Being a young person in the 21st Century is to live in a world full of suffering and pain, yet so often we try and shield young people from it. In an adaption from his new book, Mark Yaconelli explains the vital role that grief plays in turning our hearts towards hope. This article can be found in Youthwork magazine.
It is a hot, muggy week in July and 6,000 Presbyterian teenagers from across America and abroad are gathered for a conference. The theme of the conference is hope. After twelve months of planning, the event leaders have brought together a talented group of actors, musicians, videographers, multimedia artists, liturgists, preachers and teachers. Together, this well-meaning group has designed and led worship services filled with attention-grabbing images, dramatic words, heart-moving songs, creative games and relevant biblical teaching. The students and youth leaders love it. The mood of the conference is positive and upbeat. Like a rock show, people crowd eagerly outside the doors an hour before each service and sing songs, hit beach balls, laugh and joke in an atmosphere of fun and frivolity. On the third night of the conference a celebrated preacher is flown in to address the gathering. “God loves you! Be hopeful!” was his enthusiastic refrain as he summed up the message of the week.
The year is 2007, and the United States is deep into the Iraq War. President George W Bush has just announced that he will send an additional 33,000 American soldiers into Iraq. That same week, newspapers report a new study claiming that more than 160,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the start of the war. This is our daily news in the United States. Meanwhile: “God loves you! Be hopeful!”
We do not become hopeful by talking about hope. We become hopeful by entering darkness and waiting for the light
At each evening worship service, a youth group from a different part of the country is invited to make a presentation. Some youth groups sing. Other groups enact dramatic readings. On the second-to-last night of the conference, right after standing to sing ‘Our God is an awesome God’ a youth group stands shoulder to shoulder on the softly-lit stage and offers a meditation, in the Presbyterian tradition, on our confession of sin. The group introduces themselves and then says: “This is a video we made about the Iraq War.” The house lights dim and up onto the video screens are projected images of wounded, maimed and sometimes dead Iraqi children. There is no narrative – only a recording of a children’s choir singing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know.’
The images are gut-wrenching. Particularly disturbing is the accompanying syrupy, surreal soundtrack. Onto the screen appears a four-year-old girl in a white dress. She has no arms. The scar tissue at her shoulders is red and tender. She stares out from the screen with large, blank eyes. The image fades and into focus comes a picture of a two-or-three-year-old boy. He is lying in a bomb crater surrounded by broken concrete. His head and eyes are wrapped in a torn shirt soaked in blood. The images move slowly, contemplatively, while through the speakers we hear a choir of children singing in happy, enthusiastic voices:
“Little ones to him belong;
They are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so!”
Matched to the images, the song feels like a cruel mockery, as if the joyful singers are taunting the wounded children: “See how Jesus loves you? See how our strong Jesus treats you little ones?”
The song ends. The images cease. The lights are raised in the auditorium, and the audience sits stunned as the youth group simply exits. The stage sits empty for an awkward minute, and then someone cues the worship band and we stand, somewhat disoriented, and begin to sing another upbeat song of praise. My ten-year-old son, Joseph, unable to ignore what he has witnessed grabs my arm: “Dad, I need to throw up.” As we hurry out of the building, Joseph’s elder brother whispers an explanation: “I think it was those pictures, Dad.”
That night, as Joseph lay curled on his bed, my sons try to process what they’ve seen: “Why did they show those pictures in worship? Why are we bombing children in Iraq? Why aren’t Christians trying to stop the war? Why doesn’t God protect them?” Talking with my sons I suddenly feel how false and empty the conference has been. A year of planning, five days of teaching, five days of prominent Christian preachers, five days of creative dramas, five days of celebrity Christian bands, five days of enthusiastic hope in God — all suddenly erased by a three-minute montage of real suffering. We have been fooling ourselves. The week’s activities have been an escape from reality, a kind of happy pretending. There can be no real hope, no Christian hope, without acknowledging the reality of death. There can be no real hope unless it somehow embraces, unashamedly, the presence of real suffering in the world.
The next day I gather a random group of 40 students and share my insight. They agree that the images of hurting children have somehow challenged all the teaching of the week. The students are feeling helpless, uncertain how to relate to such bottomless suffering. We take out our Bibles, we talk about our own encounters with suffering, and together we craft a service that is willing to face grief.
The first thing we do is ask the organisers to hold the service outside, on a hillside, under the stars, away from the slick auditorium with its multimedia screens, state-of-the-art sound system and theatre lights. If we are to meet the real God in the midst of real suffering we need to be in a real place.
Just after sunset, with the 6,000 young people and adult leaders sitting outside on a warm summer night, I walk to the microphone and remind the group of the images we have all seen of the wounded children from Iraq. I talk about the shame, embarrassment, distress and horror that many of the students have shared with me in response to the images. I wonder out loud about our capacity to hope, to trust God’s love, when innocent children are dying, recalling that Jesus knew how to be in relationship to pain and death. I suggest that if we are to bring hope to the wounded and dying in this world, then, like Jesus, we have to be willing to enter into suffering. We have to be willing to be honest about our own suffering, our own wounds, our own grief, as well as the suffering that exists within the world.
I gently suggest that although the conference has been about hope, we have forgotten the first step. We have forgotten to talk about hopelessness, despair and death. The resurrection comes after the crucifixion. We do not become hopeful by talking about hope. We become hopeful by entering darkness and waiting for the light. We become hopeful by being honest with one another about our pain and then waiting, together, for God to show us a way toward healing.
