Last night I was part of a sacred conversation.
I listened to the stories of several people who had lost their spouses. Their words were holy. Their emotions raw. They spoke with integrity and honesty. It wasn’t only what they said that mattered, it was how they said it. Their dialect was infused with deep tones of authenticity that can only develop in the echo chambers of loss. Their gifts to God are not, at the moment anyway, what we commonly call ‘praise’ although they are laced with the grace that underpins the Biblical notions of the word. The perfume of pain, aroma of uncertainty and the lingering fragrance of loneliness rises like an incense of intimacy from the vials of their vulnerability. These emotions, so often interpreted negatively in the shallow water of superficial theology are beautiful and precious in God’s Presence. God has more time for our sense of grief than it often appears that the Church appears has. Their lives and experiences are alabaster boxes, and they have been split open by death. Each of them have lost someone that they loved. Do we see them?
‘Oak Fractured by Lightning’ by Maxim Vorobiev (1842)
This painting portrays the artist’s sense of loss at the death of his wife.
Yesterday, I spoke with a colleague in ministry and agreed to speak to the church his wife and he lead on the subject of grief and loss. They have faced their own sorrows and loss. They have had to face unexpected goodbyes in more ways than one. Their hearts have been riven by the ravages of grief, and yet they are held in the Hands of One Who sees them and knows what they face. Their grief is not on public display. Their pain is not hidden. Their sorrow is not sidelined, yet they are seeking to navigate the causeway between public ministry and private life. The tide laps at their feet on either side of that particular passageway, but they walk on. Carefully. Gently. Intentionally. They are not just leaders. They are people. Their hearts break too. Their question surface. They have to dig into the soil of trust and ask God to give them courage just like everyone else. Their alabaster box is continuing to serve those around them. They are making a choice every day to walk in service and leadership whilst offering their loss to God. Do we see them?
This morning I took a call from a lady who needed to talk. Her son committed suicide less than a year ago; her husband died four years ago and her grandchild just a few months before that. She didn’t need me to answer her questions or fix her emotions, she just needed someone (and it happened to be me) to listen. She needed company. She needed someone to ‘sit with her’ as she opened her alabaster box and let the honesty of her heart arise. She needed someone to see her.
Less than twenty minutes before that conversation, a friend and colleague asked if I would help a group of churches create space for their communities to come together in an act of mourning and remembering as we continue to navigate the impact of the Covid19 pandemic. The people of Belfast just need a space to be able to let their sorrow be heard, I think. They just need someone to see their pain, to acknowledge it.
Being present to a person, allowing them to be honest, open and vulnerable, is perhaps one of the greatest privileges (and most difficult requirements) of pastoral ministry. So often, we just need to see those in front of us, to be attentive to them, to be ‘with’ them. We all have an alabaster box in our lives, I think; a store of experiences etched with sorrow and sadness. Perhaps our questions, our uncertainties and our fears are in such boxes? Perhaps the ‘what-ifs’ and the ‘how-could-this-have-happened’ sentences lie half-finished within those pale white treasure-chests?
Giving them to God might be the hardest thing imaginable. Doing so might be the bravest choice we could ever make.
Do you see the person in front of you?
The account of the woman with the alabaster box visiting the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) is redolent with metaphors. Why not read it. Slowly. Allow the images and the pictures that Luke paints to capture your imagination again. This woman, with all of her brokenness and pain, comes to Jesus. She pushes through the crowds of the curious. She squeezes her way through the throng of people who are fascinated by Jesus, but not captivated by Him. Whilst the dinner table talk continues she kneels and offers the very best of herself to Him. She participates in a prophetic act of preparation for His burial without realising it. She is just giving Him what she feels is right – He is using it to change the world. She is coming in humility. In so doing, she discovers a new dignity. Those watching laugh, scoff, judge and perhaps shake their heads disapprovingly. Simon, the Pharisee who is hosting Jesus, only sees her as evidence of Jesus’s obvious fakery. To Simon, the woman’s presence shows that Jesus is not who He claims to be. Yet to Jesus, the woman’s presence shows that Simon is not who he claims to be. Her actions are some of the most beautiful recorded in the New Testament. Perhaps that is why Jesus speaks so pointedly to Simon?
Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman’Luke 7:44 N.R.S.V.
Do we see the people in front of us? Do we see their stories, their heartbreaks, their longings, their questions and their uncertainties? Do we see that they need, above everything else, to get to Jesus? That our churches and our programmes and our leadership will not be what rescues them or gives them hope? Does the Gospel we proclaim give them hope? Do we communicate Jesus with them in a way that helps them see that Christ is within their reach and that His hope, His grace and His forgiveness is what they need more than anything else? Are we like Simon and the crowd – in the way or standing in judgement on those who are desperate to get to Christ? I hope not. I fear that, too often, we are playing the wrong characters in this drama.
‘Sorrowing Old Man at Eternity’s Gate’ by Vincent van Gogh (1890)
Van Gogh painted the work after seeing the grieving war veteran Adrianus Jacobus Zuderland. Seeing the man, with his head bowed in sorrow, caused van Gogh to think about God and the questions of eternity. Van Gogh described seeing Zuderland doubled over in grief as ‘unutterably moving’.
