Christian reflections

Sitting in the Sad

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I’m a generally happy person.

The only ministry job I’ve ever resigned from was hospice chaplain. I love end-of-life care, but nine hours of hospice a day almost did me in. I used to come home and cry for hours.

Daryl would talk about a difficult test he took at school, and I’d respond, “Really? Was your test hard? Did you see three people die today? No? Then please, tell me again how hard your day was!”

Needless to say, this wasn’t great for our marriage.

At that young stage of life, I lacked the tools to process grief in a healthy way, and the flood of families and patients and nurses steeped in such suffering did me in. I lasted three months and then turned in my letter.

I don’t think I’m unusual. Sadness is hard for everyone. Grief is exhausting. We often aren’t taught how to process it, how to walk through it in healthy ways. More than anything, we’re taught to run from sadness. To medicate it. To entertain ourselves out of it. To busy ourselves so we don’t have to feel it.

And why not? Sadness is sad. Grief is painful.

It’s not like we should seek it out, right?

I grew up in the Evangelical Free Church tradition. I’m grateful for many things it taught me – I memorized tons of the Bible as a kid; I was encouraged to practice chastity in my dating relationships; I went on local mission trips to paint houses and clean up yards.

But Lent? That was something the Catholics did. And Good Friday? Nope.

There was basically no pause between Palm Sunday’s waving of greenery (“Yay, Jesus!”) and Easter Sunday’s sugar-and-bunny fest (“Yay, Jesus! And also chocolate!”) We went from happy one Sunday to happier the next.

In college, this began to hit me as odd for the first time. I wandered into an Anglican church during Lent and was struck by how stark the sanctuary was. They didn’t sing or say “Alleluia” during the entire 40 days. Almost everyone was fasting from something. A somber air hung around the sanctuary and its people.

Instead of being put off by this, I was intrigued. I was in the middle of a bad breakup and was feeling bruised and sophomore-year depressive. I hadn’t wanted to go to my usual church where the joyful praise songs made me feel like a phony Christian because I just couldn’t smile. In this somber high school auditorium-turned-sanctuary, I began to wonder if Jesus might have something for me in this whole Lenten thing.

What was this season, where I could acknowledge my own pain–however small–and the pain of the world–however great–and remember that Jesus suffered, too? What did it mean to meditate on Christ’s sufferings even as I walked through my own? As we wept together as a congregation on Good Friday, I looked around at the tear-streaked faces and understood for the very first time that Jesus’ death was costly. Weighty. Heartbreaking. It wasn’t just a speed bump on the way to the resurrection.

Our church in California has an evening Good Friday service that rocks me to my core. It begins in silence and ends in darkness. Our worship leader plays dissonant chords on the piano. The cross is draped in black. We sing Fernando Ortega’s haunting lyrics:

Sing to Jesus, Lord of our shame. Lord of our sinful hearts. He is the great Redeemer.

You’d think that this service would be a real downer in a world of “Positive-and-Encouraging” Christianity. Yet we regularly hear that this dark, somber service is many people’s favorite of the year.

Counterintuitive? You bet.

I think it resonates so deeply because we are a people in need of permission to grieve. When we don’t mourn the sadnesses and tragedies of our lives, we carry them with us in ways we aren’t intended to for long. In remembering the depths of Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday, God says to each of us, “You’re not alone. You’re not alone in your sadness, in your grief, in your worry over the state of your soul and your family and your life and the world. There has been pain this year. And Jesus has gone down to the depths for you. He is down in the depths with you. Tonight we remember him. And he remembers you.”

The service ends without that ever-so-tempting turn to the joy of Easter. Good Friday is not Easter Sunday. It is not a day to say, “Yes, but…!” Proclaiming the resurrection as Jesus is laid in the tomb robs the day of its finality. The disciples didn’t know that this wasn’t the end. Mary didn’t know. The Roman guards didn’t know.

Jesus was dead.

It was over.

Sitting in this grief for just a few short days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter morning – lets us pause with these first witnesses to hold our breath and let our tears flow. It lets us stand with our neighbor in the pew who weathered the death of a spouse. The one who miscarried a child. The one whose marriage may not survive the year. The one who struggles with doubt. The one who declared bankruptcy. The one who got news that the cancer is back. The one who carries a chronic illness like a heavy backpack, always bowed low from its weight.

Standing in the shadow of the cross invites us to hold out our own sadnesses, finding solidarity in the one who wept over Jerusalem and gave his body for us.

We sit in the sadness of the crucifixion, of the suffering Jesus took on on our behalf, of the suffering of the world, so that we can proclaim the Resurrection with fuller voice on Sunday morning.

I may be in labor this Good Friday, but I hope I’m not.

I’d hate to miss it.

If you live in Southern California and want to join us, the service is at 8pm on Good Friday, March 25 here.
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