In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Jeff Chu joins Pete and Jared to discuss what the Bible has to say about grief and what grief looks like as a personal, communal, and spiritual practice. Together, they explore the following questions:
- In what aspects of our lives do we need to practice grief?
- Why is it hard for people to grieve?
- How does the church inhibit people in their grief?
- What does the Bible tell us about processing grief?
- How does the New Testament handle grief?
- What role does community play in grief?
- How does American culture influence the way we grieve?
- How does grieving connect to the Gospel?
- Why is an Old Testament perspective important when we talk about grief?
- How do we experience loss and grief in our everyday lives?
- How does the political state of our country reflect our inability to grieve well?
- How can we have grace for those dealing with unacknowledged loss?
- Why are mourning and rejoicing often in tension?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jeff Chu you can share:
- “When we look at Scripture, so much of what happens in terms of grief is processed communally. Nearly all the Psalms, even the ones that were written in the first person, were meant to be spoken or sung communally, and that’s a really striking thing to me.” @jeffchu
- “If you look at John 11, it says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, and a couple of verses later, he weeps. So clearly, there’s a disconnect, because we don’t model our emotional practice on how the Christ we claim to believe in behaved when a friend of his died.” @jeffchu
- “To be able to just sit [with grief] in the utter darkness for a little bit and to hear from the Psalmist, from Holy Scripture, that this is okay—that is tremendously hopeful for me.” @jeffchu
- “Jesus’s death and resurrection, that model and pattern has become so important to me. When everything in me wants to avoid the hard things and the sadness and the grief, I recognize that it’s only through death that we have resurrection.” @jeffchu
- “The Christian story is not about immortality, it’s about resurrection.” @jeffchu
- “Loss is part of gain. I don’t think you can have one without the other.” @jeffchu
- “The exhortation to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ does not come with an asterisk that says, if you happen to agree with their political convictions or if you happen to be friends with them. It just says ‘mourn with those who mourn.’” @jeffchu
- “Our need to grieve and mourn… are invitations to other people to come alongside us in community. To express a need is an invitation to yourself to remember that you’re not meant to walk through life alone.” @jeffchu
- “This invitation to know deeply that God has made us to depend on God and to depend on others, I think that’s part of the invitation to grieve and mourn.” @jeffchu
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: The Hebrew Bible
- Book: Does Jesus Really Love Me?
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Today we have a bit of a heavy but very important, and I think very relatable, topic. We’re going to be talking about “Grief as a Biblical Practice,” and we’re talking with our friend, Jeff Chu.
Pete: Yeah, Jeff is a guy I’ve known him now for about a year or so. But he’s, you know, he’s a journalist. He’s written for Time magazine. He’s a seminary graduate. He graduated from Princeton seminary very recently. He’s an author. He wrote a book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?, and he also now he’s been for, I guess, for about a year now, over a year, he’s been working with Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans when she was still with us as curators and organizers of the Evolving Faith Conference. And I got to meet Jeff and I just knew from the first time I talked with him that Jeff is going to have a lot of things to say about some pretty important topics. So, we’re excited to have him here.
Jared: And I appreciated how we weaved together a lot of the Bible and what it has to say about grief, but also our personal practice and maybe what drew the three of us together and connected around all of us attending Rachel Held Evans’ memorial service and kind of processing that but also then talking more broadly, universally about grief and the Bible and some of our experiences with our own traditions about grief.
Pete: Yeah grief, not just, it’s a big thing. But when people die, we grieve, but there are opportunities for grief on a daily basis. And it’s sometimes hard to, especially in Western culture, to talk about those things. So, but we did, and I think it’s a great episode and I hope you enjoy it.
Jared: Yeah. All right. Well, why don’t we just jump right in?
Pete: Let’s do that.
Jeff: To express a need is an invitation to yourself to remember that we’re not meant to bear the burden of grief alone. We’re not meant to mourn alone. And that’s a really hard thing for me to believe that my need to grieve is an invitation, because I wasn’t reared to ask for help and to show my need. I don’t want other people to see my grief, because I’m afraid it will be perceived as weakness.
Jared: Well, thank you so much, Jeff, for joining us today on the podcast.
Jeff: I’m glad to be here.
Jared: We have a lot to talk about. We have somewhat of a heavy topic, but I think it’s a very meaningful and important topic to talk about. But before we jump into that, maybe you can give us a little of your background, what was your spiritual background and how did that draw you into a more professional study of spirituality, Christianity, ministry, and faith?
