Blessed Are They That Mourn

We understand that loss and grief are painful. Can they also be a blessing?

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


Wednesday will be the one-year anniversary of the 2016 election. In the interests of time, I shall endeavor to curb my ever-present desire to fulminate against this soulless president that was the result of that election; suffice it to say that underneath my rage and horror — so overpowering that they have effected a spiritual crisis — I feel a profound sadness. Every day, I wake up and remember that we have a spiteful, self-centered, authoritarian, xenophobic, misogynistic racist in the Oval Office, and it saddens me indescribably.

Another feeling is a desire to understand how we got here. I can appreciate that Secretary Clinton titled her book on the subject What Happened. Millions of us want to know what happened. Robert Mueller’s job is to find out what happened (and what didn’t), and with the indictments that were handed down last week, we are finding out more and more about what happened — but we’ve got a long way to go, and we may never know the whole truth; even more likely, we as a nation may never agree on what the truth is. We certainly don’t seem to now.

These are matters of enormous consequence. Yet they also reveal a human trait: when we are in pain, we often desire an explanation for its cause. Sometimes we really need to know. (This is one of those times.) But at other times, we crave explanations without necessarily recognizing that more information, more data, more explanations wouldn’t actually help us at all.

Before I came to this church in August, I had been on the professional staff of eleven other congregations: two as ministerial intern when I was in seminary, two as a consulting minister, and seven as interim minister. I have said goodbye to the people of eleven congregations. Most of those people I will never see or speak to again. I ministered to and with them to the best of my ability, I loved them, and we said goodbye and that was the end of our relationship. It’s been a marvelous journey and I do not regret it. I feel gratitude, joy and contentment when I think about those experiences. And they are gone forever, and that also makes me sad. What about it? Maybe, in addition to being grateful and joyous and contented, I’m just sad. But however much it may influence the present, the past is gone forever. We all have things that we miss, things that are gone forever. So we feel sad. No explanation, no additional information would make me not feel sad.

I’ll admit that twenty years of at least trying to think deeply about the communal life of Unitarian Universalists has not inoculated me entirely from the temptations of stereotyping. One stereotype that many have of Unitarian Universalists is that this is a people that likes to be in control. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” It isn’t untrue that Unitarian Universalists enjoy being in control, but the statement is incomplete. It’s incomplete insofar as everybody wants and needs to have some control, and I have no compelling reason to believe that UUs have a greater eagerness for control than anybody else. It’s also incomplete because UUs are quite capable of relinquishing control. One problem that I see is that our communal religious life doesn’t encourage us to relinquish control. So much of our language and practice is about agency and empowerment. Those are fine and wonderful things. But I have long been concerned that Unitarian Universalists are not good at balancing the need for control with a need for renunciation. No one can control everything. In other religious traditions, there are communal rites of atonement and reflection that serve as reminders of human frailty and our need to reexamine and reevaluate our lives. Such rites are almost entirely absent from Unitarian Universalist praxis. Leaf through any UU hymnal to any random page, and the likelihood of finding a message along the lines of “Aren’t we terrific!” is high. This has its value, but it is incomplete. We are not in control of everything. We are as prone to error and to ignorance and to making damn fools of ourselves as any group of mortals on this tired old earth.

The work of interim ministry is never dull if one is genuinely interested in what a group of human beings have experienced and are experiencing, what they feel, what they fear, and what they hope for. It is an extraordinary privilege to listen to people’s stories. The stories of this church include stories of change and of dealing with change. In some stories of the life of this congregation, one thing I have noticed is a sense that some in this community want to know more about how and why changes have occurred and what they might mean — and perhaps some wonder: Is there more to the story than what we know now? If there were, it is not completely absurd to imagine that the interim minister who has listened to the stories of dozens of people who were directly involved would have unearthed it by now. What I have unearthed is this: a question. What if what has “really” happened is: many in this community feel sad? What if that’s the story? How would we minister to one another and covenant with one another if that were our story? I wonder if sometimes the temptation is great to want to say, “But I don’t want to feel sad! Somebody else owes me something so I don’t have to feel so sad!” But that is about control — control we seldom have in life. Would our perception of ourselves and one another change if we realized that maybe we already know everything that we need to know? Would our experience seem somehow different if we simply said, “Wow, this is sad.”? What if what we need is not more information, but more understanding?

One of the best-known passages in the Bible is that collection of aphorisms of Jesus known as the Beatitudes. They are eight blessings, each beginning “blessed are they,” “blessed are those.” The second of these is: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. With this as with all eight beatitudes, there is no explanation as to why they are blessed, nor what will cause the blessing — only what being blessed will look like. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. What blessing is there in mourning? Mourning is painful and sad. How is that a blessing? Does anyone in this church mourn — for any reason? Surely, yes. What would it be like if we asked ourselves and each other if our mourning, if our sadness, could be a blessing?