Today we come to reflect on the second beatitude, and as we do so, and as we come to wrestle with what sounds like an oxymoron, that there is a blessing and a comfort to be found in mourning and grief, I recognise that as we reflect on this verse today, we all find ourselves standing on holy ground… sacred ground… It is best that we tread with great caution and with great care lest we find ourselves insensitively stomping around on one-another’s broken hearts, and walking arrogantly or carelessly through each others pools of tears.
In preparing for today’s sermon, as I normally do, I spent a bit of time reading through other people’s reflections. One pastor wrote of how he had preached on this verse at a major conference. And after the session was over and people were mingling and chatting, one delegate came over to him and asked him “Have you ever suffered? Have you ever lost someone? Have you ever really mourned?”. The pastor paused a moment to think and found himself having to admit that he hadn’t. “I thought so,” was the response of the person who had come up to speak to him.
In this beatitude of Jesus, we are faced with a paradox: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The great danger of a preacher, in trying to find a fresh, clever, interesting and novel perspective on these words is that one might end up speaking without knowledge and spouting forth something trite and superficial.
And so today, I feel indeed that I walk where angels fear to tread, because angels might be more deeply aware than I of the pools of tears that sit beside those who will be listening to this sermon today.
Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
What could these words mean? What truth is hidden within the paradox?
Today, rather than trying to come up with some clever and fresh perspective on what these words might mean, I thought it might be better to reflect on two stories of grief and hopefully allow those stories to shed light on the possible meaning of our text today.
The first story is one that I think I have told before in Dromore, perhaps in the first few months of arriving. It is the story of a colleague in the ministry in South Africa. We were serving together in a large church on the east of Johannesburg. He told how some years earlier his father had passed away. Being a minister, his family looked to him for direction, and very soon he got into practical mode as he made arrangements for the funeral which he ended up conducting the himself. He said it was so busy and intense at the time that he never had the opportunity to grieve his father’s passing. He was so busy trying to be a minister to his family, trying to provide a container for his own families grief that he never really had the opportunity himself to just sit down and cry and to feel personally for himself the sense of pain and loss of his fathers passing.
Under the circumstances trying his best to holds things together for his family, he had put a lid on his grief. In effect, he had forced himself to just suck it up and keep going.
He went on to tell how a few years later, on one ordinary Sunday morning, as he mounted the stairs up into the pulpit, ready to lead a service or worship as he did every Sunday, just as he was about to start the service, he found himself suddenly overcome and overwhelmed by a flood of tears that he had absolutely no control over. Up there in the pulpit, in front of the whole congregation, he found himself weeping and sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
It was with a sense of embarrassment that he had to leave the pulpit and leave the confused and obviously concerned congregation just sitting there wondering what was happening. He went into to the vestry where for the next 15 to twenty minutes the tears just flowed as he continued to sob and weep uncontrollably.
In reflecting on it, he said he hadn’t realised how much grief he had been carrying inside since his father’s passing. And he hadn’t realised how emotional heavy that grief had been. All he knew was as the grief welled up and as he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed uncontrollably on that Sunday morning, when he should have been leading his congregation in worship, something of the great weight and burden of that grief that he had been carrying for so long slowly began to lift from that day. It wasn’t that the grief suddenly now vanished, but that perhaps the beginning of a process of grieving had begun.
In out text, the Greek word for mourn, comes from the Greek word penthéō which means to "mourn over a death" and refers to "manifested grief" – a grief so severe it takes possession of a person and cannot be hid.
Is it possible that our verse today could mean something as follows: Blessed are those who cannot hide their grief any longer they will find relief from the great burden they have been carrying”.
On that day, that colleague found could not hide his grief any longer. He could not keep the lid on it any longer. And from that moment, his journey through grief had begun.
When I was still in training before I was ordained, I went with a group of other trainee ministers and spent the day at a hospice where a hospice nurse spoke to us about the grieving process and the work they do in the hospice, working with both those who were dying and their families. I will always remember her description of grief. She said grief is like digging through a mountain with a teaspoon.
