Archive for the ‘Sadness and suffering’ Category

Last week, David Ker wrote a CyberPsalm in the form of a prayer for a friend and coworker, Ada, who is battling cancer. I also know Ada, though it has been years since I’ve seen her. Several mutual friends have written me recently, asking me to join them in praying for her.

During this same time, my heart has also been heavy for H., a man in the church I attend now, who is battling a similar cancer. I found myself struggling in my prayers for him, and that struggle was compounded in my prayers for Ada.

I have walked through some very painful things in the last few years. And through the process, I have experienced the Lord’s faithfulness as I have clung to Him. Having more or less come through the worst of that time, I do not necessarily find myself to be more confident in my praying. If anything, the only spiritual practice I find my confidence increased in is lamenting.

And so as I would try to pray for my suffering sister and brother, I could not find the words, only tears. Tears for them, for their spouses and children. I could feel edges of the pain and uncertainty and sorrows they and their families must be walking through. And yet the words to put in a prayer did not come.

During my most painful days, I struggled with the things that God does not do and did not do for me. Now, I think I struggle more with not understanding the things he does do, and with wondering how on earth my prayers are supposed to fit into all of that. I find myself feeling something along the lines of, Lord, I know you can do anything, but as to what you want to do and plan to do…I just don’t know.

And so my prayers (and some would say my faith) are weak and uncertain. And yet I continue to trust the Lord confidently with my tears–crying out and clinging to him, for myself, for my children, and in my longings and cries for Ada and for H. and for their families.

When my friends asked me if I would write a prayer for Ada and send it along with the prayers of others, I wondered how I would send a feeling-prayer, instead of a word prayer. I cannot bottle my tears up and send them in the post or via email.

I did, however, have a verse that kept running through my mind as I thought of the suffering and sorrow Ada and H. are facing, and of all my unanswered questions about how to pray for them.

A short while later, there was a beautiful photo* on my National Geographic Photo of the Day link. I ended up combining the photo with the verse, using my new Corel PhotoShop program.

This is the closest I can come to putting all of my questions, longings, trust and doubts into a prayer for Ada and for H.:

botswana river crossing color with brown

And just because my mood (and therefore my tears and prayers) are less colorful some days than others here’s the same photo, with a sepia effect:

botswana river crossing sepia lightened

Listening to Canon in D while finishing up these photos, I felt like I had just about  found a tangible expression of my heart’s cries and prayers. (If only talking with people was as “easy” as showing them a photo and telling them to listen to a song. There are days when, as hard as praying in words is for me, that I am so thankful the Lord sees my heart, understands the things I feel in response to a song or to a photo, and gets my prayer, after all, even without the words.)

*This photo was  the National Geographic Photo of the Day for May 10, 2009. Here is the description: “A Mbukushu mother and child cross Botswana’s Okavango River, whose seasonal floods bring life to a parched land.” You can see five more beautiful photos from the same book, Mothers and Children, at this link.

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…with a little help from Van Gogh (thanks, Wikipedia) to paint a picture of how a friend’s friend has been feeling lately:


And the prayer, prayed on behalf of this young man, borrowed from Viktor Frankl (quoted in his biography, When Life Calls Out to Us):

God, you have stricken me with mind;
So help me now to bear this life.

I’m thinking about stepping into the mud a bit, with a few posts on depression. I’ve avoided this topic for a while, because I hate the way the intensity on the subject seems to breed misunderstanding and get in the way of productive, helpful discussion.

I reread much of the book of Job this morning, the way I sometimes like to read it (only reading Job’s words, and cheering him on for his courage in proclaiming both his despair and his innocence, in the face of well-meaning friends, who kept getting it all wrong).  And that rereading, combined with concern over my friend’s friend, has stirred up my desire to wrestle with the topic of depression, again.

