We’re all familiar with the term compassion fatigue. Do you suppose there’s a related phenomenon called disaster fatigue? We hadn’t even recovered from Katrina when Rita showed up on her heels. I have to confess that I’m tired of watching. But I, at least, have the luxury of being able to turn it off and get on with my life. I don’t have a personal connection. I may shake my head, say a prayer, write a check. But I cannot say I mourn - not beyond the moment when I am actually watching.
Those who were actually in the path of the storms, those who have friends or family touched and wounded by the destruction, don’t find it so easy to turn away to other things. You can’t get on with your life when your life has been turned upside down and stripped of all the familiar, comforting things that gave it shape and meaning. You can’t get on with your life when there isn’t much of it left, if anything.
This is a time for mourning. But it is also a time for courage, and hope, for striving and triumph. Much of what has been lost can be rebuilt. Many will turn to God during these times, and then turn their backs on him when the crisis has past. You may recall that after 9/11 churches saw a significant upsurge in attendance, and books on spirituality and prayer disappeared from bookstores as fast as the owners could stock their shelves. But within a year or so that heightened spiritual awareness had subsided to pre-attack levels. Because people don’t like being confronted with their own mortality.
The kind of mourning that produces a lasting change of direction comes when your eyes are opened, when your heart is opened, to something so manifestly wrong with your world that you can neither bear it, fix it, or ignore it.
Two starkly opposite reactions follow disasters of this magnitude. These days the most common, unfortunately, is to blame God for whatever has gone wrong. On August 31, senior news analyst Daniel Schorr linked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with the concept of intelligent design: ”if this was the result of intelligent design, then the designer has something to answer for." (World, September 17, 2005) Responding to Schorr’s dismissal of God, author Joel Belz countered, “Rather let us put our hands on our mouths and weep both for the perishing and for ourselves who will soon follow. Whatever judgment has fallen, it is we who deserve it—all of us. And whatever mercy is mingled with judgment in New Orleans neither we nor they deserve.” He points us to Job’s response when he lost everything was, in the end, to fall flat on his face before God and say, ”I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." [Job 42:5-6]
I recently listened to a very interesting conversation about the popularity of horror movies in modern society. The author being interviewed suggested that it was the secular world’s attempt to deal with the reality of evil in the world without admitting that there really is such a thing as evil. It’s an attempt to have an intense feeling without real pain. And that makes sense to me. I don’t like horror movies because I don’t think fear is fun. As a child abuse survivor, I’ve spent too much of my life with fear. When it’s not fiction, it’s not fun.
The popularity of tabloid journalism, with last year’s celebrity trials feeding the public’s desire for sex and violence, and this year’s wall-to-wall coverage of disasters stoking our appetite for intense vicarious experience, comes, I think, from much the same place - from the desire to experience life intensely but without real risk - and yet it is the risk of being hurt that gives meaning both to courage and to commitment.
In somewhat the same way, most people want the joy that the gospel promises - but they don’t want to pay the price. That desire for a short cut to eternity is at the root of much of what is wrong with today’s mainline churches, and why most are having so much trouble reaching the world.
The Christian as mourner isn’t very much seen nowadays. There are several reasons for this. It’s partly a reaction against a kind of 19th c. false puritanism that wasn’t natural, didn’t come from within, and almost gave the impression that to be religious was to be miserable. There was a violent reaction against this unattractive picture, and in some places things have gone to the other extreme, with the idea that if Christians are to attract non- Christians we must always appear upbeat and cheerful. Another reason that a mournful Christian has become almost an oxymoron is that a lot of Christians, on being told that joy is one of the fruits of the spirit, try to paint it on the outside for fear of being branded unspiritual.
However, the ultimate explanation is, I think, more serious than those. The most important reason for the state of today’s church is a reluctance to deal seriously with sin. And without that, it is simply impossible to understand the true nature of Christian joy. There is a double failure. A real, deep conviction of sin is largely absent, and that leads to a superficial concept or experience of joy.
How is sin connected to this mourning that people are trying to avoid, that Jesus says we have to face?
