Grieving is a deeply gospel practice. It’s sanctifying. When we grieve we acknowledge with sorrow that something is not as it should be. And so this year, this week, today I am grieving. In a family meeting last night the elders of Willow Creek Community Church acknowledged with confession and action that things were not as they should be. I won’t recount the details of their confession nor the situations that led to their resignation. I believe those specifics are well documented. I’d like to consider how we ought to respond as the Church and how I ought to respond as an elder and church leader.
The Heart of Grieving
Bill Hybels and Willow Creek have given us an alarming reminder: we are far from Jesus’ desire for and design of his Church. To be sure the exposure of our imperfections is not limited to a single storyline. With haunting clarity the Church's general distaste for the cost and centrality of racial harmony has persisted in her story for generations. Our collective affection for the pragmatic over the holy seems as sure as Sunday morning. And now with similar vividness the mistreatment of women is being highlighted as an ongoing transgression of the people of God; no less evidenced by our own timely hashtag, #ChurchToo. Therefore we must grieve. We grieve because Christ’s Bride is not as she should be on multiple counts.
The Apostle Paul communicated Christ’s aim for his Church is to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25b-27). Every local expression fails in various ways to fully walk in a manner worthy of this calling of Christ. However when a more visible expression falls short of God’s glory we are certainly much more aware and therefore have a timely opportunity for reflection and response.
My lament today is not that one church has become a haven for deceit and mistreatment. No. It's not that simple. Rather grief today is grounded in the knowledge that scores of churches continue to worship human power and ability and not Christ’s authority and wisdom. Such evil is not merely persistent in some people and some churches but this wickedness dwells in my heart and in my church. The prophet Jeremiah could not have been more clear when he wrote, "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore our hope cannot just be for better systems, policies, committees and shared authority structures. Rather our hope must as always be in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He alone can bring resurrection to deadly sin, purity to an imperfect church and healing to a wounded heart.
The Paradox of Grieving
Jesus grieved the loss of his friend Lazarus. Yet moments later he would raise him from the dead. Much ink has been spilt over this paradox. Lazarus was Jesus' good friend but Jesus didn't race to resolution. Instead he embraced being. He was present and settled into the emotion of human sorrow. Jesus took time and space to grieve the reality that death should not be. Life was always the aim of God's creation! There is something sanctifying about Jesus' example. When we do the same ... take time and space to truly embrace sorrow and not just rush to resurrection ... we acknowledge the value of another's pain, we are able to confess our complicity in what has been lost and we realize that the depth of every sinful tragedy demands a Resurrected Savior.
Writing to the church in first century Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul communicated this sentiment, "We do not want you to be uninformed … that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Followers of Jesus grieve. The Church grieves. But our sorrowful acknowledgment of loss, brokenness and pain comes with the persistent promise and unfailing power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. This doesn't mean we rush through lament. This doesn't mean we ignore the injustice and pain. What this means is that in our lament we look to the gospel. It means in the valley of the shadow of death we look to the one who has overcome evil and death itself.
We must fight the urge to simply be happy in the face of sorrow. Forcing sentimentality disregards real pain and belittles the gospel. Creation is groaning for much more than good vibes ... we await restoration.
The Specifics of Grieving
Our grief is not general. Today it is specific. Sanctification in and through grief comes when we are precise with both sin and hope. And this specificity informs our vocation as Jesus' Church. There are at least three ways we as a Church and I as an elder can embrace this paradoxical way of Jesus in light of today's headlines ...
- We grieve that the image of God in many women has been (and is) disregarded by the Church. Our hope is that one day the image of God will be fully alive in the people of God by grace through faith, never to be disregarded again. And so today we make war against every threat to a woman's divinely sealed value and personhood.
- We grieve that the power of man—not the power of Christ—is often most loved and trusted in the local church. One day is that the power of Christ will make heaven and earth one and we will see the true and better, Good Shepherd face-to-face. Until that day we work toward this oneness by God’s Spirit ensuring that the downward mobility of Christ shapes our appreciation and pathways of true gospel power. You see, Jesus is the head of the Church who doesn't take advantage of his sheep, but dies for them.
- We grieve that we regularly protect those in authority before we show compassion to the vulnerable. This religious maneuver is out of step with Jesus' engagement of those on the social margins and his vitriol toward misused authority. Our hope is that one day Jesus will restore the balance of authority and vulnerability. In the age to come we will cooperate in meaningful action and will be made whole by the nourishment of community and fellowship with God. Between now and then we must allow Jesus to build his Church upon his identity as the one who is fully glorious yet glorified his Father by dying for us on the cross.
With my sisters and brothers ... I grieve. But in Christ we all find great hope. In the long term this hope results in the death of pain and evil. In the sort term it staves off the temptations of pride, bitterness and vengeance in us. Many of those sentiments masquerade as justice but eventually cost infinitely more than they restore. In actuality justice comes from holding perpetrators accountable to God's Word, clothing survivors in the love and beauty of Jesus all-sufficient work and making Jesus' image central to the church not the image of any leader. Doing justice is continuing to pray and act in accordance with the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, "your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Our grieving comes when heaven is not fully expressed as it should on earth, especially through the Church. And our joy is knowing that one day it will.