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Episode 213: Amanda Held Opelt – The Honesty of Grief

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Amanda Held Opelt joins Pete and Jared to talk about how her faith was impacted by her own experience with grief, and how rituals of mourning practiced by other cultures throughout history can encourage Christians to make room for grief, pain, and suffering within the church and their own lives.

  • Why do Christians so often bypass the emotions involved with grief?
  • How do we embrace the mystery of suffering and pain?
  • What does the Bible say about God’s view of grief?
  • How does the world grieve? What rituals or practices do different cultures have when experiencing grief?
  • What exactly is a ritual?
  • Historically, has the church been a destroyer of rituals or a keeper of rituals when it comes to grief?
  • Where does the sentiment in Protestant Christianity that rituals aren’t important come from?
  • How can we support the grievers among us?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Amanda you can share.

  • Sadness doesn’t sell. But this faith of ours isn’t a commodity. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • I’d always just ignored resources or books or teaching on grief, because I just didn’t think I needed it. I had no idea that I would need it. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • Evangelicalism at that time, and probably even still today, doesn’t have a whole lot of capacity for the mystery of grief and the mystery of suffering. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • I just had this assumption that if I had cultivated a sound theology of suffering, that my emotional experience in suffering would somehow be more manageable. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • You’re supposed to be able to manage your anger or manage your sadness because you have the hope of Christ, the hope of the resurrection, the hope of the afterlife. And the church has had a long history of this kind of teaching. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • There’s this idea that excessive emotion, excessive pain, is somehow a sign of a lack of holiness or a lack of spiritual maturity. And what I find in the Bible, now that I’ve gone back and read it through the lens of grief, is it’s not telling us not to grieve—it’s saying, yes, you have hope, but grief is still grief and pain is still pain. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • In the Bible, I find a God that’s actually very indulgent of strong, intense emotions—a God who is amiable towards his people expressing outrage, and hopelessness, and questions. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • I don’t think anything is really a ritual until it has some kind of communal understanding or communal embodiment. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • We live in a world that can sometimes see emotional breakdown, or maybe even the emotions of women, as a liability. And I think it’s really amazing that God sees them as a holy asset. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • It is right and good to name what is awful and wrong and should not be. It is good to name that in an emotional way. And there’s a lot of power in that. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • Rituals are not these kind of rote, empty habits. They are actually just really powerful, emotionally laden experiences that are done in community. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • We really like to talk about the victorious resurrected Lord. And I think we sometimes don’t spend enough time with the God who was defeated or the God that was put to death—the God who was the man of sorrows. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • These practices create encounters for us to look our losses square in the face and allow ourselves to feel the anguish of it all. And I find so many biblical texts that do that. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • There are grievers everywhere—people that are suffering under the silent tyranny of grief. We need to make space with them in our rhythms and our habits and our Sunday practices, so that they can have those encounters with their grief and be affirmed for what they’re feeling. — @AmandaHeldOpelt
  • [In the church], sadness doesn’t sell. Happiness is what sells. But you know, this faith of ours is not a commodity. — @AmandaHeldOpelt

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

0:00

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Pete  

Hey folks, welcome, but before we get started—a quick announcement. It’s August, man. It’s August. And we are coming to the last Summer School class of the summer. And this is on Reading the Bible from the Margins with Miguel De La Torres.

Jared  

And hopefully you’ve gotten educated. 

Pete  

Yeah!

Jared  

That’s the goal. Getting yourself educated. 

Pete  

Edumacated.

Jared  

But…

Pete  

But what? 

Jared  

We still have one left. Wednesday, August 10th, 8:00 to 9:30pm Eastern Time is Reading the Bible from the Margins. So what is this class about? I’ll tell you, I’m glad that you asked, Pete.

Pete  

Yes.

Jared  

It’s a one-night class offering insights on how to read the Bible in a way that honors the unique and helpful perspective of people on the margins, while also engaging in the best in biblical scholarship.

Pete  

I would add, I mean, helpful and valid! Just the humanity of it. And you know, “all theology has an adjective,” right, as we say around here. It’s all important. It’s all good. It’s all valid. It’s all real. It’s all true. And we’re going to get something from the margins, which is where the Bible tends to speak out of.

Jared  

So if you missed the first two, you won’t, you don’t want to miss out on all of them. So this is your last chance to sign up. And if you got the other two, why would you want to miss out on the third one and you know, miss a perfect score?

Pete  

And if they missed the others, they can go back and do it anyway. 

Jared  

Yeah, you could do it anyway. True.

Pete  

Folks, there’s no excuse here.

Jared  

That’s right. So go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/summerschool to sign up. Now, for today’s episode, we are talking the honesty of grief with Amanda Held Opelt.