Mourning is about loss, isn’t it, about not having something that we value. And the ultimate loss is, of course, death. A few years ago I read an absolutely wonderful book called Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society, which I know will never replace Tom Clancy in your library or mine but which nonetheless I recommend, says that the root of all sin is ultimately the attempt either to deny the reality of death, or to defeat it on our own terms by devouring the life force of others. We live off of others’ lives in the pleasure we get from watching staged violence, or sexuality, or fear; we live off of others’ lives in the exaggerated reaction to celebrity tragedies like Princess Di or JFK. And all our attempts to avoid mourning are just more ways of denying the reality of death. Only when we face death squarely does life take on its deepest meaning; and until we are willing to mourn, we will remain captive to the sin that feeds off of our attempts to avoid our own mortality, our own helplessness. Mourning is the first step to freedom.
Like the first Beatitude about poverty of spirit, this one immediately identifies the Christian as different. The one thing the whole world tries to shun is mourning; its whole organization is based on the supposition that sadness is something to avoid. The philosophy of the world is, forget your troubles; turn your back on them, do everything you can to avoid facing them. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile...” Things are bad enough as they are without your going to look for troubles, says the world; therefore be as happy as you can.The pleasure mania, the money, energy and enthusiasm that are expended in entertaining people, are all just an expression of the one great aim of the world to avoid having to mourn.
But the gospel says, “Happy are they that mourn.” The parallel passage in Luke puts it in a more striking manner, because he uses the negative: "Woe to you who are laughing now,” says Jesus, “for you will mourn and weep. “[Luke 6:25b]
It’s a lesson that should have appeared in Robert Fulghum’s first and I think best book, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus is teaching that we have to eat our vegetables before we can have dessert. We have to be poor in spirit before we can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Negative comes before positive. If you aren’t willing to swallow the bad news first, you’ll have to face it at the end. A real sense of sin must come before there can be a true joy of salvation, and that is the whole essence of the gospel. Now, conversion may come before conviction, but the joy can’t be complete until conviction is.
Many people say they would give the whole world if they could only find this joy, or be like some other person who has found it. Well, I suspect that in 99 cases out of 100 the explanation is that they have shied away from the fact of their own sinfulness because it is too painful. And it is. I had been a Christian for about 4 years before I really experienced a genuine, Biblical conviction of sin, and it was pretty awful. God’s grace kept me from it until I was well enough grounded to survive the experience. But it was necessary for me to continue to grow. Joy apart from the conviction of sin is impossible. Those who are to find true joy must mourn first.
I want to make it perfectly clear that this mourning is entirely spiritual. Jesus didn’t say that those who mourn in a natural sense are actually happy, no matter what they think they are feeling. Although the sorrow experienced because of someone’s illness or death can bring a person closer to God, that’s not the core of Jesus’ message.
So let’s try to find out exactly what Jesus means when he says “Fortunate are they who mourn.” Let’s start with the Apostle Paul. This outstandingly obedient, zealous and spiritually mature Christian is so anguished at his own internal condition that he cries out,“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” [Rom 7:24] All Christians are meant to feel like that. Not all the time, but to know what it feels like to recognize one’s own utter helplessness, to say about ourselves, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” [Rom 7:18] We need to experience with Paul the conflict between the law in the mind and the law in the members, and taste the struggling and striving.
There are many more NT passages that point us in the same direction, leading us to the clear conclusion that “mourning” necessarily follows being “poor in spirit.” Actually, it doesn’t follow, it’s part of. Mourning is the feeling that goes along with one’s recognition of poverty of spirit. Like Isaiah did when he confronted confront God in all his holiness, we see ourselves, our utter helplessness and hopelessness and simply have to mourn the reality of what we are truly like. "Woe is me! “he cried. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips..." [Is 6:5]
Honest and regular self-examination, which is recommended as a spiritual discipline by all the experts in the life of the spirit down the ages, doesn’t stop with things done. The question must be asked, “Why do I do these things? Why do I think these things? Why am I bad-tempered or judgmental or greedy? What is this in me that makes me like that?” And doing so we discover the war in our members that Paul lamented, and hate it, and mourn because of it.
