Last week we celebrated the Feast of All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. It hit home for me this year for many reasons, but in particular, over the past month we buried one of our beloved church members who was such a good friend of mine, and on the same day that we buried her, we buried my second cousin a few hours later in the very same cemetery. On top of that, I lost a good friend of mine two weeks ago. He was my professor while I studied in Jerusalem, and became a trusted friend and confidant over the years.
Many of us have had to say goodbye to someone in 2020, and even if not personally, the sheer amount of people who have died from COVID-19 is staggering and a sobering reminder of how many families are grieving this year, and in some way we are all carrying that burden.
And so, this reflection is for all of us who have felt the sting of loss this year or any year at that. I personally give thanks for the life of Judy Stewart, Tony Dorris, and Vernon Alexander. This is for the three of you. You will be missed.
This evening I would like to talk for a few minutes on the idea of Christian grief and mourning.
It can almost seem like two contradictory terms at times: Christian and mourning. Why would Christians mourn when they know that life continues after this one? Why would we be sad when we know we will see our loved ones again, and especially since they are in a better place?
There may have been times in your life where you have wrestled with feeling guilty or ashamed about your grief and sadness—maybe you’ve felt like you’re not a good Christian because you are mourning the death of a friend or family member.
And that guilt may not come the week or so after their death, but in the months and years that follow. People will allow us some time to grieve, a few weeks, maybe a month or two, but then we’re expected to get over it and move on. We stop asking how people are doing, afraid to even bring up the deceased one’s name in casual conversation.
It is subtle, and yet in some ways, sinister how we expect people to continue with their lives as if nothing ever happened. Grieve too long and you become a burden, they’ll say you’re obsessed, that you just need to move on.
But sadness is not a sin. Missing someone who has played an important role in your life, someone you love, is not something to be ashamed of.
The great tragedy is when we inappropriately use religion—when we feel so uncomfortable with someone else’s grief and pain that we tell them that everything is okay, there’s no need to be sad because of what our faith teaches.
It’s not untrue that in the long run we’ll come to some form of acceptance, but saying that to someone who is grieving minimizes the sheer weight and magnitude of their loss.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book A Grief Observed, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (666).
How can we simply tell someone that everything will be okay when their whole world has just shattered? How can we tell them that Christians are all about hope so they should be hopeful too when they are presently living in “the valley of the shadow of death”?
Hours after the Columbine shooting in 1999 a local youth pastor in Columbine was telling the teenagers of his church that they needed to forgive the two shooters. The teenagers who had just lost 13 of their own friends, gunned down by two of their fellow classmates, were told to bypass their shock and grief at what had just happened, and go straight to forgiveness before even reconciling what they just witnessed.
Forgiveness is no doubt our calling as Christians, but we must wade through the tragedy, and in some circumstances, the evil that took place before coming to forgiveness or hope.
We must take the grieving process seriously. It is a dark and lonely place; we are not called to stay in it forever, but we must know that it is there and not shy away from it.
Jess Trotter was the dean of the seminary I attended, Virginia Seminary back in the 1950s & 1960s. He was a popular dean with the students and faculty alike. He was friendly, outgoing, and he loved the seminary.
At that time, and even so today, faculty members lived on campus with their families. That was true for Dean Trotter as well, who lived with his wife and teenage son in a house on the seminary grounds, near the chapel.
Though it’s expected that seminarians will attend Morning Prayer every day of the week, faculty for some reason only occasionally attend, but Dean Trotter made sure to set an example and was there every morning for prayer.
Battling depression, the Trotters' teenage son tragically took his own life in their seminary home. For days following, Dean Trotter made the short walk to the chapel each morning for the service but said nothing.
Days turned into weeks. He was present for chapel services, but still, he said nothing – participating in the service as much as his heart would allow – hearing the sacred words, even if unable to utter them. He lost weight and his health declined.
Weeks turned into months and still no words from Dean Trotter. One day at the end of Morning Prayer as the students were gathering their things, about to head to class, the stoic yet heartbroken dean stood up, climbed the steps into the pulpit to address the students who were there. Everyone sat back down, and the chapel grew silent when they saw him making his way to the pulpit.
He cleared his throat and then said, “I have seen the bottom and Christ is there and in Christ the bottom holds.”
As Christians, we cannot exchange sorrow for hope at-will. We cannot discard grief and pain, but rather we must walk through the darkness, knowing that even there, in our deepest sorrow and pain, Christ is present; for in Christ even the bottom holds.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The Feast of All Souls’. Year A. A Grief Observed. I knew of the Trotter story but didn’t know the specifics: https://www.ecfvp.org/blogs/2259/in-christ-the-bottom-holds. Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash