Last week, I remembered the anniversary of my little brother McKinley’s death by overdose. Because he could not afford legal representation, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a crime that wealthy white persons typically get placed on probation. Within a couple of weeks of his release, he was back using drugs. Within three months he overdosed. The people he was using with left him there non-responsive and fled. I stayed by his side in the hospital the final week of his life to care for him, but it was only machines keeping him alive. He died in my arms at 34 years old.
Shortly after his death a little virus called COVID-19 was starting to circulate across the globe. Additionally, my wife Jill lost her mother, we attended her 30-minute-long funeral through Facebook Live. Her service was one of six the pastor conducted that day.
Many of us on the front lines in people helping vocations jumped into unhealthy workaholic cycles. We started to do what we were trained to do, protect people, nurture people, and educate people. The world changed all around us, but we kept our heads down, just helping the next person in front of us, attending to their need.
Helping Professions Crisis
Recently I was sitting with a group of doctoral and master’s students. We decided to use our class time for a soul check in, to pray together, and minister to one another. This went on for two hours (I got to the instruction time later). It was exactly what needed to happen.
Every person in that room confessed that they had thought about quitting the ministry in the past year. These are faithful and fruitful leaders, some who have been serving the church for many years. Yet each one in some way was seriously considering throwing in the towel on being a pastor.
One had written their resignation letter. Another filled out an application at McDonalds, because “they paid better, but with a lot less drama.” Admittedly, I too have considered what ministry might look like outside the local church for the first time in my life. Before the pandemic, 80% of pastors quit the ministry within five years of graduating seminary. COVID has accelerated that trend. Across the world more people are “quitting the church” than ever before.
This is not unique to the pastoral vocation. This is true for dedicated lay persons and all those who serve in helping professions. Across the board they are experiencing crisis levels of burnout.
Some of what came out of our prayer time was unresolved trauma. The traumas of personal losses, the traumas of pastoral abuse, the trauma of rapid change and the inability to find our bearings. Not to mention the traumas of racism, political extremism, the largest opioid overdose epidemic in the history of the country, and a sick, divided, church.
The classroom became a small space for communal lament, a time to grieve, and a time to heal. I’m increasingly aware that we live in a time that could be called “a grief unobserved.”
Learning from Lewis
C.S. Lewis has been a companion for me on this journey. Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963) was a British writer and lay theologian. He was a professor at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. Lewis wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages with several best sellers. His works have become standard reading in English classes, and some of his series, like The Chronicles of Narnia have been turned into plays, TV programs, and films. While he is best known for his works of fiction, like The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Space Trilogy, he also wrote non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Lewis had an amazing ability to use imagination to draw people into the story of Jesus.
One of his less known works among mainstream culture is a small book called A Grief Observed.
In 1956, Lewis married American writer Joy Davidman who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. The wedding ceremony was held at her bedside in the Churchill Hospital on March 21, 1957. Her cancer went into remission and the couple enjoyed several years of joyful marriage. In 1960 the cancer came back with a vengeance and Joy was deceased by July 13, 1960. A Greif Observed chronicles the experience of bereavement and the journey of grief.
Lewis notes that Christians are promised a degree of suffering, “They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it.” Anchoring in Jesus’ beatitude, Lewis reflects on what the process of mourning (i.e. grieving) looks like for him in the loss of Joy.
He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” Lewis captures the sentiment that when we lose a loved one, it’s evident all around us in our everyday life. He goes onto to say that the loss of a loved one is like an “amputation.” An amputee will never really be the same, the lost limb never grows back. Every time they put on their clothes, tie their shoes, or eat a meal, the reality of their amputation is before them. So, it is with losing someone we love.
Lewis describes grief as something cyclical, where “nothing stays put.” One moves through different phases, but they recur. He writes, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” Grief is messy. It does not fit our neat little formulas and quick fix remedies.