This isn’t just for saints. This belongs in every Christian’s experience, and is a very reliable test. People who object to this kind of teaching just proclaim that they don’t mourn and therefore aren’t included in the “blessed” ones.
But Christians don’t stop there. True Christians also mourn the sins of others. Are you concerned about the state of society? Does the state of the world sometimes make you weep? When you read your newspaper do you shrug and turn the page, or do you mourn? Do you mourn the ignorance and rebellion and arrogance - in fact, the sin - that causes so much pain and suffering in the world?
That is why Jesus himself mourned, that is why he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” That is why he wept at the grave of Lazarus. He saw this horrid, ugly, foul thing called sin which had broken into life and corrupted God’s good creation. He wept because of it, and groaned in His spirit. And as He saw the city of Jerusalem rejecting him and bring upon itself its own damnation, he wept because of it. He mourned over the world’s wickedness and pain, and so do his true followers, we who have been given his Spirit.
Pretty depressing, isn’t it? Thanks be to God, it doesn’t stop there.
Jesus makes a complete statement. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We’ve looked at mourning. It’s real, it’s necessary. Where is the blessing? Where is the comfort?
First of all, the lucky mourner becomes happy in a personal sense because true repentance leads to Jesus Christ. We cannot truly know Jesus as our personal savior and redeemer unless we’ve first of all known what it is to mourn. It is only after we have cried out “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” that we can answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [Rom 7:25]
And this is not only true at conversion; it is something that continues to be true about the Christian. We find ourselves guilty of sin, and if we are young in faith we are surprised and angry and disappointed with ourselves, perhaps occasionally to the point of despair. But that in turn drives us back to Christ; and the moment we return to him, we are comforted. That is why we begin each worship service with confession. The promise is fulfilled at once, as we acknowledge our sin, and mourn over it, and ask God to deal with it on our behalf. The Christian life is spent this way, mourning and joy, sorrow and happiness; this rhythm becomes part of our life as we walk daily with God,
But there is not only this immediate comfort offered to the Christian. There is another comfort, spoken of by the apostle Paul in Romans 8. He says that at the present moment, even “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. [Rom 8:23-24] That hope is confidence that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.“ [Rom 8:18] In other words, the Christian looks at the world, even as we look at ourselves, and we are unhappy in a way that cannot be solved with confession. We groan in spirit; we begin to understand something of the burden of sin that was felt by the apostles and our Lord himself. But we are comforted nonetheless, because we know there is a glory coming; there will be “a new heaven and a new earth ... where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” [Rev 21:1,4] “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
But what hope do people have don’t believe these things? What hope do non-Christians have? 100 years ago people used to believe that mankind was progressively getting better. No one believes that any more. You can’t count on education or technology or government or even the stock market. What comfort, what hope do non-Christians have? The Buddha taught that all life is suffering, and the only way to deal with it is to stop letting it affect you. That’s one way, to deliberately withdraw from life. Another way is to deaden your senses with entertainment. Our society has taken that option so far that it has gone beyond ugly. It is ugly and frightening and destructive, with the result that the last century’s morose Christians have re-emerged as critical or censorious. But how can we blame the non-Christian for their denial of death? Look at your world; read your newspaper. What can they count upon? Government? That’s a false God if there ever was one. “If government can’t make us all happy even when there isn’t an emergency,” ask Joel Belz, “why should we make it our god when the next Katrina comes blowing through?” "Woe to them who are laughing now,” says Jesus, “for they will mourn and weep.” Mourning and weeping come when we discover that the things we have relied upon to protect us from loss are actually hollow and ineffective.
But Christians rely upon our certainty of the glory that is to come. So that even here as we are mourning the state of the world, groaning at the intractability of sin, yet we are happy at the same time. If we are Christian, we know this joy of sins forgiven, the joy of reconciliation, the joy of knowing that God takes us back when we have fallen away, the joy as we contemplate the glory that is set before us, the joy that comes from anticipation of eternity. It’s worth the mourning.