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For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately on all the ways I’m falling short as a Mom. Sometimes I feel like I’m just making do with broken pieces all around. My own limitations and brokenness. The fallout and brokenness in my kids’ lives from the realities of abuse, divorce, learning disabilities, bullies in school, etc. There is so much imperfection in their little lives, and every bit of it takes its toll on them. I’m acutely aware of my ineffectiveness in mitigating for them the effects of life in a hard world. Or even being able to equip them with the resources to live well in that world. There’s so much more I’d love to do to actively help and equip them. Yet, I’m limited by my own limitations and the very real struggle to recover from the weakening effects of abuse in my own life.

I want to do so much more for them. I see my limitations, but when I follow that line of thinking to the end, I see that it’s not just my limitations. Even if I could do everything I dream of doing–even if I could be as good as Mom as so-and-so, I couldn’t be enough to perfectly equip them with the resources to live an ideal life.

And so, here I sit, rethinking that ideal. The first thing that is helping me is one little part of a very long conversation at The Evangelical Village. My reaction started with this statement from a commenter:

I am curious as to how you justify using single women as an example to prove your point? We would all agree that God’s design is not to have families being run by single mothers who have to do all of the providing, nurturing, etc…

And here is the response, which gave me a big “aha” and triggered some connections, which have been leading to some smaller “aha”s

God’s design lasted until Adam and Eve were put out of the garden. In the garden, they did not have to labour over the soil to feed themselves. The labour of providing is a post Eden task. However, death also has entered into the equation. Men and women die at different times. Although society at first arranged that widows be remarried, this was not enforced among the early Christians. Paul says they should remain unmarried.

What is God’s design in this? That husband and wife both be immortal? That neither one suffer illness? That all men and women remarry ASAP?

Cannot God’s design be evident in how we surmount life’s difficulties. If either husband or wife fall seriously ill, is it not God’s design that we surmount this and remain faithful providers and nurturers of our invalid spouse. Is not this courage part of God’s design?

Somehow, I do believe that God’s design is not just about us finding a way to return to some perfect Garden of Eden state. It’s not about throwing every ounce of energy into making perfect marriages and families happen, nor about succeeding at creating the ideal of perfect social justice and equality in our societies or world.

I don’t have a fine-tuned theology on all of this, so please don’t throw too many theological rotten tomatoes my way if you disagree! I struggle with what God’s design really is. And how His sovereignty and our free will play into it all.

But I think when we act as if God’s design is all about our attaining heaven on earth (whether we focus most of our energy on attaining those ideals in our own homes or in our wider societies), what ends up happening is either

  1. an obsession that leaves us disdaining, dismissing or angry at those around us who frustrate and keep that ideal from happening (i.e. I have to be mad at a spouse who is keeping me from having the perfect marriage; mad at the President who is messing up the world by making (depending on his political leanings) things like war or abortions or poverty or laziness or whatever easier; or mad at myself for my own very real weaknesses which keep getting in the way of my moving towards a family or culture that perfectly reflects God’s design) or
  2. a frantic whitewashing of our efforts that don’t turn out to be perfect or ideal, and then holding our breath and squinting just so, hoping we can convince somebody (ourselves? God? people around us?) that we ARE getting it right!

I’m not exactly ecstatic with the thought that so much of God’s design has to do with redeeming the terrible things, and with how we surmount those difficulties in life. There are times I admit to finding great comfort in that, and there are times (like now) that I would love God’s design to be a whole lot more about things working out right, all around, the first time, rather than about how well we get through the tough stuff or how much of the evil that others get away with is redeemable in our lives.

Even with that tension, though, I think we do ourselves and God a disservice when we assume we’re doing our best at living out His design when we’re most perfectly imitating what we imagine God designed to happen in Eden. If that’s the case, I’m going to have to work my tail off just to get back to ground zero.  Who, though, is not in the same boat? None of us is operating in a context that sets us up to even come close to life as God designed it to be in a perfect paradise. Not one family who looks like they have it all together is doing so from some perfect (or even nearly so) attainment of an Edenic ideal.