Jeff: So, I grew up in a super Southern Baptist family, but with a Chinese twist. And there’s a lot of pastors in my family. My grandfather was a pastor. My great grandfather was a missionary. My uncle is still a pastor in Hong Kong. And that actually sent me away from anything ministry related. So, my greatest desire has always been never to have any kind of role in ministry at all. But because God has a sick sense of humor-
Pete: The joke’s on you, Jeff.
Jeff: Exactly. Somehow, I ended up in seminary and now I am an over-educated, unemployed, former seminarian.
Pete: Hmmm. You’re not the only one. It could be worse, you could be an over-educated Ph.D. and be unemployed.
Jeff: Haha, fair.
Jared: Or you could be under-educated and unemployed.
Pete: There are so many worse-off variations here.
Jeff: So many possibilities.
Pete: Well, like Jared said, it’s, you know, it’s a topic, it’s a heavy topic, but it’s a common one. It’s something we all experience at some point in time. And talking about grief. And of course, you know, what is the idea of even this podcast is, you know, our friend, Rachel Held Evans, passed away about two and a half months ago as we’re recording this and we’ve all processed this in our own minds in different ways. And, Jeff, I’m sure you’ve gotten questions from people and I have, just like, ‘Can you just do a podcast on how we’re supposed to deal with this?’ And I guess this is sort of that, right? We’re doing this with you. So you know, grief is a thing that we want to talk about and we’re looking to see just how you’ve processed and what grief means to you and you know, the biblical notion of, and I don’t mean that sort of in a proof-texting kind of way, but there is plenty of grief going on in the Bible as well and what that means and maybe bad ways of thinking about grief and all that sort of stuff, just things to help people process.
Jeff: Well, I appreciate the insinuation that I actually know how to do this. And that’s been one of the hardest things is I don’t know how to do it.
I don’t know how to grieve, and I think the aftermath of Rachel’s death has shown me that in far too vivid terms. There have been days where I’ve woken up and I have sat kind of catatonic in front of this computer that I’m supposed to be writing on. And I have no words. And a friend will text me and it’ll become clear that that friend is going on with their lives. And I just think to myself, and I want to yell at my friend, but it seems rude. I can’t go on with my life because my friend isn’t here anymore. But there’s no manual for how to navigate those moments and those days.
Pete: No, there isn’t.
Jared: Well, and I think that’s important maybe even to tie it to the Bible, that’s one thing that in this time of grief, and I think everyone can connect to that because we’re grieving in a lot of different ways. And I think we’ll talk in a little bit that it’s not just death that we grieve. Grieving is a loss. It’s emotionally processing a loss. And we lose things all the time, and not just people. So you know, thinking through what you said is, it’s refreshing to think about grief as a thing that pushes us into the unknown. It reminds me a little bit of a wisdom category, because it’s not right or wrong. It’s not, here are the three steps. It’s this up and down. It’s this process that we often can’t, I think, get our arms around. And there’s something really, as hard as it is, there’s something relieving to that for me growing up in a tradition where everything about life can be boiled down into a few easy steps.
Jeff: Mm hmm.
Jared: So, while it’s challenging, it’s also something refreshing to be in a position where we have to lean on each other. We have to sort of stumble through this together. And that can be important, especially when we do this together, and not just individuals, which is you know, again, my tradition growing up, very individualistic.
Jeff: I think that was my tradition, too. And I think that is American culture being imprinted on our life together, right? But when we look at Scripture, so much of what happens in terms of grief is processed communally. When I think of Psalms, for instance, nearly all the Psalms, even the ones that were written in the first person and recited in the first person were meant to be spoken communally or sung communally and that’s a really striking thing to me. And in the Jewish tradition, they still are something that, the Psalms are something that are used in communal settings. And it reminds me that we’re not meant to bear the burden of grief alone. We’re not meant to mourn alone, even though that is what society tells us all the time.
Pete: It’s almost, Jeff, like we’re, I mean, this is at least my experience, you shouldn’t show your grief. You should almost be a little bit- look how strong they are. Because it’s almost an embarrassment and a sense of shame to grieve, like to beat your breast, you know, things like that they used to do in the old days. I mean, at least that’s my experience in our culture, that it’s a source of embarrassment. It’s something that if you must do it, do it quietly on your own then get back to work.