A second story I would like to share is of a women that Wendy and I met while we were living and working at a retreat centre about an hour north of Johannesburg. Her name was Margie, and she had come to lead a retreat on the spiritual benefits of walking… walking in silence… walking alone… and in the process of walking, finding space to get in touch with and to work through the jumble of thoughts and emotions that we often carry with us but that we are not always aware of.
The weekend made a big impact on me. But it was not so much the retreat itself that made the impact, but rather it was Margie. There was a transparency about her, and a gentleness and a care and a love that was immediately evident. She seemed to possess an ability to see into a person, to see their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses and as she spoke with them, to hold them in a loving and caring presence.
Margie also seemed to have an ability to be very easily and quickly moved to tears. As she was moved by the presence and vulnerability of others during the course of conversation, she did not try and hold back, as tears would well up in her eyes. It was clearly an expression of the tenderness and the love she was experiencing that moment as she saw into the person who was standing before her and as she was draw in close to them.
At one point she apologised for the tears. Or perhaps it was not so much an apology as an explanation for she was clearly not embarrassed by the tears as many of us are. She told a little bit of her own story… how 30 or 40 years earlier her teenage son, aged about 18 years old, had taken his own life and how in that moment her life and her heart had shattered into a million and one little pieces. Hers had been a long and arduous journey through grief. But the long term effect of that grief was that it had made her very sensitive to and tender towards the pain of others. In a word, it had caused a deep and tender love to grow within her towards other people.
The death of her teenage son had shattered her heart into a million pieces, but in the end it was not a breaking down of her heart, it turned out in the end to be a breaking open of her heart in a soft, gentle and tender love for everyone who crossed her path.
Although she still grieved the loss of her son, she said her tears were no longer so much tears of sadness, but rather tears of love.
And I wonder if that is perhaps the answer to the paradox of Jesus teaching: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Why is it a blessing to mourn? Where is the comfort in weeping and grieving? Perhaps the answer is that at the heart of grief is in fact the seed of love. You only grieve that which you love and where there is great love, there will surely also inevitably be great grief. And so grief is an expression of love.
The danger is that if you try and limit your grief, to contain it, hide it, or put a lid on it, the inevitable outcome is that you will also end up containing your love, hiding it, limiting it, putting a lid on it. To cut oneself off from grief is therefore unfortunately also to cut oneself off from love.
M Scott-Peck, the American Psychiatrist and Spiritual writer suggests that the source of all our psychological suffering is trying to avoid legitimate and unavoidable pain.
Is it possible that if we allow ourselves to grieve fully, to really feel the pain of our grief, that over time we might begin to experience our tears of sadness and grief being transformed into tears of tender love… or perhaps rather, that our tears of sadness that have always contained the seeds of love within them, have simply become the moisture that was needed in order for the seeds of love to grow.
The Greek word for comfort is the word parakaleó. Pará, means "from close-beside". Kaléō, means "to call or invite”. Putting those together one has the sense of being invited or called from close beside, "close-up and personal”. And in a way that is what it felt like being in the presence of Margie. Being in her presence was a feeling of being invited in, invited, called close beside, into her warm, open and tender presence and lovingkindness. Paradoxically, Margie had found comfort, an openess and a closeness to others through her grief.
Margie was not a professing Christian. Her journey had in the end taken her on a different spiritual path. But her life had become like a transparent window through which the light and love of God could shine. What Jesus is teaching in this verse is not Christian doctrine but rather a universal truth that expresses a universal human experience, open to all people.
Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted… blessed are those who allow themselves to grieve, they will enable others to come close and in turn become a soft and tender presence where others can feel themselves invited in also.
I’d like to end with two quotes. Firstly one by by Marcel Proust “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
And a quote from a contemporary spiritual teacher, Adyashanti: Grief un-resisted, becomes grace.