Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Grief & Mourning - Back to Job's friends

Remember Job's friends? Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar? It's been a while since the first entry on these guys, so here's a reminder of an unspeakably cool moment in their lives.

"When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was." Job 2:12 - 13

I think that one of the reasons many of us struggle with being genuinely helpful to those who are in mourning is that the whole mourning thing makes us so uncomfortable. It presents us with an impossible dilemma. Someone we care about is in pain. We may also be in pain. We want, more than anything, to bring some relief to the pain of our loved one. And the unfortunate truth is that there is nothing that we can do to ease such deep, profound suffering. We feel helpless, useless, sad, inadequate. It is excruciating, to want so badly to help and to be so unable to do anything. We do what we can, but it's not, and never will be, enough.

This is the amazing thing about Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Of course they wanted to make Job feel better. His pain was breaking their hearts, too. They understood something that we, in modern times, have a tendency to forget. Maybe the goal isn't neccesarily to feel better. Maybe the pain, as horrid and crippling as it is, is supposed to be there. Maybe it's not something to relieve, or stop, but rather something to live through. Maybe mourning is a part of life, another path to be travelled. If this is true, if sorrow is something to be embraced because it honors the memory and value of the one lost, then what people who are sorrowing need is fellow travellers who will walk the path with them.

Job's friends get this. In fact, the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva addresses the deep need that mourners have for community. When a Jewish person loses someone very close to them, the time between the death and burial is a time of intensely personal shock and grief. It is a private time for mourners, when they are often left alone while the body of the deceased is taken care of and funeral arrangements are being made. This period of time lasts for three days.

When it is over, though, the tradition of "sitting shiva" begins. A house is chosen, either the home of the deceased or the home of a close mourner. For seven days, the house is filled with people, and the mourner is rarely if ever left alone. It is understood that at this point, with the funeral services over, mourners are beginning to realize the fullness of their loss. The shock has worn off, but the ramifications of the loss are sinking in, to devastating effect. It is a wildly painful place to be, but the tradition of sitting shiva means that they do not have to be there alone. Like Job's friends, people who have comfortable places to be, productive lives to live and happy things to do, put it all aside and for as long as they can, chose to walk the paths of sorrow and pain with someone they care about. It's not easy, not for anyone.

Inherent in this tradition is the idea that sorrow is not a problem to be fixed. It is to be lived. So many things in life are uncomfortable. Giving birth. Puberty. Menopause. Bungee jumping. Watching one's parents boogie to the Beatles. Sometimes life hurts. There is something profoundly loving in the willingness to enter into someone else's pain. It is also powerful. It brings hope in acceptance, and leaves mourners feeling understood and supported. Ultimately, it becomes part of the healing.

Job's friends would go on to prove that one doesn't have to be a theological super hero in order to carry the burden of another. When Job and his friends begin to discuss the theology behind what had happened to Job, things get a little weird. Job's friends didn't "get it". Still, in a way, they had earned the right to speak, even if they were off-track. God dealt with it all in the end, anyway. The important thing, the thing that too often gets missed by preachers and teachers of the Word, is that Job's friends came, and wept, and stayed.

Isn't it amazing, how often the simplest things are the most important?

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