“Highs and Lows”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
October 19, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Recently a friend of mine said that suffering and joy exist on the same continuum, that to the extent you shut out your suffering, you also shut out your joy.
This is a lousy arrangement if you ask me. I’d rather not watch any more of my friends suffer. I’d rather not feel my pain, rather not see the human meanness and the senseless misfortune that exist. But for those who have suffered immensely and come out on the other side, you know how it is, that suffering and loss can deepen all human experience, that enduring the hurt inexplicably opens new wonders.
In our adult Sunday school class, we have this weekly exercise of sharing our highs and our lows with one another. We go around the circle and note something beautiful, then something ugly from our own experience of life in the last few days. This is no flippant icebreaker to get conversation rolling. This is an intentional spiritual practice.
By sharing a high point in the week, we practice gratitude in a public and deliberate way. We name out loud something for which we are grateful. No matter how rough it has been, or how grotesque the nightly news, we acknowledge to ourselves and to our friends, here is an event that brought joy.
By sharing a low, we practice vulnerability in a public and deliberate way. On a weekly basis, we admit out loud, “Not everything is perfect for me. I do not have it all together.” We sometimes share big things and we sometimes share petty things—all of it is a meaningful act of realness by which we confess where we are and how broken this world can be. You all know what it is like living in a world full of violence and hunger and poverty, but the thing that’s really got you up in arms is that for the eleventh time this month, you cannot find your car keys. Such is life: heart-ripping suffering and petty annoyances intruding our peace and serenity, at times with comparable force. And so, we try to be honest about that around the circle in Sunday school, because if we can’t admit what life is like in church, why come here?
We have a small group that has been meeting on Wednesday mornings for nearly a year now, and as part of our practice, we share high and lows there too, but of course, we do all sorts of other very spiritual things as well. Like praying and breathing exercises and reading and the discussing of serious spiritual ideas. There is this format we follow. But occasionally—and lately more frequently—we do not make it past the sharing of highs and lows. We spend so much of our time reliving the week that we run out of time for the rest.
At first, as the “leader” of the group, this worried me. We were not getting to the meat of things and I felt responsible. I should keep us on track, make sure we accomplished the spiritual stuff. But then, listening to everyone’s stories I realized, this is the spiritual stuff—this deep, vulnerable and transparent sharing of lives, our joys, our frustrations, our questions, fears, doubts, worries, victories and hopes. We share laughter and tears around that table weekly, and we share hearts and souls too. We share in God and we see Christ in one another. We see Christ in each other’s struggles, in each other’s growth, and in each other’s blessings. We see Christ, and every Wednesday morning, the Lord is near. I don’t miss Wednesday mornings for anything.
You do not “rejoice in the Lord always” by fighting back all your tears, bottling up your sorrow and sinking your pain beneath a constant smile. You rejoice in the Lord always by showing gentleness to all as you handle their stories with care. You rejoice in the Lord always by discovering in the joys and sufferings of your neighbor that the Lord is near. You rejoice in the Lord always by walking alongside those in depths of loss, searching with them for what it is they have gained. You rejoice in the Lord always by giving thanks wherever and whenever you can, as a faithful and purposeful and repetitive practice. You rejoice in the Lord always by releasing, via prayer and contemplation, as much worry as you are able. You rejoice in the Lord always by letting all that is good and noble into your mind and into your heart.
Richard Rohr writes, “We have spent centuries of philosophy trying to solve ‘the problem of evil,’ yet I believe the much more confounding and astounding issue is the ‘problem of good.’ How do we account for so much gratuitous and sheer goodness in this world? Tackling this problem would achieve much better results.”
I can’t help but think this has something to do with what Paul meant when he wrote, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence or if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When I was younger, I used to think this advice meant I was supposed to forcibly shut out any thoughts about the things that were bad. But of course, now I understand that denial of pain and suffering is spiritual malpractice. Turning a blind eye will make you flat blind. But if you train your eye to see it all—all that is revolting and all that is stunning about this crazy life, you may just find a grace-filled world, full of splendor, full of God.
One of the “highs” shared in our Sunday School class that has stuck with me the most (and I really hope she doesn’t mind me repeating) is when Jenny told this simple story about a sweet moment with her little sons tenderly brushing her hair. It was such a simple story, and yet that is what struck me as beautiful about it—that something so small as that can be one of life’s joys does not in any way negate the gravity of how much horror there can be. Rather, that story demonstrates what rejoicing can look like even amid a lifetime of repetitive sufferings.
To rejoice means we learn to savor what is good, to drink it in slowly, to name it out loud as joy. To rejoice means we have seen that life may be short and peace can be tenuous and thus we appreciate what vibrancy and calm we can find. The peace of God does not come to us once we have figured it all out—how the pieces fit together and why the suffering happens and what it all means. Mercifully, the peace of God precedes understanding; it pays no special favors to the theologian over the simpleton. The peace of God simply finds its way, in time, to those who pray, to those who seek, to those who ask.
I agree with Paul. The surest way to find the Lord is near is to let your gentleness be known to everyone. This is the quickest path to God, because then God is not only a thing outside you, but a thing shining forth within you. The more you live as God lives, the more often God seems close.
Unfortunately, I am always replacing gentleness with harshness—harshness towards self, harshness towards neighbor. I have these ridiculous demands for everyone, most of all for me. When I replace gentleness with harshness, I replace light with dark, sight with blinders. I replace God with my own need to control. The harsher I get, the further away God seems. God, of course, remains as close as the air I breathe, but my hardened lungs cannot find the air.
The harsher we are, the harsher we will believe God to be. The gentler we are, the gentler we will believe God to be. The nearer we allow ourselves to go to suffering, the nearer we will begin to believe God is. The farther we keep our distance from those in pain, the farther we will believe God to be from our own hurt.
Even in the worst of times, the saints can find a thing to rejoice about. There is something true, something honorable, something just, something pure, something pleasing, something commendable even in the dark times. If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, do not forget to think on such things. Such awareness will lead you through sorrow into much rejoicing.
You know, sometimes I get to a Wednesday morning, and I can’t think of what a high or a low has been. My brain is a fog, and I can’t name what’s happened. Have I really gone through a week that asleep? The practice of rejoicing isn’t a way to force yourself to be happy when times are tough. Rejoicing is a way to wake yourself up to the goodness that is. By naming what is good and giving God thanks, by naming what is bad and surrendering control . . . you open up a window for peace to drift in.
May your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Amen.