Jeff: I have felt like over the last couple of months, I don’t want other people to see my grief, because I’m afraid it will be perceived as weakness. It will be perceived- and being gay, there’s an extra layer of sensitivity to that, because I fear that I will be, once again, perceived as less than a full man. Right? I haven’t had that many models of tender masculinity in my life, models of men, straight or gay, who experience their emotion without shying from it. I remember when I was a kid, the person who told me not to cry from an early age was my grandmother. And she was a Bible teacher. And she was also the first person close to me that I lost; it was my senior year of high school. And it’s striking now, looking back and remembering all the times she told me, ‘Big boys don’t cry.’
Jared: Well, I’m glad that you kind of brought this out even bigger than just grief, because grief is one of the more vulnerable emotional states, but I think it’s true of most emotional states that I don’t know if it’s a Western thing, but somehow this privileging of rationality over against emotion. And I’m thinking primarily of men, you know, of the documentary, The Mask You Live In, that talks about men and in this country and emotions, but there’s something about grief that does feel weak.
And I just can’t help but connect that to the Gospel, this Gospel where weakness is power and power is weakness and the foolishness is wisdom and wisdom is foolishness. This up-endedness of the Kingdom and how grief connects to… maybe this counter-cultural witness that somehow maybe grieving is a way of being a counter-cultural witness for the Gospel. And that sounds so counter- even saying it, I feel like I’m kind of betraying my tradition, which is grief is sadness over loss is conceived as “unfaithfulness to the Gospel,” because the gospel is good news. And so, if you’re sad about something that’s not believing that you know, Rachel’s in a better place, or this loss, this you lost your job, well, look at the bright side. There’s always a positivity and that’s what being a good Christian means, is being positive about everything.
Jeff: But the weird thing is right? We all know that verse, it’s one of the only verses that every single person can recite, which is “Jesus wept.” So, it doesn’t make sense, when I step back and think about it, that we denigrate these demonstrations of emotion. If you look back at John 11, it says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, and a couple of verses later, he weeps. So clearly, there’s a disconnect, even in these traditions that claim to be so Bible-based because we don’t model our emotional practice on how the Christ we claim to believe in behaved when a friend of his died.
Pete: It’s another example of imposing, not intentionally, but imposing our Western ways of thinking onto this ancient text. And we sort of might be blind to things like “Jesus wept,” or, you know, Paul talks about sorrow. And, you know, maybe it’s a pretty common thing, I think. It’s unfortunate, especially with something like grief, which can be so, well, so necessary for the healing process for people who are left behind.
Jared: Yeah, I think of that as- I’m glad that you said that of leaving people behind, because in my tradition, I felt like the- if we’re to minister to the truly hurting people, I felt as a pastor, I was encouraged to cheer people up. And our services were built around making people happy. And I found that so- I had this phrase where I said, you know, that we make sure we don’t confuse optimism with delusion, where, like, we had to pretend everything was okay. That seems to be a Sunday morning in a lot of the churches that I would have been pastor of or attended, would have been about pretending that there aren’t things to grieve in our everyday life. Injustices that we have participated in or been subject to, that there aren’t these things that, frankly, every week, there are lamentations that we can communally process and go through, and how that actually can lead to the Gospel. That can be eventually good news, but delusion and pretending actually isn’t the way to get there. Has that been your experience, Jeff, that just in some of your ministerial roles, and as you’ve processed these things?
Jeff: I think one of the things I’ve learned over time is not to rush people past difficult parts of their stories. So, the other hat I wear is journalist, right? And I worked at Time Magazine and then at Condé Nast and the at Fast Company, and I’ve had the privilege of sitting at people’s kitchen tables, and on their living room couches, and hearing some very difficult stories. And as a journalist, you listen, you ask questions so that people have the opportunity to go deeper. You give them the space to tell their story. And I think those who are called to be pastors and ministers have something to learn from creating that kind of space, from not rushing people through their sorrow and not pushing them quicker than they’re ready to go through the painful parts of their stories. From the scriptural standpoint, I think, one of the most hopeful passages of Scripture for me, maybe perversely, is Psalm 88, because it doesn’t end in a happy place.
Pete: Um hmm.
Jeff: It doesn’t end with anything uplifting at all. So, I recently got Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible, which I highly recommend; I think it’s beautiful. And I want to read the last line of Psalm 88. So, this is what it says in the NRSV, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me. My companions are in darkness.”
So, this is what the psalmist is saying to God, ‘God, you have caused friend and neighbor to shun me. My companions are in darkness.’ Well Robert Alter, I think, amps it up even more because the way he has it translated is “God, you distanced lover and neighbor from me. My friends, utter darkness.”
