This is a plea to rescue the lost art of sorrow. Not everyone who reads this may be in a place of suffering at the moment. But you might know a friend who is having it tough, or perhaps you might store it away in your memory for a rainy day. I pray that in whatever the circumstances you find yourselves, God will work His strength in you all the greater.
Two years ago people from a local church in Charlton, North-central Victoria, gathered pebbles from the nearby Avoca River and sat on them, uncomfortably, for the better part of a Sunday service.
Why did they do this?
Charlton had been devastated by flooding in 2011. Swirling waters flooded the town hospital, the historic theatre, the main roads, and 337 homes, making Charlton the worst hit town in Victoria’s 2011 floods. Thankfully, there were no deaths, and from the outset this farming town was glad to see the end of their drought. But as local businesses struggled, houses rotted, and so many insurance claims lay in never-ending dispute, the community began to feel the burden of what had happened.
Six months later a resident described what it felt like to be in a town of quiet mourning:
“Even now when you talk about the flood you feel a pall over the town. It's like a grieving process, when you get further away the memory gets dimmer.”
Repairs would be made and the town would eventually heal, but for this period of time the residents’ way of life would not be the same as it had been before.
This returns us to the matter of the pebbles. A year from the disaster one of the local churches decided to dedicate a service to the memory of the flood to acknowledge the town’s grief and encourage healing. The leaders asked the congregation about what should happen in this service and members came back with this suggestion: the church would take pebbles from the river and place them on all of the seats. As people sat during the service they would feel the discomfort of the pebble underneath them. But at the end of the service a time would come when everyone would take his or her pebble and place it down at the foot of the cross. Then they would all return to their seats relieved of their burden and praising God.
The action was different from their normal routine, but that memorial service was well received. It was a powerful, physical reminder of the words of Christ when He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) The aggrieved congregation acknowledged the pain they were suffering so that the Healer and Comforter of all sorrows could gladly take it from them.
In our modern times, it can be very easy to look at Mordecai’s sackcloth and ashes and feel like it was the most peculiar and weirdly dramatic way to express sorrow. If Mordecai rocked up to a church service today wearing nothing but an old sack, shedding ashes all over the carpet, and wailing and weeping up a storm, someone would probably query whether he was a bit nutty.
But while our cultural expressions may have changed a little over the last few millennia, there is something of a shared thread between the Israelites’ chafing sackcloth and the Charlton church’s hard pebbles.
As human beings – and particularly as followers of Christ in these difficult times – bad things happen to us. Life hits hard. The Lord never promised us we would be free of hardships on this mission. Sometimes we are hurt because of our own sin. Sometimes the enemy attacks us out of jealousy and tries vainly to destroy what God loves. Calamity can strike with little or no warning.
Mourning – true mourning, whatever the specific form it takes – acknowledges the reality of such suffering in this world and brings us closer to healing. In the sackcloth of Mordecai, the pebbles of Charlton, and the inner discomfort of admitting to God how tough it has been and how much you need His help, there is a kind of heart-breaking honesty at work. When else could you so clearly see that you are not invincible? What else could you truly feel after what has happened? There is no room for pretence in these hard moments. God sees through all the layers of distress and turmoil in your heart as, helplessly, you ask the Father for his comforting embrace.
Relief and wholeness might come quickly, or it may take time. In Esther, the threat of complete extermination loomed over all the Jews for nearly a full year. There is, as the Bible says in Ecclesiastes, a time for everything; “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Eccl 3:4) To someone who is going through the season of mourning it is plain that the teaching about seasons is difficult to accept. Being in the midst of grief, failing to see its end, can be the most frustrating experience in the world and yet, in these times, more urgently than ever before, we must lean on Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, who knows the ends of all seasons.
In His sublime Providence God has given each of us a season to pass through – not to become as we were before, but to be made stronger, closer, and more mature followers of Christ.
As dire as our circumstances may become we must never lose sight of the good that God may bring through periods such as these. The apostle Paul boasted about being weak because he saw that in his weakness the Spirit of Christ would work more powerfully in him. He wrote:
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Paul’s remarkably counter-intuitive, counter-cultural words ring as true today as ever. He is not ashamed at all of his suffering, because the greatness of Christ surpasses it.
Our modern culture can at times make it very difficult to grieve. Grief, as any sign of weakness, is treated as something of an embarrassment, a source of shame to be covered up. It is hard to mention one’s grief to all but the closest of friends. We are afraid of its stigma and we worry about the (sadly sometimes real) danger of erecting barriers between us and our acquaintances.
As the process of grieving has become an ever more private and unseen battle, it is now all too easy to believe that no one else around has truly had to struggle. “Something must be wrong with me,” we think, “if this is how things are.”
This is the honest truth of how things are. We need a Saviour. We need a Comforter. We need a true, heavenly, eternal Father. The seed of individualistic pride has borne its fruit in us, and in society at large, by making us consciously or unconsciously look down on the need to acknowledge our weakness in its appropriate season. To mourn is to properly recognise our need of His love in admitting our own weakness. This is an exceptionally beautiful process, even if it may be painful or discomforting along the way.
God’s presence in our lives will not eradicate the grief, or the need for mourning, just as God’s obvious presence in the lives of the Israelite’s in Persia did not dismiss their need to mourn – in fact, it was their mourning that turned them back to God. We should not attempt to speed through our mourning, promising ourselves that “God is with us” and “it will all be better soon.” Rather, our Heavenly Father invites us to weep and bare our souls to Him, so that we can share our mourning.
May God grant each and every one of us the strength to acknowledge our weakness.