I have been surrounded by an uncommon amount of grief this month. I’ve attended funerals in support of personal friends, I’ve officiated a memorial for my friend Jordon Cooper, and this week I even found myself caught up in the national grief over the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash. The past month has afforded me a unique, albeit unwanted look at the church in action as we lead communities in grief. I want share with you what I’ve observed.
On Sunday April 8th in Humboldt, SK, an entire nation looked to a small town ministerial for help. That ministerial did their work simply, they did their work well, and they did their work powerfully. If you missed the vigil for the Humboldt Broncos then take a look at Pastor Sean Brandow’s sermon here, it’s worth the 15 minutes. I can wait….
There are several things I will take away from the powerful, raw, and generous words that pastor Sean Brandow shared with a town and a nation in mourning. As leaders, I think we should sit up and take note. Moments like these cannot be planned for and they cannot be contrived; they can only be risen to. So long as Canada still calls on the church in times of grief, which I am not certain will happen for very much longer, I think we should take note and prepare now in case we should ever have to rise to a similar occasion.
Invest in Your Community Now
Much of the power in Pastor Brandow’s words came from the sizable investment he made in his local hockey team. He spent time with these boys. He knew them. He invested in their lives. You could tell that he loved them. Friends that I know who are team pastors for local hockey clubs tell me it can be a thankless job. You may run chapels that aren’t well attended. You may sometimes have to overcome suspicion and and even outright antagonism from players and administration alike (I hope our brother Sean has just demonstrated the value of having a team pastor to clubs that have had reservations in the past.).
You have to work hard to build bridges. It means time on the road away from family and it complicates an already busy church schedule. It can be a hard sell for church boards because this kind of work rarely leads directly to “church growth.” Lots of output with sometimes very little input. So, not surprisingly, very few of us ever take on the challenge.
But Sean very clearly found a way to take Jesus as his example and find the joy in being a servant. He found a way to build bridges and make deep connections. All of his blood, sweat and tears, as painful as it was, bore beautiful fruit as he walked with his team through the valley of the shadow of death. It bore beautiful fruit when he was able to speak honestly from his heart and lead an entire town and even a nation into grief.
Part of the reason the church in North America languishes in irrelevance is because we all too often ask “what’s in it for us?” This is scarcity mentality in its purest form. It also happens to be a million miles from the values of Jesus and his kingdom. Scarcity entrenches protectionism. After all, what could be more important that protecting what little we still have? Protectionism, if it is not confident in it’s return on investment, will stop investing. A church that stops investing stops connecting. A church that stops connecting is irrelevant. Even worse it is a church that is lost. A church that tries to keep its life will lose it, and a church that loses its life will keep it. By contrast a church shaped by the way of Jesus gives freely without expectation of return. It is generous to the point of danger. As a result that church opens itself up to the secret joy and power of being least and last. Jesus overcame the world through being its servant. That’s how the church will overcome it too.
Vulnerability is Powerful.
The most impactful moments of Sean’s sermon were when he had the courage to speak directly from vulnerability: “I’ve got nothing.” I know what it’s like to fear being vulnerable. I’ve often believed the source of my leadership and authority came from the answers and certainty I have to offer. I struggle to believe that God actually uses weakness, confusion, and being at a loss for words, . e Even though he says he does.
Answers and certainty definitely have their place, but more often than not they lack the saving power we hope for. Far more often people need someone to join them in their tiny sea-tossed boat as waves of doubt, anger, loneliness, and terror wash over the sides and threaten to pull everything under. Words of certainty in times of grief are not as buoyant as we often suppose. You see this principle at work whenever well meaning souls decide to “fix” a grieving family member during a receiving line at a wake with their words. These platitudes lobbed from a safe distance usually land with a hollow thud in the middle of valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps we hope that people will cling to our words instead of to us; pulling us down with them.
But our willingness to risk this possibility is the work of leading others in grief. It is to be present. To be there in the middle of the storm. To be someone to cling to. Grief has no shortcuts – . Yyou can only go through it. If you truly want to help there are no safe distances. There is only mourning with those who mourn.
Friends, the survival of the church has always depended on our willingness to serve and be vulnerable. Being a servant of all is not optional. Jesus was downwardly mobile. It was how he got things done. It is also what he expects of his followers. To practice the way of Jesus we need to recover the joy of being least and last. If we will not serve our neighbours we will remain irrelevant to our neighbours. We nurture this irrelevance by choosing to be a safe distant from them; tucked away in water- tight churches. If we imagine our gift to the world is to live as invulnerable answer- people lobbing “wisdom” from a safe distance our message will become an irritating noise. A resounding gong. A clashing cymbal to our neighbourhoods. In many places it already has.
Instead, the bible encourages us to join our neighbours in their ordinary lives; to join them in the boat wherever it is headed. Yes, this will make us vulnerable. It will also make us a part of things. Once we’re all in the same boat together, we will then be truly free to celebrate when there is something to celebrate. We will also be truly free to mourn when there is something to mourn. This is the path of Jesus and it is the only way forward at this time in Canada.