"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." - Matthew 5:4
When I was living and working in Toledo, Ohio in my mid-20s, I often had lunch at this large, cafeteria-style restaurant downtown. Patrons would load their trays and sit in a large atrium filled with tables, booths, and a lot of potted ferns. The food was lousy, but the big plants surrounding each table made it an ideal place for conversation.
That atrium is burned in my memory. There, I confessed my crisis of faith to my pastor. It’s where I almost came out to who-knows-how-many people. It’s where I sat listening to co-workers talk about “hot girls” and dating, while I parroted the expected responses and tried to change the subject. It’s where I sat alone unable to think straight (let alone pray), mind swirling with doubt, confusion, fear, and disillusionment.
One particular lunch I remember sitting with my friend Charlie, trying to explain those paralyzing feelings of doubt and confusion. I felt safe with Charlie. Charlie was in his early 40s, a handful of inches above 6 feet, bearded, loud, passionate, and extremely kind. He listened to my awkward explanation, and then said: “Do you know that verse ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’”?
“Mourning means to get on the outside that which is inside,” pointing to his heart.
“Um, OK. What does that mean exactly?”
“I’m just saying that’s what you are trying to do right now. You are in pain, and you are trying to identify and express it.”
Charlie’s words rang true. Part of me wanted to keep those emotions buried, to pretend everything was alright, and to keep playing the part of Kevin Shoop, mild-mannered evangelical Christian dude. But I couldn’t. His words encouraged me not to “rest in the Lord” or stop struggling, but to keep digging.
I struggled internally, in part, because I was wrestling with my sexuality. I knew I was gay, but I was taught it was open rebellion against God to succumb to the temptation. The “temptation” was not only to act on these sexual desires, but to identify as a gay person. So, I slogged through various ways to change my sexual orientation and/or commit to a life of celibacy (fervent prayer, ex-gay therapy, workbooks, Bible meditation, etc.).
During this time of struggle, Charlie’s words would come back to me now and then. “Blessed are they that mourn....” Years later, as I began to understand and embrace my sexual identity, it dawned on me: coming out is a form of mourning. Blessed are they that get on the outside that which is inside.
There is loss when someone decides to come out: family, friends, old belief systems, well-worn masks. We mourn all these losses. We also mourn "lost time"— compassion for the child/person who genuinely thought they were broken and desperate for change. But there is comfort in becoming more whole and authentic. Genuine growth and healing are possible.
Please note: Coming out is no easy task. In no way should an individual be forced or shamed to come out before they are ready. Some must choose between coming out and physical/economic safety. Please see this post for more on this topic.
Today, as a gay man no longer caught up in that specific internal struggle, I’ve had more energy and clarity to focus on oppression outside of my own story. If one is able to open one's eyes and ears to the real suffering caused by social and economic injustice, one cannot help but mourn. We mourn the horror on the daily news. We mourn for the church—for evil done in God’s name in the past and present. We mourn the jarring inconsistency between Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God and the reality on the ground.
A friend of mine recently demonstrated this type of mourning. A woman he knew shared her concern that some Christian churches were beginning to affirm same-sex relationships. She told him, "I'm glad you and I see it the same way, at least." He didn't say anything to confirm or deny her statement, and afterward felt awash in sadness, guilt, and weariness. He was mourning not only his inability at that time to say something, but also the widespread view that so many Christians have about same-sex relationships. Feeling that pain—mourning it—becomes similar to that other beatitude: to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Mourning moves us to cry out to God in our weakness. Hunger and thirst drive us to right the wrongs we mourn from day to day.
I'm convinced that mourning is a discipline. It’s what we do when we have true empathy; when we begin to see with the eyes of God those who are oppressed. Holy mourning inevitably leads to a hunger and thirst for righteousness. It drives us to work toward Kingdom ideals. It also drives us to seek refuge, relief, strength, and courage from God.