March 31, 2010
Don't Forget to Grieve
Why every worship service shouldn't be a "celebration."
I once attended a Good Friday service where the pastor encouraged us to look at Good Friday positively, to see the crucifixion through “Easter eyes.” To be honest, the bright lights and the upbeat music and mood felt to me like a missed opportunity. His intentions were good. He wanted to protect us from feeling defeated as we meditated on the death of Christ. But in doing so, he robbed us of exactly the feeling and experience that Good Friday is meant to give us.
Those of us who inhabit the sphere of “American Christianity” live in a world that doesn’t know when, how, or even why to grieve. For us, Christianity is about victory, it’s about feeling better about ourselves. It’s upbeat, inspiring, short, and peppy. I know one pastor of a large church who once asked his worship leaders not to play any songs written in a minor key. Too much of a downer.
Like all of us, I was hit hard by the events of September 2001. I was up early on the morning of the 11th for a meeting and was actually watching TV when the second plane smashed through the tower. I walked around the rest of the day numb and in shock. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.
I went to services that weekend, hoping someone could help me with my grief, hoping that with the people of God I could feel what I needed to feel, process my questions and grief, and come to some resolution. But instead of mourning, instead of an honest admission that we have no idea why things like this happen, I was asked to salute the flag and sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What I needed was a church service. What I got was a pep rally. We needed to grieve. Instead we were told to feel better.
And we wonder why so many of us struggle with a persistent, low-level depression. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because when we should, we refuse to grieve. We hold in the tears, when they should come out. That emotion tends to leak out in other ways, at other times—some not nearly so appropriate or healthy as crying.
I’m absolutely amazed when I see television coverage of third-world countries, particularly the coverage of disasters. When I see the keening, wailing women, the men tearing their clothes from their bodies and even the hair from their heads in anguish, I realize how emotionally impoverished we stoics in America are. I realize that the grief and mourning which the Bible speaks highly of is completely missing from our vocabulary. We’ve lost the ability to grieve.
And with it, I think we’ve lost the ability to be truly joyful. Have you ever wondered how those who live in other cultures, even those who live lives of impoverishment can smile so broadly and celebrate so joyfully in the midst of their impoverishment? We watch our news in amazement as year after year, at times of victory or celebration, they fill the streets, dancing in joy, eyes bright. The closest to that we ever come is when our team wins the Series, or the Superbowl. And even that is a pale mockery of the joy that we know we should feel at times, but never seem to find. We wish we could dance the way that they dance, or feel the joy and excitement they seem to feel.
Take Easter, for example. Every year the pastor stands and does his or her best to project the words “Christ is risen!” And we half-heartedly answer, “He is risen indeed.” Usually we have to try it a couple of times to work up any enthusiasm at all.
And the reason we don’t feel the joy at Easter that we know we should feel is because we don’t feel the grief at Good Friday that we could. We enter our well-lit sanctuaries on Good Friday, sing some songs, hear a nice message about the crucifixion, and go out for dessert afterwards with our friends. We enter with smiles on our faces and leave the same way.
Good Friday ruined the first disciples’ weekend. Maybe we should allow it to ruin ours, as well. For them it felt like the end of the world. Maybe we could pretend, even for a day, that’s it’s the end of ours, too—that while what Jesus went through on our behalf is something to be celebrated, it’s also something to be mourned, to be anguished about, to grieve.
This Good Friday, allow the grief to seep deep down into your bones, into your bowels. Meditate on the wounds, the suffering, and the deep, deep love of Christ. Allow the tears to well up from the pit of your being, escape your eyes, and roll down your face. Let the sobs rock your body. Leave the Good Friday service in silence. Extend your mourning through the night and into Saturday. Leave the TV off. Wear black. Refuse to medicate, distract, or otherwise soothe yourself. Mourn. Grieve.
If you do this, as the sun rises on Sunday, you will finally know what Easter is all about.