Pete  

Yeah, and she just wrote a book A Hole in the World which is about her experience of grief. That’s actually a key phrase, “the experience of grief,” the experience of mourning that she had to process after the death of her sister Rachel Held Evans. And I knew this was going to be a good episode before we even started. But as we got into it, I was really—oh, this sounds so evangelical—I was sort of touched by the depth and the humanity of the discussion of grief, and by someone who has sort of hacked through the jungle of it all, in ways that, you know, I have to say, I haven’t. You know? And I just haven’t that way. I mean, I’ve been around the block a few times, I’ve experienced deaths, but not to this degree of just existential pain.

Jared  

Yeah, it’s about making room for that in our faith, which for a lot of us, there wasn’t room for that growing up. And so how do we expand our faith understanding in such a way that brings—that we feel valid, and we feel comfortable bringing deep pain and suffering to our experience?

Jared  

Right. 

Pete  

And, and there’s—this is not a special or weird thing. It’s a normal thing. Talk about the Bible for normal people, right?

Pete  

Yeah, and even, I mean, I know what you’re saying “make room for…” There’s another level of restructuring our faith so that this is woven into it.

Jared  

Right.

Pete  

Which is what you meant, right? 

Jared  

Yeah, mhmm. 

Pete  

So it’s not just tacking it on, it’s like, “let’s make room for this…” 

Jared  

Well to make room, we will often have to rearrange all the furniture.

Pete  

…or burn the house down.

Jared  

[Laughs] Or that, or that.

Pete  

“I have an 800 square foot apartment, but I want a swimming pool. So how’s that gonna work?” Well, you gotta tear this stupid thing down.

Jared  

[Laughs] All right, let’s get into it.

Amanda Held Opelt  

[Clip from later in the episode over intro music] My faith absolutely has met me in my sorrow. The Bible met me in my sorrow, not in the way I thought it would, but in a way I needed, in a way that was real and true. It was like true in my bones. And I can say that now that I’m a little bit farther down the road, but it took some re-learning and re-reading, and re-understanding.

[Intro music ends]

Pete  

Hey Amanda, it’s great to have you on the podcast. 

Amanda Held Opelt  

Thanks so much for having me, Pete and Jared.

Jared  

So we want to start with a little bit of your story, because we’re talking about grief today. And so what’s your story with grief? What led you to write a book about this from the perspective that you bring?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s funny, when you asked me that question, I’m still sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I wrote a book about grief. Because, you know, my childhood, like I can say, with like, 100% certainty that my childhood was just about as winsome and beautiful and idyllic of a childhood that you could possibly hope for. You know, it was a trauma free growing up experience. I had experienced very little loss in my life, death in my life. In fact, I don’t think I went to my first funeral until I was maybe in my late teens or early 20s. I lost a couple of grandparents in my teen years, but they lived far away and they were much, much older when they passed away. 

05:00

It was the kind of the type of losses that you see as kind of just like the natural next step in life, like, you know, death in the proper order, if that makes sense. And so while it was sad, it was also a celebration of their life. And so I guess I always like, looked at grief books, or, like people who talked about grief as being like, “those” people, those unfortunate people that had, you know, experienced catastrophic loss or trauma, or the unexpected death of someone they loved at a young age, I just thought that would never be me. I don’t know why I thought I was immune to tragedy or that I could somehow bypass it my whole life. But I’d always just ignored resources or books or teaching on grief, because I just didn’t think I needed it, I had no idea that I would need it. And so I, you know, like I said, life had proceeded very happily, until I guess I got to my early to mid 30s—I just walked through a season of loss, and a series of losses that started with the death of my grandmother, a grandmother who was really close to me. She lived nearby, she was older but pretty healthy when she suddenly got sick and passed away. And I was actually on a work trip in Congo and East Africa when she died, and so I didn’t make it home for the funeral. And then shortly after that, I had a difficult experience. I traveled for work to northern Iraq, and this was kind of during the offensive to take over Mosul back from ISIS, which had, you know, as you may recall, had taken control of a large area of the region. And so we had victims of war coming into our hospital to receive treatment. And so I think just kind of seeing the wounds of war, seeing the effects of war on bodies and souls for the first time in person, it was just kind of this aha moment of like, wow, this level of suffering doesn’t just happen on television—like it happens in real life. You can, you know, smell it, you can hear it. And so just to have that, I guess, really kind of traumatic experience and to have that type of confrontational experience, I guess, with suffering. And then very shortly after that, about four months later, I had the first of what would be three miscarriages after a season of infertility and so that loss really rocked me and my husband. And then about a year and a half later was when my sister got very sick, suddenly, you know, she was perfectly healthy, had a three-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter, and she became suddenly ill and died. And even saying it right now, it just feels unreal. And so that was kind of the moment. That was the shattering loss, the atomic bomb that went off in my life, that really kind of set me on this journey to understand what grief is—because suddenly it was my story. And so that’s kind of how I started studying grief rituals and came to write this book.

