Would you rather go to a birthday party or a funeral? Visit someone in the hospital, or bring a gift to celebrate their new status as homeowners? Wait in line to get a good seat at a movie’s opening night or sit in a waiting room while someone is in surgery? Go to a home where they are mourning, or one where they’re celebrating?
These may seem like no-brainers, and I guess they are if you just ask “what would I rather do?” What if we were to ask – “what is better for me?” Which do you think is better for you? One school of thought says you need to maximize your positive influences and thinking…don’t let life drag you down, be around people and things that “make you happy.” That train of thought could lead you to avoid the difficult options listed above. But I think if you are pursuing your maximum joy, peace, and wisdom, you will head straight for the house of mourning.
Obviously I didn’t think of this myself. This concept comes from Ecclesiastes, a piece of wisdom literature from the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes tackles some of the big questions of life and its meaning. It points out how futile much of life is, the fact that working hard and doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee you anything…that everybody dies in the end, rich or poor…that throughout the Earth there is injustice and oppression…it’s one of the most raw books in Scripture. I specifically want to look at Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 today, which has been on my mind lately:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
Rather than go through this passage verse by verse and try to teach it out, I’ll share a few of my reflections from these words and my own experiences and observations recently.
We spend most of our time avoiding reality.
The world around us is broken. Really broken. Horrific things happen every day in whitebread suburbs, picturesque rural settings, violent ghettos, war-torn countries, picture-perfect homes, drug-infested hotels…everywhere there are humans, there is pain and suffering. Even in a best-case, you-experience-no-violence scenario, death comes for us all. As Ecclesiastes says, the house of mourning “is the end of all mankind.”
But we in the West, especially America, do everything we can to avoid facing that reality. Rather than see how bleak the world around us is, we distract ourselves with luxury and entertainment. We focus so much on securing our happiness and comfort that we don’t even realize how oblivious we’ve become to the world. So much of our time is spent worrying about whether or not a character on a TV show actually died, or if people are actually upset about a Starbucks cup or not, or if the latest iOS update broke our phone, if the coach is playing our kid enough, the latest manufactured outrage from cable news, the call the refs got wrong, or if we got into the A or B boarding group…that when something shakes us out of our materialistic, self-focused stupor, we don’t know what to do.
You could see this with the recent outcry over Paris. The terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and tragic. They were also one in a series of horrific and tragic events that occurred that week. At the end of October, a Russian airliner was bombed and 224 people were killed. On November 12th, two suicide bombers killed 43 and injured over 200 in Beirut. On November 13th terrorists killed 136 in Paris. Friday November 20th, terrorists killed 19 at a hotel in Bali. In April, terrorists killed 147 at a college in Kenya, which nobody really heard about until the Paris attacks. All of those things are horrible. They are also, mathematically, very small when you consider the amount of death and suffering that occurs worldwide every day.
Just one example: The World Health Organization estimates 2.2 million people die of diarrhea each year, mostly children in developing countries. That is about 6,000 per day. That is like forty-six Paris attacks happening every day, where almost all the victims are children. Deaths caused because people don’t have clean drinking water or access to something like Immodium AD, which you or I can run down to CVS to pick up whenever we want.
I could go on and on about the terrible things in the world, the number of people who die every day, people who experience horrific traumas, the epidemic of slavery and sex trafficking…but I won’t. There can be no argument that the reality is this: our world is desperately broken. Pain and suffering are the norm for most people, and eventually will be the direct experience of all people. I don’t say this to minimize the suffering, but rather to magnify it. It’s not that the Paris attacks or any of these other things aren’t a big deal. They are terrible and tragic. And there’s plenty of that to go around.
I don’t think anybody should have been shocked at what happened in Paris. People have been doing horrible things to each other since people have existed. It happens every day, everywhere. “People are basically good” is not a conclusion anybody would reach by observing the history (or present) of humanity. Scripture and history are clear: people have their good moments but overall you can count on man’s inhumanity to man. You cannot educate or civilize the sin out of people. (That doesn’t stop us from trying, or acting like it’s possible, though.)
