A couple of Sundays ago, I handed over leadership of the eldership at The City Church. A role I had held for the last 10 years.
I had anticipated feeling somewhat emotional, but the reality was far more intense. Some sadness, loss and grief is just plain horrible. And I cannot pretend to be someone who has walked through as much pain as many reading this. But I would say that one lesson I am beginning to learn is that some grief is healthy, essential, and actually "good".
This past experience reminded me of the lesson God has been trying to teach me for a while: that life is filled with small and big examples of grief. Loss. In one form or another, it is inevitable and everywhere.
Pete Scazzero brilliantly speaks about this in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church. He makes the point that we can easily not account for the grief and loss we are actually experiencing through life. He rightly points out that it is far more subtle and frequent than we realise.
From our children losing their innocence, your friend moving away, the loss of dreams about your life, even the loss of countryside for housing.
Loss and grief are everywhere.
It's very easy to try and bury any kind of sadness. Films such as Inside Out, which ultimately make Sadness the hero, are rare. But I'm personally glad that, as we get ready to leave England and God-willing, move to California, I am grieving as well as getting excited.
For me on that Sunday, the grief was nothing to do with my changing role. It was everything to do with the change in closeness to my friends, who have become family. And having my parents present at the service made the moment more bittersweet. The grief is for the apparent loss and death of my current access to so many people whom I consider dear, dear friends; both church family and our biological families.
Although the grief was somewhat debilitating, upon reflection I'm so pleased that these people mean so much to me that I felt what I did. And indeed still do. In an age when so often church leaders seem to robotically leave the church family they've been leading at the drop of a hat, for me this has and is being like "cutting off a limb", to quote my Dad.
Grief can lead to bitterness and hardness of heart and anger. But it can also lead to a realisation of the gift of life. The often overlooked miracles that surround us everywhere. And for me, more than anything, I feel as if I'm seeing friendships with fresh eyes. Grief is somehow helping me to slow down and savour one friend at a time. And so in that sense, it is a grief that is genuinely good.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 says "that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope". As Christians, we do grieve, but just not in the same way as those without the hope of God.
Jesus' death and resurrection has changed everything.
There is a pattern we follow: death and then resurrection. One day, this will be literal, but also, our ultimate resurrection is foreshadowed through 'death and resurrection's of many kinds. Endings, losses, grief. Knowing that to follow Christ means inevitably following Him into things that feel like death and then (in their own way) resurrections; this completely changes things. The greatest fruit of these deaths is intimacy with Christ.
As Paul puts it in Philippians 3:10: "that I many know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to His death". To become like Christ means embracing the 'deaths' in this life. The endings. The limits. Yet there is a friendship, an intimacy promised in this place. With Him. A "fellowship" and closeness to be received in this place of Christ-ordained suffering. We exchange some temporary comfort for the priceless treasure of greater closeness with Jesus.
As a parent's instinct is to hug their child when they are hurt, so too our Father seizes every moment of our pains to draw close.
And so the grief that we work so hard to avoid, although scary and painful, is not a place we walk alone. For the Christian, it brings the promised place of greater intimacy with Christ, our wonderful 'older brother' (Romans 8:29). And for that reason, if nothing else, we can call grief "good".
For any who are interested, here is my final sermon to City as their lead elder. And underneath it, the article I wrote in the church newsletter.