Sunday, January 15, 2012

good grief

What's so good about grief?

Last Sunday we heard a sermon by Marshall Shelley (VP of Christianity Today) about what it means to be FULLY ALIVE, to have the kind of life that Jesus was talking about in John 10:10, an abundant life. He listed 5 things that characterize someone who is truly alive: praise, lament, confession, forgiveness, repentance. I found his list thought provoking. Why didn't success make his list? Or even service? How many of us would assume that happiness is the key to feeling alive? Don't confession and repentance feel like death? When we face our own ugly sin, isn't it depressing? Lament especially struck a chord with me.

According to Marshall, lament is key. He defined it as being "aware of and disturbed by what's wrong in this world." In order to be fully alive, we need to have a grip on reality. We praise God for the ways we see him working in the world, and we grieve that which is just not right.

I spent a couple of hours last night excavating my inbox. The pile of emails had grown to over 600, and I was tempted to just delete them all and start fresh. I am so, so glad I didn't. Buried in the pile were two priceless treasures -- Christmas letters from two courageous women who spent Christmas alone this year. Both lost their husbands to cancer within the past 5 years. Life has forced them down roads they didn't want to take. Awkward questions have stared them in the face. Who are you now? What will you do with your life? What these two Christmas letters had in common was honesty. They offered a window into a soul that has tasted the bitterness of grief. That window is a gift. Those of us on the outside need to know, want to know, where the journey has taken our friends. We want to know because we love them, and also because grief is a road we will all walk someday if we haven't already. Walking it is part of life -- true, abundant life.

Grief over untimely death is one kind of lament. Another kind of lament weeps over life that is less than what God intends. Injustice, bondage, rebellion, chronic pain, unforgiveness, exploitation, spiritual apathy. Are you grieved by a world where this is reality? Grief puts us in touch with what really matters, and with the state of our own soul.

Ezekiel records an obscure vision about a man who is told, "Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it." (Eze 9:4 NIV) God is looking for people who are disturbed by what is not right. Jerusalem, like our world today, was filled with bloodshed and injustice. Some people saw this and were grieved over the sins of their nation. Others complained that God wasn't doing anything about it because he didn't care. They refused to see their own guilt.

Are we marked by grief? Are we alive enough to lament what is wrong in the world? Abundant life does not deny the pain, but enters into it fully, clinging to the goodness of God we cannot always see. I, for one, am thankful for friends who take me with them into their lament, so I can really live.


  1. Carmen, this perfectly captures the attitude I am trying to develop towards students in the classes that I teach or TA who are . . . less than compliant. Instead of thinking of them with emotions colored by my own frustration and/or offendedness (not a word, but offensiveness was NOT what I meant), can I lament over their choices which ultimately limit only themselves?

  2. Good insight, Laura!
    This, I suspect, probably decides between those who grow bitter in their old age and those who keep on getting sweeter. Oh, Lord, may I please be found in the latter category!!

  3. As a former student of Carmen's and a Bible and Theology major, I just wanted to say to you both thank you for the time and care you teachers put into developing my soul. Believe me there are days I am done with it, I have read enough papers, I have WRITTEN enough papers, God knows I have cried enough tears over this education and "thats it I quit." Your passion for the field keeps me going, your bitter pain over my apathy rocks me out of it. Thank you both for being teachers! And thank you Carmen for this post, I am certainly in a lamenting place right now and I needed this reminder. (We miss you at Multnomah!)

  4. Anna,
    I just saw this comment, all these months later. Thank you for your heartfelt words. I miss you, too!