Jared  

So can you give a little background to your experience with grief in your church tradition? And how would you have been taught to handle it or not? Or what would the conversations have been? And how did that lead you to going toward these practices?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah. Well, you know, I sometimes think that in some ways, I had like, white American evangelical survivor’s guilt. Because like, I always was part of a church that was actually, I feel like, really healthy compared to many people’s experiences in that culture. My sister, you know, Rachel Held Evans, wrote a lot about my parents and kind of the healthy household that we grew up in that we were free to ask questions, that questions were safe, that we could explore our faith. And by and large, they had us in churches where we could do that as well. And so it wasn’t that you couldn’t talk about suffering or that you couldn’t talk about grief and you couldn’t be honest about your pain. But that’s just something…just I guess, by virtue of being in the culture that was evangelicalism in the 90s. Right? The height of the apologetics movement. Is that we’re just kind of taught to have an answer for every question. And evangelicalism at that time, and probably even still today, doesn’t have a whole lot of capacity for mystery, if you will, like the mystery of grief and the mystery of suffering. 

10:00

And to me, there’s a lot of mystery around death, a lot of mystery around suffering. Like, is this happening because of something wrong I did and God’s disciplining me for it? Is this something that’s happening, am I just reaping what I’ve sowed? Is there a sin in my life and I’m now seeing the fruit of that? Is this happening to me because we just live in a fallen world? Is this happening to me because God’s trying to teach me something or he’s trying to be glorified somehow through my story and that’s why I’m going through this? And I think that I just had this assumption, that if I had cultivated a sound theology of suffering, that my emotional experience in suffering would somehow be more manageable, if that makes sense. Like if I had just, if I knew all the right things about God, and if I had a solid relationship and a healthy relationship with God, that I could just pray, and the peace that passes understanding would descend upon me like a dove—and somehow I would feel better and I’d be able to discern the silver lining around my situation, or that I’d immediately be able to come to some conclusion as to the redemptive purpose that God was weaving through my storyline. And I just didn’t. Like, grief was absolutely horrifying. It was just emotionally just shattering. And the peace I prayed for, it didn’t feel like it came. And I still don’t know what the redemptive purpose of all that I’ve been through has been. And that somehow made me feel like I’d been duped in some way. Or that maybe I had just, maybe I had a rotten theology of suffering, or, you know, maybe I didn’t have as close a relationship with God. And so that that was all certainly hard to process too as I was processing all of the losses.

Pete  

So what I’m hearing you saying is that you said, you know, “if only I could have cultivated a sound theology of suffering,” you would have had all these answers, which is not sound, right? That’s the duping of it all. And from what you said before, it sounds like you’ve been forced to make room for the mystery of it all.

Amanda Held Opelt  

That’s right.

Pete  

Which maybe that is the sound theology.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Right. And I think a lot of times, you know that passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 “Do not grieve as those who have no hope.” I don’t really cover that passage in my book, because I feel a little bit of contempt towards the way that passage has been used. Because I think in many ways, we kind of stop at the word “grieve.” We do not grieve, because there’s a sense in which like, you are not supposed to be overcome by sadness. You’re not supposed to be—you’re supposed to be able to manage your anger or manage your sadness because you have the hope of Christ, or you have the hope of the resurrection, the hope of the afterlife. And the church has had a long history of this kind of teaching. I remember reading about this saying from the Middle Ages, it’s like the Latin is like, “Non culpamus affectum sed excessum.” Pardon my Latin, I don’t speak Latin. I probably didn’t say that right. But it basically means “we do not blame the emotion, but the excess.” It’s this idea that excessive emotion, excessive pain is somehow a sign of a lack of holiness or a lack of spiritual maturity. And what I find actually in the Bible, now that I’ve gone back and read it through the lens of grief, is it’s not telling us not to grieve. It’s saying, yes, you have hope. But grief is still grief and pain is still pain. And I find a God that’s actually very indulgent of strong, intense emotions. A God that, you know, is really, I guess, amiable towards his people expressing outrage, and hopelessness, and questions. And I see that all over Scripture now. And I just—that just somehow didn’t work its way into my mindset as a younger believer growing up.

Jared  

So before—I do want to go to some of those passages and how those now maybe come more to the forefront for you—but before we do that, one of the things I really liked about your experience with the book is you talk about practices. And I know for me growing up, it would have been all in our heads. It would have been—it’s about emotion, and it’s about sadness, and it feels very private and very personal. But there’s the sense with the way you talk about these practices that it’s embodied and it’s communal in a lot of cases. 

