Inside Out: In Praise of the Gift of Sadness

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

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.

One thought on “Inside Out: In Praise of the Gift of Sadness

  1. A well-presented piece for a truth that seems to elude most of Humankind. Let me explain why I believe this to be true. After repentance at the age of 12, I meandered away from salvation until the age of 18 in 1973; the year that abortion was legalized, which made my participation in it more right. After all, getting the preacher’s kid pregnant before marriage was something that had to be hidden and dealt with quickly or her father’s ministry would suffer greatly. So I paid those who performed that craft of taking away life and 2 years later we were married. After all, the Bible says it’s better to be married than to burn with lust. My use of my understanding of that scripture turned the next 10 years of my life into an experience for which we were both completely unprepared for. So after 10 years when we had 2 children, moved 25 times, had 25 different jobs and my fornication with so many women that the ‘safe sex’ people would find it miraculous that I hadn’t been afflicted by an S.T.D; my wife had determined that being married to a man like me was too stupid for a mentally deficient to stay with and left me. Now what? Those of you who are growing tired of this story have my understanding permission to cease reading. In an effort to keep the rest of this short enough for even the brave ones who want to know what happened, why I’m posting this and if there’s a good ending… Summing it up takes an awfully complicated story of someone’s life and only serves to help keep boredom away. But I hope I have the intelligence to bring it all into the reason why I’m posting this in response to an article that try’s to help us find joy. From 1976 until 1997 I got married 2 more times, joined a top 40 band which played the bars around Chicago, kept drifting away from the faith and telling myself that I was at least still a Christian, went through about 6 years of college education and watched as the world around me seemed to be falling apart. Then, in the fall of 1997 my third wife and I got into a fight which caused the police to come and try to stop that noise before one of us killed the other. I went away to my home state and tried to exist. There are so many other things which caused a build up of hopelessness in my life that you can imagine that on Christmas Eve of 1997 I decided to end this woeful test by suffocating myself. I had breathed out my last breath and had no other air for about 3 minutes when suddenly I thought of how this act might affect my 2 children as I began to lose consciousness. That caused me to breath again and stand up. Then I began to wonder what would keep me from taking my life. Then I remembered that it was Christmas Eve and realized that it’s a celebration for the birth of the One Who gave and fulfilled the HOPE which would lead to eternal life for all of humankind! Then I thought,”That’s IT; what I needed was hope! Then I wondered how this man, who had been engaged in a sinful life for the past 20 years would get that hope. The answer came within a few minutes…PRAYER. I got down on my knees and wondered what to say to the Creator of the Universe. I just cried for what seemed like a half-hour. Then I said, “God, if you’ll have me, I’m Yours. Not like before, but I will actually make YOU LORD of my life. And since I have been away for 20 years, if You will give me 40 more, I will do whatever You ask. I really meant it. Then, you’re going to think I am making this up for a good ending but I looked out the window and saw big snowflakes coming down very slowly. I thought,”this is what all of us mid-west people dream about, a white Christmas.” I was witnessing something I had never seen before. Then a feeling came over me that is impossible to explain but caused me to be overjoyed as a Hope filled my soul that felt like Moses, Abraham, Noah, Job, David and thousands of others must have felt when they did the same thing I just did; surrender to my Creator.

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