Those of us with the privilege to live in the first world West have the option to distract ourselves from reality in ways never before possible in history. We have more entertainment and luxury at our fingertips than the richest royalty of the past. Our culture and our own hearts train us to avoid the reality of pain and suffering. Most of us don’t know how to make sense of it, whether we believe in God or not.
But we can’t avoid it forever. There are moments when we enter the house of the mourning – moments when the fog we try to live in lifts, and we can see the despair and pain we’re so desperate to avoid. Those moments can be when we ourselves are faced with something horrible, or someone we love is, or something grips our attention in a new way (like the Paris attacks did for so many this past week), or something else can cause us to walk through those doors.
And in those moments I believe we have an opportunity to grow and learn that we do not have when we are blissfully avoiding reality.
What I might be learning in the House of Mourning
I’ve spent most of my life avoiding the reality of suffering. I’m not writing this because I’ve attained some higher level of enlightenment that you should. But I feel I’m in one of those life moments where the fragility of my life and the reality of suffering around me is clearer than ever. I know myself well enough to know that as I settle in to my new reality of fighting cancer I will revert back to old patterns of thinking and avoiding the reality of the pain around me. But I am praying that God would grant me the grace to learn and grow through this; that I would not be the same as I was before. Here are some things I think I might be learning and questions I am asking; maybe they will encourage or challenge you:
There are so many people around me suffering every day; how can I better notice them, pay attention to them, and show them that God loves them?
The last month of my life has shown me more clearly than ever that God is real, God is good, and God loves me. I have received so much love from so many people. The comfort, peace, and joy I’ve received because of this is incredible. And the reality is, there are people all around me suffering who do so without any of the comfort I’ve received. They’re unsure about God and His love for them, they don’t know Jesus suffered for them…they don’t have people around them encouraging them with the truth of the Gospel, or serving them with the love of God… In the House of Mourning I am able to see that these people are all around me. I want them to be able to experience the love of God and love of others. If that is actually true, it will change the way I pray, spend my time, engage with people…all of it.
Everybody is going to lose everything they have. Some in an instant, some over time.
We’re all headed for death. For some it will come instantly and unexpectedly. For most it will be a slower decline with many painful and humiliating stops along the way. Everything we take comfort in, everything we find our status in, all of it – other than Jesus – can and will be taken away from us. This is reality. Am I living as if that is true? Am I living as if it’s true for the people I love? How am I helping them prepare for that? How am I helping others find joy in the One who will never fail or forsake them?
What I believe before I enter the House of Mourning dictates my experience as I walk through it.
Nobody enters the House of Mourning in a vacuum. We do all enter it though. We do so in the context of our current life circumstances, the condition of our relationship with God, relationships with others, a church family or not, etc. When the storm hits, we learn a lot about what we’ve been counting on to give our lives meaning and stability. I’m learning that God has given me some core convictions in my heart that have made this journey entirely different than it would’ve been otherwise. I’ll share some of those later. But what we fill our hearts and minds with, what we surround ourselves with, what we do and don’t think about – those all bear fruit (good or bad) when we walk into the reality of evil.
My only hope for peace – in eternity and right now – is the Gospel.
I will write some more about this soon – how the Gospel can bring me hope in the moment. But I can say that as I am in the House of Mourning, facing my mortality in a way I never have, I am finding Jesus to be more faithful, and truer, than I ever dared hope. The fact that though I am a great sinner, Jesus’ grace is greater still, gives me the ability to face anything with confidence, whether’s it’s a broken world or my broken body.
Here are a few more questions I’m pondering that you might want to as well:
What are some ways I distract myself from difficult realities?
How can I be more aware of the brokenness around me?
Is there anybody I know right now that’s suffering that I can reach out to?