If you’re keeping score, this is the 5th in our summer series on the “Questions Jesus Asked.” I hope you’re finding the questions and topics we’ve dealt with so far stimulating to your faith and relevant to your life.
The question for today goes for the jugular: “Why do you make an uproar and weep?” The story concerns the apparent death of a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue in Capernaum. From the outset, it touches upon the depth of a father’s love and the length to which he was willing to go for the sake of his daughter, dispensing with protocol and throwing himself at the mercy of Jesus.
What I hope you’ll get out of this is a refresher course in the dynamics of grief and a newfound appreciation for the importance of how grief can help deepen our faith and lead us into a closer relationship with God and each other. The story begins:
“Behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, came; and seeing him (Jesus), he fell at his feet, and begged him much, saying, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Please come and lay your hands on her, that she may be made healthy, and live.'” (5:22-23)
Understand, the ruler of the synagogue was a respected leader in any Jewish community. We’re talking prominent, prestigious, dignified. In this sense, Jairus was a role model for how others were to respond to personal tragedy and loss.
By contrast, Jesus was a nobody – an itinerant preacher, miracle worker and faith healer. He had no standing in the community whatsoever. Some may have thought he was the Messiah. Others may well have thought he was a quack. But in the moment of crisis, when his daughter was thought to be dying, Jairus stepped out of his lofty role and fell prostrate before the feet of the Master.
This is something we can all appreciate: When it comes those we love, we’ll do whatever it takes to provide for their needs. We’ll rearrange our schedules, make personal sacrifices and spare no expense. We’ll swallow our pride, humble ourselves and risk being seen as a fool for the sake of a loved one.
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I’ve told you that my wife, Donna, and I spent a lot of time at M. D. Anderson in the mid-90s. We felt overwhelmed at first, being surrounded by cancer patients of every description from all around the world. But, in time, we were inspired to see other couples and families supporting each other in the crisis and making the best of it.
What I’ll always remember were the children with cancer and their brothers and sisters and parents who went through the ordeal with them. We’d see them in the lobby smiling and laughing together, or helping each other with their trays in the cafeteria. Every once in a while we’d see a father or a brother who’d shaved his head as a sign of solidarity. There was always an incredibly big smile on their faces, as if to say, “Whatever happens, we’re in this together.”
In much the same way, Jairus came to Jesus in broad daylight and fell at his feet and begged him to heal his daughter. He threw whatever modesty he may have had to the wind. When it comes to those we love, we’ll do whatever it takes.
Mark says that Jesus went with Jairus, and when he got to his home, there was a big commotion. People were everywhere, weeping and wailing, and he asked, “Why do you make an uproar and weep?”(5:39)
On the surface, that sounds pretty insensitive. The little girl was dying, some thought she was already dead. Wouldn’t you expect there to be a lot of crying and carrying on? Why do suppose Jesus questioned their behavior? Was he suggesting we’re not supposed to grieve?
If you look closely at the text, Jesus obviously knew something the others didn’t know, for he went on to say, “The child is not dead, but is asleep.” (39)
Frankly, I don’t know how to explain that. I don’t think Jesus had ESP or was clairvoyant. I like to think that he was as fully human as you and I. Yet, somehow, he knew that the child was merely unconscious, not dead; that the situation was not terminal.
Yet, there’s more. The people he directed his question to were the mourners who had assembled at Jairus’ home. And who were these mourners? They were not friends and family, but professionals brought in to lament the death of a loved one.
This was the custom in Jesus’ day. It was considered a sign of respect: The wealthier you were, the more mourners you hired. As leader of the synagogue, Jairus would have been one of the more affluent citizens of Capernaum, so his courtyard would have been filled with mourners, weeping and wailing at the top of their lungs, not because they were distraught over his daughter’s apparent death, but because they were getting paid for it!
So, Jesus asked them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep?” Seen in this way, his intent was not to discourage a show of emotion, but to challenge the calamity of his culture surrounding death and to restore God’s peace to the home.
No, Jesus didn’t deny the reality of grief, and neither should we. In his book, Don’t Take My Grief Away, Doug Manning writes,
“Grieving is the natural way of working through the loss of a love. Grieving is not weakness, nor absence of faith. Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt, sleeping when you are tired, or sneezing when your nose itches. It is nature’s way of healing a broken heart.” (66-67)
This is how I see the question speaking to us today: Why do we grieve? More importantly, how can we allow the natural process of grief give us new life and hope for the future? Let’s take a moment to unpack the question.
Why do we grieve? We grieve because we feel a loss. It’s what happens when something you cherish is taken from you. It can be as complex as the death of a loved one or as simple as breaking a priceless dish or misplacing a favorite toy. Babies grieve when they’re weaned from their mothers’ breasts. Children grieve when a best friend moves away. Teenagers grieve over the loss of innocence. Parents grieve when their children grow up and move out on their own. Adults grieve at the loss of a job, the loss of income, the loss of power, prestige, position and potential. Older adults grieve over the loss of mobility, independence and a place of importance. Any time something near and dear to us is taken away, we grieve.
