Bishop David Bard anticipates Easter blessings and talks about grief and hope in this month’s edition of A Joyful Journey.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. I Thessalonians 4:13
First Thessalonians is considered to be the earliest Christian text that we have in our New Testament. Even though it is an early Christian text, already some who have been part of the community of followers of Jesus have died. There is grief and sadness. Those in the Thessalonian Jesus community were wondering how to make sense of this.
Paul responds to this situation. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In other words, Paul is saying, “God’s got this. Trust those who have died to God.” Notice, though, that Paul does not dismiss their grief. Instead, Paul acknowledges the grief of the Thessalonian Christians, their feelings of loss. He gives their grief space, and he wants to season their grief with hope. You needn’t grieve as those without hope.
It is important to give grief space. Through the years I have sometimes heard witness to the Christian faith given in such saccharine terms that I wonder how relatable the story is to those who have known grief, or to those who take seriously the suffering in our world. There is much to grieve, and we need look no further than recent headlines. Violent, race-based hatred reared its ugly head again at a mass shooting in a mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand. The countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi are reeling from the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai. Flooding has also devastated a number of communities in the Great Plains and Midwest. Two student survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting recently took their own lives, as did a survivor father of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. I know death has come much closer to home for families in the Michigan Conference. There is grief over the turmoil and uncertainty created in the weeks following our recent General Conference.
In his letter to the Thessalonian Christian community, Paul gave grief some space, inviting the people in that community to grieve, but to do so as people of hope. Might there be an important reverse invitation here as well, an invitation to hope as those who also experience grief?
Years ago I read a novel with the biblical title, The Book of Ruth. Writing about the book, a reviewer said that the author, Jane Hamilton, “gives Ruth a humble dignity and allows her hope… a common one, caked with mud and held with gritted teeth.” Might, we, as followers of Jesus, be invited to hope caked with mud and held with gritted teeth?
Later this month we will celebrate Easter, the most important day in the Christian year. We will proclaim with joy that God raised Jesus from the dead. We will shout out, “Christ is risen! Risen indeed!” We will reaffirm that God’s got this, or, in the more eloquent words of the creed of The United Church of Canada, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.” (United Methodist Hymnal, 883)
As we shout and sing our Easter hosannas, perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves that Easter comes at the end of a rollercoaster of a week. It begins with joy and praise. Jesus enters Jerusalem to adulation and fanfare. During the week, his wit and wisdom are on display as he engages in conversation with those who seek to get the better of him. They don’t. Jesus shares what matters most, love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself. He shares an intimate meal with some of his closest friends. The week turns. Friends betray him and desert him. Jesus is mocked and ridiculed, and justice itself is made a mockery of. There is pain and suffering. There is a brutal execution and then a burial. With the entombment of Jesus, the hopes of many seemed also buried. Then comes Easter morning with some of Jesus’ female friends the first to hear and share the good news that he is risen.
The world we live in is often just that kind of rollercoaster. We know the joy that comes with God’s love in Jesus. We receive with gratitude wonderful gifts of God’s grace – friendship, meals shared, beauty to be appreciated, kind words, gentle smiles, a healing touch. We are acquainted with grief, sorrow and tragedy. We traverse the valley of the shadow of death. We witness justice mocked. We see and experience pain and suffering. We know only too well that the world is not yet the world God desires it to be; we are not yet living in God’s new heaven and new earth.
In our lives, we grieve, and we give it space, but we grieve as those who also have hope, because Christ is risen, risen indeed. May we also hope as those who know grief, a hope that can be caked with mud and held with gritted teeth. In this challenging time, in this often difficult world, that’s how I frequently experience hope, and I consider it a gift of God’s grace.
With You on this Joyful Journey where Sometimes Hope is Caked with Mud,
Bishop David Bard
~ In a follow-up to General Conference, I will be holding four listening sessions. The purpose of these gatherings is primarily for me to hear what you are thinking and feeling following General Conference. I will also share briefly about conversations taking place around the denomination. The sessions will be held:
- Saturday, April 13, 10:30 am-12:30 pm, Southfield: Hope UMC
- Saturday, April 27, 10:30 am-12:30 pm, Grand Rapids: Trinity UMC
- Tuesday, May 14, 7:00-9:00 pm, East Lansing: University UMC
- Saturday evening June 1 at Annual Conference