Mourners Dare to Imagine what Others are Feeling

Today’s reflections on the recent shootings in Aurora, CO. come from Don Follis, a pastor in Champaign-Urbana, IL.


At 7:30 am my wife and I took the boat across Jenny Lake and hiked 7 miles up Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude in Grand Teton National Park in Northwestern Wyoming.  From Lake Solitude, high above tree line, you can view the back side of the majestic Teton Range and bask in the wonder of creation.

As we drove back to our campsite I turned on the radio and heard the news of the horrific shootings in Aurora, CO.  I was shocked.  Life is so fragile.  Idyllic, serene Lake Solitude – a perfect name given its location – gave way to the stunning news of the senseless killings and maiming in an Aurora theater.  Feelings of appreciation and wonder earlier in the day suddenly collided with emotions of tension, mystery, paradox and complexity.

A few days later I was standing on the western shore of Lake MacDonald in northern Montana’s Glacier National Park when I overhead two men discussing the Aurora tragedy.

“It was pure evil,” one man said.  “There is nothing else to say.”

The other man was intent on blaming guns.  “Why is it so easy to buy guns?” he said.  “Can’t we as a nation do anything about this?  I’ll tell you this country needs a national discussion about how easy it is to buy firearms.”

The man who spoke first sighed.  “The poor young man who did this is just sick, just very, very sick.  How utterly senseless.  It makes me so sad for all those innocent people and their grieving families.”

Now he’s getting somewhere, I thought.  Later that day I turned to the beatitudes and read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes said there is a time to weep and a time to mourn.  The days following tragedies are times to mourn.  Real mourning, true grieving, humbly says, “I am so sorry.  I can only imagine how the families must feel who lost a loved one.  I can only imagine how those who were maimed must feel.  I can only imagine how the family members of the shooter must feel.  This is so heartbreaking, so sad.”

Mourning does not say: “As horrific as this was, we know God works all things together for good, if we turn to him.  Evil will not win the day.  Now is the time to stand up and fight.”  Those phrases may be true.  But is that what you would want someone to say to you, if you had just tragically lost a loved one?  I doubt it.

Neither does mourning say: “I’ll be there for you, whatever you need.  You are in my prayers every single minute.”  Well, maybe you will be there.  Maybe you will pray for a while.  But what are you really saying?  Are you actually saying: “What happen scares me so much and I don’t know what to do. What if it was my child?  I could never face this if it were me.”

Finally, mourning does not say:  “I just can’t imagine what you are going through.”  Really?  Maybe you ought to try to imagine.  A person who mourns never denies what happened.  True mourning is not afraid of suffering.  No, a person who truly mourns tries to imagine how another feels.  Thus, you might say something like: “I’m so very sorry.  I can only imagine how you are feeling.”

To imagine how a grief-stricken person feels takes intentionality.  Imagine being the parent of one of those young people killed in the theater on that awful night in Aurora.  Or imagine being the father or mother of the young man who did this awful deed.

“I don’t want to imagine that,” you say.  “Please don’t make me.  It’s too awful, too hard, too painful, and too scary.  I can’t go there.”  Well, okay.  I certainly can’t make you.  But you will not fully understand mourning unless you engage your imagination and your emotion.  That’s what mourning is.  You enter right into the middle of the grief-stricken person’s world. Are you afraid of crying?  You may cry.  You think you might blubber or sigh or moan?  You might.  Are you afraid that giving yourself emotionally to mourning might feel scary?  It will.

But mourning is a good thing, Jesus says.  Comfort comes to those who mourn. The Apostle Paul explains it when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.”

Now let’s say, for example, that your son or daughter hits a home run during a little league game.  They are thrilled and so you are you.  You scream, “My goodness sweetheart, that’s the best hit I’ve ever seen.  What a slugger.”  That’s rejoicing.

How does that make the son or daughter feel?  Loved, naturally.  They think, “My daddy thinks I’m the best thing ever.”

Now imagine you know a family who has experienced a tragic loss.  Enter their world by imagining how they feel.  You mourn by saying, “I can only imagine,” not “I can’t imagine.”  You become focused and intentional about feeling painful emotions – grief, pain, loss and despair.  You may begin weeping or sobbing as you try to say:  “I am so sorry.  I love you.  I can only imagine your pain and loss.”

How do they feel when you join them in their pain and sorrow?  They feel loved and cared for.  When we enter another person’s painful emotional space, the person feels loved.  The feeling of love is the same as it is for the child who hit the home run.  That’s what it means to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

The grieving people in Aurora need love, not theological explanations.  There is a time to weep and a time to mourn. Both are on the path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death.  Don’t be afraid to walk on that path.