Jeff: So, the NRSV has friend, and he dials up the intimacy and accuses God of distancing us from our lovers, right? Like there is no more intimate relationship, and to be able to blame God for breaking that relationship is a powerful thing to do in Scripture. And for me reading this, it gives me permission to take the most painful, the most graphic accusations and pour those out to God. God can handle even my angriest accusations.
Pete: Yeah and even, you know, Jeff, not that Robert Alter needs my approval, but that last line there in Hebrew it doesn’t say my friends are in darkness. There’s no “in.” And Alter’s translation, read that again, that last part there about the darkness.
Jeff: My friends, utter darkness.
Pete: Yeah, darknesses are his friends. The only friends he has are emptiness and darkness. Those are his closest companions.
Jared: Yeah, that’s how the NIV translates it, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Pete: Yeah, that’s gut-wrenching. So why can’t we do this in church?
Jeff: And it’s such an invitation at the same time. When I’m in a bad place or I’m struggling with something to be able to read Psalm 88 and just sit with it, not wallow, but sit with grief, sit with loss, sit with pain, whether it is on the scale of death or confusion about something that’s going on in my life or some situation that has turned grim and has not worked out. I know Psalm 89 is there, right? I know Psalm 90 comes after it. And Psalm 89 starts, “Let me sing the Lord’s kindnesses forever.” But sometimes I’m just not ready to even say that aspirationally.
Pete: Um hmm.
Jeff: To be able to just sit in the utter darkness for a little bit and to hear from the Psalmist, from Holy Scripture, that this is okay. That is tremendously hopeful for me.
Jared: Well, it’s interesting, maybe say more about how does ending unresolved- how is that hopeful?
Jeff: It is permissive. It is welcoming. It is hospitable to say, ‘This poem is going to allow your grief to be whole.’ I am not going to cut it off before it’s time. That’s not to say that it has the last word, because it does not. Death never has the last word in God’s story, right? We have the rest of the Book of Psalms and the rest of Scripture. But here in the midst of all these songs and prayers, we have one that is entirely devoted to rage. Is entirely devoted to anger at God and even blaming God, which is something that in my tradition, I was told was sacrilegious.
Pete: Yeah, you don’t do that in church, that’s for sure. God might hear you.
Jeff: Why not? God already knows how we feel right? So, what lie are we trying to tell?
Jared: Well, it’s an invitation to be fully human, which in my tradition, we were trying to be something that sounded robotic or maybe superhuman instead of an invitation to be fully human. It’s interesting you say rage too, because when I read Psalm 88, my first thought is actually the Book of Jonah, which sounds like the prayer of Jonah too is taking this pastiche of Psalms, some of which sound very Psalm 88ish. And that’s another book that invites you to be fully human, it doesn’t resolve at the end. And there’s something relieving to know that if I’m experiencing right now the fact that I don’t understand how this is going to work out, how death isn’t the last word, I need something for that time of my life. And Jonah, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, I’m really drawn to because- not that I don’t- not that people don’t need some resolution and some other things, but growing up, that was the only thing I was given. I wasn’t given permission or an invitation to be fully human and to allow things just to sit unresolved.
Jeff: I don’t think there’s any more fully human prophet than Jonah, right? Because in that story, if you read it carefully, he doesn’t really come out as the good guy at all, even at the end.
Jared: Right! You’re left with this big like ‘what?’
Pete: He’s a whiney prophet.
Jeff: I mean, honestly, he’s the one who’s so confused by God’s saving the city and we don’t get a happy ending there. And yet he still gets to be considered a holy man and a prophet, and what hope that gives the rest of us that we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to understand God’s grace. And we don’t have to be able to make sense of the limited amount of God’s story that each of us gets to see to be loved by God and called by God and accepted by God.
Pete: And you know, Jeff, the thing that always strikes me when we talk about this, you mean all these things that you guys, you and Jared are bringing up passages and such from the Old Testament. And that’s for me, like one of the commercials with my students: why the Old Testament is very important because you have these moments that are not minor themes, really, in the Old Testament. And the New is a little bit different, you have some like “Jesus wept,” but by and large, you don’t have lament psalms after the resurrection. You know, you’ve got the sort of this triumphant moment, but there’s so much time that transpires in the Old Testament, there’s so much time for stuff to go wrong. There’s so much time to grieve and to lament. And we, I mean the church has been around for 2000 years, you know? We, in that respect, we have much more in common with the lament Psalms or with Jonah or with limitations or Jeremiah, than we have with some of the stuff that Paul says.
