intentional time to talk about what we have lost in our congregations? How do we create spaces where it is socially acceptable to show emotion? What does intentional mourning look like for an extended period of a church season or year?
One of the most underrated and overlooked parts of John’s story about the death of Lazarus and Jesus raising him is that mourning is a part of the proclamation of Good News. We can’t fully appreciate what resurrection is about until we look into the depths of what death is about – that we are not in control. Ultimately all mourning is about this reality. Death rips that sense of control of the world away from us. It is then that we are raised by Jesus into new life. We are presented with a possible and hope-filled future where the best is yet to come – God’s future.
[ii] Dan Shapiro, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, New York: Penguin, 2017. p 176.
[iii] Shapiro, 178.