Those Who Mourn: Taking Time to See the Bigger Picture
By Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement
I attended a meeting last week with a group of pastors and other church leaders who spoke on their ministerial roles in South Africa, leading up to, then following, the fall of apartheid. The conversation ranged from identifying the key elements of reconciliation and justice at work in the fall of apartheid, to the Seattle-area church’s work for justice today.
“We can’t even take time to lament anymore,” one Seattle-area pastor said. “It seems we’re supposed to be perpetually hopeful.”
That comment struck a chord with me. In my time outside the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University this year, my wife and I have led a number of chapel services at Valley Christian School in Auburn, Washington, about 30 minutes south of Seattle. This year’s chapel theme at the private, K-8 school is Matthew 5:3-10: the Beatitudes. As I spoke last week on Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus’ words brought to mind the South Africa conversation, reconciliation and the work our Seattle Pacific University students do in engaging communities locally and across the world.
Refocusing on God’s plan
Write Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice in Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing (87, 89-90): “To lament is to become gripped by the truth of the rupture [between hostile parties] and the high cost of seeking reconciliation. To learn to lament is to be broken. … Lament shapes reconciliation as a long and costly journey that is impossible without receiving the gifts God offers — forgiveness, the promise that our sacrifice is worth it, the patience to stay in an agonizing place and wait for God’s reply. … Lament is painful training toward the beauty of seeing what peace truly is and bearing that different vision of peace to the world.”
John Perkins notes in Beyond Charity, “… it is only when we really come shoulder to shoulder with the people at a specific spot … that we can begin to discern ways that the gospel will become meaningful in that context” (31).
To paraphrase these authors, to lament — or mourn — is the process through which we recognize the brokenness caused by sin in our lives and in the world around us. Mourning prompts us to cry out to God, seeking God’s best for the situation. In the final analysis, I believe, mourning doesn’t leave us in sadness because it prompts us to seek God for restoration. Mourning refocuses us on God’s plan and the way things should be, pointing us toward hope and comfort.
To get those big ideas into terms that would suit the first grade attention spans at Valley Christian, I explained: “Mourning means seeing the trouble caused by sin, and asking God to fix it.”
Mourning becomes celebration
In a story that’s easily applied to one’s personal state of relations with God, Nehemiah 8 details the story of God’s people as they return to Jerusalem and seek to set things right with God. After the people have unpacked, they assemble in the square near the water gate. The prophet Ezra stands on a high wooden platform and reads from the Law all morning long. As the people hear God’s truth and recognize the distance between their current pattern of life and God’s intentions, many begin to weep. Nehemiah 8:9-12 reads:
Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
In this instance, mourning doesn’t leave God’s people in sadness. Faced with the problems caused by their sin, and understanding God’s desire for their lives, the people repent. They now understood the words that had been made known to them. II Corinthians 7:10 echoes this sentiment: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” The crowd’s sorrow points them to God, leading to transformed lives and renewed hope. Surely those who mourn in situations like these are blessed by the comfort they receive through forgiveness in Christ.
But the pastor’s concern about the church’s failure to mourn was likely less about personal sin and more about the challenge facing many churches of how to deal with the world’s pain. Church leaders, laypeople, and our SPU students involved in urban and global service through the John Perkins Center at SPU are all too familiar with the dire state of many individuals, families, and communities. The prophet Jeremiah cries out in Lamentations 3:46-47:
"All our enemies have opened their mouths
wide against us.
We have suffered terror and pitfalls,
ruin and destruction."
Faced with the trouble plaguing his world, Jeremiah cries out to God, mourning not only his personal struggle but also the danger facing his community. In too many of our communities today, however, we’ve become deaf to the cries of our hurting world, and we live as if mourning were optional.
Our options, first the unhealthy
Where Jeremiah cries out in agony at the destruction of his people, I often find myself more removed from the situation. When we encounter the world’s pain, I believe we have two unhealthy options, and God’s call to hope in the midst of tragedy:
Ignore the problem. Though it’s probably a short-sighted approach, there are those among us who seek to hide from the world’s pain, surrounding ourselves with people like ourselves and our values, in gated communities in which we control all external influences. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s humorous description of highly developed futuristic society explains that one of the great developments of advanced societies is that many people become extremely rich. This is OK, the book asserts, because nobody became extremely poor, “at least nobody worth speaking of.”
Criticize those affected by the pain. “Those people” just don’t have it together, they rant. “Why can’t they just get it together like the rest of us?” I remember a conversation with a college student who had recently received a birth announcement from a peer, an unwed mother whose first pregnancy had resulted in major life adjustments, and now whose second child promised even more struggles. “I just don’t understand why she went and did that,” the student griped. “She knows it’s wrong. I just don’t know if I can still be her friend when she continues to live like that.”
Criticism addresses symptoms, but it fails to consider root causes. Criticism evades the need for response, placing blame and responsibility entirely on the individuals in whom the symptoms of brokenness are least masked.
Mourn, seeking God’s answer to the world’s problems: In the midst of the mess and confusion of the world, how often do we cry out to God, asking for restoration and God’s best in the situation? This week a group of Urban Involvement students invited Paul and Shantel Patu, founders of the Urban Family Center in South Seattle’s Skyway neighborhood to share their work and God’s call on their lives.
A transformational option
The Patus, long-time leaders in their community, related their experience of watching their new apartment complex become ravaged by rival gang members and families lacking support, resources, and direction. Rather than responding in anger, ignoring the situation or joining the crowd, Paul and Shantel developed the Urban Family Center as a ministry hub based directly in the apartment complex, seeking to understand and address the needs of their community and restore God’s design for families, communities, and individuals.
Though the process has been challenging, the Patus see God at work in their neighborhood and can testify to God’s work of transformation in the community and in the lives of young people connected to the Family Center’s programs. This work began, we can assert, as an outgrowth of mourning — a cry to God for restoration, followed by compassionate action toward health and wholeness.
Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus’ response to the crowds of needy, many of whom exhibited long-term disabilities and significant personal and social issues. I imagine some among the disciples might have wondered why Jesus didn’t ever ignore the crowds: “Just make them go away!” Others might have criticized the crowd’s noise, lack of manners, and unwillingness to wait in line. But Jesus reached out with compassion, recognizing the crowd’s need and God’s desire, then responded with action. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” says Matthew 9:36. Mourning the brokenness in the world around him, Jesus sought God’s best and responded with compassionate action.
As I consider what it means to mourn, I’m challenging myself to slow down and observe the real state of affairs — seeing the brokenness, and recognize the real issue. I want to consider God’s desire, listening carefully to the community to identify what wholeness looks like in each particular situation. Finally, I seek to respond with conviction and compassion, pursuing God’s best, reaching out like Jesus to those on the margins, offering restoration and hope.
As I explained to kids at Valley Christian School, mourning means seeing the trouble caused by sin, and asking God to fix it. Let’s be people who have the courage to address pain through mourning, longing for God’s hope, healing, and comfort.
Owen Sallee trained under World Vision's Vision Youth Initiative, and he was a youth director for Choose Life Youth Ministries in White Center for 12 years, during and following his time as a SPU undergraduate. He is a 1999 SPU graduate, and in 2006, he completed his master’s degree in school counseling at Seattle Pacific.
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