When people ask me how I am doing I am quite likely to answer, “Thanks for asking, but what part of my life do you want to talk about—and about what part of that part would you most like to hear?” Personal well-being or personal suffering? Loved ones well or loved ones gone? Church gains or church losses? Dignity observed or depravity witnessed? Beauty appreciated or perversity seen? God’s forgiveness for my daily sins or the miserable fact that after all these years I still so desperately need it? The new believer just added to our church or the wandering member who refuses to return?
The truth is that life is woeful and wonderful at the same time—and both have to be felt, permitted, and expressed. Anyone occupying the real world of human sorrows mixed with divine mercies will simultaneously have much over which to weep and much in which to rejoice. There is never a time when life is all one or the other. In fact, Paul’s autobiographical words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” from 2 Corinthians 6:10 may be as apt a summary of authentic faith in a broken world as has ever been written.
One thing I know: it describes me perfectly. This is exactly how I feel every single day of my life.
THAT WOEFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
Many readers will feel the same; perhaps acutely so in the few-week season between the fourth Thursday of November and the twenty-fifth day of December. For many, the holiday ritual is when Paul’s conflicted “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” condition feels most pronounced. For many it is a wonderful but woeful time of the year.
It certainly is for us. My beloved dad died on Christmas Day, 2005. We got the sad word as Gayline, our children, and I were enjoying our Christmas dinner. My dear mom followed Dad into glory the following December 1. Then Gayline’s dad died a couple days after Thanksgiving just a few years later.
Among other holiday sorrows have been a Christmas Eve diagnosis of our 22-year-old son’s cancer; not to mention a house fire, other significant health battles, traumatic family crises, profound parental fears, and deep ministry losses. Is it any wonder that this time of the year can feel woeful to us? It is a season of sorrows.
And the Shoreys are far from alone. There are many who feel the poignant holiday mix of joy and sadness. In truth, the holidays will be hard for everyone at some point. But it may be your turn right now. Your heart is full of woe, and no amount of holiday cheer can wipe away your tears. You force a smile when out and about but then moisten your pillow at night.
The church must be where the holiday tears of the grieving may flow freely with no rebuke or cliché response. While Christians do not love sorrow, we may—and I think must—love tears. Tear-ducts are God’s creation and tears his gifts. They are a God-designed release for our sorrows that washes over our grief, and we lose out when we do not experience and share that release more often.
If reflecting on life makes you mourn your losses and crosses, then let the tears flow. This won’t make you a Christmas kill-joy. It will mean you are human. And it will remind you that the world is far more layered and emotionally nuanced than our glib holiday cheer would like to suggest.
Likewise, there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed, as if a weeping heart implies weak faith. Often those who weep the most are those who see the clearest and feel the deepest. They see what life is supposed to be in this world and one day shall be in the world to come—and they long with an aching heart that it would be so today.
So let us weep and groan on. And if the holidays include and perhaps even cause many tears, let us not silence them with jingling bells or mask them with tinsel and glitter. Let us cry and then trace the varying trails of our tears as they merge into one shared path. Let’s be okay with woe.
THAT WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
But let’s also be open to wonder. The holidays can be a woeful wonderful time of the year because along with life’s many tears are many cheers. The mercies of God are new every morning (Lam.3:22–23). To say that life is never so dark that there is no light isn’t Christmas make-believe. It reflects a sure and certain knowledge that God is always good and kind, even when life hurts, and that his entering our sorrows to bring us wonder and joy is the very reason Christmas happened (Luke 2:10).
So let us be of good cheer. For to one degree or another God gives life and sunshine and relationships and health and food to us all. Let us rejoice for he gives “pardon for sin and a peace that endures.” Let us smile, for he gives walks, talks, feasts, music, and art. Let us enjoy, for he gives naptime, ice cream, good jokes, morning light, setting suns, quiet snow, and refreshing rain. Let us shout for joy, for he gives laughter and smiling kids and sports and traditions and holidays and holy days. Let us be glad, for we have a Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17).
May our tears flow but our cheers follow. For through Jesus we have joined unnumbered angels in festal joy, and the universal assembly of the first-born Son (Heb. 12:22–23), where worship, preaching, fellowship, fruitfulness, baptisms, Communion, and shared access to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit all happen.
And above all let us cheer, singing “Joy to the world!” for there is Christmas and Good Friday and Resurrection Day and Ascension Day and To-Day and That Day and at the end of it all, a Final and Forever Day for all who believe.
Let us be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. For while weeping may tarry for the night, joy has come; a joy that will shine in its fullness when the morning dawns (Ps. 30:5). And this holiday season may be just the woeful and wonderful time we need to remember that it is so.