A few days after a person walks out of the ramshackle houses of the third world with kisses on their cheeks and singing in their ears. After they ride that big metal bird back to the first world. After they hug the kids, get a good night’s sleep in a bed that’s shaped to their backside. After they reunite with their favorite caffeine delivery system. A few days after they come home, the mourning often begins.
There’s a reason Jesus blessed the mourners immediately after he blessed the poor in spirit. After we’re brought to the end of our rope, once we let go and fall to our knees dependent, the first breath we take as beggars in the kingdom of God is exhaled as a groan.
We mourn. For reasons we’re not certain we know.
Is it guilt over a hot shower? A refrigerator full of food?
Is it longing for acquaintances across the miles to move in next door?
Is it shame at what we call enough or anger that less isn’t worth more to us and everyone we’ve ever known?
What sends tears down the cheeks of a brand new beggar?
Blessed are those who mourn because they will be comforted.
The word Jesus speaks in the Greek translation of this beatitude is the strongest word for grief in the language. It’s used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, to describe Jacob’s sadness when he thought his son Joseph had been killed (Genesis 37:34). It is uncontrollable uncontainable grief, the kind that grabs a person entirely and can’t be hidden.
Mourning like this is evidence of a heart made of flesh and not stone, of a Spirit that wriggles inside us, a God who cares enough to wrestle and dislocate our joints, leaving us marked, pulling us weeping and wailing but mostly willing to the edges – to obey the law of love now etched on our hearts by God’s finger and hugs and vultures, the stench of the slums and the hallelujahs of hope living in the laughter bounced off church walls (Ezekiel 26:27).
The mourners are blessed because there is comfort in having received a little more of Christ’s likeness – even if it is His sorrow. He stood outside the city gates and wept over lies believed and hearts locked tight. He shed tears for an uncle dead and buried for days and for a cousin beheaded by a sex-sick king. He saw the hungry multitude and had compassion on them – literally, He “suffered with” them. He was a “man of sorrows” and now, like Him, the mourners grieve over what grieves the Author of joy.
And the mourner grieves the dying of who they once were while they slowly become who they will be. The mourner kneels on the eve of a new kind of life and, like Jesus, asks the Father if there is any other way into it besides drinking this cup and walking this hill. Do I really have to pour out the American Dream and instead swallow the self-sacrifice and uncertainty you’re serving?
And the mourner mourns this reluctance in her.
She’s stuck, for a moment, in a kind of strange sadness that leaves everyday life feeling trite. She feels along the sides of her life for something certain, she gropes for sure footing, reaches for anything familiar but it isn’t there. Not at the moment.
Here’s exactly what’s happened to the beggar who now cries in her shower just days after coming home from Guatemala. She’s gone blind.
For me – for years – God had a third world address. He moved there after I went to El Salvador in 2005. And for years afterward I got on planes to meet Him and missed Him when I came back to the cul-de-sac again. Against the backdrop of the darkest poverty and out-in-the-open evil, His light and love was clearly visible. My spiritual eyes adjusted to the brilliance of His compassion streaming from every church and every servant I met in Uganda, Ethiopia, India, the Dominican Republic…
But back home I couldn’t see a thing in these muddled middle tones.
My eyes weren’t accustomed to the muted colors here and I had a hard time spotting God in this place. But over time I did relearn to notice His miracles in North America too, better than ever before. I found Him in a food pantry on Wednesdays and at a shelter downtown, in a Sunday school class sitting cross legged with second and third graders. I squinted until I could pick Him out in a crowd at a concert, on a rental car shuttle, on a swing in my own backyard, in checks written and sermons preached and music sung and walks in the woods and friends in lawn chairs.
This is part of the great holding-together comfort mourners have been promised. The blind receive sight. Eventually.
Comfort. Not an eschatological comfort – though one day the hands that wiped our hearts clean of sin will wipe our cheeks clean of tears too. No, this isn’t a someday hold-on-until-then utopia but a here-and-now all-out deliverance.
Mourners in search of significance, contentment, any trace of God’s footprints around the house, will find a new normal. They will be comforted. Little by little.
They will not be comfortable, however. By God’s grace they’ll never be fully at home in the middle again. Truth is they never really were – but now they know it. And they can’t un-know it.
But they will be blessed to know the Comforter, maybe even in ways they’ve only read about in the biographies of saints. They’ll know Him in deep down places inside where they never knew they even had places.
How does the comfort come? It’s different for everyone I suppose. It depends on the dimensions of that cavern your groans pour out of I think. For me, I’ve found the most comfort in those basics every youth minister tries to make us practice, the ones we all arrogantly think we’ve outgrown from time to time: reading the bible, meditating on it, praying, confessing, sitting in silence listening for the faintest whisper, praying some more. And comfort has come from relationships with other beggars who are also restless in the middle. And comfort has come from being obedient, the best I know how. And comfort has come from leading others into poverty – theirs and the world’s – and into a new kind of riches we discover together.
I continue to relearn how to hear God’s voice through the noise of kids and work and the internet. I continue to relearn how to see Him against the gray backdrop of American suburbia. I’ll never stop relearning. There’s comfort in that too.
But today I can say it’s truly good to be home. God is here in my new normal