Being a pastor and an emergency service chaplain means I see a lot of people cry. A lot. It may be at the scene of the death of a loved one, or maybe from the significant trauma they witness or that they are feeling the acute pain of failure or rejection. In the midst of their tears, no matter how serious the situation, almost all people say one thing, “Sorry for crying.” They feel shame that they are expressing their grief and loss with someone else present. It is because Australians come together to “celebrate”, but we expect people to cry alone. We love success and stigmatise grief. It is a huge cultural blind spot.
Mother’s Day brings these unspoken cultural assumptions about grief to the fore. The assumption we should cry alone comes out in very caring garb however. People lovingly worry about how churches might mark Mother’s Day, because it is a time of sadness for some (or many?). Therefore, they urge we boycott the day. While we do need to protect people and be careful what we say or do, perhaps this reticence to mark Mother’s Day relies on and then reinforces that Aussies should cry alone.
I recently asked a group of Clergy what they do in their churches on Mother’s Day. One story stood out. The story was told of one lady in a congregation who would not come to church on Mother’s Day as she would cry and that would “distract others.” She felt she needed to protect herself and others from the public expression of grief. She felt she had to cry alone. Perhaps instead she needed her church to understand her grief, acknowledge it and walk alongside her rather than feel “distracted” by it. Many Christians fall into the cultural assumption that people cannot cry when they come to church, or if they do cry they need to hide behind dark sunglasses and sitting up the back. As a result churches neither celebrate nor mourn anything together anymore.
What if ignoring Mother’s Day and the grief it arouses from the soul does more harm than good? What if instead our churches valued expressing that grief with us all around so we can walk with people in their dark valleys and pray for and with them?
In the days of Ezra they came together to “celebrate” the rebuilding of their beloved temple, but amongst the celebration some people came and wailed out loud. The congregation marked the same occasion with different emotions, some with joy and some with grief. But they did it together. There was no condemnation of the joyful for being insensitive, or of the grieving for being too sensitive. I fear becoming a church of emotional monochromatic people to fearful to cry out loud or to laugh out loud.
Churches have the opportunity redefine Mother’s Day from the token “celebration” of mum with breakfast in bed to a community acknowledgement of joy, grief and every other emotion. We have the ability to do this in fellowship and not in isolation. This will mean that Christians will need to change a little to allow themselves to feel the discomfort sharing grief. Not only could we, we should. It is very Christlike to come along side the sad, the hurting and those who mourn. Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn” but sadly our practice of crying alone shows we don’t actually believe it.
This redefinition will need more than a change in practice, but a change in culture to one where we accept and empathise with sad people every day, not just on Mother’s Day, (or Father’s Day, or Christmas, or ANZAC day, or any other special day) when people are sad, but every day! Because, in the end Mother’s Day does not make people sad, the sadness is already there inside, Mother’s Day crystalises those feelings. This change in culture will require joyful people to understand, accept and love those who mourn while they celebrate, and for those who mourn to understand, accept and love those who celebrate while they grieve. This kind of mutual acceptance is fundamental to Christianity.
My prayer is St Matts will be a place on Mother’s Day, and every day, that allows people to feel loved and understood wherever they are on the emotional roller-coaster. Please come and share in fellowship with us. We will try not to rub your face in it, we will try to walk with you, cry with you and pray together for that day when Jesus will return and wipe every tear from every eye.