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Obey the sadness

Sarah Bessey

Lamentation is a core faith tradition, but many of us struggle with the idea that God might accompany us in times of tragedy. SARAH BESSEY is learning the hard way that there are times when we need simply to make peace with our despair.

 

My friend buried her newborn son. On the night of the memorial service, I drove home alone. I could only hold back that lung-deep cry for so long before I knew it was time to pull over my minivan. To lay my forehead on the steering wheel, keening at the side of the road for a longed-for boy with red hair.

What is there to say? What can we do but huddle into rows of chairs and clutch our hearts and sob into our shredded, balled-up tissues? What can we do but stand around and drink juice, red-eyed and hiccuping? We'll sign up to deliver a few meals when what we really want to do is lay out on the floor beside his mother and cry until we're empty, because what else? There aren't old stories to tell, no laughter breaking through the sorrow. This is lament. Is there really comfort in the idea of a baby in the arms of Jesus when all we want is for that baby to be in the arms of his broken mama?

 

BEWILDERING TIMES

I have an uneasy relationship with death and suffering, with grief and lament. Perhaps it's because my faith tradition is more comfortable with the light of certainty than the darkness of mystery and questions. Our narratives celebrate the simple wins and victories, not the complex heartache. We like our testimonies to end on a high note: and they lived happily ever after. Evil was defeated. Good won. The heroes faced conflict and were victorious. The end. Turns out life isn't a Disney movie.

"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," writes Frederick Buechner.1

I'm learning to obey the sadness-not only of our times, as Buechner said, riffing on a line from Shakespeare's King Lear, but the sadness in my own heart and the sadness of our community and the sadness of our world, and this is hard for me.

Our culture makes little space for the mess. We are expected to have it all together. Don't let them see you sweat, keep your dirty laundry and unsanitized stories to yourself, thank you very much. Be successful, look good, feel good.

 

BOXED OFF

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 in fast-paced environments, I never brought my work stress home with me; it simply stayed at work. When things were rough in one relationship, I was still able to 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 throughout the day. Even when I was in the midst of great darkness or grief, most people never knew. I took pride in my self-possession, counting it as righteousness that no one knew my heart was breaking.

But it was precisely because of those too-full boxes that my major spiritual awakenings began. Secrets make us sick, I've heard. My boxes were 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.

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 seek God there . I do not obey my sadness. I default to attempts to control instead of the free fall of surrender.

 

CHARISMATIC DARKNESS

This might be the 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.

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, don't pay attention to the monster crouching in the corner. We believed that our feelings and circumstances had to obey our carefully curated version of the Word of God: 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 who 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.

 

THIN PLACES

My mother-in-law is a hospice chaplain. Every day of her workweek, 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 because most of us cannot carry these moments alone, and yet there are so few among us who will make peace with our despair.

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. I'm still in the early days of holding space to allow the lament to deepen the joy. I still default to a setting of control instead of a posture of surrender. This is the place of my most unanswered questions, my deepest twilight of belief. I hold it loosely. I offer it hesitantly.

Bear with me.

 

TRUE STORIES

After spending her entire three years of life battling a devastating and rare disease, a small girl died. At her funeral, her grieving mother wore marigolds in her hair.

I have rocked on my hands and knees on the living room floor, laboring to give birth to too-soon babies who would be wrapped in tea towels instead of receiving blankets, taken away from me at the hospital for "testing" that revealed no answers.

My husband's best friend-the one who is like a brother to him-is a widower now. His wife died. Their two blond daughters are about the age of our own tinies. We have borne witness with each other in the joys and sorrows of our lives throughout fifteen years of true friendship. She died slowly.

There is nothing to say. There is only what was happening. This is life sometimes. We mustn'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 clichés 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-and so we learn to obey the sadness and live into the Gospel by speaking the truth. Whether it's one soul suffering or a communal grief, whether it's systemic suffering of entire people groups or one lonely man burying his wife.

 

NEVER REGRET HOPE

I prayed for healing. Does that surprise you? I prayed for healing right up until the end. I don't regret hope. I will never regret even a conflicted faith.

Here is what I think I know: God's heart for us is shalom-nothing missing, nothing broken, total and whole peace.

But the world is broken. We are broken. This is because we have the freedom to choose, the agency of a million billion decisions and choices, it's because powers and principalities are at war among us, it's because we live in a fallen world not yet fully redeemed, and then, there's a bit of ambiguity thrown in too.

If we want to know what God is like, Scripture tells us to look to Jesus. Jesus was meant to clarify, to answer the questions, to clean up the dirty windowthrough which we try to behold the holy. Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus is "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being."

As I sort through my faith, I've come to believe that almost all of our theology-and therefore our practical lives-has its roots in what we believe about the nature and character of God. It all tracks back.

 

CORE QUESTION

Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say I am?"

Who do you say He is?

This isn't the time for the mask of right answers. This is the time for the honesty. In your heart of hearts, in your raw place of grief and suffering, in your rich centre of love and redemption, who do you say God is? Too often we seek to comfort with the platitudes that have held the Church captive for years: God is all-powerful, God could have stopped it, God didn't stop it, therefore this-all this-is God's plan for us. And so this is how we comfort the grieving, the abused, the oppressed, the beaten, the exhausted, the broken.