15:00

And so with that, it seems like a bit of a shift that I found refreshing. But what practices did you resonate with most when you went on this journey to sort of figure out, How does the world grieve? What are some of these rituals or practices that people go through? Which ones did you resonate with and why?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Jared, I’m so glad you said that. Because a lot of times people ask me like, “Well, what exactly is a ritual?” And it’s kind of a loose term, you know, and I get nervous when people ask me that, because I’m not a cultural anthropologist, like, I know I could give a really academic answer for all the things that qualify something as being an actual ritual. But in everything that I studied, what seems to be true, you know—so we sometimes use the word ritual to describe a habit, like I have my morning coffee habit, or my face cream ritual, you know, my morning coffee ritual, my face cream ritual. I don’t actually think that’s a proper use of the word. I don’t think anything is really a ritual until it has some kind of communal understanding or communal embodiment. And that’s what’s so beautiful about so many of these rituals that I studied, is that they are done in community. They have to be done in community. And I think the one that stood out to me the most, you know, the way I actually stumbled across rituals in the first place was, I guess, the algorithm on my phone knew I was grieving or something. You know, your phone knows things about you. And it somehow flashed up this article on either Facebook or my news feed about strange grief practices from around the world and from the past. And I think the first one and the article may have been, it was Irish keening. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with Irish keening, but it’s this practice of communal wailing. And so in Ireland back, you know, since you know, 1950 was about the time that keening died out. But prior to that, in Ireland, you know, people would have these wakes in the home of the deceased. And the Irish are kind of known for their rowdy wakes, but kind of the climax of the wake experience was this time of communal wailing. And what would happen is these women from the community who were known in Irish as the bean chaointe, chaointe means cry or crier, so they were the lead criers or the lead wailers, these women would come and they would lead the whole room in a communal wail. And these women actually often served as midwives in the community is as well. And so it’s kind of interesting that they kind of knew these liminal spaces, that precipice between life and death. But what they would do is they would begin by just kind of gently moaning and weeping. And then the women would start to maybe sing, and they would sing words in tribute to the deceased. And then the song would eventually kind of collapse into just screams and wails, and then the whole room would join in, and everyone would be wailing over the person who had just died. But it was also really common for people to wail in tribute to their own lost loved ones who died maybe a year ago, maybe five years ago. And so they would lament together, just death. And I think what was so beautiful to me about this ritual is just the affirmation—the permission to completely fall apart in your grief. Because so often, grievers are commended for kind of keeping it together, for their resilience, for their fortitude, for their stalwart exterior. That’s what you’re kind of commended for in your grief. But I think what the ancient Irish would say is like, actually, no, that’s not normal. If you’re not wailing, if you’re not completely falling apart? That’s not healthy, that’s not good. And to do that in a communal space together just felt like a really, really powerful act to me. And so that was one of the first rituals that really started drawing me in and set me out on this journey to learn about other rituals like that, that may be healthy and helpful.

Pete  

Yeah, you know, I’m thinking back at 1 Thessalonians which you mentioned earlier, “don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” I think a part of the reality—I’m contraposing this to what you just said with the keening. For Paul, the hope is something that is going to be realized, probably in the next 45 minutes. You know, like this is all going to come to an end, Jesus is the firstfruits of the, you know, the corporate resurrection of the faithful. 

20:00

And no, it’s not going to be hundreds of years or thousands of years, it’s going to be really, really soon. This is just the first phase, and the second phase is coming. So the hope is something that is—you know something is right around the corner. Now turns out that that wasn’t the case. And I think the realism of keening is—I’ve never experienced that, and I probably never will because I live in the wrong culture—but there’s something very sacred about that. There’s something very realistic. There’s something very Psalm-y about that. Of lamenting openly like that.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, it is still practiced in many other cultures around the world, even to this day. And I mean, you look at biblical texts, there’s obviously a lot of wailing in Scripture. Jeremiah 9 comes to mind. It’s this moment where God actually calls for the wailing women to come to lament the sin of Israel, but to lament also, you know, the effects of their sin—the death and the loss that is all around them. And they serve as kind of this prophetic voice. And that’s what was really compelling to me about that passage where, you know, it says, I think it’s, “Call for the wailing women to come, call the skillful women to come” and then later says, “Wailing women teach your daughters how to wail” because this is an important skill set to have. And so, you know, I just, I think we live in a world that can sometimes see emotional breakdown, or maybe even the emotions of women, as a liability. And I think it’s really amazing that God sees them as a holy asset, that it is right and good to name what is awful and wrong and should not be. It is good to name that in an emotional way. And there’s a lot of power in that.

