It’s November, and I am growing a beard. It’s not the first time I’ve grown one over the holiday season, for lots of purposes: more relaxed time of year, cooler weather, getting on my “skinny Santa” vibe. This year is different. It is a “No-Shave November” for me, in honor of cancer awareness. Every time I look in the mirror, my face reminds me to pray for my father, who is in progressive stages of prostate cancer (which, I’ve been told, is also correlated to his Alzheimer’s condition).
For these reasons, as November’s beginning brings us ever closer to Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gratefulness, mourning, and grief. It’s pretty easy to see how being thankful for the obvious blessings in our lives–our families, our work, our freedom, our faith–leads us closer to the Lord, and re-wires our brains for joy. This is so very necessary in a world that seems predetermined toward negativity and anger. And yet, in Matthew 5, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he tells us that “blessed are those who mourn.” As I’ve been thinking about this seeming paradox, I’m wondering what it is about the process of mourning and grief that brings blessing and, by extension, may be cause for thanksgiving. I think it may have something to do with the fact that mourning does two things, among others: it helps us see beyond the world right in front of us, and it strips away our reliance on that world.
The reality of our beings as revealed in Scripture is that we are neither solely physical or spiritual beings. We are both, and our ultimate destiny is for our spiritual selves to be reborn, as Christ is reborn, into resurrection bodies, united as physical and spiritual forever. In this world, however, it’s the physical that clamors for all the attention. Just as it’s hard to think of much else with a screaming two-year-old tugging on your leg, the hurry, the distraction, the here and now of the material world, threatens to draw all our attention and affections.
But death, and the grieving and mourning that comes with it, clarifies and cuts through the cacophony of the physical world banging all around us. Instead, it expands our perspectives and opens our eyes to that great something more, something more powerful that God is doing all around us, if we just have eyes to see. As Henri Nouwen says, if we are in the Lord, each new death of one we love creates in us more spiritual bonds, and draws us more spiritward. It makes us more mindful that what is around us is so much more expansive than what we see, what is right in front of our faces.
Hebrews 12 encourages us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” This “cloud of witnesses” isn’t some gathering of ghosts, gone and removed from us, to be reunited with some other day. These are people who are now surrounding us, in the present: people still, transformed into one state, to be one day transformed to yet another, but still part of our lives, still those same people we love, still those who are cheering us on and encouraging us, and loving us, as we love them. As more and more of those we love are added to that cloud, we find our hearts drawn increasingly to this realm, as well as our minds and spirits. Our bonds with them become stronger, changing our perspectives toward the physical world around us. It’s not that this realm is no longer important; it’s that we realize it’s just a smaller thing, and it loses its primacy and centrality in our lives- maybe a little urgency, as well.
This is good news. It doesn’t mean we’re no good to the material world anymore, that we’ve become one of those “heavenly-minded people who are no earthly good.” On the contrary, the people that I’ve met with this broader perspective are the saints, whether they be older or younger, who are the most gracious, kindest servants of God and other people, those who seem to have discovered some better way of living and loving. Because they have.
In Praying Like Monks, Loving Like Fools, Tyler Staton says that being people who love well requires setting our earthly connections free. “God has to break our attachments to the world so we can truly love the world. God has to break our attachments to the people who feed our egos so we can truly see others, know others, welcome others, and love others.” The passing of those we love helps break these attachments to the world as well as anything else.
When those we love leave, what’s in front of us loses its grip on our hearts, its ability to drag us into the fray, because it pales in importance when contrasted with the broader picture of all that the Lord is doing around and among us. When I see God at work in the cosmos and the universe and through human history, and through my relationship with those who went before me, what people think of me now and how I need them and need them to need me no longer matters as much. It’s hard to love someone well if you’re using them to meet your needs, because you cling, you demand, you manipulate, and you grasp. Once they lose that hold on you, and you find yourself needing them less and less for the wrong things, it frees you up to truly love them in the right ways, sacrificially and completely.
As I watch my dad, or at least my dad as I have known him, fading before me, I find myself being freed up to love him in new ways because he can no longer give me things I wanted from him before, but which I never should have wanted from him to begin with–they were never his to give. Things like ultimate safety, security, approval, and value. Because I no longer need those things that I could never actually get from him, I can now love him in the way he was meant to be loved- not as a completer of my needs, but as a child of God himself, beloved by the Lord, not my source of dignity, value and worth, but full of it in his own right. And, I think and imagine that being freed from this deepest, most needful relationship (because who else in life do you need approval, security, safety, and value more from than your mom and dad?) will no doubt make me a better lover of others, as I continue to press into the true lover of my soul, Jesus, and be transformed by him.