Don Follis is a long-time (30-year) pastor in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a college town (University of Illinois) in East-central Illinois.

Don first worked as a campus pastor, then on the staff of a large Vineyard Church and now with pastors in a coaching and mentoring ministry.

He writes a popular Sunday column called “On Faith” for the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette.

Copyright 2012 by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Champaign, IL  61820.

Holy Week Reflections on God’s Broken Heart

Floyd McClung had just finished teaching at a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) school, which involved speaking, personal ministry and personal counseling—18 hour days.  Physically and spiritually exhausted, and simply “tired of people,” McClung boarded his plane back to his home in Amsterdam where he encounter the last thing he wanted—a needy, drunk man wanting his attention:

After a few minutes his head came around the corner. “Whatcha reading?” he asked as he peered over my shoulder.  “My Bible,” I replied a bit impatiently.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  I settled back in my seat, but a few minutes later the same pair of eyes were again looking over the top of my seat. “What kind of work do you do?” he asked.

Not wanting to get involved in a long conversation, I decided to make my answer brief.  “A kind of social work,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t be interested.  It bothered me a little that I was verging on not telling the truth, but I dared not tell him I was involved in helping needy people in the inner city of Amsterdam.  That would be sure to provoke more questions.

“Mind if I sit by you?” he asked as he stepped over my crossed legs.  He seemed to be oblivious to my efforts to avoid talking to him.  He turned to face me and he reeked of alcohol.  He spat as he spoke, sending a fine spray over my face.

I was deeply irritated by this man’s obnoxiousness.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  All my plans for a quiet morning were destroyed by his insensitivity. “Oh God,” I groaned inwardly, “please help me.” The conversation moved slowly at first.  I answered a few questions about our work in Amsterdam, and began to wonder why this man wanted so desperately to talk to someone.  As the conversation unfolded it dawned on me that perhaps I was the one who was being insensitive.

“My wife was like you,” he said after a while.  “She prayed with our children, sang to them and took them to church.  In fact,” he said slowly, his eyes misting over, “she was the only real friend I ever had.”

“Had?” I asked.  “Why are you referring to her in that way?”

“She’s gone.” By this time the tears were beginning to trickle down his cheeks.  “She died three months ago giving birth to our fifth child. Why?” he gasped, “Why did your caring God take my wife away?  She was so good.  Why not me?  Why her?  And now the government says I’m not fit to care for my own children, and they’re gone too!”

I reached out and took his hand and we wept together.  How selfish, how insensitive I had been.  I had only been thinking of my need for a little rest when someone like this man desperately needed a friend.  He filled in the rest of the story for me.  After his wife died, a government appointed social worker recommended that the children be cared for by the state.  He was so overwhelmed by grief that he couldn’t work, so he also lost his job.  In just a few weeks he had lost everything, his wife, his children and his work.  It was December so he had decided to leave; he couldn’t bear the thought of being at home alone for Christmas without his wife or children, and he was literally trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol.

He was almost too bitter to be comforted.  He had grown up with four different step-fathers and he never knew his real dad.  All of them were hard men.  When I mentioned God he reacted bitterly.  “God?” he said.  “I think if there is a God he must be a cruel monster!  Why did your loving God do this to me?

As I flew on the airplane with that wounded, hurt man, I was reminded again that many people in our world have no understanding of a loving God – a God who is a loving Father.  To speak of a loving God, a God who is a Father, only evokes pain for them.  And anger.  To speak of the father heart of God to these people, without empathizing with their pain, verges on cruelty.  The only way I could be a friend to that man, on the trip from Oslo to Amsterdam, was to be God’s love to him.  I didn’t try to give pat answers.  There were none.  I just let him be angry and then poured some oil on his wounds.  He wanted to believe in God, but deep inside his sense of justice had been violated.  He needed someone to say that it was okay for him to be angry too.  By the time I had listened and cared and wept with him, he was ready to hear me say that God was more hurt than he was by what had happened to his wife and family.

No one had ever told him that God has a broken heart. (8)

From “The Father Heart of God

What does a broken hearted God imply?

It implies that God is not the victimizer… He’s not the master puppeteer behind this world of evil, but rather that HE HATES EVIL!

His grief reveals that God doesn’t have control over evil, for, if God controlled the evil, why would He grieve Himself?

God’s broken heart attests to his innocence, justice, hate of sin and effort to do everything in His power to stop sin.  God is not the one inflicting suffering, He is the ultimate one who sufferers!  Recognizing this alone has often staved my heart from losing faith in the goodness of God.

And maybe the cross is the pinnacle of that suffering.  A suffering so intense that His body was unable to handle the grief and he died, not from the wounds of the body, but the wounds of the heart (more thoughts on this tomorrow).