Pete  

I think the power in that to that example, it strikes me that, I mean, this is all about national exile.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah.

Pete  

It’s not about people dying as much as it’s about a nation dying, but to call upon the wailers—what that suggests to me is that’s just normative in their culture.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah.

Pete  

This is just, this is not a spec—this is just, it’s like a funeral. It’s like somebody has died. And so you’ve got this structure in place already. That speaks to the normativity of that kind of activity in that culture, which again, we don’t have. Which, by the way, you mentioned just off the top of your head before about how the keening died off in the 1950s in Ireland. Do you have any thoughts or have you come across anything that explains why that sort of petered out?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yes, Pete, I do. [laughs]

Pete  

Okay! [Chuckles] Folks at home: I did not set Amanda up here. This is not a setup, this isn’t planned. Good. Okay.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Well I say it like that because it’s just so fascinating. Because so on the one hand, it did start to die out because, you know, people in Ireland began to maybe travel more, be exposed to the outside world, they maybe felt like some of the practices like this from rural Ireland were too primitive, or, you know, they thought it wasn’t sophisticated. And so, like, that is kind of the reason why so many rituals have died out. But another interesting piece about it is that the church tried to stamp out keening for years and years. I think there’s even—I found a document from you know, recorded from like the 1600s, where they tried to issue some edict banning keening, because they said it was too boisterous and it was not, it wasn’t fitting for people who had the hope of Christ. 

Pete  

[Sarcastically] Yay, Christians! Yay.

Amanda Held Opelt  

I know. And it’s, you know, I’ve wrestled a lot with this question of: is the church a destroyer of rituals, or is the church a caretaker and keeper of grief rituals? Because in many ways, I mean, I think there’s some really, really beautiful grief rituals embedded into the church calendar and into our faith practices, rituals that name and help us encounter our sorrow. Whether that’s the Lord’s supper or, you know, the Feast of the Holy Innocence just after Christmas Day. I mean, there are rituals that the church maintains that are, that look suffering square in the eye in a really beautiful way. But you just see these pockets throughout history of a ritual somehow not being theologically up to snuff. 

25:00

I think of…the tolling of the bell was a ritual that was practiced widely before the 1600s. And it was believed that when someone was dying, that if you would ring the church bell, it would actually—it kind of created these spiritual forces that would go and do battle with the dark demons of death. Like they thought that bells had spiritual warfare power. That’s why they named their bells, like there are names etched into bells from the 1300s, 1400s, that say, “I am the breaker of lightning.” So if there was a bad thunderstorm, they would toll the bell, because they thought that that was a way to combat dark spiritual forces. If someone was dying they would toll the bell, because they thought that that would do battle for the person’s soul who was dying. There are bells that are named—and again, I’m not fluent in Latin—but in English it’s translated “my voice is the slayer of demons.” Well the Protestants didn’t really like that, because they felt like that was too similar to praying for the souls of the dead. They felt like it would kind of call that practice, that they were trying to snuff out, to mind. And so eventually, as Protestant Christianity grew, the tolling of the bell, you know, before and after death, eventually died out. And it died out for a lot of other reasons. But that’s just another one that comes to mind, of where if something wasn’t quite theologically in line, that it got kind of squashed by the church.

Jared  

So I want to go back to, because I’ve been mulling over what you said earlier, Pete, about the differences between the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and those different settings where we have this exuberance or excitement or urgency in the New Testament, where it’s sort of like, there’s not really a lot of room for a lot of this grief because there’s too much to do. There’s this expectancy where the Hebrew Bible is filled with a history of people who have been grieving and who have these things. But I also can’t help but remember, because it’s a good Bible trivia question, the shortest verse in the Bible, I think is John 11:35 maybe? “Jesus wept.” And this idea too of Jesus participating in this mourning and this grieving even in the New Testament, and I’m wondering, what—did you come across other passages or theologies that would have led to us getting disconnected from the idea of rituals around, communal rituals around a mourning and grieving? Because I would guess that most cultures have historically had them. And then it seems uniquely Protestant and then in the last little bit of time, evangelical. Because I know for me, there were definitely thoughts of, “we don’t need to”…rituals were seen as fake because “you don’t need a ritual…

Pete  

Yeah.

Jared  

…God will intervene supernaturally without the ritual.” The ritual feels empty. And so what’s the point of that?

Pete  

That’s just a rote thing to do.