Amidst the uncertainties and heartbreaks of Covid19, we don’t need to regurgitate all the conspiracy theories that are sweeping through the internet. We need to keep the main thing at the centre of our ministries, our messages and our lives – helping people meet Jesus – the One Who always sees them. We don’t need to lambast those who are afraid because of this pandemic, or chastise those whose anxiety is so great and uncertainty so severe that they do not feel able to get to a building. We simply need to see them, to acknowledge them, and to make room for them to get to Jesus. Whether that is a Zoom room, a Facebook space, or a seat in a building, our call is to make a space for others to place the alabaster boxes of their lives at the feet of Jesus.
A moment of mystery
This isn’t a moment to give in to fear, or to stoke its embers by fanning the flames of uncertainty, cynicism or secret plots. It isn’t the time to engage in diatribe about governments, conglomerates or pharma companies. Whilst many of us may have legitimate questions to ask and concerns to express about the policies of our administrations about face-masks, shielding and many other issues around the management of this pandemic’s spread, perhaps now is the time to think about how we help people to discover hope in the middle of a pandemic. How can I help the woman or the man whose life feels very fragile to get to Jesus? Perhaps it’s about making sure we don’t get in the way?
There is a mystery in mourning and a space in sorrow where we encounter God. Many of our churches don’t know what to do with pain, or death or sorrow. We preach so much more about how they can be resisted or how to avoid them, innocuous to the reality that these are the spaces that so many people live in right now. The words we use and the spaces we create for those experiencing pain, sorrow, loss and death matter. If we are not careful, the ‘Gospel’ we proclaim could be the last nail in the coffin for those who are already overwhelmed by the circumstances of their lives.
What if this moment in our nation is not one that we need to theologise? What if the people in our communities just need us to see them? What if they don’t need our words of explanation, they just need our touch of compassion? What if this is a moment when we ‘weep with those who weep’? What would it look like for our congregations to be harbours of hope? What if we don’t need to answer all the questions, we just need to let people ask them? What if the greatest ministry of this moment is listening? What if we choose to create spaces for the mourning to grieve? In the absence of others calling for a national day of mourning, or a national day of prayer, what if we – the women and men who lead local churches, creates spaces in the online world and in our buildings, for people to open the alabaster boxes of their lives and place them at the feet of Jesus? What if the Cross is not only the means of grace for the world, but also the method for displaying God’s mercy to the world? After all, we don’t only worship at the Cross, we are also called to carry one.
We will never be able to do this unless we think about how God can be encountered in the darkness. We cannot run away from pain all our lives. God is present in the midst of the pandemic. God is there when we weep. God sees our sorrow. God does not hide from our questions, or turn away from our disappointment. To be a community of hope (and surely this is what a Church is called to be?) is to be a community where the broken, the bruised and the beleaguered find a place. Like Job’s friends, we sometimes just need to sit in silence with those who suffer rather than constantly feeling the need to say something.
They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven night, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.Job 2:13 N.R.S.V.
Jesus was ‘present’ to the woman who opened her alabaster box at His feet. He saw her. He noticed her.
As someone called to wider ministry, there are many ways in which I feel stretched. I have no doubt that I have let people down through this pandemic. I will inevitably continue to do so. Yet I have prayed for those in my care consistently. I have sought to be the hands and feet of Jesus via the internet and in person to as many as I could. I might only be able to call someone once in a while because of the wider needs of pastoral ministry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. In the end, I am not the answer that people need, Christ is. He is always there.
It strikes me that there were two people ignored in the story of the woman with the alabaster box. There were two people whose motives and integrity were questioned. The woman herself and Jesus. Simon thought the woman wasn’t good enough and that Jesus didn’t know what He was doing. Simon thought Jesus was caring for the wrong person because Jesus didn’t give His undivided attention to Simon. Christians can sometimes be like that with their leaders too. In our need and our hurt we can demand that pastors remember us above everyone else – but I am not sure that is how it works. I cannot be present to everyone at the same time. So for those who I have missed – I am sorry. To those who feel let down because I haven’t called enough -please forgive me. I’ll do my best, but I’ll make blunders. I’ll serve you as best I can, but sometimes I’ll get it wrong. The pressures of this season have left their mark on all of us: including me and every other pastor or leader whom I know.
Maybe that is my alabaster box? my own sense of not always getting it right? Maybe the box I open to God is the box of my broken-heart? This season has reminded me of my losses, my sorrows and my inadequacies too. I don’t always need everyone else to remind me of my failings. Perhaps we are all like the woman in Luke’s narrative? Politicians, leaders, pastors, preachers, mums, dads, grand-parents, theologians, professors, students, men, women, boys and girls. We’ve all been impacted by the mystery of this muddle. We all need to find our way to Jesus.
I wrote a prayer, or a litany, for the people I talked with last night. I hope it helped them – maybe it will help you too.
And when I sit,
for just a moment,
it almost feels like you are still here.
Your memory evokes in me a yearning
for all that we once had
and a longing for all that will be;
but here, I long to hear you,
This in-between time
sometimes feels like eternity.
I am not faithless to feel forsaken.
I am only being honest.
I seek space to be.
I crave courage when I cry.
I hold onto the hope that
Hope is holding onto me;
and I carry my grief,
and my unanswered questions
like an alabaster box into God’s Presence.
These are the only gifts I have.
Help me remember that they are enough.
Thank you, that sense as a pastor of never being able to be there as much, as often. Or sometimes at all. But still holding people in love. And always carrying the pain of that. Is my experience, thank you for seeing it as something jesus takes with understanding. A gift?
Thanks Malcolm. A timely reminder of the genius of suffering.