A Time to Weep and a Time to Mourn

2013121303There’s a strange atmosphere in the world, normality and history rubbing shoulders and no-one quite sure what to do with that. My wife was able to do a supply run today, emerging from self-isolation to grab some basics from ourselves and some friends, and it was a heavy experience; a local farm is about the close because of the virus, shoppers look at each other with suspicion and mistrust, a country tries to evoke the spirit of wartime against an enemy that doesn’t even know we’re here. I don’t think any of us were psychologically prepared for this.

Lines from the Bible (or the Byrds, take your pick) keep swimming through my mind: “A time to mourn”, “A time to weep”. In one sense it’s obviously a time for these; as of a quick Google search ten minutes ago, 36,000 people have died due to COVID-19, 1,651 of these in my country. My family knew some of those victims, friends or friends of friends; of course it’s a time to mourn, it’s what we need to do at times like this.

And yet the scale of this pandemic can be guilt-inducing. The numbers are so big, the impact so devastating, that we can feel bad about the more prosaic effects this thing is having. We can feel self-indulgent when we see others going through hell, our headsĀ  being messed with every minute of every day.

But it’s okay to mourn. I’m saying this out loud, in public, because even though I have no authority over your life or anyone else’s, I want you to have some sort of permission to deal with everything that’s going on. Not just the deaths, although these are terrible, each one a fracture in someone’s world, but also all the other losses we go through. We need to process, to reflect, to deal with the anger and doubt and frustration and to heal, because for all we’re told to keep a stiff upper lip, sooner or later we either allow ourselves to grieve or we simply shatter. It doesn’t have to be in public, you don’t need to be on Zoom for this, but like the man said, there’s a time to weep.

And so we’re allowed to mourn for our communities, for the businesses that are struggling or going under, for those losing their jobs, their careers, their livelihoods. We can mourn the loss, however temporary, of our libraries and schools and churches and coffee mornings and Slimming World meetings.

We’re allowed to mourn the lost opportunities, the trips that now can’t be taken, the plans that need to be cancelled, the goodbyes that can’t be said.

We’re allowed to mourn our rites of passage, all those kids pulled out of school without having a prom or a graduation, the chance to have their shirts signed or a fumbled first kiss behind the fire escape, the chance to bid farewell to the friends going in different directions after the summer has passed. The exam days and the results days and, for those of us who may be looking nostalgically back on this there are still the weddings and the stag-stroke-hen nights, the retirement parties, the anniversaries, all the markers in time against which we orientate our lives and the changes we’ve seen.

We’re allowed to mourn for justice, for inequality, for those struggling through this pandemic through no fault of their own – the healthcare workers who don’t have enough time or resources or equipment, the neighbours who don’t have enough groceries, all those who are starting to cough and run a fever but who can’t go to hospital because there’s no-one to take them, or they can’t afford it, or because they’ve convinced themselves they shouldn’t be a bother. All those dealing with the ugliness that situations like this inevitably reveal.

We’re allowed to mourn for all the impossible decisions, the doctors on triage, the managers looking in despair at their staffing budgets and overheads, the mourners who have to choose who among them gets to go to the funeral and the pastors who have to help them navigate that, the leaders who are trying to tackle a situation that nothing ever prepared them for.

We’re allowed to mourn for the things we don’t understand, like my eldest son who knows that things just aren’t right, who knows life has changed and the world’s been shaken but who doesn’t quite understand why, despite him asking every day but getting repeated answers from mom and dad that just don’t fit in with his jigsaw life.

We’re allowed to mourn the silence, we’re allowed to mourn the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear.

These too are loss.

And so I’m thinking about what it means to be a beloved community in times like this, and all I can think is that we need to create and hold space for the mourning and the tears, for lament and the sad songs that are still to be written, for the candles that burn, flickering in the dark, each one saying that we’re still here, we still hurt, we still love.

Then tomorrow we light the candles all over again, and the next day, until it’s a time to laugh, a time to dance.