Jared  

Right. Right, exactly. So that’s kind of been my experience, but I don’t know if you ran into other kind of theologies or, or ways of thinking that sort of, downplayed this idea. Like where does it come from either in the Bible or just theologies that this isn’t important?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah. Well, you know, I always like to make the disclaimer, I’m not a church historian or, you know, a historian of theology. I do think that that attitude, the attitude of, you know, “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” like we all heard that a little aphorism a lot. Which is really just kind of like hyper-American-individualism put into the church machine and spit out, you know, evangelicalism style. And so I think this idea that, like, “we don’t do rituals, because they’re rote,”—which is, gosh, that’s not at all what I found. Rituals are not these kind of rote, empty habits. They are actually just really powerful, emotionally laden experiences that are done in community. But we had this idea that rituals within the church, were, yeah, were too repetitive or too rote, and we are supposed to have this one-on-one relationship with God. And I guess I just, again, I think that continues to lead us to believe that we have to somehow work through our grief with God alone. And so that makes it really hard when God suddenly feels absent, and God’s presence is kind of hard to tangibly experience. 

30:00

To me what’s been most comforting in my grief has been just other believers coming alongside me in my pain, and reminding me of what’s true, and sitting in silence with me, affirming that what I’ve experienced is awful and terrible, and it’s okay for me to feel awful and terrible. But you know, I think the other thing is that we really, really like to talk about a triumphant God. Like, we really, really like to talk about the victorious resurrected Lord. And I think we sometimes don’t spend enough time with the God who was defeated or the God that was put to death, the God who was the man of sorrows. So God not only empathizes with us in our grief, and I guess, you know, feels our pain with us—he stepped bodily into the worst pain a human can experience, like he subjected himself to death. And I just—we talk a lot about the cross, but we really like to go to the resurrection. And I don’t know, I understand why we do that, I’m not saying that’s all wrong. I just think that for me, knowing that the God that I’m looking to right now chose to allow himself to experience the deepest level of grief, and allowed himself to be killed on behalf of the world—I just think that’s really powerful. I mean, that’s the piece of Christianity, the storyline, the narrative, that to me is so…it’s too unbelievable not to believe, to some degree, if that makes sense.

Amanda Held Opelt  

It makes tons of sense. I’ve heard a lot of theologians say that part of the problem is elevating the sovereignty of God as like, the highest attribute.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah.

Pete  

Right? Rather than, let’s say the vulnerability of God.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yes.

Pete  

It’s the latter one that we identify with. It seems to be the whole point of incarnation that we see God in that light rather than the monarch on the throne, sort of a button-pusher looking down. And I actually just, I mean, I am very sympathetic to people raised in certain church traditions for whom the sovereignty of God is like breathing. That’s, that’s the most obvious thing and everything that happens in our lives has to be reconciled with, “I know that God’s in charge.” And I think vulnerability gives some room again to what you said at the very beginning, Amanda: Mystery.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Well, right. I mean, look at that passage of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: God arguing with God about what they’re going to do, you know? Like, I don’t know, I feel like I just kind of breezed past that passage for so much of my Christian life, because the mystery chafed against this value of God’s sovereignty, and this value of being able to kind of academically explain my theology. And I couldn’t explain what happened there, I still can’t explain what happened there. But after I’ve experienced grief, my capacity for mystery has expanded exponentially. And I think that, to me, is one of the gifts of grief—and I hesitate to even use that term because I don’t like the concept of silver linings, or, “Oh, yeah, that really bad thing happened but look at all you learned from it.” It’s like, I would give every lesson I’ve learned back to have one more day with my sister. But I will say it is a gift to have had my capacity for mystery expanded, to be able to know God in his suffering through my suffering, and even just to increase in my compassion for other people that are going through this. That has been a gift.

Jared  

There’s something too, maybe even more practical going on in a lot of theologies around this, which is: we’ve created Jesus into a product. And the need that that product fills is to make us happy, which we’ve defined as like, “not being sad.” And so that Thessalonians verse has been turned into propaganda for that kind of theology of, “we don’t grieve as those who have no hope,” meaning, “we don’t get to have funerals, we only have celebrations of life.” 

35:00

Like, everything is to make sure we protect the idea that Jesus turns your sadness into happiness. Like literally, there are Sunday School songs that say things like that.

Amanda Held Opelt  

“I’m trading my sorrows.” Right?

Jared  

Right, exactly. And so I think we’re incentivized…and then the reason that’s particularly insidious is because it creates a shame culture—where we’re all pretending that we’re not sad about anything because that would undermine the product of Jesus. And so when I am sad, I feel ashamed of it. Like I’m trying to hide it from my church community, when these other practices are really about enjoying it, or not enjoying it, but enjoining with our community, and doing that with our community. We’re actually incentivized by our theology to hide it from people.