Jeff: We’ve had so much time to screw it up.
Pete: Yeah, and to have things just happen to us. You know, where’s God? You know, no one’s really saying that in like, AD 40. He just said, “What do you mean? God just showed up, you know, it’s called Jesus. It’ll all be over soon, just don’t get married, you know, don’t get life insurance,” that kind of thing, right? But for us, it’s like we’re in the long haul. And I mean, not to go off on- this is not a tangent, but I think a lot of Christian theology has been about adjusting to the long haul and thinking through what does it mean to live like Christians here and now. And we’re still doing that. And that is really very, very parallel to the entire history of Israel in the Old Testament, where a lot of time has gone by, things have changed, and we’ve had to try to process what it means to be the people of God here now. And that comes with it a lot of time to grieve and to lament. We miss something if we don’t like look at these stories in these examples, which, like you said, Jeff, they’re affirming. You know? They are mirrors of the soul, as John Calvin said, they’re giving us permission, that you know, we’re not broken. We’re not bad people. We’re not faithless when we grieve, it’s part of what it means to be human. And there’s plenty of permission in Scripture to do just that.
Jeff: Paul talks a little bit about his suffering, right? But I wonder if it’s also a matter of genre. Paul’s writing letters. And if you are trying to exhort your friends, you’re not gonna constantly focus on the things that are going wrong.
Pete: That’s a really good point. Yeah, I agree with that.
Jeff: You’re gonna encourage them or you want to encourage them, if you’re a good friend. When I write letters, I don’t just talk about all the shit that’s happening in my life, because who wants to get that letter?
Jeff: But the genre, the genres that we find the grief in, in the Old Testament, they’re not letters, they’re poetry. A lot of it is in poetry and a lot of it is history.
Pete: But the poetry, what’s fascinating there- and this really contradicts what we were saying before about the American sort of Western experience, that stuff like half the Psalms, something’s going wrong. Something is really going wrong in about half the Psalms. The context for the Psalms is worship. That’s what you do. You don’t not do that. You do that. That’s exactly the opposite of how I think all of us were raised to think you’re supposed to be happy in church and not grieve and you know? So, we don’t have funeral services we have what do we call them, Jared?
Jared: Celebration of life.
Pete: Celebration of life. We don’t want to talk about dying.
Jeff: Completely opposed to that, for the record.
Pete: Well, so am I and, you know, when Rachel died, I did everything I possibly could to get to that funeral. Of course, we were all there. Jared was there too, because I needed to be a part of that. I just, I couldn’t even explain it. I just knew I had to be a part of that communal process of grieving because its not the same as sitting at home and watching it.
Jeff: I think one of the great gifts that her family gave her friends and also her readers who were able to watch the service online was that it was her family that was insistent that this would be a funeral. They knew in their bones that they needed a space, a sacred space in which to grieve and we needed it. And so that made those of us who were planning the service itself, made it easy for us to proceed with a liturgy that honored their wishes, but also recognized that this was death that we were dealing with, we weren’t just going to talk about how awesome it was that we got to be, in some small way, a part of Rachel’s life and experience all the gifts of her existence. We were actually going to mourn the fact that that had been taken away.
Pete: And there’s so much happening there. And you know, not to contradict myself, but those of you who weren’t there, it might still be on Rachel’s website, I don’t know. The whole thing was, I hope it is, because there were things that happened there that I think are worth experiencing for people who might not have an experience of communal grief and what that looks like and the permission given by all the speakers and you know, Nadia Bolz-Weber gave one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard in my life, just being very honest, very Psalm-ish and raw about how this sucks.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah, the link is still there.
Pete: The link is still there. Okay, that’s really good. So, for people who might not have been a part of that, just and you know, if they knew Rachael and were affected by her, to watch, that might not be a bad idea, I think.
Jeff: It’s rachelheldevans.com/funeral
Jared: And understanding that healing, if what we’re really for is the wholeness, healing happens often through grief. And so, we’re actually, to insist that we have celebrations of life and that we just, I don’t want everybody to feel sad. We have to realize that sadness is often the journey to restoration; it is the journey to healing. And I think that you know, Jesus’s death and resurrection, that model and pattern has become so important to me to recognize when everything in me wants to avoid the hard things and the sadness and the grief, I recognize that it’s only through death that we have resurrection. We don’t get to skip over Friday and Saturday and just get to Sunday. And that was I just- I’m so grateful that I feel like Rachel’s family and everyone that was involved allowed for that understanding, that we have to pass through this stuff, we don’t get to go around it. And that’s one of the central themes, I think of the Gospel.