As planned, one by one, a group of 20 young people come to the microphone and name a form of suffering in their community as well as what they believe the people in their community are waiting for. As these sufferings are named, students are invited to stand (and remain standing) if they, or someone they love, share that particular affliction or despair. Here are some of their statements:
“I come from northern Canada. In my community we are suffering from alcoholism. We are waiting to be freed from addiction.”
“I’m from Detroit. In my town young people are shooting each other. We are waiting for someone to show us how to stop the killing.”
“I come from Serbia. In my town we’re still filled with lots of hatred toward our enemies.We don’t know what we are waiting for… I think it’s peace.”
“I live in a little town in Indiana. People don’t have jobs, and we don’t know how to help one another. We’re waiting to make friends.”
“I’m from Los Angeles. I know lots of kids who are suffering from sexual abuse. I’m also trying to heal from sexual abuse. I am angry all the time. I guess we’re waiting for someone to listen.”
“I’m from South Carolina. We have an army base and lots of military families who have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them have killed and hurt people, sometimes innocent civilians, but they don’t want to talk about it. We are waiting for healing and peace.”
The night is dark and moonless. The only light is from the stars and a large circle of candles placed around a 15-by-25-foot wooden cross that lies at the foot of the hillside. After each person comes to the microphone, a young man raises a hammer and strikes the cross, causing a loud thud to echo across the hillside. The crowd remains silent and prayerful, the sound of the hammer representing a cry from all who are in pain.
As people on the hillside quietly stand up in solidarity, the young boy assigned to strike the cross begins to swing the hammer with all his might, overwhelmed by the palpable reality of suffering that night. With anger and sadness and frustration he hits the cross again and again and again and again and again – for the terrible mystery and reality of human pain, addiction, abuse, violence, despair and death. Bang… bang… bang the hammer falls, at times splintering the cross beams while thousands stand silent, helpless, bearing witness to the dark truth. We stand and stand, allowing the hammer blows to ring through us, until finally, exhausted, emotionally drained and out of breath, the young man tosses the hammer to the ground and walks away, his head hung in despair.
The hillside is suddenly silent and you can hear people quietly weeping. Then a voice from somewhere in the crowd begins to hum ‘Amazing grace’. Slowly, carefully, she makes her way down through the crowd, humming more loudly now and gathering other young women along the way. They walk down to the foot of the hillside, pick up the votive candles and then encircle the cross in candlelight. They stand, humming in unison as more students come forward, enter the circle of light and lift the cross onto their shoulders. Accompanied by the candle bearers, they walk into the crowd of broken, stuck, hurting people. The procession slowly, solemnly passes, like a funeral march, through the crowd until they reach the middle of the hillside where they stop and lay the cross on the grass.
Each person had been given a small unlit candle as they came to the service, and now those gathered around the cross turn and light the candles of those standing next to them. Those students then turn and light the candles of those next to them until the light begins to move from the cross along the hillside. As the candles are lit, we all begin to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” On and on we sing as the light spreads among the searching, hopeless, addicted, abused, angry, lost, faithless, suffering followers of Jesus.
That night, under the starlit sky, we were all, every one of us, overcome with hope – not the idea of hope, not the theological principle of hope, but the reality of hope – the living hope, the eternal hope, the hope that can never be quenched, the hope that has overcome death, the hope that waits to be discovered within the darkness and despair of every human heart. Through a night of despair we had begun to discover a way of life.
Loss is the great teacher
If I were to name the suffering that exists in the West, it is ungrieved grief. It is an unwillingness to admit, to name, to embrace the pain of loss. Many of the destructive practices of the Western world can be traced to a desire to distract ourselves from grief: what we’re missing, what we’ve lost.
Distracted from the reality of suffering, my heart hardens and I lose my capacity for compassion, I become less alive. “Loss is the great teacher,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once wrote. Without a willingness to face loss, I learn nothing. I spin in circles. I hide from others. I repeat my mistakes. I become numb to suffering. I lose my capacity for compassion and joy. I shield my heart from the presence of God – the God of Jesus, the God who suffers, the God who weeps and the God who laughs.
And yet I can’t force my heart to enter into grief. Sometimes the pain is too much, the loss so great that I have to approach it sideways, slowly, with gentleness and care. I have to wait until I know I am safe, wait until I find trusted friends who can keep me from falling into an abyss of despair. But when friends are found, when my heart is safe, when my soul is ready, then I find grief, lament, to be the deepest experience of prayer – to sit in the darkness, sit in the midst of my own gaping wounds, sit within the reality and absurdity of death, sit until light comes, sit until singing comes, sit until I sense the hand of the pain bearer, the life giver, the compassionate one, coming to my aid, helping me to shoulder the weight.
In the ritual students were asked to name the suffering in their communities. What sufferings live unnamed within your own community? What sufferings live unnamed within your family? What are the unnamed sufferings that live within you? Now as you reflect on each of these, what is each of these sufferings waiting for?
It is understandable that each of us wants to avoid grief, not only because we want to keep ourselves safe from the pain of loss but also because we don’t want to fall into despair at the meaninglessness often surrounding death and loss. Do you notice yourself avoiding facing some of your own losses? Do you notice you are protecting yourself from ‘ungrieved grief’? Why? What are the good reasons for keeping yourself away from facing the losses of your life? By avoiding facing these losses what is gained or how are you harmed?
The great scholar of death and dying, Elisabeth KüblerRoss, once wrote: “Loss is the great teacher.” What have you learned from your experiences of loss? What gifts have you been given in the midst of loss?
You can find this article in Youthwork magazine.