We had a wonderful service! Frank Ritchie preached on grief. To read this moving message see below.
For photos from the service see:
Winter Spirituality – Grief
The Christ Sits in Shivah
Pray: Father, may we be aware of you with us. Amen
I remember a time when I was a little boy.
My father took off when I was only a few months old and I always had this secret hope that he might turn up again… this man I didn’t know and had never met.
One Sunday in the lead up to Christmas, someone at the church my mother was taking us to, told mum something she believed was from God (she described it as a prophecy for my mum). She said that my dad was going to turn up at our home on Christmas day and that we should be ready for him. What I was experiencing at church at the time wasn’t positive but as a little boy, I still wanted to believe that God was looking out for me and I had a faith….. and I had a hope that what the lady said was true, so I believed it whole heartedly….. she was an adult who knew God, she must have got it right.
So I prepared. I told all my friends at school that my dad was coming back coz God had said. I tore a bunch of pages out of my favourite colouring book and carefully coloured them in and stapled them together as a present for my dad. I tidied up my room and spent the money that was in my piggy bank that I had been saving to buy my own Bible to get balloons and stuff that I decorated my room with. My mum encouraged me to do the best I could because she believed the prediction as well…she was a new Christian and trusted what was told to her. Each day leading up to Christmas day I got down as a little boy on my knees beside my bed when I got out of bed and before going to bed and during grace at meals and I prayed that God would keep my dad safe driving to my place. I asked that he wouldn’t crash.
On Christmas Eve I pestered mum to set the table early for Christmas lunch just in case dad turned up early. I didn’t sleep that night and I got out of bed as soon as I could, really excited because it was going to be a big day. I got dressed in my most special clothes and made sure everything was ready. The colouring book I had made was wrapped up with a card that I made telling my dad how much I loved him. Once I was ready, I woke my mum up and told her I was going to wait by the fence for him to turn up and I said thank you to God for being so good to me. Mum worked on getting the lunch ready.
I went out and sat at the fence by the road where I spent heaps of time every week sitting and watching cars and people go past.
I waited. Mid morning my friend who lived next door came and showed me his presents and I reminded him that I was waiting for my dad. He left after we played with his toys a little bit. Lunch time came and I was starting to feel disappointed, but believed God wouldn’t lie, so I went inside, had a snack and told mum that he must be turning up for dinner so she should just keep the food warm. I went back outside and sat on the white fence…. Afternoon came and went and it hit dinner time. I decided I didn’t want any dinner and stayed at the fence. It got really late and started getting dark. Dad never turned up. I never met him until I was 15 and the IRD had hunted him down. The prediction was flat out wrong.
That night as a boy, I went into my room. I couldn’t stop crying. I ripped up the colouring book I had made, popped every balloon and screamed out swear words at God…. I called him an F’ing liar and said I didn’t believe he even existed. I cried myself to sleep. I felt on my own… like nobody cared. I lost something that night and thought I was on my own… like God didn’t care… maybe like he didn’t even exist. It was the experience that, when added to other stuff that was happening, convinced me that God, if he was really there, was heartless.
I’m older now. Life still hurts sometimes….. but there’s something different. God has a different place in those times.
In my experiences of life; grief and sadness have often been seen as awful things. We don’t understand it, we don’t like it and we do our best to get rid of it, suppress it and make it go away. In many of the churches I have spent my life in while growing up, this carried over into teachings about God and His place in our own times of sadness and grief. I’ve heard the message that if we believe in God we should rejoice and be joyful in everything, no matter how painful it is. If my faith is strong then I should not feel distress because I am more than a conqueror; that sadness and grief are simply the product of a lack of understanding that God has conquered these things.