Jeff: And the Christian story is not about immortality, it’s about resurrection. And I think that’s an important thing to remember, not just about physical death, right? At the beginning, you all said that we wanted to talk about different kinds of loss and different kinds of grief. And I think remembering that our God promises to redeem everything is important.
Pete: Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about other kinds of grief, because, you know, we grieve for many things in life and there is a similar process. I mean, it’s very different than losing a loved one, but there are many things that people grieve and have to mourn on a regular basis, right?
Jeff: I think it’s a normal part of life. And it’s a normal part of love, right? I feel a little bit of grief when I leave my best friend’s house and when I’ve ended a beautiful weekend with him and his family, and we’re not going to see each other for a while. Loss is part of gain. I don’t think you can have one without the other. It’s kind of like the majesty of the Grand Canyon exists because there is that dramatic difference in landscape. You don’t go to the edge of the Grand Canyon and just look up at the sky. You look down and you see the valley as well as that whole landscape. And I think, I interviewed these artists once was one of my first stories at Time Magazine and I’m not entirely sure, I agree with their formulation. So, it was Christo and Jeanne Claude, and Christo and Jeanne Claude, their thing was doing these grand, huge scale wrappings of buildings. So they like wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, and they’ve wrapped islands in Biscayne Bay off of Miami, and then they did this thing in Central Park in New York where they put up these orange banners and it was winter time and it was beautiful because you had all this white snow and then these bright orange banners. But every project that they did over like 40 years, was meant only to last for two weeks at the most, and then it went away. And it was their way of capturing their belief that we love as powerfully as we love because we know the possibility of loss.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jeff: I don’t know if that’s true in every circumstance, and I think the Christian story pushes back against that a little bit. But I think there’s some truth in it in that we do have these little griefs that punctuate our lives, partly because we love things and love people.
Pete: And there’s always a possibility and not just possibility, but reality, of loss and different kinds of loss in addition to physical loss, death.
Jeff: Change is inevitable, right?
Jeff: Nothing stays the same. You can’t bottle a beautiful moment. A fantastic meal inevitably comes to an end.
Pete: Yeah. Well, I mean, I know people who, you know, in academia, I know more people than I care to mention who love academia, who love, let’s say, Biblical studies or theology and who were trained for it and who sacrifice to go through the process of going to seminary and doing doctoral work. And they might be teaching for a while, but you know, there are cutbacks and they lose their jobs and schools are cutting back all over the place. And they come to a point where they say, I have to stop. I have to feed my family. I have to stop this dream, I have to go into another line of work. There is a real grief process there. There is a mourning of letting go of the love of something you simply love to do and realize you can’t do it anymore.
Jeff: I think sometimes it’s letting go of something that you imagined would be.
Jeff: And sometimes you may base that imagination on something unrealistic, I think.
Pete: Mm hmmm.
Jeff: I think often actually about my parents, the dreams they had for me when I was growing up and well into my twenties, before I came out, right? They had this picture that I would, like everybody who came every guy who came before me in my family, I would be a good Baptist deacon with a nice Chinese wife and 2 – 4 nice, cute, smart, accomplished, violin-playing Chinese children.
Pete: Mm hmmm.
Jeff: And there’s grief in the reality that that is never going to be what happens because I married a white guy. So, all kinds of loss there in their view.
Pete: Do you grieve for their grieving? You know what I mean, does that make any sense? Because they’re your parents, do you feel like, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s even the right way to put it.
Jeff: I think this might be controversial because I have been accused of being too conciliatory towards non-affirming theologies and non-affirming people.
Pete: Oh, okay. Yeah.
Jeff: I do. I feel my parents’ grief, I occasionally feel guilty for it.
Pete: Mm hmmm. And that’s part of your process.
Jeff: It’s part of my process, too. I love my parents, whatever theological differences we have, whatever distance there is between us now, because my life has not gone the way that they would hope it would go, I love them and I am sad when they’re sad. There is a part of me that is delighted in the love that I have found with my husband every single day and I’m so profoundly grateful for it. And it lives, that joy lives in tension with the sorrow that I know my parents experience.
