Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reflection for the Week-- June 22, 2008

Blessed are those who mourn---

Since I was a student pastor at Justice Heights UMC in Laurel, Mississippi, I have recorded Meet the Press hosted by Tim Russert. With a handful of exceptions, I have watched faithfully for the past seventeen years. Although I did not get the chance to watch the program as it aired on Sunday mornings (due to Sunday services), I watched by VHS tape, TiVO and, now, DVR. In fact, I first learned to record from VCR because of Meet the Press. I still couldn't set the clock mind you, but the program taped just fine.
Losing Tim Russert last week to a heart attack was like losing a member of our family. Last year, during my recovery from heart surgery, and subsequent five week absence from church, my wife and I spent our Sunday mornings watching Meet the Press, Charles Stanley, Paula Deen and Sports Center. (Oh, and, yes, I watched my favorite show-- The United Methodist Hour).
I never met Tim Russert, but I had great respect for his work ethic, probing intellect, fierce love for his family, and devotion to his faith. He and his family remain in our thoughts and prayers. His loss is significant for our nation and for how we process critical information. I have spent the past several days wondering how, and if, this election cycle can proceed without Tim Russert explaining for all of us the details. Of course, it will, but--- well, you know what I mean.
Loss does that-- It causes us to ask the "what if" questions and leaves us searching to make sense of sudden and unexplainable events.
Several years ago, I wrote a devotion on mourning after my grandmother passed away from a difficult bout with cancer. The devotion eventually became part of my book, The Eight Blessings. My grandmother's favorite Scripture was from Matthew 5, the Beatitudes. During her final days, she kept five translations of the passage near her bedside.
After her funeral, I took those translations and spent the next year reading from them each day. Needless to say, it changed my life. The following is from the Second Blessing, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Comfort from Sorrow

Matthew translates Jesus' Aramaic word for mourning into the strongest Greek equivalent possible. The image is of one who endures the loss of that which is most dear. It is an almost paralyzing form of grief whose effect is life numbing, stopping the mourner dead in their tracks. The use of such a word drags from each us the profoundest of memories and reminds us of the depth and sting death has upon our world. But, when one delves further, death is not the only culprit that causes this form of grief.
The Second Blessing also speaks to the general suffering of the world--the plight of others so long victims of injustice and despair. And, from this, Jesus goes further by implicating our personal grief, the result of too many bad life decisions and unreconciled mistakes. No, the grief of which Jesus speaks broadens the picture of mourning from the vivid scenes of a tomb to the deep recesses of life's poorest choices or circumstances. It is a personal view of grief from which no one is immune, for Jesus knows we have all lost someone or something, and, as a result, our lives are less than whole.
But with such an expression of mourning comes an equally powerful view of God's comfort. Jesus approaches the vulnerability of life honestly and gives us a glimpse of why loving and living, even with the prospect of such pain, is the only means for experiencing real comfort. And, this is not a cheap comfort, feelings spoken as mere clich├ęs, but a sincere embrace of life's deepest emotions through which loving unconditionally serves as the primary source.
Jesus encourages us to love with real openness and honesty that we might see the deeper side of living, but such love also brings great vulnerability. I know what you are asking, What happens when one loves to the point of such great risk? Do they avoid the pain and struggle of this world? Quite the contrary, Jesus tells his disciples that in this world "they will have trouble", but there is also potential for great joy as Jesus assures them to "take heart for I have overcome the world". Sure the risk of grief or mourning can be overwhelming, but God promises a life-changing joy if we are willing to take the chance.
The life that risks love to the point of real vulnerability shifts the tone of the world's expectations. By risking our own grief, we see the possibility of genuine relationship and community, of sincere faith and spiritual connection-as God intended from the beginning. We should not miss the declarative tone of Jesus' second blessing-Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Certainly, Jesus affirms the presence of mourning in this world, and the risk of love that often leads to such emotions, but equally affirming, is the promise of spectacular comfort born from the heart of God. God does not call us to risk ourselves for the mere possibility of comfort, but in the certainty of it.
We see this time and again as Jesus confronts the mourning of this world, whether in the death of a friend (Lazarus) or in the grief of a people's discontent (weeping over Jerusalem). It is even present in Jesus' discourse about his own suffering and death. In Matthew 9 and John 16, he teaches his disciples about suffering from a very personal perspective referring to a time when he will no longer be with them. Jesus insists they will experience an almost palpable form of suffering, where their faith will be tested and strained (Matthew 9). However, in this most difficult period for the disciples, Jesus promises that their mourning will turn to comfort--an unimaginable joy that the world will not understand (John 16).
Many cannot or will not experience this kind of comfort and joy, not because God does offer it, but because we have opted for a safer or easier path complete with little risk or a quick fix; missing, through either, what God can unveil to us on the other side and, unfortunately, setting up a false sense of security. One may think they can prevent the risk of grief by refusing to love completely, but ultimately this mourning takes the form of a more profound grief-loneliness and unfulfillment. No, the joy of which I speak is born only from the risk of possibly losing it. However, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus bridges the distance between mourning and comfort, sorrow and joy, calling only that we see the path and then be willing to courageously walk down it.

Be Salt and Light-- You Matter!


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