Very truly, I tell you, you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. -John 16:20
The prayers of the people in worship services help us to verbalize our joys and our concerns. We are reminded in those moments that God holds all of our prayers together, whether they express deep sorrow or overflowing happiness. That sacred tension of joy and pain existing together in one space reminds me that God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.
How can this be, that God is consistently, impeccably good, when our hearts are so heavy at the loss of a 13-year-old child in our congregation to suicide? The shock and grief we have been carrying from the loss of Jack Wiederstein only ten days ago still feels inescapably heavy, even after Sunday’s worship services and Jack’s celebration of life service gave us opportunities to gather in corporate consolation and communal healing. Where is God’s goodness found in a long shadow like this? In a moment like this, awful as it might be, I’m also reminded that the Creator of all good things is not only present with us in our pain, but creating something new that would lead us into joy unknown.
In preparation for Mental Health Sunday, which the United Church of Christ observes on the third Sunday in May, Mental Health Awareness Month, I read a book by Sarah Griffith Lund titled Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family & Church. Rev. Lund, a Regional Minister on the Conference staff of the UCC, writes about her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, her “helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother struggles with his own mental illness,” and the perspective that serving as the spiritual director for her cousin, a mentally ill man executed for murder, offered her. While Rev. Lund’s spiritual memoir and resources for “how churches can be safe havens for people who have brain diseases and for their loved ones” was eyeopening prep for Mental Health Sunday, this excerpt stood out to me most given the current state of our church family’s collectively weary soul:
“I have come to believe that life’s most difficult moments, when we feel as if God is very far away, are the times ripest for spiritual growth. Not because God is a sadistic puppeteer who is entertained by our suffering and takes pleasure in our pain. More like, in the words of Jewish and Buddhist mystic Leonard Cohen, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’ In the midst of our pain we become aware of our frailty and vulnerability, our mortality, and our finitude, and in this state of weakness and helplessness we discover our empowerment to make a choice. We can choose God, above and beyond everything else. Spirituality is making the conscious choice to seek God’s presence at all times. When pain breaks open our hearts, there is a new opening for God’s light to enter in” (Chapter 5, “Feeling Pain in God’s Presence,” p. 72).
This week I am carrying pain, but I am looking to joy. Next month our youth will go on a mission trip to Tulsa to serve the community and learn about racial injustice, our congregation will offer it’s first Vacation Bible School since 2006 for our children, our church will celebrate Pride Month with a “Grill-a-Pride-Palooza” fellowship, and we will celebrate our “Entertaining Angels” stewardship drive. And this Sunday, May 28, we honor our Class of 2023 high schoolers on Graduate Recognition Sunday. So, how do we shift from pain to joy with intentionality, but also with integrity that does not deny the lingering grief we carry?
Here’s something I’m doing: Each day this week, I am writing down five things that I am grateful for. It’s a means of posturing my weary soul for being open to joy. I give thanks for day lilies in bloom outside my kitchen window. I give thanks for rain kissing our community’s earth. I give thanks for tacos any day, any meal, any season. I give thanks for a diverse cadre of outstanding high school graduates that our church family gets to recognize this Sunday. And I give thanks that one of those graduates claims me as one of his parents.
But, on the loving counsel of a colleague and friend last week, I’m also giving thanks for the pain. I give thanks for the blisters on my fingers from pulling weeds in overgrown garden beds. I give thanks for yesterday’s headache demanding me to slow down and practice better self-care. And I am even thankful for the awful grief I carried last week, and that I still carry this week, and that I will undoubtedly carry for months to come; for today I will have pain, but that pain will turn into joy unknown.
Thanks be to God, who holds all our pain and all our joy together with consistent, impeccable love.