Yet I read the Bible and that’s not what I see. I see many people honoured as men and women of God openly grieving and expressing their grief, I see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all mourn. I see Moses mourn, I see the whole nation of Israel mourn. I see Job tear his clothes in mourning during his suffering. I see David moved to grief to the point where he adorns himself with sack-cloth and ashes and sits at the gates of the holy city. In Psalm 6 David uses these words – “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping.” I see Ecclesiates saying there is a time for weeping and at another time, saying there is a time for mourning.
Most important of all, I see Jesus weeping. In most translations of John 11:35, it simply says “Jesus wept”. I see God incarnate being moved by the weeping and wailing of those who were close to Lazarus, the man who had died. The Bible describes him as being ‘disturbed in the spirit’…. Some translations say he ‘groaned in the spirit’.
Jesus didn’t tell them to shut up and rejoice. He encountered their grief and grieved with them. As Romans 12:15 instructs us, he was able to weep with those who were weeping.
I’ve been looking at the Jewish process for dealing with death (this is what may have been going on for the family of Lazarus when Jesus rocked up and I personally believe it is significant in how God relates to us in our own times of grief):
My understanding is limited so if there are any Jewish people in the congregation or anyone who notes where I may need correcting, please keep me informed.
From what I understand, when someone dies there are 3 stages the immediate mourners (father, mother, siblings, husband, wife) are obligated to go through to help them move through the process of grief. The rules within this may differ from Rabbi to Rabbi, but the overall process seems to be fairly common.
The first stage is called Aninut. This is the period of time right from the point of death till the burial. This stage is the period of the most intense grief. We often see the beginnings of it on TV when we see people in the middle east tearing their clothes either when someone immediately dies or at a funeral…. the tearing of the clothes is actually one of the requirements.
During this stage the mourner may not do anything that would cause their grief to be ended before its time. The must not eat meat, drink wine or engage in any sort of luxury.
Most interestingly, they are exempt from their religious duties. They don’t have to read scripture or recite prayers etc. The understanding of this is that during this time it is expected that that they may find it difficult to accept God’s justice in this world and they may struggle with and doubt their entire belief system. This is considered ok and understandable, thus the framework which may limit their grief or cause them to undertake practices which may be hollow at the time are removed from their life for the period of Aninut.
The place of those wanting to comfort the mourner during this stage is found only in practical actions that help them. The place of such people is to simply be with the mourner, words of consolation are discouraged.
This period ends when the Kaddish is said at the eulogy. The Kaddish is a prayer said by a mourner. It is a statement of God’s greatness and glory and a prayer for his world. It essentially brings the framework of faith back into the life of the mourner, it also has significance in some Jewish circles in terms of guiding the soul of the deceased.
This period is generally only for a few days.
Once the funeral is over the mourners enter the next stage of the grief/mourning process, called Shivah. This lasts for a cycle of seven days (the number seven represents completion…. Think creation).
During this period, the mourners remove themselves from the obligations of every day life and devote themselves to focusing on the memory of the departed and thinking about how they will honour the departed in their lives. The begin to engage once again in daily prayers and reading of Torah (it may not be studied though as this is considered to be a delight and therefore not appropriate for mourning), thus bringing the framework of their faith back into their grief process.
The seven days of Shivah are spent in a house of mourning (usually the home of one of the mourners, so it is a familiar, comfortable environment). During this time it is considered a great duty to visit the mourners (to make a ‘Shivah call’). The expectation on those visiting the mourner is that they will pray with them, study Torah and cook meals. At no time are the permitted to do anything in speech or deed that would invoke false happiness on the part of the mourner or cause them to put on a plastic smile. The person doing the Shivah call is there to support, to visit and to listen. Most of the time this may involve simply being there and not expecting anything.
During Shivah, it is customary for those in the house of mourning to sit on low stools or cushions, representing amongst other things, the lowness of grief. Candles are lit for the seven day period to mark the reason for the grief (death) and there are other customs in place to channel the grief and mark the memory of the deased.
