Communities of the Spirit

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorialby Jacob Martin via Flickr licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Dear Working Preacher,

We know about loss. Each of us and all of us, personally and deeply.

But we don’t talk about it very much.

These two clashing realities often do a lot of damage. But this Sunday there is a juxtaposition of sacred text and national holiday that invites us, even begs us, to move into important, if also largely unchartered, terrain.

First, the holiday. In the U.S., this is Memorial Day weekend, and since the holiday was first established after the conclusion of the Civil War it has been a time to acknowledge those we have lost to war. More recently, that remembrance has been extended in two directions. First, we often take time to remember members of our family that have died as well, placing wreathes at the gravesides of parents and siblings. Second, we increasingly recognized all who have fought and sacrificed, including those who have lost limbs or returned from their service with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have, that is, recognized that the effects of war stretch far beyond the casualty list.

But even with this extension of the scope of our remembrance, we know there are other kinds of losses that we face every day. We may have lost — or be in the process of losing — a loved one to Alzheimer’s or dementia. We may have lost someone with whom we were in a significant relationship to a divorce or break-up. We may have lost colleagues from losing a job or moving to a new one. And then there are the personal losses of jobs or health or abilities we once had. All of these losses, even ones that were necessary or resulted from a positive change in circumstances, are difficult and worthy of acknowledgement.

As a culture, we are not terribly good about talking about loss. I don’t know if it’s because it challenges the eternally optimistic stance we are encouraged to take, counters our celebration of youth and opportunity, or reminds us of our own mortality. But for whatever reason, we seem as a culture to lack the resources and emotional wherewithal to acknowledge the losses we, and those around us, suffer. Not sure what to say when confronted by a friend who has recently suffered the loss of a loved one or gone through a divorce, we turn away, leaving the person feeling all the more isolated.

So my question this week, Working Preacher, is whether we might encourage our congregations to be different, to be places where we are not ashamed of loss but recognize it as a difficult part of our human existence and so reach out to each other in comfort, care, and solidarity in order to combat feelings of isolation. If so, then this is a wonderful text.

Given that we are in the Easter season, it may help to remind our hearers that in John’s story it is Thursday, the evening before the crucifixion. After sharing a meal with his disciples and offering them an example of selfless love and service, Jesus is now preparing them for his departure. He is about to leave them and they are distressed. This is what the threat of loss does — it shakes up our sense of safety and security. In response, he has already told them — in last week’s reading — not to worry, that he was going away to prepare a place for them. But they are still upset, for the fear of loss is not so easily defeated. And so he tells them that he will not leave them orphaned, abandoned, or alone. Instead, he will send to them an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

And here, dear Working Preacher, is where we might tarry for a moment and offer some good old-fashioned teaching. Because the word employed by John in this passage — paracletos — and often translated “Advocate” can have several overlapping meanings. It can function in a legal sense, meaning literally one who advocates for you before a court of law. And it can function more relationally by designating one who brings help, consolation, comfort, and encouragement. All of these however, derive from the most basic meaning of the word to “come along side another.”

Two things briefly as we think about how this sense of the Spirit’s work might operate in our congregations this weekend. First, Jesus describes the Spirit as “another advocate” — Jesus was the first! Jesus, that is, came along side us in the Incarnation that we might come to know and see the otherwise invisible God. (John begins his Gospel just here in 1:1-18.) Second, and as I wrote about at greater length last year, when we come along side each other to comfort and encourage and when we act like Jesus, we living into the Holy Spirit’s invitation and very being.

Which brings me back to my main question: might we function as paracletes to each other by coming along side one another not only in times of celebration — though that is important, too — but also and especially during times of loss? Might we, in this way, become communities of the Spirit? Might we, in fact, recognize that in coming along side each other to be each other’s advocates we are loving Jesus most fully by conforming our lives to his and keeping his commandments?

If so, then I wonder if we can capitalize on the juxtaposition of this text being heard on Memorial Day weekend, first, by inviting folks to recognize and identify with the profound sense of loss the disciples felt and then, second, by inviting them to name their own loss in order that we might come along side each other in faith, comfort, and courage. Perhaps you could have 3×5 cards available where people could write down someone or something they mourn, someone or something they have lost. In the prayers that day, in addition to remembering all who have given their lives for their country, we can also remember these other losses, asking for Christ’s comfort.

But you could go a step further as well. For you could also collect those cards in a basket, perhaps placing that basket near the back of the church and asking everyone to take a card with them as they leave that they might pray for that loss throughout the coming week. Or you could collect those cards and invite a ministry team of the congregation to pray for all the losses recorded on those cards and for the people who have shared them. Either way you do it, you are inviting the community to move beyond our cultural fear of naming loss toward becoming a community of the Spirit where we practice and grow in our ability of coming along side each other in faith and love.

As always, Working Preacher, you’ll know what will work best in your setting. But as you discern your homiletical path forward, know this: you also are not alone. For Christ has sent the Spirit of truth powerfully into your lives and that is evidenced by the care and commitment you show in your preaching. What you do matters, for we all need a word of comfort, encouragement, and hope. And it is regularly an honor and privilege to come along side you as you walk this holy trail.

Yours in Christ,