This little church saw the birth of my earliest understanding of a kind and loving God. I was a regular church-goer, but not here (we attended the big FIRST Methodist church in town). This little church at the bottom of the hill was the most convenient for summer mornings. And Vacation Bible School and red Koolaid breaks and animal crackers, served with gentle hands by the good country folk of this little congregation, set something in motion within me. Joy in the morning, sticky hot July days, long walks up the hill for lunch, Vacation Bible School.
Today, many years later, my grandparents are buried right outside the front door of this church. Still, joy remains – for memories of lives well-lived, for love that endures. But I miss them. I grieve that I did not bear their passing well, that I was unable to walk through those final days of my grandmother’s battle with cancer because I was just. too. scared. I couldn’t watch her go because I couldn’t believe that she would ever go. I stuck my head in the sand. I stayed home too many days when I could have been sitting by her side. And now there are no more days.
And I regret that. As I miss her, I ache with regret, which is a terrible sort of grief.
I have been in an odd season, one in which I feel as though while moving forward I am yet grieving. Both are rich and meaningful emotions and experiences, but they are existing in a very strange symbiotic dance. Together, intertwined, as if I cannot have one without the other.
This fits the poetry of my theology – “To everything there is a season/a time to laugh, a time to weep/a time to be born, a time to die.” Etc. And it certainly fits my experience. It fits the words I offer in counsel to others.
But in my heart, it is a strange thing indeed.
Joy and grief, simultaneously?
Yes. And, of course, through melody and rhythm, where I most often am graced with healing, with a renewed sense of wonder and glory, comes a memory, with a story, wrapped gently in song as I recall a little white church where I sang with gusto:
The first time I played Joy was the night my father passed away. He had a short and painful battle with cancer. My dad was not perfect but he did the best he could with what he had. A year before he died he was diagnosed with dementia. The day he told me he had cancer he said it was a blessing. To him, cancer was a better way to end his story than a mind with no memory of his family or his life. So as I sat at the piano, the only place that felt safe that night to me, the weight of loss hit my chest. I remembered my eyes were blurred with tears and I literally began to play the now familiar progression of Joy. I kept cycling through the progression and then, as if it had already been written, I began to sing a different melody to a song I sang in VBS as a child, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” The truth is that I was terribly and profoundly sad. The reality of grief had not even entirely hit me yet. But at the same moment I had a deep sense of peace. He was no longer in pain. He was no longer sick. He was free from all his ailments and restored. Although I still miss him, I know that God has weaved redemption through death into my father’s story. That brings me great joy. It was not until grief became a part of my story that I realized that joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.
I believe it is important as a community that wants to comfort the weary we allow space for those who are grieving, suffering, and experiencing loss to say, “Hey! I am hurting! I am in pain!” It is okay to give them space to figure out what joy means in that time.
I now know that you can experience grief and joy simultaneously…and if not, that joy can and will come if you allow it to.
I had Joy written without the ending that is on the record for a while. And after I had some time to grieve I remembered the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.” The author of that hymn lost multiple members of his immediate family when he wrote those deeply wise words….God brings us peace. He even brings us joy when it seems and feels impossible.
And here is the artist, from the band The Autumn Film, sharing this thing she has learned. It is a thing worth knowing.
HT to Chris Vacher for showing me this music….