I study grief, especially grief in The United Methodist Church [link to previous article], but hope is why I do the work I do. I believe that the church has a unique message of hope that is relevant in our own experiences of church grief and in the many other sources of grief in life, including grief from COVID and from climate change.
We all learn that part of life is living in pain. I have also learned of the transformative power of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. For me, it was a life-saving message. It is a radical message. And it’s one that we, as the church, uniquely have to offer to the world: radical hope—that in the midst of horror, wonderous things also occur.
The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones writes about trauma and grace, and I appreciate how she ties together mourning and wonder. She writes:
To mourn and to wonder, that is what the spirit yearns for when it stands in the midst of trauma and breathes in the truth of grace. Mourning and wonder…They are states of mind, that, if nurtured, open us to the experience of God’s coming into torn flesh, and to love’s arrival amid violent ruptures…. Mourning and wonder… there is a space that both carries traumatic loss and yet remains open and new. Poised here, we always wait to be dragged from despair into light. The cross trains us in these dispositions of body and imagination. It narrates for us, again and again, two paradoxical stories about who we are: God’s inevitably broken children, and God’s constantly renewed beloved; these two stories run down parallel tracks of resolution. We are not becoming better or worse: we just are these two things, in the juxtaposed tension of our everyday life. (pp. 161-163)
We don’t know exactly what the United Methodist Church will look like in the next few years. We don’t know what COVID has in store for us next. We don’t know exactly how we’ll be impacted by climate change in the next five or ten or fifty years. We don’t know how any of the currents of grief in our lives will develop. We don’t need to.
We, like the disciples, struggle to see what can come next. One day, the disciples thought they were living in one kind of world, and three days later, they were living in an entirely different world of understanding. They couldn’t grasp what could come next—they could not do the work that Christ called on them to do— until they let go of how they thought things should be and realized grace and love were always there to conquer all.
I do want to emphasize that we hold these things—trauma and grace, mourning and wonder—in tension. If we just skip to resurrection and eternal life, I think we’re making the same mistake that Freud did in his concept of successful grief as leaving the traumas behind, detaching from the pain, and moving on to the hope. That’s problematic. We cannot erase wounds.
Dr. Shelly Rambo emphasizes ideas kindred to contemporary grief theories about continuing bonds and narrative construction in our trauma in her work that really digs into the story in John 20, where Jesus returns to the disciples. Jesus shows the scars on his hands and side. Even after the hope-filled resurrection, he wears the evidence of past pain.
Touching again on the individual and collective, this story has elements of Jesus and the disciples as individuals, like Thomas individually struggling to grasp what is in front of him. But there are also elements of the collective—that they came together in their grief in the Upper Room, that they witnessed Jesus together, that they received the Holy Spirit together. Additionally, Jesus himself is both an individual in that moment but also enfleshed. Upon him is evidence of the brokenness of the whole of humanity.
So as the church, what we really need to do is to help the world remember both trauma and grace, mourning and wonder, resurrection and wounds. These things can be held in tension, both in our own lives and in the good news narrative of Jesus Christ. There are other places that the church gets to have a unique voice—in talking about resistance or confrontation and repentance, in forgiveness and what Dr. Andrew Sung Park calls forgiven-ness. He, and others, rightly argue that we have messages of healing and wholeness, holiness and sanctification. We have stories of jubilee and the inspiration of Christian perfection.
It is important to acknowledge what we lose—and don’t get me wrong, the losses with the UMC and ecological degradation are immense. We need to mourn. We need to sit in darkness. We can’t just brush away our pain. But I am concerned that individually and collectively we sometimes struggle to move forward. There can be a dark, sinister comfort in wallowing.
When we draw on our unique message of hope amid mourning, we get to play a role in gently walking beyond the veil with people because loss is always only one part of the story. God is already present and playing a role in what is now and what is to come. That is our radical hope.