We experience loss and grief in every aspect of life. The unexpected death of a family member or friend. Financial strains or unforeseeable natural disasters suddenly sweeping in, taking away one’s home and other possessions. Illness robbing a person of their identity and independence. Change of any kind calling into question what has been held onto and perhaps assumed permanent. Do we, I wonder, count the church among those parts of our life that can (and often do) encounter loss and leave us floundering with grief? A change in building. Transition of pastor or other staff. Declining attendance. Shifting neighborhood demographics. The death or departure of a pillar parishioner. Growing cultural demands. The church, unfortunately, is no more immune from loss and subsequent grief than any other sphere, sacred or profane. In some ways, I think, when loss happens in the church, because of our beliefs about its perceived inherent stability and unchanging nature, our grief is expounded. Being the cradle and locale of faith for so many, the burden becomes greater when we’re forced to adapt to a new or different picture of what the church looks like or how it functions.
A few months before I was to be ordained, my family and I experienced overwhelming grief from afar at the news of my congregation leaving the denomination. It had been a long, emotionally-draining fight between those who were feeling anxious and afraid about what sexuality meant and others who feared the church becoming closed and unwelcoming towards a particular population of the community. The tenuous final straw broke leaving no winners, but only bitterness and despair among all. The memory of, as a child, sitting alongside my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunt and her family, and great-grandmother—all in one pew—was shattered (among countless others) at the loss of the only congregation I’d ever known as home. If that weren’t enough, now I was needing to find a new church in which to soon be ordained. The relationship I shared with First English for 26 years had been severed. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I was an exile—still dealing with the loss of my faith community, all the while feeling unable to grieve as I prepared to serve other congregations who themselves were amidst transition. The evening I was ordained across town in a different church, I cried as I looked out and saw people gathered among the assembly whom I didn’t know from Adam; and yet, who had received my family and I to support us in this new venture of ministry. It wasn’t until some years later that I was able to fully grieve the loss of the place where I was baptized, first communed, confirmed, and the people there who had accompanied throughout that time.
When a church faces loss of any kind, just like an individual, the community can feel shaken at its core—unsure what to do and how to process through the multifaceted grief. While the temptation is great to avoid or disregard it as unnecessary, unresolved grief can become poison within us—eating away at other things, until it finally consumes the person and/or comes out in harmful ways. So, also, it is with the church. If we are unable or unwilling to express our grief over a loss, the congregation as a whole is at risk of becoming septic if not anxiously reactive and chronically closed-off. The church should not be viewed as an escape from loss and grief, rather, in my opinion, a place for us to face loss in the support of community and enter into grief together with listening, comfort, and empathy. Equipped with a message of hope, the church is tasked with sharing good news that none of us—individually or communally—is ever alone in our loss or grief. Christ Jesus bears our losses, especially when we cannot, and accompanies us throughout the entirety of our grieving—hearing our cries, comforting us in our sorrows, giving us his peace. Our losses and grief become God’s in the cross of Christ. The same one who takes upon himself our pain and suffering also restores, renews, and leads us into new life rejoicing. As we enter into the season of Lent this next week with Ash Wednesday, might we use this season to dwell in loss and grief. What losses have had an impact on you recently? Are you still amidst their throes? How do you encounter grief in your life? Is it something humbly welcomed or fearfully avoided? Where do you find peace and comfort? Who do you trust to listen and comfort you without judgement? Are you that for someone else? Have you experienced loss and grief in and through the church? When and where is Christ present amidst the uncertainty of loss? How is Christ meeting you in your grieving? What is the Spirit’s call for the church in accompanying others through places of loss and times of grief? Might we, with the eyes of faith, begin to see more clearly Christ present amidst our losses, walking with us through our grief.
– Pastor Andrew