One Way to Wade Through Grief

While I sat in the pews, shoulder to shoulder with distinguished clergymen and political figures from the city, I could feel the geyser of my emotions about to explode.

As a pastor in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, I’d grown accustomed to attending funerals of promising young people whose lives were cut short by gun violence. But sitting there with this one in front of me, I’d reached my emotional breaking point. 

After a pre-sermon selection by the gospel choir, the pastor walked toward the pulpit. With tears welling up in his eyes, he adjusted his tie and leaned his head over to peer at his nephew’s body one last time. Through a cracked voice, Job’s searing words spilled out: 

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

I lost it.

I leaned down to tighten my laces on my wingtips, and tears streamed onto the pebbled leather of my shoes.

A Father, a Mother, and a Body

“Jesus,” I thought to myself, “I can’t bear the burden of burying children who’ve been murdered by other children.” Finding my breath after the emotional deluge, I regained my composure and wiped away the tears. 

I looked across the sea of mourners. The historic African-American church that seated over two thousand people was filled to capacity, but my eyes gravitated to the front pew. There sat a mother consoled by her husband while they both stared at the body of their son, senselessly gunned down on the eve of his 13th birthday by a classmate. They led the sea of mourners, living every parent’s worst nightmare — burying a child.

As the funeral ended, the feeble, grieving mother stepped up to the podium to give her closing remarks: “Please, let’s celebrate at the repast, because it’s his birthday.”

That’s right. We celebrated his birthday with his body in the morgue.

The place was silent as we helplessly looked both ways at the intersection — celebrating life and lamenting death.

It was heart-wrenching.

Grace Comes Through Pen and Paper

This is the stark, gritty reality of urban ministry — we tend to bear the emotional burdens of that community (Galatians 6:2). Ultimately, only God’s grace through his Son can help us lift the heavy emotional burdens that we shoulder. After spending some time in prayer and devotion, the Lord helped me to experience that grace through the unlikeliest of sources — journaling.

I found a model in King David, who wrote many of his Psalms like journal entries that express a myriad of raw, honest emotion before God. I began to try it, journaling my experiences to process through the stress of inner-city ministry.

In his book Habits of Grace, David Mathis reminds us: 

“Even if many of the Psalms do read like divinely inspired journal entries, nowhere does Scripture command that we keep a journal. Unlike other spiritual disciplines, Jesus left us no model for journaling; he did not keep one.”

I do not want to indicate that journaling is a required discipline. It is optional — but it is powerful. I’ve seen it in three ways.

1. Journaling Is an Option for Honesty

Journaling has been immensely valuable in my spiritual life because it allows me to coherently engage and explain my emotions in a controlled, “judgment-free” zone. Too often, inner-city missionaries suppress their feelings. Eventually, those pent up emotions can lead to dissatisfaction with God and frustration in ministry. Journaling aerates the soul before God.

So, before the close of the evening, I take about ten minutes to trek through my day and honestly express my emotions before God. It unclutters my thoughts and puts the brakes on my racing mind, which normally leads to real rest when I sleep.

2. Journaling Is a Chronicle of Faithfulness

Periodically, I’ll pick up my journal not to write but to read. As I flip through the entries, my eyes pass over many green, highlighted sentences — the prayers which God has answered. Re-reading those prayers, I’m quickly reminded of the concreteness of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

Mathis writes:

“[God] made our minds such that we’re able to take thoughts further, and do so in greater detail, than our short-term memory can keep track of in the moment. When we write, we not only disentangle our thoughts, draw out our emotions, and dream about fresh initiatives, but we also develop them.”

So these hand-written letters help me not only to form my thoughts but also to record them. When I look back on my journals, the entries fill my mind with a panoramic view of God’s continued grace on me and those around me. Every time I see a green highlight, it nourishes my soul by reminding me to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalms 103:2).

3. Journaling Ventilates the Soul

When keeping our nose to the grindstone of ministry, we can often lose our tender affections for the Lord. Pondering God’s faithfulness and journaling his deeds reminds us that we are sons and daughters, not employees. Mathis is right when he says, “Journaling is not just an exercise in introspection, but a pathway for joy.”

Journaling reinvigorates our joy, our love, and our drive to serve to the praise of God’s glory. It scrubs away the dust on our affections. It ushers in fresh views of God’s mercy. 

Journaling is not commanded, but it is encouraged. Try it. God may use journaling as a means of opening a window to your soul, allowing the fresh air of his grace to ventilate stale affections and renew your passion to serve him, both in the traumas and triumphs of life.

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