The Vulnerable God and Simon of Cyrene

The Vulnerable God

William Placher writes,

Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering.  God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross — condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”

This week we reflect on the pinnacle of the vulnerably of God … the death of Jesus.

Pulled Into the Narrative of Suffering

In Matthew 20: 20 – 23, the mother of disciples James and John asks Jesus this question, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

Jesus’ response turns the whole conversation on it’s head.  James and John’s mother assumes that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom, whereby Jesus will claim the thrown of David and push the Romans and their rule out of the land of Israel.

The disciples see Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as a power play and they want a piece of the power.

It was evident that James and John, their mother and the disciples had yet to understand the nature of the Kingdom: freedom, vulnerability, love and often suffering.

Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  In the Old Testament “the cup” was a metaphor for suffering … the very opposite of power.  In fact, power is the human response to suffering.  Power is the human response to vulnerability.  Suffering is the divine response to vulnerability.

Jesus then states, “You will indeed drink from my cup ….”

And although they didn’t understand it, the disciples eventually would understand the brokenness of God over the world.  They would eventually re-narrate the vulnerability of God in their own suffering … a re-narration that God invites all of his followers to embrace. As we’ve prayed so often, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break yours.”

Simon of Cyrene


Perhaps that re-narration is nowhere more visually clear than in Simon of Cyrene.  It seems that Simon is actually forced into helping Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha.  Mel Gibson portrayed Simon in “The Passion of the Christ” as being unwilling to carry the cross.

And I think most of us respond in the same way.  When God asks us to help him carry his burdens and we realize that his burdens are the weak, the poor and the sinful, we all turn our heads in disgust.

“You mean you’re calling me to weakness?”, we ask.   “I thought you saved me in order to give me strength?” we snark.

And we find ourselves like Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry a cross that isn’t ours.

“But, you’re God … why can’t you carry this on your own?” we retort.  “Aren’t you all-powerful?  Aren’t you the one who created the world?”

The truth sets in.

God  needs  our  help.


Some final thoughts from William Placher,

If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something about how we might seek our own fullest humanity — not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to be vulnerable in love.

We become human when we become Simon of Cyrene and embrace the vulnerability of God by carrying his cross with Him.

Yesterday I Saw the Body of Christ at a Funeral …

… and I took a picture of it.

There’s only two white guys in this picture: the one is the white pastor who is sitting beside the soundboard. The other is the white Jesus engraved in the stain glass.  The rest are African American.

There’s a white Jesus in stained glass because this is a white church, that has had 30 plus pastors in it’s history, all of whom have been white.

And today the church is full of African Americans in a white church for a funeral.

The Mt. Zion AME church is in the process of being renovated.  And this week the Mt. Zion AME church lost not one but two of their members.

The Parkesburg United Methodist Church opened their doors, their sanctuary and their cafeteria hall for not one, but both funerals.

African Americans in a white church where the white pastor isn’t in the pulpit, but serving the black female pastor in the pulpit by running the soundboard.  In fact, he was serving since 8 AM in the morning when he helped carry the casket up the two flight of steps and into the sanctuary; when he vacuumed the entire sanctuary at 9 AM; extended gracious hospitality from 10 AM to 11 AM; and even organized five members of the auxiliary crew to set up plates and places for 100 plus people for the post funeral luncheon in the cafeteria hall.

This is how unity is supposed to work.

One hundred years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.  Fifty years ago … maybe even 10 years ago this wouldn’t have been considered.  But today I witnessed it.  I witnessed the body of Christ.

The Broken-Open Heart Vs. the Broken Apart Heart

It seems there’s two poles in the livings reaction to death:
the one pole is where people almost think death is unreal … that when we die we simply “go to a better place” where all is not only okay, but it’s better.

And then there’s another pole.  It’s the pole of darkness.  Where death is


and heavy

and monstrous.

The thick cloud of paralyzing despair … the broken apart heart.

When we experience death — especially of the traumatic and tragic kind — we will often go back and forth, from one pole to the next, yet drawn, pulled to the pole of the real where all is dark.  And we fight it.  Often changing poles day by day … at times, hour by hour.  From despair to hope and back again.

What we should seek to find in our grief is what Parker Palmer calls the creative tension between the two poles … the middle ground where our hearts are neither

totally mended


broken apart,


broken open.

That last line encapsulates the creative tension I strive for in my life:

“We’re called to live in this world with broken, open hearts. Not denying the suffering and grief, but neither striving for perfection that takes us out of the action and into a fantasy world.”


Special thanks to Monika Allen —  manager of all things awesome at YWAM Madison’s blog — who sent me the link to this video.

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