Amanda Held Opelt  

That’s right. Yeah, I saw something that another kind of grief psychologist posted the other day online, Dr. Mekel Harris, who said, you need to create spaces where you can encounter your grief without judging yourself. Something to that degree, she said it more eloquently than me. But I think that’s what these rituals do, is they, whether it’s, you know, keening, or the practice of sitting Shiva, which is a Jewish practice, I looked at the practice of Decoration Day in Appalachia, which is where everyone comes once a year and decorates the graves of all of their loved ones, and they share memories and they pray and they cry and they sing, and they eat together. Once a year, they honor everyone that they’ve lost, and they honor their own stories. These practices create encounters for us to look our losses, you know, square in the face, and allow ourselves to feel the anguish of it all. And I find so many biblical texts that do that. You know, Ecclesiastes—Pete, I’ve got your commentary on Ecclesiastes. That’s exactly what Kohelet does. I mean, obviously, David does it all over the Psalms, Jesus does it. It’s all over scripture, these encounters with sorrow and this honesty about the pain of life. And so it’s just…I remember the first time I read through the Bible straight through, and I thought to myself, how did they get so many people to believe this? Not believe it…maybe give their life to it? It’s not that it’s not believable—it’s not that appealing, if that makes sense. Because it’s like, I want a really happy life! It’s not a commodity.

Pete  

It’s not a commodity, is it?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah. If you want just happiness, no suffering, wealth, health, all those things, you’re not going to get that from a walk with God. But what I think you do get is authenticity and the real experience of life and a God who speaks to it, a God who has lived it, a God who’s experienced it, and allows you to speak of it and name it. And I think at the beginning of my grief, I thought to myself, I’m not sure my faith is going to see me through this. I’m not sure I picked the right religion for this, because I really need my religion to make me feel better right now. But now that I’m two and three years past it—and not really past it, I’m still in it, but I’m two and three years down the road—I have found that my faith absolutely has met me in my sorrow. The Bible met me in my sorrow, not in the way I thought it would, but in a way I needed, in a way that was real and true. It was like true in my bones. And I can say that now that I’m a little bit farther down the road, but it took some re-learning and re-reading and re-understanding.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Took some new theology.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah, that’s right.

Pete  

You know, what you were saying before, the language that came to my mind is, the Bible is rather unfiltered about grief, or pain, or sorrow, or anger. All those emotions, there’s an unfilteredness to it. And I’m just riffing here. But I want to suggest that’s not something special about the Bible. I think people have always been that way.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah.

Pete  

It’s more…I don’t know. Why are we living in this age, Jared, where everything’s so screwed up and people think they have to have the right answers to everything? It has to be a neat package, this commercialized view of Christianity or, you know, the Protestant view that you know, like we said before, “You don’t have emotions about this, you rise above that. If you have emotions that shows weakness and faith.” 

40:00

So grief becomes not something that the Spirit walks with you, but it becomes another test to show how good you are. You know? And it’s like, no, who in their right mind wants that?! And death, as much as I don’t wish it for anyone, but it comes.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah.

Pete  

And death is maybe one of the most sobering things to drive us out of that nonsense. Because you go crazy trying to make it all work that way. But the thing is, you know, I’ve been to many funerals, Christian funerals, where you’re just not allowed to grieve. “We know they’re in a better place. We know they’re up there with God…” doing whatever the departed’s favorite hobby was, like watching hockey together or something, you know? And maybe they are. I don’t know, I have no idea. But that’s not even the point. You know, it’s, we’re really sad and we’re angry, and we don’t understand why this is happening. And to do that as a community is…I mean, we’re so impoverished, I don’t know, I don’t know, Jared. I just—we’re so impoverished, we just don’t have—I plan on going through all this stuff alone.

Jared  

Right.

Pete  

You know, because the community is just not, you know, it’s we’ve been sold this bill of goods, that it’s just you and Jesus.

Jared  

I think that launches into this question as we wrap up our time. I think there’s probably a lot of people who have that experience. It’s this almost like Adam-istic, individualistic understanding, and how can we help, learn to grieve better? Like what did you learn through this about how to grieve better? If our church tradition and our culture didn’t really give us the tools for that and we want to start, how do we start?

Amanda Held Opelt  

Hmm, that’s a good question. I think one of the insecurities I have about the book I wrote is that I, you know, I don’t really provide a really practical way to move forward with this. And, you know, some people have asked me like, “Oh, well, is there a list of things that you suggest doing at the end of the book?” And I’m like, no…I kind of end with: I’m not sure. Because I think, Pete, you said it well. I might decide that I want to enact some of these rituals in my life. But if the whole community isn’t kind of joining with me and affirming me in that, then it can feel kind of empty and lonely. So I, you know, I think Jared, the answer to your question is just again goes back to that place of making space to encounter your sorrow. We do everything we can to circumvent it, to bypass it. We just don’t like bad feelings in this culture. We are, you know, people who numb things. We are, you know, we can medicate basically any ailment that we experience. We are, you know, people that are constantly scrolling through our phones and distracting ourselves from our pain with our screens. And so I think it’s just part of it is just stop. Stop the noise. Pause. You know, just like give yourself a minute to feel sad—and it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be super uncomfortable, because we immediately think I want some kind of hack to like, get past this, but there’s no hack for grief. And so you just, part of it to me is just take a pause and experience your sadness, as uncomfortable as that is.

