You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”
In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service. It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm. Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.
My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too. The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart. Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal. “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily. Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.
I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list. I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope. Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too. An argument ensued. She wouldn’t let me leave. Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved. Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember. It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight. Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions. A girl named Riley is at the center of the story. Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.
Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’. It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.
Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying. The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.
Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry. Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer. Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told. This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.
To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say: “rubbish!” Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.
Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.
Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world. Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.
There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life, the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast. War, followed by peace.
Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world. Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring. But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.
Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl. I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy. The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.
Sorrow and Joy. Longing and fulfillment. Suffering and Glory. This is our world friends. May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.