By Rev. J.C. Austin
One of the things I miss the most from the pre-pandemic days is live music. My last concert was at the end of January 2020, here in Bethlehem at the Musikfest Café at SteelStacks, and it was to see Bob Mould, who was the lead singer of the seminal 1980s band Hüsker Dü, playing not only as a solo artist but literally solo: it was just him and his electric guitar. And while he is now 60 years old, he played and sang with a more mature version of the same furious energy and blistering sound he had when he was 23. I think my ears are still ringing from it, actually!
This was the first time I had seen him live, after more than 30 years of waiting. When I was in middle and high school in the 80s, if you were serious about rock music, you listened to what was called “college rock” because it was generally played on college radio stations rather than commercial ones; it is what morphed into alternative rock in the 1990s when it started getting commercial attention.
R.E.M. is probably the best-known and most commercially successful band to come out of that scene, but Hüsker Dü was probably the most influential with its combination of the anger and raw energy of punk music with surprising beautiful melodies. Nirvana, the band that is often credited for almost single-handedly changing the course of rock music in the early 90s, wouldn’t have existed without Hüsker Dü.
The obscure name of the group is a Danish phrase that means, “do you remember?” The band apparently got it from a board game based on memory skills, like the card game Concentration. And it was a good choice for them, since they paired aggressively loud and distorted guitars with lyrics that often dwelt on remembering simpler or better times wistfully, or recalling and reflecting on moments of pain and loss that have not gone away. That night at Musikfest Café, Mould played several of the band’s greatest examples of that, songs that have been part of my own personal rotation of both listening to music and playing guitar over the last seven months.
One of them, though, came immediately to mind for me when I was reading these familiar words that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that are collectively called the Beatitudes because they are a series of blessings. The first two, in particular, about those who are poor in spirit and especially those who mourn, reminded me of the Hüsker Dü song called, “Hardly Getting Over It,” which is one of the best meditations on grief and loss and regret in all of modern music.
It is a masterful storytelling song, with each verse a self-contained vignette: the first of him running into an old friend who he realizes is going through some devastating experience but can’t bring himself to name it; the second of him tentatively trying to engage a homeless man who tells him to go away, which he does, and when he summons the courage to go back a week later he finds the man has died; and the third of him losing his grandparents within days of each other, the effect that has on his parents, and what he will do when his own parents die.
And in between the verses, he sings the chorus that simply says, “he’s hardly getting over it; hardly getting used to getting by,” except the last one, after the verse about his family, in which he finally admits, “I’m hardly getting over it; I’m hardly getting used to getting by.”
That one line alone is like a whole song or poem about the truth of what it feels like to be in grief. Because whether people literally say it or not, our society generally assumes or expects people to “get over” their grief, or at least to get used to “getting by,” to functioning at a basic level so they can fulfill their responsibilities at work and at home and elsewhere in their lives. Employers who offer bereavement leave at all often offer three days for an immediate family member: a parent, a spouse, a child. Three days.
And so there is enormous pressure, however unspoken, for those of us who are grieving not to reveal it, or at least not to reveal the full extent and overwhelming weight of it and the exhaustion of having to carry it around, which often feels like we are doing our jobs or household chores or family responsibilities or even church activities while dragging the weight of grief with us like a pile of boulders on a blanket that we have to bring wherever we go. It is hardly something you can get over; it’s hardly something with which you can even get used to getting by.
Which is why the ways that people often try to “help” when someone is grieving don’t work, because as well-intentioned as they might be, they are usually attempts to distract us from the presence and power of our grief, the idea being it would help us get over the grief or get by with it, even if just for a few moments. But to think that is to make the mistake of thinking that the problem is grief itself and the emotions of sadness or anger or numbness that accompany it.
But grief and the emotions that it generates are a reflection or a manifestation of the real problem, which is the loss that we are grieving in the first place. And the truth is that we don’t actually want to “get over” that, as if it is some kind of obstacle that blocks our path that we just have to clear and leave behind. Because to do so would mean that we would be getting over and leaving behind the love that is the source of that grief, too; to have one is to have the other.