A friend of mine who is going through marriage troubles was told by another friend that she probably shouldn’t take in an exchange student because it would be sad for that student to have her example of a Christian family be one where there was so much emotional disconnection. What?!?! So this Mom can’t live out any kind of good example of faith and love and perseverance and godliness because her marriage isn’t good enough? I’m not even married, and I’m learning a lot about love and forgiveness and wisdom from how this woman lives out her faith in a tough situation. And she keeps telling me that she is learning a lot about honesty and patience and resting in God from watching how I live out my faith in a tough, single parenting situation. Do the two of us only get partial credit for loving and glorifying God and living out His design, because our lives aren’t a perfect reflection of God’s design for families?

A comment from a post at Familyhood Church helped bring some of these thoughts together for me:

God’s requirement is that we walk humbly with Him, and leave the glory of it up to Him. I no longer believe that I can make glory happen by being a super-saint in a super-church, my job is to live where I am, learning love, faith and obedience, seeing God where He already is, dwelling in His flawed broken children. And that is enough.

I’ve said before that if God is going to bring hope into my desperate situation, it’s going to have to be His doing. I can’t (and won’t) paste it on like some sort of self-generated commodity. If He’s going to bring light, it’s going to have to be right here where it’s dark, because like Jeremiah (or was it Isaiah), I can’t get myself out of a dark, muddy pit on my own. Yet, somehow it seems to me like God’s design isn’t contingent on whether or not I’m in the pit or out of it. On whether or not I’m depressed (don’t get me going on the topic of needing to fix my depression so God can use me better ;-)!) On whether or not I have the perfect Edenic family scenario. On whether or not I’m able to give my kids all the things they need to make it in a tough world.

I can’t be a super Mom any more than I can be a super saint, or my church can be a super church. But I can be a Mom “where I am, learning love, faith and obedience, seeing God where He already is, dwelling in His flawed broken children [which includes me, and my dear little ones, broken and flawed as they are by the realities of divorce and by, well, just life in general]. And that is enough.”

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This is the title of a hymn (sung to the same tune as “Bind Us Together”) by Charles Wesley, which I discovered in our Methodist hymnal. I am familiar with benediction songs, but don’t think I had ever heard a regathering song.

I love how this song brings into focus something that we often take for granted, until it doesn’t happen–the fact that, when we get back together with others, we actually all have made it through another period of time, alive.

And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!

There are six verses to the hymn (which is on the short side, for Charles Wesley, I’ve discovered). I won’t quote them all here. I do especially like the questions and the thoughts provoked by the third verse:

What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!

I appreciate those questions being voiced in the context of a church meeting. Stopping and looking around and realizing that not only in my own life, but in the lives of those around me, we come, not bringing amazing tales of heroics and greatness, but rather, choosing to worship together and cling to the Lord together, within the context of all of our ongoing suffererings, fears and conflicts.

Our Sunday finery might suggest a with-it-ness, but the reality is often far from “with it”. When that is the case, we do ourselves a service to make space for that brokenness and that pain and that suffering. If we think we need to cover up the troubles we’ve seen in the interlude between meeting with these brothers and sisters, if we feel like we need to be someone else–someone more exceptional and perfect–in order to show up at church, then we will neither find nor give the comfort, strength and encouragement that we were designed to give each other.

The other verses in the song celebrate the Lord’s sustaining and redeeming power, His salvation and the glad hopefulness of continuing to share in the sufferings of the cross.

And are we yet alive? If so, let’s take a good look around and actually notice what the Lord’s faithfulness has really meant for each of us since we last met. Let us consider what His faithfulness really looks like, not in some glorified, whitewashed way, but in the very real realities that each of us lives in.

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…is with the truth….Hope cannot take root in unreality or untruths.”

I am currently rereading After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith, by Denise Ackermann, a theologian from South Africa. Each chapter in the book is a letter to someone she loves. The chapter from which the above quote is taken is written to her best friend, Elfriede.

I appreciate deeply the grounded-in-reality approach she takes to understanding hope. In this post, I am going to quote various selections from this chapter, “On Locusts and Bodies”, particularly from pages 81 to 83.