Jared: Well, some of this, even what you’re saying, when I used to teach ethics, I talked about the cult of potential. And I think that grief is one of those taboo things because it actually undercuts that cult of potential that we have in America, where everything is about the hope that you will become this thing. And once the reality sinks in that you will not become that- like we almost have to not talk about that. Because grief begins to undercut that, grief begins to be seen almost as the opposite of hope. If I allow for the reality and I grieve the reality, I’m losing the hope that this might become this other thing. And so, I think that’s it also in that way, I appreciate grief because it’s accepting a reality, like just what you said, Jeff of like, we have to accept that that won’t- my parents’ dream and hope for me won’t ever be the case. And so when we- grieving is actually almost putting the stamp on that and saying, “Yes, there’s not a hope there.” And I feel like, in America at least, our culture we’re so obsessed with hope and potential that that feels almost sacrilegious to grieve.
Jeff: I wonder what costs we, as a society in the US, are paying now for our failure to grieve these kinds of losses well. Because so much of the political rhetoric, so much of the President’s success has been about capitalizing on the fears of loss that people have, losing their image of what their town, their community, their lives should have been. If our pastors, if our congregations had known how to grieve better and more candidly and more honestly, I wonder if we would be in a better place. I think a lot about my favorite line, I’m not a Lutheran, I’m reformed. But my favorite line from Martin Luther when he’s writing about his theology of the cross is that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, and Luther sees that as a necessary and honest and true step, in light of the cross, to being a healthy person and a healthy Christian. But so much of American society has refused to call a thing what it is, and I don’t mean that just in terms of racism or bigotry or discrimination. I mean, reckoning with the fact that the steel jobs aren’t coming back, accepting the reality that not everybody is going to come from the same cultural background that you come from, acknowledging that the demographics of a town have changed and will change and that change is an inevitability of life, right?
Jared: You mentioned earlier, you’re talking about a little bit of controversy, being conciliatory toward non-affirming theologies and the political realm. I can’t help but also think that, I guess sometimes, I think that this is a very appropriate thing, because I, you know, I have a lot of family, who would be very supportive of Donald Trump and “Make America Great” and understanding there is a grieving process. And sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but having grace for those who are in grief, in every sphere, understanding that there’s change is hard for most everyone. And there’s grief on all sides to accept that there aren’t steel jobs coming back, that is a form of grief. And to have the grace for people who are, maybe who don’t yet know like you said, you started out with saying, I don’t know how to do it well. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to grieve well. They don’t know how to grieve injustice well, but they also don’t know how to grieve the poverty or the loss of a job or the prospect that they won’t have a life that maybe was as good as their parents. All of that kind of fits for me into this realm of how do we have grace for people and help them grieve better rather than- what if our pastoral work toward grief superseded our need to judge? And I don’t know where that line is, but have you struggled with walking that?
Jeff: I don’t know where the line is either. But I do know that the exhortation to “mourn with those who mourn” does not come with an asterisk that says, if you happen to agree with their political convictions or if you happen to be friends with them, it just says “mourn with those who mourn.” And that’s super difficult, right? What if they’re mourning for the loss of something that is actually your gain? I don’t know where that leaves me. But I do know that Jesus calls us to a particular kind of grace and a particular level of empathy that is beyond us. And that’s where God’s grace comes in and the Holy Spirit comes in and, for me, God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit are very real things because I know so well my own limitations to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
Jared: Just to come full circle to the biblical understanding too though, I actually appreciate how the Psalms are often intertwined with both rejoicing and mourning and how it’s more complicated even than just sometimes I’m doing both. And I go back to maybe even Rachel’s funeral, I think I had very mixed feelings about rejoicing to see my friends, to see people that I really connect with and care about and have things to talk about. And so, there was a rejoicing and there was a mourning. And just understanding that our emotions are complicated and it’s not black and white, and sometimes, you know, the Psalmist I think, do a good job of that where you start in one place, you end in another place. You have grief and mourning and blaming God in one sentence and then, ‘but I know you’ll come through for me,’ in the next sentence. And it’s this ambiguity that I think marks what it means to be human. It’s just not always clear and I think grief is that way to where it is the ups and downs, and it’s a jagged process.
Jeff: I think that’s absolutely right on the individual level and I also think it’s true on the communal level. So, there’s another of my favorite psalms is Psalm 34, which is ‘I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be ever in my mouth.’ And I like verse three, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt His name together.” There are very honestly, there are very few times in my life where I’m just 100% on board with exalting God. It’s not something I’m good at it. Praise is not my natural condition for God or human. My friends will tell anybody who asks that I’m not always the most positive person.
