How do we live in a world so rich in both glory and travesty?
In the everyday workings of our hospital here in rural Burundi, Jean Marie is a joy. He is a great nurse, a gentle friend, and a ready mouthpiece for God’s goodness in his life. He grew up around here, so everyone knows him. His colleagues know they can count on him, and he frequently takes his turn preaching in morning chapel. But he’s not feeling well and so, on Thursday, he corners me to explain what he’s been feeling and shows me some lab results. I agree that there is a problem, but not one that we are well-equipped enough to really diagnose. So we agree to start some medicines and talk again in a couple days. Guarded optimism.
The next morning, I wake to effusive chatter on the hospital employee WhatsApp group. One of our finance employees had her first baby overnight. She sent a picture of a beautiful baby wrapped in a blanket covered in (of all things) American footballs. In Africa, celebration is always better together, so every congratulations is a “reply all.” Unguarded joy.
That same afternoon, I’m called urgently to the emergency room. Jean Marie was carried in by his neighbors. It takes just a few seconds to see that his pupils are dilated and his brain is not working. His hospital community rallies around him. We circle his bed and pray fervently. We try and figure out how to get him in his current state to one of Burundi’s few CT scanners. Even if such a test could diagnose his problem, we wonder if it would make any difference. He dies a few hours later. Suffocating tragedy.
How quickly our roller-coaster ascends and plunges. “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Christ our Everyman mirrors back our world.
The next day, we load Jean Marie’s hand-hewn casket into the bed of the hospital pickup truck and process together at a walking pace to the nearby cemetery. We gather at his grave and listen to his story. Perhaps the most tragic revelation was that he was building a house for his wife and five kids. Today was supposed to be the move-in day. Now he’s gone.
Now I’m walking back down the red dirt road from the burial. I look around me at the dispersing funeral crowd. The equatorial sun is getting lower and the eucalyptus shadows are lengthening. The breeze is cool and farmers in the rice fields below are calling to each other. There is a group of four women walking a bit ahead of me. I catch snatches of their casual conversation, even a bit of gentle laughter. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t seem inappropriate.
For years, I’ve noticed that, for all the manifold tragedies of hospital work in rural Africa, the dominating sounds of everyday life here are not wailing and sobbing and cursing, but rather greetings and agreement and laughter. The news may be bad, but here is the smile of an old friend, present in the distress. Here a baby is lost, and here another is healthy and sleeping, wrapped up in footballs and celebrated by a great cloud of witnesses. There is much to lament, but there is also much to rejoice in.
Lisa Borden is credited with the oft-bumper-stickered aphorism “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Maybe not, but I would counter that, if you’re not rejoicing, you’re not really paying attention either.
After years of living as an American on the other side of the world, I watch the polarization of my beloved home country. In recent years, reasons for sorrow have been more in the forefront that even what is normal for our fallen world. Some of us deeply feel the need to lament the brokenness and can’t understand the darkness-deniers. Others of us see all the beauty in this world and thus decide that the lamenters must be willfully blind to goodness and bent on destruction. The culture around us screams that there is a line in this sand, and you must decide on which side you will pitch your tent.
As Christians, we ask “is this true?” We turn to Scripture. Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. These times are seasons that roll forward in sequential non-overlapping blocks, just like the seasons of the year (at least if you live far enough away from the equator). That much is easy for us to understand. We can see that the current season does not necessarily call for the same emotional response as the previous one nor the one to come. All that remains is to decide where this current season is one of mourning or one of dancing.
In the midst of a culture that says you must pick your side, and even in addition to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes’ rolling seasons, I place before you what I consider to be a timely lesson from our African brothers and sisters. In addition to different seasons for different sentiments, let us consider that our Christian faith may call us to lament and rejoice at the same time, and that such a tension may be both a uniquely Christian gift and a testimony to the polarized world around us.
Jerry Sittser is a professor emeritus at Whitworth University in Washington state. One evening in 1991, he was in a car crash which took the life of his mother, his wife, and his daughter in the same night. Three years later, he wrote these remarkable words: “Sorrow is noble and gracious. It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time.”
I have found this idea of sorrow widening our souls very compelling. The pain and the mourning don’t disappear, but they cease to cancel or crowd out the joy and the beauty. Is this even possible? Well, I imagine that you’d have to suffer as greatly as Sittser or many of my Burundian friends to really know the truth. Yet, as a doctor that has worked in eastern Africa for more than a dozen years in an environment of ongoing loss, I would say yes with whatever authority is my due. Yes, our hearts can grow and widen until we learn to rejoice and lament at the same time.
