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When Lazarus died, Jesus wept – grief, mourning, and “getting on with life”

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.


Human ritual and spiritual formation: antithesis or synergy?

Yesterday Brian LePort commented on The Ecclesiology of Starbucks. He was specifically referring to Starbuck’s new ad campaign, “Take Comfort in Rituals.” Brian quickly noted the strong parallels between this add and the kind of language that we use to describe the church, a place where ritual (liturgical practices) are both comforting and formative. And, Brian noted that this way of thinking also had resonance with James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, which we discussed some time ago.

Brian’s post has sparked a lively discussion, particularly between Halden (who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei) and Smith, as they’ve traded jabs on the nature and purpose transformation, the role of ritual, and the nature of theological discourse in the blogosphere. Several others have contributed their thoughts as well, making this a fascinating discussion to check out.

So, if you have any interesting the the church, worship, ritual practices, and the nature of spiritual formation, you should definitely head over there and check out Brian’s post and the comments that follow.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.

Desiring the Kingdom 3

We are continuing our review series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. In chapter one, Smith lays out his argument for the idea that humans are essentially “liturgical animals” – i.e. beings fundamentally determined by desires shaped by habit-forming practices.

He begins with a brief critique of anthropologies focused on the human mind. He briefly discusses the idea that we are “thinking animals” (Greek philosophers, Descartes) or “believing animals” (reformers, world view proponents), and argues that both are essentially rationalistic. Even though the latter critiques the former for an overemphasis on rationality, he thinks it makes precisely the same mistake – grounding human identity in an essentially intellectual activity.

Rejecting these intellectualist anthropology, he argues that we are lovers before we are thinkers:

The point is to emphasize that the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it….One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead with our heart and hands. (p. 47)

He then unpacks the significance by arguing that love is “intentional” – i.e. it is always directed toward some object. The task of Christian formation, then, is to identify and explain loves proper object, God and his kingdom, while forming Christians into the kind of people whose desires are properly oriented toward this object.

Having established all of this, Smith is ready to deal with his primary concern. How do you shape/change a person’s desires? What makes it the case that a person’s love is directed toward one object rather than another? And, he argues that this is done through “habits” that can be formed through particular “practices.” Thus “habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends” (p. 58). Unpacking and defending the idea of habit-forming practices will be the task of the next several chapters.

He concludes by arguing that  we tend to overemphasize worldviews today. Although he recognizes that worldviews are important, he thinks that we should be more concerned with “social imaginaries,” the ways that the practices in our society shape our pre-theoretical vision of the world, which he thinks are more influential in what we actually love than our worldviews. In other words, we can claim to have a Christian worldview, but if our habits are actually being shaped by cultural practices that are antithetical to that worldview, we will actually have loves and desires that are shaped by the cultural practices, not the worldview.

I suggest that instead of thinking about worlview as a distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Disicipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. (p. 68)

His critique of worldview-thinking was probably the most interesting part of this chapter for me. Although I have long been attracted to a more Augustinian model of the human person, I had not considered the ways in which an emphasis on worldview might sit awkwardly within that model.