“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
In our sermon notes on 2 Samuel 1, we started with a few examples of “fallen heroes.” This got me thinking about the different ways that we grieve. I want to highlight 4 ways here.
- Mourning the death of a faithful servant of God
This year we have stopped to mourn on a couple of occasions. As a church, we said goodbye to one of our older church members. She was in her 90s and had served God faithfully to the end. We miss her but there is a sense of a long and full life. I mentioned in the talk on Sunday, Mike Ovey, the Principal of Oak Hill. He was a caring friend to those of us who studied under him. He was a towering giant in theological terms, one that we instinctively looked to in times of spiritual trouble – whether as individuals going back for advice on a pastoral situation or collectively looking for him to defend the church against heresy. At times, this year it has felt like old enemies and challenges have been at the gate and it has been a bit like when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter, we instinctively look to Mike and he is not there. You see Mike was taken from us suddenly in his 50s. As so many people have commented, it felt like he still had so much more to give. And we can all think of examples of those taken home, some in their senior years, some so very young and it feels like they were cut off in their prime.
That someone was a believer does not diminish an emotional sense of loss and of absence. There is grief even when they have lived a long life and died peacefully. We miss them and we wish they were still with us. We recognise death as an enemy, a result of The Fall. However, we do not grieve as those without hope. We have said our farewells but we know that this is not final. We look forward knowing we will see them again. We trust God and even in the midst of grief rejoice because we know that they are with him.
And … just as David took time to lament Jonathan speaking of his great love for him, remembering his character and his deeds, so we can take time to remember. That’s why at Joan’s funeral there was opportunity for people to pay tribute. That’s why after Mike’s sudden death there was an outpouring of tributes and memories, what we had learnt from him, how he had been a help, support and encouragement, what we would miss. This is a natural part of grief.
As Christopher Stead said in his tribute to Mike, there is a sense of wrestling -why has God allowed this. This is natural but must not turn into anger and resentment against God. We must allow God to disagree with us. The death of a loved one is just one of those ways that God challenges our assumptions. The result of death, grief and mourning means that we fall more and more onto the Lord.
- Mourning the absence of a friend who has gone away
Now, the point that even in death, parting for believers is only temporary helps us to recognise the grief that does come in this life when someone moves on. So, we have also been saying our goodbyes to people that are moving on to new places. We will miss them, their company, their words, what they brought to the life of the church. To be sure, there will be email and skype contact but it is never quite the same. We may also feel a level of concern and anxiety. What risks will they face ahead? Was their decision wise? What if it goes horribly wrong. Just as the absence of a friend through death or parting reminds us to depend fully on the Lord and not on them, so it also reminds us of our own limitations, our friends must rely on the Lord not on us.
Recognising the reality of grief in change helps us to face up to partings. It means we can be honest about our emotions without clinging on to, trying to restrict and eventually suffocating another. Again, our grief must not overwhelm us. We look forward to the joy of reunion either in this life or at the Resurrection.
- Mourning a brother or sister who has fallen into sin
Sadly, not all of our heroes fall to physical death on the battlefield. We mentioned a few examples of people who have fallen into sin or into heresy. This is deeply painful. Sometimes it is the person we looked up to. Sometimes, it is the brother or sister who we invested so much time and energy into. We led them to Christ, taught them God’s Word, encouraged them, walked with them and stuck with them faithfully through their ups and downs. When someone falls into unrepentant sin and walks out on their church family and the Gospel it is deeply distressing.
At times, I have witnessed people choose to leave the church because they knew that what they were doing was incompatible with the Gospel, their profession of faith and church membership. The sad thing is that by excluding themselves from the means of grace, they are in effect disciplining themselves.
We mourn their falling. There should be no schadenfreude at their fall and discomfort. It is good even at this stage to remind them of what they are walking away from, to warn them of the danger. It is vital that we keep praying for them and their restoration.
- Mourning someone who died without apparent restoration
This is what makes Saul’s death so tragic. There is no evidence of a repentance and return to God. We have seen people who once professed faith and once seemed to be faithful walk out on Gospel fellowship and die in that condition.
It is tempting (and I have heard this at funerals) to cling onto some platitudes. We know that they once made a profession, they still had a Bible in the home etc. We must be wary of giving ourselves and others false hope when the fruit of someone’s life calls into doubt whether or not they were truly saved. Now this does not mean that there is no hope. We do not know what happened in the last days, hours or minutes of someone’s life.
We must treat their falling and passing as a cautionary tale, a warning to us to stand firm, a challenge -how will I be remembered?
Mourning is part and parcel of life before Christ’s return. We look forward to the day when he will wipe away every tear and turn our mourning into dancing.