The first three days are the most significant and intense during the period of Shivah. Note in the account of the death of Lazarus, Jesus allows this time to pass and held back, turning up on the fourth day after the funeral during the period of Shivah. He allows the most intense mourning periods to pass before he performs his miracle.
The third stage follows the end of Shivah and is called Sheloshim. This is where the mourner resumes everyday life but follows there are still certain mourning practices they maintain for for thirty days from the funeral., thus the grief process is allowed to run its course and never is it cut short by people trying to make the mourner ‘happy’. The role of those around those mourning is not to take away the pain, but to simply be there and responding in ways appropriate to each mourner.
This is an extremely natural process and corresponds to the natural cycle of grief. We have a tendency to want to cut it short and remove the pain and so too often we expect God to get rid of the pain…. but he doesn’t. God is attuned to the process of grief and it is my belief that he responds in much the same way someone consoling a mourner would during the jewish process following a death…. yet he provides the ultimate source of hope that life does not end in the cause of our grief, that he has overcome it.
He is the God who is there, not removing the pain, but entering it with us. God sits in Shivah with us.
Look at how Jesus responds to both Martha and Mary (the sheer fact that they left the house of mourning to greet him during their time of Shivah shows the significance of his arrival), he meets them perfectly in how they are both responding to the grief.
To Martha he is very ‘matter of fact’ for that is how she is.
When he is met with Mary and those with her, stricken with weeping (note: the word used in the Greek for weeping, denotes a strong expression of grief… not just tears, but wailing as well), he is disturbed in the spirit (some would say the language used denotes a sense of anger) and moved to weeping himself. It simply says, Jesus wept. Verse 35 of John 11 is probably one of the most moving verses of the Bible…. Jesus wept. The God who offers the greatest hope; the God through whom all things were created; the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob; The God who lead Israel into many battles; forging a way in which he could be shown to the world; the God who offers salvation to all humankind; the God of intense justice…. He is met with the grief and weeping of a human being, he is met with our grief, our tears and our sadness and he weeps. He does not remove our pain, he sits in Shivah with us and he grieves with us, he weeps with us.
Grief sucks and God knows it. He knows the intensity of Anninut where the world is ripped away from us. He knows the lowness of Shivah and he knows the struggle of re-entering the world in Sheloshim. In our grief he allows for our doubt, our struggles, our questions and our pain. He allows for our humanity and he sits with us, weeping with us and at the same time pointing the way to the ultimate hope beyond our struggles.
We’ve all got spaces like that, if we haven’t – we will at some stage in our lives. We will all experience grief for some reason.
What do you believe of God in those times? Do you believe he should be removing the pain and because of that, are you confused and angry at Him? Do you feel like he’s distant simply because you don’t feel good, or are you allowing him to grieve with you? Do you know the God who is there, weeping with you, experiencing that pain with you in your time of lonliness. Whether you feel him or not, reality says he is there.
I look back at my experience as a little boy and I want to tell that little boy the fortune telling was wrong. My dad was never going to show up on that day….. but most of all I want to be there with him that Christmas night his little heart was being ripped apart by grief and I want to cry with him; I want him to know that God hadn’t deserted him; that it was people that let him down and lied to him; that God was grieving with him; that God was crying with him…. that God was there…. that Jesus wept.
If you are experiencing Aninut, may you know the presence of God silently dwelling with you; sitting with you and may his hope help move you to Shivah.
If you are experiencing a time of Shivah may you know the presence of God as he meets you in your space. May you know his weeping. May you know his listening ear that longs for you to pour your heart out to him and may his hope help move you to Sheloshim where you may re-enter life dealing with the last processes of your mourning.
If you are in Sheloshim, may you once again walk into the hope that brings joy and may you once again laugh with your God. May you know the God who is there, not only in the times of great joy, but also in the times of great lowness and isolation.
If you are beyond these periods of mourning and grief, then when you enter them may you know the God who is there, the Jesus who weeps, may you know the God who dwells not only in your summer, but also in the times of your winter spirituality.