First, here the author is quoting Calvin:

To us is given the promise of eternal life–but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us–meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous–and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness–but meantime we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst….But what would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope?

And some further thoughts:

To believe that Christ was raised from the dead is not just a consoling thought about how God has triumphed over humiliation, suffering, and death. It is in fact a contradiction of suffering and death, a divine protest against suffering. And it does not only deal with the future. Hope is sterile if it does not transform our thoughts and our actions here and now. Hope opens a future outlook that embraces all of life, everything we do and know, and that includes sickness and death.

This is a theme which I keep coming back to. Hope, if it is to be real, has got to be able to deal with and exist in the context of the realities that are. In one very real sense, hope is based in a belief that what we see is not all there is. But, in another sense, if hope cannot take into account the the realities and sorrows we actually see around us, today, then it is dishonest and unrealistic.

Hope has very little currency if it is just a ‘pie in the sky when we die by and by’, a trick masquerading as optimism covered with a religious veneer. True Christian hope is tougher, more realistic…

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Yes, that’s a bit long for a post title, but it was way better, I thought, than what I’d been planning on calling this post: “Entropy and Corporate Grieving.” I’m still thinking about David Ker’s post “Bon Jovi Gets It” and the dialogue in response, which includes this comment from Codepoke:

The problem, though, is that “church” is not a whole experience. The Sunday morning service cannot begin to handle a whole-truth song. There’s no way to make 100 people deeply join in with a whole-truth song. On Sunday morning, if you present a song that complains against God, even for one line, you’re going to fragment your audience.

This is the post I was trying to write, when I got distracted on “A Grief Rabbit Trail”. It is part of my ongoing thinking about why church songs (and ultimately, the churches, themselves) don’t make much room for sadness and grieving together.

As I’ve pondered this question, I keep coming back to an illustration from a Scientific American article: “Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?” Now, lest you think I’m smarter than I really am, I’m not. I didn’t actually understand the article. A friend was visiting me and we were doing one of the wonderful things that introverted friends can do together–sitting at the breakfast table, drinking homemade smoothies, reading. I was reading a graduation speech turned into a book. She was reading Scientific American. Periodically, one of us would speak up and share something interesting we’d just read, and then we’d both get quiet again. Personally, I think that is way more social than going to the movies together. But, I digress, don’t I?

In any case, I didn’t really understand much of the article. I kind of thought I followed the reasoning of the first paragraph:

The basic laws of physics work equally well forward or backward in time, yet we perceive time to move in one direction only—toward the future.

But, from there, I lost it (emphasis added).

The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

I am?!?!

I could work my way into a tension headache right now trying to figure out some deeper reason why ice cubes don’t unmelt than what I thought was the self-explanatory reason that it’s warmer outside the freezer than in it (at least here in Florida).

But, I digress. Again.  My point is that most of the article did not make sense, except for this one particular illustrated sidebar, where the author was explaining entropy with an analogy to eggs:


And now I’m back to thinking about corporate grieving. I wonder if we feel lonelier in our grieving, because it feels like there are so many more individual ways to be broken and hurting and grieving than there are to be doing fine.

I remember once, when I was going through a very difficult time, I was moaning to a friend how alone I felt in facing what I was. I remember his disagreeing and pointing out some of the other very close friends who were walking with me and supporting me, at great sacrifice to themselves, in so many practical ways.

I had to agree that I wasn’t as alone as I was feeling. But still, I told him, I felt alone in what I was experiencing. I compared it to having friends holding each of my hands as I walked to the guillotine. No amount of friends surrounding me was going to make anybody’s head but mine roll. In that moment and in that suffering, it felt like my experience of grief and sorrow was mine alone. Of all the myriad ways to be fully smashed, I was smashed this way and not that way, and I felt lonely in that.

I think this _____ (is it reality? is it a belief? is it a fact? is it a cultural perception?) contributes to how hard it is to grieve corporately or to find songs that can be sung, grieving, together. Songs which make space for how hard things can be for any given person at any given time.

