As I arose on Sunday morning and prepared to join others at a place of worship, my mind remained with my dad and his current station in life. As I entered the church service, I became keenly aware that I was in an emotional place that was dissimilar from some of the other Jesus followers that morning (I smile as I write this because it is difference that sheds light on what I believe, what I am feeling, or who I am). That morning as I stood with other Jesus followers, I realized, “I am not in a place of celebration but of mourning.” In that moment I longed for a space where I could express my grief . . . a space where my grief was normalized, validated, and accepted.
My situation is not unique to those experiencing loss. I have heard those who are grieving speak of the challenges of attending church. Some mention how the music brings their own sadness to the surface with such intensity that it results in grief bursts, tears pouring down their faces. Others express how their grieving experience is so contrary to the celebratory nature of the service that they fail to find any common ground; thus, out of self-protection, security, and a need to heal, they stop joining the other worshipers for a season by remaining at home. Others say they attend a church of a completely different tradition and find solace in the difference.
On this particular Sunday I was able to find a space to mourn (I don’t want to mislead you in thinking that I would be able to accomplish this on any given Sunday, but this is what transpired for me on this Sunday). As people sang the songs of celebration, I mentally entered into my own space in God. I brought to mind that in that moment I am in the divine life. Participating in the divine life is not of my own doing, but it is a result of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. John 14:23 and 17:20-21 reveal the type of intimacy we have with God when we are in Jesus Christ. There is a mutual indwelling in that God dwells in us and we are in God. It is here I find my needs met for acceptance, validation, and normalization for my grief. It is here I am embraced and can rest in that embrace. This instills in me a sense of worship and peace as I participate in the divine life, the very being of God.
I am drawn to the idea that because of this intimacy with God, I share in Christ’s sufferings (see Romans 8:17 and Philippians 3:10 as well as 2 Corinthians 1:5). Not only does Jesus Christ share in my sufferings, but I also share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Yet, I am not alone with Jesus in this space, but other followers of Jesus are here as well. They, too, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and Christ also shares in their sufferings. So while some in the church service that morning were genuinely celebrating, it is possible that others were also secretly grieving, and their grief was also present in the divine life, in which Jesus Christ intimately joins them. This leads me to underscore that theologically, if we are all in the divine life, we share not only the sufferings of Jesus and he shares in our sufferings, but we also share in the sufferings of each other.
Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, I believe, is helpful here. As Jesus followers, we are members of Christ’s body so that when one part suffers, the whole suffers. Seriously . . . when my back hurts, my whole being is out of whack (You can just ask my husband). Theologically, there is a similarity. Christ’s, yours, and my sufferings are part of Christ since Jesus Christ is the head and the church is his body. Theologically, I, as a member of Jesus Christ’s body, suffer when you suffer because we are part of the same body, and Jesus suffers when I suffer and when you suffer and vice versa because we are members of his body.
Such an analogy, however, does not only speak of suffering but is also true of celebrating. That is, just as one part suffers, the whole suffers, so also when one part rejoices, the whole rejoices. When I hurt physically, even one part of me, my whole body feels the pain, and when I receive fantastic news, my whole body desires to break out into a happy dance (I will spare you the details of that image). I confess, however, that I am challenged to live this out in my relationships in Christ’s body. It is a struggle to be present to my own grief, but it is even more arduous to be present to the other who is rejoicing while I am grieving. When I am mourning, how can I respond by being present to those who have a strong desire to celebrate?
However, there is a space where both of us can have our needs met—that space is in God. As I encounter those who are celebrating as I am mourning (such as Sunday morning), I am able to go to that space in God, knowing that my need is met there. Such a move frees me to be present to the celebratory one. Thus, by being present to the other who may be mourning or celebrating, I am responding to the other in an act of ministry that reveals there is space in God for both weeping and rejoicing. No wonder, Paul admonishes the Romans in chapter 12 to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. These acts of ministry demonstrate our beliefs about our lives in Christ: we are members of the same body, and we participate in the divine life together in which there is space both to celebrate and to mourn.
Since I am speaking of the body of Christ, my mind turns to wondering about our church services. Many American churches (not just pentecostal and evangelical but liturgical as well) are practicing a contemporary worship style that leans toward celebration. Whether or not such a move is a reflection of our American culture’s discomfort with grief and its emphasis on the pursuit of happiness, I do not know. However, the invitation to myself and those around me (the handful of you who might be reading this blog) is to inquire, “What do our church’s acts of ministry speak of God?” Another way to say this is, “What is the theology that is declared through our acts of ministry?” In the same way there is space in God both to celebrate and to mourn, do our church services reflect this space? It is with that I invite you to join me in my space to ponder these things.