When Jesus begins offering this series of blessings that begin his Sermon on the Mount, traditionally called the “Beatitudes,” it might sound like he’s giving this sort of problematic help: “blessed are those who mourn,” the second one goes, “for they will be comforted.” Now far, far, too often that has been twisted to become part of a false Christian theology that if you have faith, you should not mourn, because the person you love is with Jesus. But that, quite simply, is nonsense.
Jesus himself wept even when he knew he was going to resurrect his friend Lazarus momentarily. Paul tells the Thessalonians doesn’t want them to grieve “as others do who have no hope;” he doesn’t say they shouldn’t grieve, he says they shouldn’t grieve the way those who have no hope do, because as Christians we have hope in the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ. But there is no resurrection without death, and death is always reason enough to grieve, even if there is also a blessing in the midst of that death: an end to some kind of deep and unchangeable suffering for the one who has died, or a sacrificial death for the life of another or for a noble cause that furthers God’s ways of love, justice, mercy, and peace.
Because as Christians we do have hope: hope in Jesus Christ, hope in his defeat of the powers of sin and death, hope in his opening the way to eternal life through his death and resurrection. So when Christians grieve, we grieve in hope, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also grieve in sorrow; hope is an addition, not a substitution, because hope for eternal life doesn’t and shouldn’t erase the loss we feel for a loved one being gone from us now.
That’s why Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He doesn’t say, blessed are those who were mourning but stopped because they had enough faith not to do so. Jesus never, ever, suggests that when faced with death or profound loss that we should just get over it because we are people of faith. Rather, Jesus presumes that there are times we will mourn, and that we will hardly just get over it, nor should we. Nor does he say, blessed are those who mourn, because eventually they’ll get used to getting by.
He says, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Now, “comforted” sounds pretty good when you’re just barely getting by, but the word Jesus uses is actually much richer and more powerful than that. It’s difficult to translate it literally, but the meaning is essentially, “blessed are those who mourn, for others will be called alongside them for comfort.” Now if you’ve had any real experience with deep grief, you know how isolating it can feel in our society. Because as I said before, many well-intentioned people do not come alongside us in our grief; they try to distract us out of it by getting us to come along with them and go somewhere else, somewhere away from the grief. Or worse, they are afraid of coming alongside us: they are afraid of making things worse by saying the wrong thing, or they are simply afraid of getting too close to the depth and power of our grief.
The truth is, though, we all have a chance to play all of those roles during our lives. All of us, every single one of us, will have a time in which we are in the grip of profound grief, when we are hardly getting over it, hardly getting used to getting by as day after day blurs together in the grey fog and deep shadows of mourning someone we love. Unless we go through life loving absolutely no one (a spouse or partner, parents or siblings or children, friends and neighbors), that will happen to us; it has already happened to many of you, and to many multiple times. The past seven and a half months have made that reality far more likely for all of us, with more than 230,000 people having died from COVID-19 in the United States so far.
But that also means that we all also have a chance to be the one who comes alongside those who mourn bringing comfort; to be nothing less than the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Because comfort does not mean the end of grief; it does not mean “getting over it.” But it also does not mean getting used to getting by.
It means that in our mourning, Christ comes alongside of us to sit with us in our grief, to share its burdens and chase away the gloom of isolation that all too often comes with grief. And Christ does that through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit; sometimes as spirit, but even more powerfully through those who come alongside those who mourn and incarnate Christ’s love and comfort through their presence. That is how those who mourn are truly blessed and comforted; that is how Christ’s promise is fulfilled.
Not through wise words that help us get over it; not through distractions that help us get used to getting by; but through sitting down alongside us, right in the midst of our grief, and saying, “I’m here. I love you. I know this is hard. I can’t make it easier; but I can stay with you so you don’t have to do it alone.” May it be so for each of us and all of us in this season of deep and widespread grief; for those who comfort, and for all those who will be and are comforted.