Allhallowtide

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There’s a bridge spanning the A38 near Burton-on-Trent that’s covered in bouquets and posies. I drive under it every day, dimly aware that the bridge is now a memorial, a means of remembering a young woman who fell to her death in September. For a few seconds during a long commute I’m reminded of life’s fragility, linking that bridge to all the other flowers tied to lampposts that mark the passing of a stranger’s loved one.

Today is Halloween, traditional day of kids donning fancy dress and adults ignoring the doorbell, but in the liturgical calendar it marks the start of Allhallowtide, a three day season celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day; in the UK the period is sometimes extended to incorporate Remembrance Sunday, red paper poppies joining graveside bouquets. In short, it’s a season for commemorating the departed, for celebrating the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

Certainly in my tradition we don’t do much with this, possibly due to suspicion over Halloween itself. But there’s something in the idea of a season of communal remembrance, a time in which our communities can come together and celebrate those we’ve lost. Maybe it provides a time of solidarity with friends and family who still grieve, be those scars new or ancient. “Mourn with those who mourn,” Paul once said. Allhallowtide might be a good reminder of that.

Sometimes this act of remembrance is tied up with justice. Speak the names of those killed by violence, by the abuse of power, by legislation that victimise the most vulnerable among us. Speak out against the school shootings and the bad cops, the beheadings and the vests full of explosives, the domestic abuse and the cluster bombs. Speak out and remember, because if our theology is divorced from justice and grace and love then it’s not worth the shelf space.

And if we end this season with Remembrance Day then we remember the fallen, both those lost in battle and those who fell but lived on. Remember the PTSD and the suicide rates and the homelessness. There are other kinds of loss that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s Halloween. The sun will be going down soon, and a largely forgotten season of memory will commence as the earth freezes over and dies and sleeps, awaiting its Easter in the spring. But in the cold of November, poppies and flowers tied precariously to lampposts could transform the dark; transform the memories of death, the memories of all saints and all souls and all wars into celebrations of life; could keep the fires of love and justice burning as we head ever onwards into winter.

Advent 2014: Walking Into the Dark

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No-one knows when Jesus was born, whether the census and the stable took place in November or August or June, whether the Messiah took his first breath in summer or against a winter chill.

And so we celebrate Christmas in December, because there’s a solstice in December, and humanity has always celebrated with the seasons and the sun and the rhythms of the world.

Four sleeps before Christmas is the shortest day, when the sun sets at its earliest and the hours of darkness are at their peak. And we know this is nothing more than the turn of the planet, but still, there’s something evocative and maybe intimidating about the idea of the longest night.

This morning on Twitter, the Reverend Sally Hitchiner proposed a new Advent tradition – using the day of greatest darkness to remember the times in life when the light seems far away, when hope and optimism and celebration seem far away. For a church that’s often bad at lament, the idea of an Advent mourning is a powerful one.

And so maybe today’s as good a day as any to remember the darkness of Christmas, the mistakes and the murders and the implications about which no-one writes carols.

Maybe it’s a time to remember a refugee saviour and those displaced by conflict and prejudice and violence, those who are running for the border or simply to get out of the front door before it’s too late.

A time to remember the soup kitchens and homeless shelters and refuges and food banks, these and the people who now rely on them for safety and security and square meals.

A time to remember the unemployed, the sick, the mocked, the oppressed. A time to remember those made to feel less than human, those named as The Enemy by those with politics and doctrine on their side.

As the sun goes down and we walk into the longest night, remember that Christmas isn’t all about baubles and Bing Crosby, that if the story of the baby in the manger has any power at all, it has to be able to confront corruption, to bring comfort in the midst of heartbreak and loss.

Christmas has to be a flickering candle in the dark and a light at the end of the tunnel, balancing the hope of freedom and peace with the image of the Holy Family running from Herod’s death squads. Let’s mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep, and hold each other’s hands through the night, waiting for the sun to rise.