Lewis goes onto to say, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” Grief is a journey towards healing, which goes on in this life, and into the next. The journey of grief requires prayerful reflection, a safe community, and time.
A Grief Unobserved
I believe we are living in a time that could be coined “a grief unobserved.” As Westerners historically do, we press on, we pull ourselves up and move forward. We are not a people that understand the healing power of lament. Where some cultures grieve the loss of loved ones for weeks, we put funeral services on a one-hour schedule—then we eat. We ministers facilitate and perpetuate this condensed and artificial version of lament.
But the world around us is wounded and weeping. If we are honest with ourselves, so are we. And yet we keep rushing “back to normal” (until a new variant of COVID requires further adaptation). The pace with which we do this doesn’t allow us to even begin the journey of grief much less find healing on the other side.
I find there are several dead things largely unacknowledged that many need to grieve. For example:
1. Death of United States exceptionalism: Covid infected all nations equally, but several nations handled the virus much more effectively, minimizing loss and death. Other nations are clearly superior in policies that care for vulnerable populations, others have superior economies and technological advancements. We USAmericans experienced a presidential administration that politicized and mishandled the virus. Many people died unnecessarily, and some of them were our loved ones. The virus exposed our powerlessness, and the false assumptions of nationalism.
2. Death of the ideology of progress: we are not building a better world with our ingenuity and technological advancements, one virus showed us who was in charge. The Book of Revelation indicates the trajectory toward new creation will be a bumpy ride. Plagues, wars, natural disasters, and supernatural forces unleash havoc upon the earth. Followers of Jesus are called to be “faithful unto death” (Rev 2:10) amid these realities, until Jesus returns triumphantly (Rev 1:7). This narrative is the opposite of the myth of progress. Our attempts at progress devolve into a dystopia until God alone brings the fullness of the new creation. The church must get off the horse of progress and get on the horse of new creation. New creation involves a process of death and resurrection.
3. Death of the Western Church (as we know it): for 50 years the US church has been in unbroken decline. We now find ourselves no longer a “Christian majority nation,” if that was ever the case. Many churches did not step up in a significant way during covid. In most cases we were last responders, rather than first responders. Rather than “loving our neighborhood” we flew the banner of “my personal rights.” We did more harm than healing with this rhetoric.
4. Death of white supremacy (and white privilege): multiple political developments exposed the systemic nature of whitewashed myths that perpetuate a vicious cycle of racism. These came fully to the surface particularly over the last five years. The great sin of USAmerica is not slavery, but racism. We need a time of collective repentance, grief, and reparations. Multiple movements to dismantle racism will leave paths for true equality in their wake. Christians should be deeply involved in these movements, for we are bearers of an anti-racist good news.
The list could go on, can we just take some time to lament?
We lament the loss of life.
We lament the loss of society as we knew it.
We lament the loss of jobs and economic hardship.
We lament the loss of church members who left.
We lament the increase in depression and suicide.
We lament the loss of murdered black and brown persons.
We lament the loss of millions of lives to opioid overdose.
We lament for the pharmaceutical companies who make a profit dealing death.
We lament the injustice of the so-called justice system.
We lament the losses associated with a turbulent election.
We lament the loss of familiar forms of worship.
We lament a church that traded the “last shall be first” for “America first.”
We lament our skewed political ideologies that diminish common sense.
We lament our lack of imagination and creativity.
(Add your own laments below…)
In conclusion, we want a shortcut right to healing, the quick fix of Western thinking. This results in a society in which grief goes unobserved. But grief needs to be observed, named, and articulated among a community of people who share a common life. There, in a social environment that is safe, accessible, and real, trauma and loss can be dealt with honestly and creatively. This is the power of communal lament.
What if there is a wounded healer who longs to hold us in our tears? What if there is a way we can observe our grief together in an environment of grace? What if there is a healing community, where a weeping world can come to find wholeness? These are the considerations of my next reflection… A Healing Community.
Lewis, C. S., and Madeleine Engle. A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers) 1989.
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