The question is how can we learn to grieve more effectively, more productively, more positively? How can we cultivate the art of what Granger Westberg calls in his little book, “Good Grief?” The place to begin is to understand the process.
In her classic book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identifies six stages of grief. I’m sure many of you are familiar with them. They bear repeating.
The first is denial. When you first experience a significant loss, you go into a state of shock. You can’t believe it. There must be some mistake. This can’t be happening. I must be dreaming. A common symptom of denial is numbness. It’s like being in a fog. You go through the motions with little or no feeling. It=s nature’s way of helping us absorb the blow.
The second stage is anger. When the numbness wears off, it’s common to experience a surge of emotion. You want to scream and shout and lash out at the world. Rage wells up inside as you recoil against the injustice of it all and ask the age-old question, “Why, O God, why?”
Some, not all, experience a third stage of grief which Kubler-Ross calls “bargaining.” That’s where the rational mind goes to work and seeks to negotiate and compromise and diffuse a would-be tragedy: “God, let this diagnosis be a mistake and I’ll never, ever question your will for my life again.”
The fourth stage is depression. Once the flow of adrenalin gets back to normal and you’ve exhausted all possibility of avoiding the situation, reality sets in, and you feel the full impact of your loss. You realize things will never be the same again. You feel a tremendous weight of sadness and remorse. You may feel guilty that you should have done more – and regret about things you shouldn’t have said or done. You feel a sense of fear and anxiety about the future, a lack of confidence. You may experience panic attacks, a compulsion to do something rash, an overwhelming sense of being out of control.
If you’re diligent in working through the grief process, and if you persevere long enough, you’ll come to the fifth stage, and that’s acceptance. Whatever has happened and however it’s affected you, there is a new reality at work now, and you have little choice but to accept it and go on with your life.
This leads to the final stage, and that’s hope. This comes gradually as you accept the fact that life is not fair – never has been, never will be – that bad things really do happen to good people, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it; that everything that lives will one day die, us and our loved ones included; and that, beyond all the pain and pleasure of life there is a spiritual dimension to which we’re called, a relationship with God and a destiny to fulfill in God’s eternal kingdom.
It’s at this stage you begin to trust the fact that, whatever the future holds, God is with you, you’re not alone. And with that assurance, you go on to the next chapter of your life, never forgetting your loss and never quite “getting over it,” but going on, nonetheless, with every faith, hope and confidence that God is leading the way.
Rehearsing the stages of grief can help us cultivate the art of “good grief” and prepare us for the moment when tragedy strikes and our lives are thrown topsy-turvy.
When it comes to grief, I confess I’m still a novice, but I’ve been taking notes along the way. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
• Good grief takes time and requires a lot of gentleness, patience and understanding. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received when Donna died was, “Give yourself time. There’s no deadline. Set your own pace. And be kind to yourself along the way.” Good grief takes a while.
• Good grief expresses itself openly but doesn’t seek pity. One of the best things we can do for those who grieve is to invite them to share their stories. They may need to rehearse the details a hundred times. Let them. Encourage them to call their loved one by name. Listen compassionately, but objectively. You don’t have to feel sorry for others to let them know you care.
• Good grief honors the past, affirms the present and claims the future as gifts of God. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but God doesn’t prevent them from happening either. Our faith is “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Scripture says all things, the bad as well as the good.
• Good grief moves beyond self-absorption to a greater sensitivity and concern for others. Once you’ve experienced a tremendous loss, you have greater empathy for those who’ve traveled the same road. As much as I like to think I was a caring pastor before Donna’s death, in many ways, I was naïve.
• Good grief keeps the particular loss in perspective with the whole of life. God blesses us in so many ways, but in the wake of personal tragedy and loss, it’s easy to lose sight of all we have to be thankful for.
• Finally, good grief seeks to integrate the agony of loss with the joy of living; the reality of death with the promise of eternal life. One of the most powerful passages of scripture in the Bible for me is where Paul says to the Romans:
“Not only this, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering works perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: and hope doesn’t disappoint us…” (Romans 5:3)
As much as we resist the notion, it’s not the pleasures of life that deepen our faith and make us strong, but the pain.
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus asked, “Why do you make an uproar and weep?” That’s the question, isn’t it: We grieve because we feel a loss. It’s what happens when something we cherish is taken from us. The crux of the matter is whether or not our grief will lead to new strength, health and vitality. No one knew this better than Horatio Spafford, who, after losing all four of his children in a shipwreck in the middle of the Atlantic, penned these words:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.