We don’t know how to grieve. That’s the thought that has been floating around in my head for a few days now. We know how to cry, we know how to be sad, and we know how to “get on with life.” But we don’t know how to grieve, how to mourn, how to process the pain of deep loss. And, oddly enough, as I was processing these thoughts, I found an interesting connection between an ancient religious tradition and a modern chick flick.
These thoughts started rattling around a few days ago when I read an iMonk piece on the importance of mourning and grieving in community. That piece included a quote from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline explaining her concern that we lack the traditions and rituals necessary to grieve effectively:
What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.
The piece goes on to explain the advantages that a religious tradition like Judaism has in the way that it approaches grieving. Unlike most of our churches today, Judaism has explicit rituals and traditions for grieving, making it clear that grieving is a discipline that involves both the mourner and the community in a process that will take months, and even years, to complete. Thus, unlike our approach, which tends to emphasize the quick-fix and and an individualistic, therapeutic model of grieving, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that grieving is a long-term, communal, and deeply religious affair.
While I was still processing these ideas, my wife and I watched P.S. I Love You. I have to admit that I went into the movie expecting a fairly standard chick flick. And, you can definitely watch the movie from this perspective. It’s a story of a girl who meets the boy of her dreams, loses him, and learns, haltingly, to love again. Very touching.
My wife hated it.
That by itself is odd. My wife loves chick flicks. She’s seen While You Were Sleeping and Notting Hill more times than I can count. What was different here? Passionate love. Touchingly humorous side stories. Quirky supporting characters. Strong female lead (Hilary Swank is terrific). She should have loved this movie.
But, it wasn’t primarily a movie about love; it was really a movie about loss. Even more, it was a movie about the fact that we don’t know how to grieve.
Early in the movie, the main character loses her husband—the love of her life, her soul mate—to a brain stumor. And, of course, she immediately begins to grieve. The problem is that she really doesn’t know how. She locks herself in her apartment, cries a lot, watches old movies, and imagines that her husband is still around. She’s alone, desperately trying to process her uncontainable grief. As I watched, I mourned her inability to mourn—her loneliness, isolation, and frustration.
And the people around her have no idea how to help. Her mom just advises her to “Get back on your feet.” Her friends really want to be there for her, but the best they can come up with is to encourage her get back to work, go out for a night of fun, and, after a suitable period of sadness, hook up with some random Irish guy. Everyone in the story lacks a sense of how to grieve.
Everyone, but one.
Fortunately, one person in the story understands that grieving is more than just feeling bad for a while and moving on. Rather than showing her ways of escaping her grief, this one person helps her enter into her grief more deeply, gently coaxing her through rituals designed to help her remember, celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry, rejoicing in the memory of the relationship even as she experiences the pain of its loss.
As I watched the movie, I came to a better appreciation for the argument that we lack rituals, traditions for mourning. We don’t have any intentional, communal activities meant to lead us through the process of grieving. Instead, we are expected to privatize our grief, be sad for a while, and either “get on with life” or seek professional, therapeutic assistance. It’s as though we’ve determined that Paul’s declaration that death has “no sting” means that we should not grieve. But, the fact that Christ has conquered death does not mean that loss has no pain. It only means that it is a pain that we can understand in the context of a greater hope. But it is still pain—deep, abiding, and often bitter, pain. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept.
I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t offer any answers for what this might look like. But, I’m coming to recognize the inadequacy of the typical evangelical approach to mourning. Mourning does not come naturally; it should not come naturally. To grieve properly, we need help. And, I’m open to suggestions for what a deeper, more intentional, more tradition-al approach to mourning might look like.
Technically Yom Kippur doesn’t begin until sundown, but we’re getting pretty close to sundown here on the west coast and I figure that many of you are already well past that. So, happy Yom Kippur! (Or, is it “merry” Yom Kippur? Blessed Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur greetings?) Anyway, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) begins at sundown tonight (Sep 17) and ends at sundown on Saturday (Sep 18). So, it’s time to get your Yom Kippur on.
To be honest, I don’t normally notice when it’s Yom Kippur. But, the following article was sent to me by Dr. Carl Laney, one of our Bible professors. I thought the article was quite interesting in that it doesn’t focus on the theology of Yom Kippur, with which I’m already familiar (see esp. Lev. 16:1-34; 23:27-32), but it describes the traditional practices associated with its celebration. I found that quite fascinating. So, I’m passing it along to everyone else for your personal edification. The article was originally written by Professor Yagal Levin.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath: no work can be performed on that day. It is a complete, 25-hour fast from eating and drinking (even water) beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional restrictions: washing and bathing, anointing one’s body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. It is customary to wear white on the holiday which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that Israel’s sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18).
