Imagine a time when your world was completely turned upside down. A time when, one moment, things were going well, and then the next, it seemed like your world was falling apart. Or, maybe you’ve had an experience when great blessing came out of pain. We’ve all had moments in our lives when we were completely taken by surprise, when we knew without a doubt that as a result of some event, our lives were changed forever. We don’t have to think too hard about it, we’ve been dealing with a world that’s been turned upside down since March, where we’re still trying to figure out how ministry works in the midst of a pandemic. Things are better here, but they’re far from over and many are grieving the losses of loved ones, familiarity, and more.
In our Gospel reading this morning we hear Jesus bless the disenfranchised in his community. He blesses those who are struggling spiritually. He blesses those who are working to realize God’s kin-dom on earth, and he blesses those who are struggling emotionally. There’s been a lot of emotional struggle this year.
On this All Saints day, I am reminded of just what it feels like to have my own world suddenly turned upside down. On September 4th of 2016 my Mother, Diane passed away peacefully, at home, in her sleep after a two and a half year battle with cancer. She passed just two days before I was supposed to officially start my internship Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and instead my start was put on hold while I took almost a month to grieve with my family, to make final arrangements for my Mom, and to figure out just how I was supposed to find the strength to be a pastoral caregiver in a congregation when it was all I could do to take in a deep breath and try to get through the next moment.
To say that my world, and my that my family’s world had been turned upside down is an understatement. Growing up, my Mom was there for every dance recital, every game, every theatre production. When her first chemotherapy session conflicted with my graduation from Clinical Pastoral Education, a year long internship as a Chaplain in an oncology unit, she skyped in so that she could still take part in it. She was the one that my family looked to for guidance, strength, and a good reality check, whether we wanted it or not.
Now that she’s no longer physically present it was a huge adjustment to figure out what to do, when my first gut instinct is still to call my Mom for advice, or what I would do, God forbid, should I break down in tears in front of the very people that I was supposed to be learning to lead. I’ve wept. A lot. I still do.
Losing my Mom was different from my experience of grief with numerous other family members and friends before. Not only was she by far the most painful and closest loss I’ve experienced in my life, but her passing was the first time that, in grief, I found myself struggling to find balance between the world of caregiver and care recipient. In times of loss, we find ourselves stuck in a really nasty tug of war between needing to care for the emotional needs of our loved ones who are grieving, and the desperate need to receive that same care for ourselves. Who do you turn to when everyone around you is also grieving? What does it mean when you are told that these experiences will make you a better caregiver, when you find yourself too emotionally spent to even identify the care you need? These are questions I asked myself, which colored my anticipated transition into my internship with fear and anxiety, when I already had enough transition, fear, and anxiety to last me quite a while.
How was I supposed to be strong enough to learn to care for and support a community when I wasn’t sure I could do that for myself? They are questions that I have asked again in the midst of Covid. And again Wednesday night when my seminary community at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago learned of the passing of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero, or as we called her, Mama Cheryl, who was a much beloved professor whose capacity to love knew no bounds.
Mourning is expressed in many ways. When I lost my mom I wept. Weeping is a visible and audible public expression of emotion and while mourning can certainly be expressed in that way, grief is not the only reason people weep. So many things cause our lives to turn upside down. We grieve the loss of what’s familiar, when relationships are fractured or broken beyond repair, when jobs are lost and the search for a new one proves challenging. We weep when something we’ve dreamed about doesn’t play out in the way we had hoped, when we transition to a new place. We grieve not being able to be present with our church family in the ways that we’re used to.
I for one find myself in tears to express a wide range of emotions, from ecstatic disbelief, to stress, to anger and beyond, but I do know that if I don’t take the time to weep, those intense emotions bottle up roiling around like a storm cloud until there is no choice but release.
The problem is that weeping, especially in public, often makes those around us uncomfortable. We avoid making eye contact with someone weeping in public or we have the impulse to comfort someone with a hug and a muttered “Don’t cry.” or “It’ll be okay.” That request not to cry, stems from our own discomfort in the presence of tears in the guise of comforting our loved one, but in our text this morning Jesus blesses you who weep now and promises that you will be comforted. In that same way we too can become a blessing, by allowing those whom we encounter the safe space to weep. Sometimes a silent presence is worth far more than any words we can offer.
This week as we honor those whom we have lost for All Saints Day, I am reminded of some modern Beatitudes that Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran Pastor and author, read aloud when I heard her speak at an event for her book Accidental Saints, around this time in 2015.
I didn’t realize at the time just how much I would need these words only a year later, as I struggled to offer myself permission to weep in the wake of my Mom’s death. I offer these words to you now:
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because [you] have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken.
Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
Blessed are those who mourn.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
In the Beatitudes Jesus reminds his hearers through the ages that life takes turns, flipping upside down, sometimes with only a moment’s notice, while giving us permission to weep and to do so openly. He warns that suffering will be felt by those who presently experience joy. But at the same time offers hope to those who are suffering, that we too will feel joy again. It’s a promise that can’t be rushed, that takes time to process, let alone feel that it may be true for us. In our weeping we may forget that promise from time to time, but that’s okay.
Through God’s loving grace that promise remains, no matter how long it takes, whether or not we’re in a place where we can believe that it is possible for us too, when the best we can do is hope.
At the same time it’s a promise that calls for us to allow others the space to weep, and to offer ourselves that same grace in return. Blessed are you who mourn. “You are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.”