Pete: [Light laughter]
Jeff: But I think one of the reasons I love Psalm 34:3, and particularly the second part, “Let us exalt his name together,” is that when I think of this communally, right? I imagine folks who are more gifted with a hopeful demeanor helping to hold me up and helping to encourage those of us in the congregation who struggle to do those more positive things. We can’t do it alone. Likewise, when I think of it on the individual level, I’m glad, Jared, for those tensions, right? Because we need some of those joys within our days to help lift up the sorrows and we need some of the sorrows to help us understand fully the joys. So, I really appreciate that there is this kind of interplay in some of these Psalms, because it reminds us of how complicated our emotional landscapes are and should be as humans.
Pete: Yeah, the Bible is a realistic book, in that respect that really, like you said before, I think it’s really important to you, as we draw this to a close, I think it’s really important to remind people again of what you said before, Jeff, the permission, let’s even say the biblical permission to grieve without saying, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute, I’m just going to grieve for a few seconds here, I’ll be fine.’ Just to let that process go, because I mean, grief is how we process suffering, and if we’re not allowed to do that, something’s gonna snap sooner or later or you’re going to have just a plastic sort of veneer over your life where you’re less than human. And I think the Bible gives us permission to do that.
Jeff: I don’t think it’s just permission, you know. I would go stronger. And I would say it’s an invitation.
Jeff: So last fall, I took this class in seminary that was really transformative. And by that, I mean, the ideas and the thoughts, they hit my brain so hard in a beautiful way that I’m still trying to figure out how to actually implement them in practice. And one of the things that this Professor, Deborah Hunsinger, said, is that our needs, and I would include our need to grieve and mourn, in that our needs are invitations. They’re invitations to other people to come alongside us in community, to express a need is an invitation to yourself to remember that you’re not meant to be or to walk through life alone. And that’s a really hard thing for me to believe many days that my need to grieve is an invitation. Because I wasn’t reared to ask for help and to show my need. I think of need as a weakness, just like I think of grief as a weakness. And this invitation to know deeply that God has made us to depend on God and to depend on others, I think that’s part of the invitation to grieve and mourn.
Pete: Well put, Jeff, I appreciate that. Well, listen, we have unfortunately come to the end of our time here and maybe in closing, just, where can people find you on the internet? They probably can or if there are any projects that you’re working on or that you just want to mention to the people out there maybe to get to know you a little bit better.
Jeff: Well, there’s always my book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?, which I wrote a few years ago and goes across the theological spectrum and tries to understand how it is that so many people claim to be Christian, yet come to such vastly different understandings on homosexuality. You can always find me on Twitter or on Instagram. Instagram is probably a happier place for me than Twitter, but you can find me on both.
Pete: Less political.
Jeff: Political in a different way, why don’t we say it like that.
Pete: That’s right. That’s true.
Right. And you can be on Twitter tweeting about Schitt’s Creek.
Jeff: I can often be found tweeting about Schitt’s Creek when I need some delight-
Pete: And if people think we’re cursing, we’re not. That’s actually a show on Netflix.
Jared: And just- we talk about communal lamenting we also have communal celebrations. And so, we can all celebrate Schitt’s Creek as just a masterpiece of cinema. Right?
Jeff: A gift from God for the people of God.
Pete: Oh, gosh.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Jeff, for coming on. It was just a wonderful- I mean, it’s interesting to say wonderful when we’re talking about grief, but it is so much part of the human experience. I found this a healing conversation to just release the ideas and thoughts and feelings around grief and God and how that’s all okay. And I’m just recognizing even now, as I talk, how maybe that has been bottled up in me for years, being told that that’s not okay to express and it’s not godly to grieve and to be sad about sad things. And I’m appreciative of your willingness to come and talk about your experience.
Jeff: Thanks, Jared. Thanks, Pete.
Pete: Thanks, Jeff.
Stephanie: You’ve just made it through another entire episode of the Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show.
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Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marking Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Jared: And you could probably cut that- thank you so much. I don’t know where the hell that came from.
Pete: Thank you! Thanks for coming, folks!
Jared: Thanks for- thanks in advance for listening before you even started. Dang it!
Pete: Jared’s an *censored*. He is such an *censored*.
Jared: I selective and wise. I’m an *censored* when I need to be.
Jeff: I affirm that.
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