“Not only preachers…but anyone who tries to express the Gospel in words, even if only to himself, has much to learn here. The weight of these sad times we must obey and must obey just because they are sad times, sad and bewildering times for people who try to hold on to the Gospel and witness to it somehow when in so many ways the weight of our sadness all but crushes the life out of it.
One wonders if there is anything more crucial for the preacher to do than to obey the sadness of our times by taking it into account without equivocation or subterfuge, by speaking out of our times and into our times not just what we ought to say about the Gospel, not just what it would appear to be in the interests of the Gospel for us to say, but what we have ourselves felt about it, experienced of it. It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are.” – Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale
My mother-in-law is a hospice chaplain. Every day of her work week, she abides with those who are sick or dying or injured, she sits with their families and friends. Most of us run from sadness and pain, but she went back to school after her children were raised precisely because she felt called to sit in those thin places with the hope of Christ, bearing the ministry of simple presence and comfort. She carries sadness that isn’t hers to carry because most of us cannot carry these moments alone and yet there are so few who will make peace with our despair.
I’m learning to obey the sadness – not only of our times, as Buechner wrote above, but the sadness in my own heart and the sadness of our community – and this is hard for me.
Our culture makes little space for the mess, I know. We are expected to have it all together. Don’t let them see you sweat, keep your dirty laundry and un-sanitized stories to yourself, thank you very much. Be successful, look good, feel good.
I never know if it’s a nature or nurture aspect of myself but I’m very good at compartmentalizing. I can put things into boxes in my mind and simply leave them there. When I worked full-time, I never brought my work stress home with me, it simply stayed at work. When things were rough in one relationship, I was able to still engage in the rest of life by simply putting it into the proper box in my mind and leaving it there until it was time to address it. I have been able to bear great stress and grief while still engaging in my life, still taking care of my children, still getting up and functioning in my life. I could be in the midst of great darkness or grief, but most people would never have known it. I took pride in my self-possession, counting it as righteousness that no one knew my heart was breaking.
But when I began my major spiritual awakening in my twenties, it was precisely because of those boxes. They were too full. Too full of questions and doubts, too full of criticisms and bitterness, grief and anger and frustrations. I had crammed too much of my very real self into these inadequate compartments in my mind. The crash was real because the compartmentalizing was real.
Secrets make us sick, I’ve heard. I made secrets out of my questions and doubts and sadness because I didn’t know how to simply sit with them. Even now, I fight against the urge to explain or pretend or ignore away the darkness. It’s uncomfortable to lean into the pain, to find God there in the pain and the questions, the doubt and despair.
I’m too good at pretending. I’m too good at compartmentalizing. I do not obey my sadness.
This might be a dark side of growing up in the whole faith-movement of charismatic tradition. We over-realized the very real truth that “our words matter.” Of course they matter: speaking life matters. I still teach my children this lesson and strive to remember the power of my tongue. But as a tribe, we over-realized that truth until we didn’t know how to feel our feelings.
Only our most over-zealous preached it but it was an unwritten expectation running through a lot of our theology: don’t give in to the darkness, don’t name it, don’t give it power, don’t acknowledge it, don’t confess it, don’t be sad, don’t be mad, don’t be despairing. We believed our feelings and our circumstances had to obey our carefully curated version of the Word of God: we are more than overcomers, the joy of the Lord is our strength, death has no sting. So don’t grieve when death comes calling: they are now with Jesus. Don’t be sick: come down with a healing. Don’t be sad: the joy of the Lord is your strength.
And I can’t tell you the grief I carry still over the people that were caught in the crossfire consequences of that teaching, believing that their darkness or grief or sadness or despair or sickness was their own fault because they simply lacked faith.
When their stories didn’t line up with our narrative, they felt shame and eventually disappeared.
I understand how we got there now. I do. I know it was one-part ignorance, one-part hope. I am still charismatic, I still believe in signs and wonders, I still believe that God is for us and that we were meant for shalom.
But also, there’s this: when I was sad, when I had real legitimate reasons for grief or despair or anger or any emotion that was perceived as negative or dark, I had nowhere to go with it. I didn’t know how to feel my feelings. And by refusing to name it or acknowledge it, sometimes the darkness simply grew. As my worldview has expanded to include more stories than simply my own, as I woke up to the world outside of my own experiences, I saw this even more clearly. Look at the real darkness around us: don’t pretend it’s not real.
I’ve been thinking of our Jesus. How he took the bread and tore it with his own hands: this is my body broken for you. How he poured out the wine: this is my blood poured out for you.
First the death, then the resurrection. We like to skip that first part. We like to think we can have the resurrection without the death.
“Abide with me,” the Spirit whispers to us. Can we abide in what is real?
I think this is why I was so quick to pick up Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. I read it while on my way to Haiti a month ago. She writes about “solar Christianity” – bright and full of light and happy – in comparison to the lunar Christians among us who find God often in the darkness. And I realised that I have often found God in both places. I’m not one or the other, I’m both-and. But I‘ve been slow to make peace with my lunar spirituality, unaccustomed to walking in the dark with patience. I’m still in the early days of holding space for the lament to deepen the joy.
This isn’t an merely an intellectual discussion for us right now. I’m writing this right now because this is what is happening. It’s not a puzzle to be pieced together, it’s a full immersion baptism.
Bear with me.
We are in deep grief with dear friends in these days. They are in a thin place, we are bearing witness. We have borne witness with each other in the joys and sorrows of our lives over fifteen years of true friendship: now an end is nearing.
There is nothing to say now. There is only what is happening. This is life sometimes, don’t pretend or compartmentalize or ignore or placate. Simply obey the sadness. Speak the truth of what is happening. Not the truth you wish were real. Not the truth that ought to be. Not the platitudes or time-worn cliches to minimize grief.
Of course, it’s wrong, we weren’t meant for this. This isn’t shalom.
But this is what is happening – whether it’s right in our own homes or halfway around the world in Nigeria – and so we learn to obey the sadness and live into the Gospel in the midst of it, to speak the truth.
I’m not walking in the dark, not yet, but I’m learning to abide with it.
One night, my broken-hearted husband called his mother: what do we say? what do we do? what will fix this? there is nothing else to do. You do this every day, Mom, what do I do?
Sit with them, she said. There is nothing to say, stop thinking there is something to say to make it go away. It won’t go away. Sit in the sadness.