Last Thursday evening was movie night at the Kramer household. My brother lives in Colorado and I stayed at his house for a few days while attending a pastor’s conference. Last month he, his wife and two young daughters traveled to Disney World in Florida so they had slides and videos to show me. My brother and I had recently climbed some high peaks in the Rocky Mountains so we also had pictures to share.
Thursday was my last night at their house. Our two nieces, ages 6 and 8, were very excited to tell me about their Disney World trip, and just as excited to see pictures of their dad’s mountain adventures with their Uncle Scott. Well, we were up way past the girls’ bedtime. Finally, at 9:30 their parents practically had to drag them up to bed. The girls were pretty wound up. On their way to bed, for no apparent reason, they started laughing hysterically.
No doubt they were exhausted from a long day. No doubt they were still excited about the slides and videos. But I wonder if there might have been something else going on. Their uncle was leaving the next day and they knew it. We’d had a great time together. Maybe their hysterical laughter was not just from excitement or exhaustion. I wonder if their laughter was a way of expressing their grief at having to say good-bye.
In today’s reading from Mark a young girl is at death’s door. Her father, a powerful local religious leader named Jairus, is desperate to heal her. He’s so desperate that he falls at the feet of Jesus. This must have caused a sensation because Jesus was viewed by most religious leaders with suspicion. And yet, Jairus publicly begs him repeatedly to come heal his girl.
And, Jesus follows him. But before he arrives at Jairus’ house he’s met by people who have come to announce that it’s too late. “Your daughter is dead,” they say to Jairus. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”… 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him.
Here in this story we find grieving people, people who are trying to cope with loss. Some are weeping and wailing, a natural response to loss. And, some are laughing. Mark tells us that they’re laughing at Jesus for saying something outrageous—for saying that the girl is sleeping, when everyone can plainly see that she’s dead.
I thought of my nieces in Colorado, laughing hysterically last Thursday evening. Maybe it was their way of grieving, having to say good- bye to their uncle. Here in this story the laughter is for a different reason but I wonder if maybe it serves the same purpose. Laughter, just as much as weeping, can be a way of coping with the losses that inevitably come our way in the course of a lifetime. I don’t mean cruel laughter, or laughter at someone else’s expense. I mean free, spontaneous laughter that leads to healing.
Here in our own community we’ve experienced a number of losses this year. Memorial services are one of the great opportunities God’s people have to gather and publicly to come to terms with our grief, to begin the process of healing. Here we gather both to cry…and to laugh! Both laughter and weeping can be wonderfully healthy ways of expressing our grief and moving forward.
Without these God-given gifts of laughter and weeping we turn to other ways of coping with grief that are not as healthy. Grief will not be ignored. One way or the other it will come to the surface and express itself. If it isn’t allowed to be expressed in laughter or tears or some other healthy way it will find some other way. Grief that is ignored or stuffed inside will express itself through festering anger, bitterness and depression. Consider that and pray for those you know who seem to be almost constantly unhappy. There’s a good chance they’re grieving some loss and don’t know any other way of coping.
There’s a lot at stake in grieving well. At its worst grief will express itself in violence. We have only to read the newspaper to read the terrible toll that is taken on soldiers returning from war. When they return, having experienced unspeakable loss, many turn to violence against others and against themselves. A study from the Department of Veterans Affairs just last month reports that more veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have died by their own hand than died from enemy fire…18 military veterans commit suicide every day.
That may not come as a surprise. Men especially in our culture are not given permission to grieve openly or to grieve well. For example, young boys who cry are told, “Don’t be such a baby.” Later, they hear, “Real men don’t cry”—or some other such nonsense. People who take those messages to heart will find unhealthy ways of expressing and managing their grief, through depression, and often violence, drugs and alcohol.
I wonder what Jesus was thinking that day when the report came to him that the little girl had died. When he said, “She’s not dead but sleeping”—on the one hand, he was speaking a spiritual truth. St. Paul also uses “sleep” as a description for the temporary nature of death, before resurrection. But I wonder if out of love and compassion for grieving people maybe he was trying to get a reaction. Some of the people were weeping. Maybe for the sake of those who couldn’t weep he gave the gift of laughter, even if it meant that he was the target of their laughter.
We cannot by our own power cope with death and the losses that come our way. But Jesus by his own example offers hope for grieving people. God has given us wonderful gifts of tears and laughter to heal our wounded hearts. God has given us the gift of community in which we can safely give expression to our grief. God has given us the gift of worship, through confession and the assurance of forgiveness, through the passing of the peace, through music, and through Holy Communion, to confront our pain as a first step to moving forward. To the extent that we grieve well among ourselves we offer a healthy alternative to the unhealthy grieving that permeates our society and our world.
I am grateful for the hysterical laughter of my two young nieces last Thursday. To me it is not only a sign that two girls had stayed up past their bedtime. It is a sign of God’s presence and God’s grace. It represents a healthy household in which parents have created a gracious space where both laughter and tears are welcomed. Jesus once said that unless we become like children we cannot enter into the joy of God’s kingdom. And what could be more child-like than tears and laughter?
May the Holy Spirit stir in us the courage to confront our grief and trust that although God does not take away our grief Christ responds to the cries and prayers of desperate people today as he did 2000 years ago, walking with us and offering us the gift of healing, with the promise of resurrection and new life, both now and in the life to come. AMEN