Pete  

I think along with that, it’s, there is a certain sense of the need to unplug completely. I don’t want to overdramatize here, but to unplug completely from the theological system which is making it so difficult for someone to grieve. Which means look at these grief practices. As I read them, I said, “I wish I had this one. Oh, this one’s good, too. Well, I don’t have any of these. You know, what am I gonna do?”

Amanda Held Opelt  

I know.

Pete  

You know? So we’re left—and I know Jared did not mean this, but some people might hear it like “practical things,” —Jared doesn’t mean to fix it. Right? I think Jared, you’re saying “practical things” to show that there are no quick go-to answers for this.

Jared  

I think that, I think that yeah, I think that’s a good—I’m glad that you said that. Because there is a distinction between…there are things that are helpful in our grief. But I think when we have a framework of, “Yeah, the most helpful thing is to not grieve,” then we’re short circuiting the whole thing. 

Pete  

[Chuckles]

Jared  

It’s like no, that’s not an option. It’s, well, how do we do this in a fuller way so that we have a full expression of our feelings and emotions and we’re not being asked to shove those to the side.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Right. And I’m glad you asked the question, Jared. Because I actually do think there are practical things that churches can do. And so, I, you know, my church here in Boone…

45:00

…like I’m super #blessed I guess, to have a church that actually makes space for lament in our services. And like, my church community came around me in a way that was really, really beautiful and didn’t try to kind of give me these pithy statements about how everything happens for a reason and like, we have victory in Jesus, yada yada. I feel like they actually were honest about what I was going through and made space for me to grieve. So there are churches and faith communities that are doing this, that are taking their cues from Scripture, and sometimes it’s just finding those spaces, you know? And if you are a church or in church leadership, paying attention to how this can be done well, because there are grievers in in your pews. I mean, grievers are everywhere. They’re hiding, we don’t wear black anymore (I write about that in the book). But you know, there are grievers everywhere, people that are suffering under the silent tyranny of grief, and we need to make space with them in our rhythms and our habits and our Sunday practices so that they can have those encounters with their grief and be affirmed for what they’re feeling.

Pete  

So see the normalcy of grief around us. Yeah, that’s that’s a really, really good point.

Jared  

And again—I’m being harsh, I think, you know, and Pete, you’ve been a little harsh, too and I think for good reason. And you can say “normalize it,” but again, when you say that, like “creating space,” I just think—I have flashbacks of all my church experiences, where the explicit tone that you’re told (anyone who’s going to be up front or anything) is all smiles and happiness and fun. And this is not a sad place. And so I would like, can we even just get to like neutral? Like, we’re so hyper focused on making everything happy. Like that is not going to be a safe place. Again, I just come back to that, like shame—like, if I’m grieving, that’s a place I’m not even going to want to be.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Yeah. It’s just, it’s making space for both, you know? Like for the full spectrum of life, and we don’t do that well in church sometimes because sadness doesn’t sell. Happiness is what sells. But you know, apparently, you know, like you said, this faith of ours is not a commodity. It’s a way of life, it’s a calling, and like I said, sometimes you just have to find those spaces and those people that are willing to do that with you and for you and be faithful in that.

Pete  

Yeah.

Pete  

Yeah. Well listen, Amanda, we really appreciate you being on the podcast with us to talk about this universal topic. Right? We all connect sooner or later, one way or the other, with it. So thank you for your time. Thank you for writing this beautiful book too. And we hope people go out and buy it and learn from it and think for themselves how maybe their lives can be different by processing the reality of death differently for themselves and for others.

Amanda Held Opelt  

Well, thanks Pete, thanks Jared. It’s been great talking to you.

Stephanie  

[Jaunty outro music plays] You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you! And well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. So a big thanks to Lauren O’Connell, Brad Harris, Joel Thompson, Jacqueline Van Beek, Chuck Beam, Joel Herring, Jerry L. Lewis, Isaiah Wilson, Kris Pierson, and Esther Goetz. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight, audio engineer Dave Gerhart, creative director Tessa Stultz, marketing director Savannah Locke, and web developer Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening!

[Outro music ends]

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