New Year’s Day cracked clear and Colorado blue, the kind of day people write love poems to. But I woke to muddied emotions. Pleasure and Pain wrestled in me like brothers over a coveted Christmas gift.
In the embrace of The Redheaded-Wildflower, the thrum of the furnace fending off the frigid seven degree weather, light of the first day of the year fingering through the slits in the drawn drapes, Sir Winston, our English Springer Spaniel, nuzzling my hand, the promise of unmade coffee and dreams and days filling the room, I swam in memories of a year past crammed with gatherings, conversations, worship, hikes, fishing and hunting trips, delightful meals, glasses of wine, and moments of silence and laughter. The memories floated like delicious mist.
But there on the edges of the mist also lumbered darkness. Painful memories from the last year elbowed their way in. Isolation, confusion, family and friends fighting cancer, COVID-19, and depression also bullied themselves into my heart.
So many people had lost their grip on this world, famous and not. It was as if the Reaper fell behind and swept over of the last days of the year to catch up.
And then as if to body slam the year, a fierce wind-driven fire ravaged several communities in Boulder County. Around 1,000 homes were incinerated in mere hours resulting in deserted streets, bone-white sidewalks wending though fire-bombed, empty neighborhoods. Charred foundations, stray brick fireplaces, and skeletal trees stood in futile defiance. Tens of thousands homeless.
My breath caught. I guiltily scanned my intact ceiling and walls. How could I rejoice in the midst of such awful suffering?
Maybe you woke New Year’s Day or many a day with similar conflicting emotions. How do you navigate the Pain and Pleasure of daily life simultaneously?
I silently asked God, “How is it possible to celebrate, be thankful, among these ashes?”
Live in a Both/And Rather than Either/Or World
The Apostle Paul tells his friends in Rome: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
But how, Paul?
Notice Paul doesn’t advise either rejoice or mourn. Math dictates either four plus four equals eight or it doesn’t. But human emotions and questions of Pleasure and Pain live in the realm of both/and.
Applying mathematical, mechanistic equations to emotional and spiritual life doesn’t add up. For that matter, if you’ll pardon another math pun, they subtract from life. A mechanistic worldview reduces life to less than reality. This then forces our experiences and emotions into a box they cannot fit.
Thus we are unable to navigate our complicated world where Pain and Pleasure, Trash and Treasure intertwine. We force ourselves to emote either as Eeyore or Tigger. And neither is a complete expression of who God created us to be.
Thus Paul’s admonition speaks to the beautiful complexity of creation and our place in it. Rejoice and mourn!
Lean into Both/And
In officiating memorial services, I’ve seen people both profoundly grieved and enormously relieved at the death of a loved one. Mourners often have a tear of joy runneling down one cheek while a tear of pain rivulets the other. That was the case for me at both my mother’s funeral and my brother’s. Their loss tore a hole in my soul that still aches. But the cessation of their pain brought me consolation and hope.
We’ve all experienced this in these strangest of all days. The isolation forced on us by the pandemic has fostered depression, loneliness, and loss. While the same has also allowed many to reevaluate busy, full schedules that also fostered unhealth. It has been and will be both a blessing and a curse.
Sharing Pain and Pleasure Heals Us
The beautiful truth is that God brings redemption through both pain and joy.
God redeemed my painfully broken birth family through the amazing joy I received from the birth of my children and grandchildren. Likewise God entered the pain of my fatherlessness by calling me to minster to the fatherless!
Binary, mechanistic thinking, dictating we are only capable of one response to life, dams the flow of redemption God wants to pour out.
Again “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
In other words, splash in both the outpouring of God’s grace in joyful times and drown in the hope of receiving grace multiplied in times of dry despair. They are not contradictions but rivers which will soon flow together and quench.
Contrary to popular opinion, hiding either our hurt or our exhilaration benefits and comforts no one. It is not the escape from uncomfortable emotions we hope it is.
Rather it traps and isolates therefore deepening the despair or invalidating the delight. This aloneness is a devastation in and of itself. It denies our emotions but does not eliminate nor answer them. Sharing in the Pain and/or Pleasure of others connects us and delivers us. It raises us above pain but does not deny or glorify it.
That New Year’s day I took my conflicting emotions to God. Sipping my first steaming cup of coffee of the year, I filled my journal, prayer-like, with both Pain and Pleasure. Sumo-like each wrestled for mastery. But I favored neither; I simply acknowledged the truth both represented. And soon sweaty and tired Pain and Pleasure settled in for another year together.
Now I share my Pain and Pleasure with you. My prayer is that it brings you a splash of grace in the midst of both your difficulty and your delight to come.