We turn again to Scripture and find that this phenomenon of simultaneous joy and sorrow has been waiting for us to notice it. Psalm 126 is a particularly compact example: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”
My wife and I used these first verses for our wedding. Now note the sudden transition to the second half of the psalm: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
We did not use the second half for our wedding. Is the psalmist rejoicing or weeping? He is doing both, at the same time. What is the result? It seems to be hope. Sittser wrote elsewhere: “Better to give up my quest for control and live in hope.”
This sudden and (to us) jarring juxtaposition of lamenting and rejoicing is seen especially throughout the Psalms, so often that Eugene Peterson gave those moments a name, calling them “praise eruptions”. The psalmist will be right in the middle of deeply lamenting when an unexpected expression of praise surges through the dark rocks. Psalm 57 jostles from “My soul is in the midst of lions” to “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!” Psalm 13 laments throughout the entire psalm only to end with “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me!”
Where did that come from? Is this an artificial turn of phrase? Did the psalmist feel guilty for having exceeded his maximal number of words of lament without an obligatory praise recharge? I might almost think so. But then I think back to my own experiences of lament and praise. I remember times when my sorrow and intercession were curiously interrupted by this same desire to erupt in praise. Thus, maybe what seems like an artificial dichotomy in the psalms is actually correctly describing something we find unified in our experience.
In Luke 19, Jesus rides into Jerusalem in what becomes a parade. The joy of the people is explicit: “the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice.” What about Jesus? In a scene that is definitively occurring in the middle of this joyful parade (“And when he drew near and saw the city”), Jesus weeps. He sobs and cries out, not just for the impending destruction of Jerusalem, but also for the fact that it shouldn’t have needed to be that way.
What do we make of this? Was Jesus on the verge of weeping during the whole Triumphal Entry. Try as I might, I just can’t picture it. When the Pharisees tell him to rebuke his disciples and he responds with “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out,” I just can’t imagine him saying that without joy. We are left rather with a mystery, but, I think, a very Christian mystery. Our Lord laments and celebrates at the same time. We are called to both sorrow and joy. Yes, as proclaimed by Ecclesiastes, sometimes these emotional responses occupy different seasons, but often we are called to them at the same time.
As I asked in the beginning: How do we live in a world so rich in both glory and travesty? Are we to be people of lament or people of joy?
Yes and yes, say the Psalms. Yes and yes, says Jesus as he turns from a time of rejoicing with a heart ready to spill over into tears of lament. C.S. Lewis put these words into the mouth of Aslan: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” We are children of glory. Fractured and shattered children in a world of fractured and shattered glory.
The world so often gives us a false dichotomy. Will you join the joyful celebration? Or will you weep over the pending destruction of the city? Instead of choosing, we are called to use our two hands to hold on to two different things that feel so very far apart. This is never easy, and it’s even harder when we are surrounded by a culture that proclaims a need for polarization. We hold on, but we feel the cruciform strain and stretch pulling us apart right through our chests. How do we do this?
Perhaps we first need to recognize that the tension created by learning to rejoice and lament at the same time, though uneasy, is not a sign of a faulty heart orientation. All tension tends to feel that way, but sometimes (as in this case) tension may be the best sign of walking a path that is narrow. The truth is we may have more reason to be concerned if the feeling of tension disappeared.
Second, let us remember what we believe will one day resolve both our lamenting and our rejoicing. Why bother to lament in a world of such glory? Why bother to rejoice in a world of such brokenness? Because there is something greater than the world, and we eagerly await a Savior from there. Christ, who has overcome the world, promises the river of the water of life, which nourishes a tree that bears fruit in every season, whose leaves bring healing to the nations. We await salvation, joy and redemption. Our reasons for rejoicing now are small foretastes of this, and even our sorrows, by their very lack, also testify to it. We are broken children in a world of broken glory that is being redeemed. Against all expectation, honesty and hope find one another in the person of our rejoicing and lamenting Savior. And when he appears, we shall be like him. May it start to be so even now.
Eric McLaughlin is a family medicine missionary physician with Serge and a medical school professor for Hope Africa University in Burundi. Along with his physician wife Rachel, he has lived in East Africa for over ten years.
He is the author of Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need Without Losing Heart, which explores the myriad ways that his heart has been challenged to persevere in the long work of caring for those in need.