This antidote to grief is outrageous. Perhaps we all need it

Grief.

It’s all around us at the moment. Often with a mask on, so that you can’t see the downturned face.

There are great griefs and small griefs and griefs that for many would be great, but for some noble souls they seem bearable.

I’ve noticed an amazing and outrageous truth that could be a game changer for public apologetics.

Then there are the trashy faux griefs (and ain’t there a load of those around in our outraged culture), in which somehow wearing a face mask and self-isolating for the sake of others is a huge infringement on human rights. A trip to Hong Kong or North Korea might settle those griefs down.

In light of such a world of grief, I’m preaching 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 this weekend, with an eye on those within our congregation who have suffered the grief mentioned in those verses. And as I have been re-reading it, I’ve noticed an amazing and outrageous truth that could be a game changer for public apologetics. A shocking way to offer hope to anyone who is grieving.

Like so many in our towns, cities, states, country and whole wide world this year, our church has grieved (just as other churches have). And members of our churches have grieved with too few to grieve alongside them.

One beloved family in our congregation lost two family members and a dearly loved friend during lockdown, none of them to COVID. That’s been a reminder that everyday, ‘vanilla’ kind of grief chugs on relentlessly.

Another young woman at church just had to put her father into a locked ward with Lewy Body Dementia, the same disease that ravaged my own father.  Her dad was a minister in my local area. We used to meet for coffee and prayer. It all happened so quickly.

The other day in my favourite cafe in Perth’s CBD, the Mary Street Bakery, I bumped into a brilliant young woman I knew at the first church I worked in. She was a young teen then, now a brilliant legal mind.

We chatted. I’d seen her on Facebook how her young son was suddenly stricken with cancer, but is nine months in remission. Self-isolating, of course. Her dad, also a brilliant mind in his day, is stricken with Parkinson’s and dementia. She’s parenting up and down. And grieving.

Our conversation was so at odds with the chatter, the clinking cups, the steamy hiss of coffee machines and chirpy baristas taking orders [WA isn’t feeling the sting of COVID restrictions like some places]. I felt the chill of her conversation.

I did what we all tend to do with the grief of others, fearfully transposing her grievous situation onto my own son’s life – onto our lives – before batting it away with a right-brained swish.

But that’s grief, right? … It impinges and imposes.

Yet we talked of other things too, as we always do in grief. One of the funniest things I ever said – (big call I know), was in the back of the funeral car with my mum and my brother, as we headed home from my great grandmothers’ funeral.

Laughing tears mixed with the mournful tears, mum shushing me and hoping against hope we didn’t stop at traffic lights so the world could see us guffawing in a cortege.

But that’s grief, right? It’s not waiting for the right time (later?) or the right place (the stuffy parlour room with dark drapes). It impinges and imposes. It interrupts and intertwines with the rest of life. We laugh during times of grief. And we grieve during times of joy.

I still remember the grief after my father died. Grief the night he died, then none for three months. One day, Wallop! Three months of deep, painful grief with my only solace (only?) the hope of the resurrection – and Sufjan Stevens’ painfully wonderful album Carrie and Lowell, about the death of his mother. I listened to that album on high rotation on Spotify, to the point my daughter bought the vinyl version.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m preaching 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 this weekend, these magnificent words:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

That’s astonishing, isn’t it? What those verses are telling us about what we can hope in – and it’s never been something we’ve been keen to make part of our public apologetic, in our modern times.

I know we have certainly done what the last verse says – “encourage one another with these words”, but have we tried to encourage others? People who have not yet given their lives to the one who was raised from the dead so we might live with him forever.

… We don’t grieve as the rest of humanity, because our grief has hope.

Perhaps that’s a bridge too far: “Hey everyone, I have an antidote to hopeless grief. Jesus is returning to raise the dead!” Not sure how that would go in the office (if you are able to return to yours). It’s outrageous and crazy and might bring into question your promotion. But, on the other hand, someone might just sidle up to the you in the hallway and say “You know that death and resurrection stuff you’re talking about …”

Yet I wonder if somehow the traditional smooth apologetics are gaining less and less traction, especially in this year of public fear and grief?

What if a clunky, outrageous apologetic in which dead people come back to life, and a God comes back to sort out the world, is just the tonic for the waves of grief crashing onto our modern, secular non-transcendent shores?

Grief. It’s common to our humanity. And we grieve along with the rest of humanity. That makes us the same. But we don’t grieve as the rest of humanity, because our grief has hope. And that makes us different.

That’s the space our public apologetic must sit within – the same but different.

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