The other option is to blame God actively. God sent that hurricane or that earthquake as a punishment for sin. God didn't save your child because the child was unrepentant. God won't answer your prayers because you have unresolved sin in your life or because our society is so incredibly evil.

Who is to say what is more damaging? To hear that God is to blame for your suffering or to hear that you are to blame for it?

 

ALLOWING COMPLEXITY

Sometimes our suffering may be the consequence of our own sin or choices. But in actuality, much of our suffering is independent from our choices. We suffer at the hands of another, we suffer because of the actions of another, we suffer because this is what it means to be human and live.

Simply blaming God or blaming ourselves fails to recognize the truth that we are in a war zone. The world is complex, ambiguous at times, and so yes, evil things often happen because we live in a fallen world of free agents. We don't always escape the evil in this world, and we don't always find victory in this life, but the core belief I was given at the start is true: God is not to blame.

I didn't learn how to lament and grieve, how to pray and be in community until I learned that God could be trusted. God is against the evil and suffering in the world. He is not the origin of evil nor does He useevil as a means to justify some cosmic end. Rather, God fights evil.

I couldn't trust God if I suspected God was behind our deepest griefs and injustices. This is where the sovereignty arguments break down for me. I don't blame God for much anymore. I see God as the rescue from the injustices, not the cause of them. I see God as the redeemer of the pain, not the origin of it. I see the promise of sovereignty not as hypercontrol over the minute and painful details of the world, but as a faithful promise that all things will be restored, all things will be redeemed, all things will be rescued.

And again, I go back to our Jesus.

 

FOLLOWING JESUS

In Christ, we learned the truth: "Jesus didn't come to declare that everything already manifests the Father's will. He came, rather, to establish the Father's will, because the world as it now is doesn't consistently manifest God's will," writes Greg Boyd. 2

The Kingdom of God is being established in this world, absolutely, but it's foolish to think that this is happening through rainbows and unicorns. Instead, Scripture teaches us that we are at war-not against people but against powers and principalities.3 With our freedom comes risk. We are prophesying the Kingdom of God in our victories and in our defeats. We aren't immune from suffering or excused from the experience of being human simply because of our faith. And the truth remains: the crucified God, as personified in Jesus, revealed that God is always on the side of suffering wherever it is found4 and God's endgame is resurrection.

Sovereignty is a promise, not a threat. No one will ever convince me that God made my babies die or that God killed our friend with cancer or that a hurricane is an act of God as punishment for sin. Instead, I think sovereignty is the promise that it will all be healed in the end. Sovereignty means that all will be held. I don't have the answers yet. I don't know that anyone really does. My response to the age-old questions of evil and suffering and grief is no longer arguments and answers and platitudes. Instead, I've turned to a lost practice among us: lament.

 

LEARNING TO LAMENT

I am learning that it is okay to feel sad and to be angry, to long for rescue and redemption, to pray and shout and cry, to weep with those who weep.

Right along with my activism and my faith, right along with my best hopes and my busy hands, my surrender and my prayers, I am learning to simply sit in the sadness and allow it to be there with me. I am learning to lament, to mourn, to weep with those who weep, to take our shared sadness and bewilderment into my own soul too.

It's okay to feel it. It's okay and it's necessary, it's holy and good work. We need to listen to the stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our peace. As Christians, I think it's our responsibility to carry each other's burdens and be a part of restoring justice for one another. Sometimes that means being able to carry truly terrible truths without letting them bury us whole.

Sometimes the most holy work we can do is listen to each other's stories and take their suffering into our hearts, carrying each other's burdens and wounds to Christ together, in faith and in lament, together.

I hold space for the righteous anger and the grief. I join in the lamentations of the weary world.

And then I will seek ways to embody those very prayers, to incarnate them, to further heaven's hopes and summon God's glory in ways big and small, seen and unseen, mundane and holy.

 

ABANDON YOUR ANSWERS

The night that our friend's wife died, my brokenhearted husband called his mother: What do I say? What do I do? What will fix this? There is nothing else to do. You do this every day, Mom: what do I do for my friend?

Now is the time to sit with Him, she said.

There is nothing to say. Stop thinking there is something to say to make it go away. It won't go away. Abandon your answers. Avoid your clichés. Don't blame God and don't blame him. Learn to sit in the sadness. This is not the end, this is not the end. He booked a ticket to Colorado, and he flew to his friend. He stayed with him, day after day after day, doing the things with him that needed to be done. At night, together, they put the motherless girls to bed, and then they sat outside, usually in silence, looking up at the sky, still alive.

 

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey is published by DLT.

Sarah Bessey is the author of Jesus Feminist and an award-winning blogger at SarahBessey.com.

 

NOTES

1 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row, 1977), 15.

2 Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame?, 61.

3 Ephesians 6:12

Comments

Frank Attanasia LCSW

I work as a bereavement counselor for a metropolitan hospice in New York City. I am both a social worker by training and a deacon the the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Sitting with those who are mourning, provides opportunity to offer presence to those who are struggling with the brokeness of grief. You article so skillfully captures the in-between-wrestling those who grieve and those who help the grievers must face together. It is through such struggle I believe that Christian community emerges. Thank-you for this most helpful article-it is certainly heartfelt.

Posted: 07 January 2016