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the year. The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service. Perhaps the most important addition to the regular liturgy is the confession of the sins of the community. All sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.
It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address ritual sins. There is no “For the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat”. The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, tale-bearing and swearing falsely, to name a few).
The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne’ilah, is one unique to the day. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open and most people stand throughout this service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as “the closing of the gates”; think of it as the “last chance” to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar. After a festive (as we are sure that God has indeed forgiven our sins) “break-fast” meal, it is common to go out and immediately start constructing the sukkah, to show that we are serious about obeying all of God’s commandments.
I’ve been interested in the debate that Wright and Piper have been engaging in over the “New Perspective” (or at least Wright’s version of it). After reading Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I thought it was only fair to read Wright’s response called Justification. In this book Wright reminded me of Mike Tyson in the infamous Evander Holyfield fight with that whole “ear incident.” What has been one of the most highly charged polemical books I have read in a long time, Wright simply comes out swinging. Not because he thinks he is losing, but because for nine rounds he feels as if he has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, misquoted, and misrepresented. I cannot blame him for coming out and defending his name, and more importantly, his orthodoxy and love for the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of saving faith sinful humanity has to go to find redemption. The book is well written, and I would contend, the clearest presentation of what Wright has been trying to say. That being said, I still find his argumentation unconvincing.
He begins by typecasting himself as the loyal friend who is attempting to explain to another that the sun does not revolve around the earth. He likens adherents of the “old perspective” to those that would rather cling to tradition that to undertake a “fresh” reading of Paul that might jostle the cart of Pauline theological assumptions that have been held since the reformation. He asserts that those who are attacking him are simply not listening to what he, or for that matter Paul, are saying. He also likens himself to Luther and Calvin who, against the ecclesiological norm of their day, bucked the system in order to render a right reading of Scripture. He is surprised to find so many in the reformed tradition taking him to task for the doing the very thing that their heroes did five-hundred years ago. He goes on to say that the theological framework in which Paul has been interpreted is simply not sufficient. There is too much emphasis placed on individual redemption and not the redemption of the world. There is almost no talk of the Spirit’s role in many present concept of justification. Most importantly for Wright, theologians and pastors are not reading Paul correctly because of a bias that will not fit with their preconceived notions of the law, justification, and Judaism. He argues that if we silence what Paul actually said so that we can feel better about our theological conclusions, we are silencing Scripture and missing out on the beauty of God’s word.
He goes on to defend several of his assertions. First, Wright corrects a misunderstanding of Judaism and the law. He claims that the law was never the means by which people got saved. For Wright, the Jews were never asking this question. The more important question in the Jewish community was, “How do we know who is part of the covenant community of Abraham?” The law provided certain boundary markers to tell who was in the covenant community. This means that we have mischaracterized the Judaism of Paul’s day. He also speaks of justification, as the “status” given that one is right standing with God, and a member of God’s covenant family. Here Wright speaks of the law-court setting in which the declaration of the Judge in favor of the plaintiff only gives a status, not the actual substance of righteousness. There is no change in the moral character of the one who is justified by God. This is one of the main points in Wright’s argument for which he attempts to defend exegetically in the second part of his book. The question that Wright never answers, however, is whether or not believers ever actually get righteousness, or just a status? If we do actually get righteousness, where does it come from? His silence may be his answer. However, Wright never addresses this in his book, but simply says that imputation is not to be found anywhere in Paul. Something I think he drastically overstates. I found some of his exegesis here; especially with 2 Cor. 5:21 to be lacking. He places 5:21 inside of the larger framework of Paul defending his authority as an apostle, and as 5:19-21 as Paul’s explanation of what he is preaching with the authority of an apostle. This however, does not necessitate the exegetical gymnastics he does to make verse 21 speak of Paul as “embodying God’s covenant faithfulness.” The change is unnecessary, and is stretching. Wright also begins to unpack the role of works inside of Pauline theology. It is at this point that I feel Wright did some of his best work. Up until I read chapter eight it appeared that, for all his counter claims that he was not trying to “sneak works in the back door,” that that was in fact what he was doing. In chapter eight he unpacked all of the passages where Paul joins “works” to the eschatological judgment and asks the question, “How do you explain these verses?” He appeals to the necessity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as well as the believer’s responsibility to live a life in the power the Spirit provides. At this point, I’m not sure that Wright is saying anything much different from the reformation, but as trying to elevate the role of Spirit-empowered works to its proper seat. This was an area in which I was most critical of Wright, but which I feel he defended well. I’m not completely satisfied as of yet, but have shifted.
The book is a great read. There are still questions that I wish Wright would attempt to answer. Although the water still isn’t as clear as I would like, some of the silt appears to be settling. If you have read Piper’s book, this should be the next one you pick up.