The Place of Grief

2 Samuel 1

I do not believe in reincarnation. But I’ve hedged my bets on this one. I put in a request just in case. 

I’ve asked God to bring me back as a black church choir director.

This is a request from years ago, when I learned so much about HOW to grieve from a couple of funerals at African American churches.

I was new into ministry, just out of college, and had come into a couple of situations that had rocked my very young world. The first one was watching a 15 year old girl literally die in front of my eyes. I followed the ambulance to the hospital and tried to be “pastoral,” as I found the mother in the waiting room. At that point it wasn’t confirmed the girl was dead, so I offered my prayers to mother, but had nothing else to say. I left quickly.

But the pictures in my head haunted me. I learned the next day she had passed away so I found out the time and place of the funeral and went. It was an African American church and it was my first experience at a funeral in a black church. The service went for hours. There was weeping, singing, laughter, joyous worship, loud grieving, all of it. All the emotions were laid out. Nothing was held back. Nothing was scripted. The musicians knew exactly what to do at the exact moment, it seemed, and never with any sheet music. Always on key. Always bringing the right emotion, it seemed.

The funeral helped me with my own shock and grief, even though I did not know the girl at all.

The second time I was at that same church for a funeral, the pastor knew me, as did the congregation. It was a couple of years later, and some friends we had that attended that church had lost their son. It turned out to be someone I knew vaguely from high school. He was only a couple of years older than me!

Again, the shock of mortality hit me. But I was friends with the parents as well, so I shared their grief.

This time when I went to the church, and it was packed out again, the ushers knew me. I was looking for a seat in the back and they said, “No pastor, we have your seat.”

They took me to the platform.

Knowing that African American churches honor their pastors by having them on the platform, I guessed I was simply sitting with the guest pastors. What I didn’t know what that when you sat up there at a funeral, you were expected to speak a few words. Fortunately, they started on the other end of the row. By the time the third man had stood up and gone to the pulpit I realized I was going to have to say something. 

I had nothing. I was 24 or 25. I had nothing. I meet twenty-somethings today who think they have all kinds of things to say. It’ll hit them in about ten years just how little they really had to offer. It’s just a matter of maturity and living some life, that’s all. But right then, in that moment, I knew my place. I had nothing. 

It would be great to say I just bowed my head and asked the Lord and he wondrously gave me the very words to say that spoke so deeply to the church… but I was so shook up I can only say I think I prayed… If I prayed, it was something like, “Dear God, how could you do this to me?” or something spiritual like that.

Mostly, it was, “Think of SOMETHING you idiot!

Suddenly I remembered a story. A few years before I had watched this documentary on great black gospel singers and they had interviewed Thomas Dorsey. (Not Tommy Dorsey, the big band leader.) Thomas Dorsey was a tremendous force in black gospel music and had written the legendary song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” 

In the documentary they interviewed Dorsey and how that song came to be written. It was out of his own grief. He had lost his wife and baby and out of that grief this song came to him. It was a song of lament.

When it was my turn to stand and address the crowd, I looked at the parents and gave a few condolences, then began to tell Dorsey’s story. As I did, the organist began playing “Precious Lord.” Before long a few people near the organ were singing the verse. It began to crescendo, and I thankfully sat down as the congregation began singing out the entire song.

That is why I want to come back as a black church choir director. It was the ability to know what to do in the moment, unscripted. It was the ability to lead people in lament and rejoicing. It was the ability to lay all the emotions out and leave nothing hidden inside. Grieving is too important to leave it locked up.

That is the teaching of 2 Samuel 1:17-27. When you grieve, get it all out.

Don’t do the “white” thing of go to the funeral in the morning and go back to work in the afternoon. Don’t bottle this stuff up.

Loss hurts and it hurts deeply. It may hurt long.

Let it.

When we suffer deep loss, we suffer deeply. We cannot hide it. David let all his emotions fly. We need to learn this valuable lesson.

The Hole in Our Hearts

As I understand it, C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed anonymously after his wife died of cancer. It was only years later that his name was attached to the lament that he penned in his wrestling with God.

Four years ago I could have done something like that… Well, not like that, because Lewis could actually write. But, our church had suffered a horrendous loss and I must confess that to this day I still have very raw conversations with God about it.

I can add one to the list. A kid right on our block, a kid we watched grow up, was killed last week. An accident. But, at 15, he is gone. And there is a hole in our hearts. Hundreds of kids from the high school mourn. The people on our block mourn. Our family mourns.

We know the hope of the resurrection. We know the hope of abiding in Christ… we know all those answers. But, as Lewis learned, it doesn’t lessen the deep pain we feel in the moment.

As I walked around the funeral chapel looking at the pictures of a great young man, the thought in my heart was, “There isn’t anything right about this.”

In the movie Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins playing Lewis said, “It’s just a bloody mess and that’s all there is to it.”

And I agree tonight. Right now.

 If only you would tear open 
the heavens and come down!  (Isa. 64:1, CEB)