It’s not all that hard, I’m thinking, to come up with songs that look at all the different angles and perspectives of the one way to be pristine–to praise the One who makes me happy, to celebrate being a sinner saved by grace, to “count your blessings”. While those things are also, in some ways, unique and personal, they (and the feelings that come with them) seem to be more easily shared and understood as common to all people.

I’d guess it’s quite a bit harder to write songs that can bring people together in the feelings that come from the several ways to be slightly cracked. I think there are some, though my mind is drawing a blank. Can you think of any?

But, when it comes to myriad ways to be fully smashed, how do you cross over into that being a corporate experience? I don’t really have any answers. I’m thinking out loud here, trying to come to terms with some of the roots behind why it is so hard.

Quite often in my thinking, I keep coming back to culture. I wonder what friends in Africa would make of my comparing the loneliness of suffering to a broken egg’s higher entropy?

The comparison to there being more ways for an egg to be pristine to be broken makes sense to me, and it makes sense that there are more ways to be lonely in brokenness than in wholeness. But, I wonder, does it make sense to me because it’s the way it is, or because it’s the way my independent culture has taught me to make sense of things?

Even as I ponder and try to put words to this by comparing entropy, broken eggs and suffering, I feel like I’m getting closer to some presuppositions that if I could put my finger on them, I’d be able to question rather than mindlessly operate out of.

Does this need to matter to the average person any more than the reasons why ice doesn’t unmelt? I think it does. Because if I care about being able to suffer-in-relationship (and I do), something’s going to have to change at the level of seeing suffering as insurmountably and ultimately isolating. Part of me keeps thinking (and feeling, to be honest) that it makes sense that suffering is unique and lonely. But another part of me thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. I keep thinking that there has to be a way to grieve corporately in the communities we are part of,  even if only one member of that community is suffering at a given time.

Here are a few more thoughts from the comment thread on the Bon Jovi post I referred to above:

Songs of grief require specifics. You can be happy for a general fact, like that Jesus loves you, because it’s easy to write the backstory for that in your mind. But you can only be sad for something specific. Grief is painful, so we subconsciously need a backstory, but we don’t write sad backstories as easily. So, bringing songs of grief to a large group makes the most sense in the context of someone’s specific grief.

But we’re not used to telling specific stories of grief in public. Sunday morning is not about that, so those songs end up sounding awkward when they’re introduced. Liturgical traditions do tell the stories of Christ’s grief, so the songs make sense.

Anyway, I agree there’s a problem, but it’s not with the songs. The songs fit the environment we’ve created. Change the environment.

How to do that? Is it inevitable to see suffering as isolating? Is it universally inevitable or culturally so? Do songs of grief really require more specifics than songs of praise and joy? Or do they require more specifics because of a specific understanding of the nature of grief in contrast to the nature of happiness?

In finding this explanation of entropy with the various possible states of an egg (pristine, cracked or smashed), I think I’ve found my way not into more answers, but rather into more questions. I am hopeful that that is a positive direction for my thinking to go in on this topic.

I want to be able to grieve corporately. I want to be able to connect with my local church body and not feel like an outsider because I show up at church with a heavy heart or suffering body.

I don’t wrestle with this just for my own sake, but am also thinking of what it means for many of my other friends who I don’t think would want to be relegated to a homogeneous Sunday school class for “people who are currently miserable” in order to feel connected with in their current realities, which include a great deal of suffering.

Somehow, some way, it has to be possible in a public gathering to make space for all the realities–the joys and the sufferings–that people bring with them into community gatherings, in this case, particularly the church.

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Why do we grieve so little, publicly? In particular, why is there such a paucity of grieving in the church?

David Ker thinks that it would help if our church music were a bit more Bon Jovi-ish.

Codepoke suggests, in response, that the problem is not so much with the music, but rather with the whole way we “do” church.

Others argue that it’s a much wider cultural issue, and the church’s lack of space for public grieving follows the cultural trends.

Bob Hyatt, in a post entitled, “Don’t Forget to Grieve” says this:

And we wonder why so many of us struggle with a persistent, low-level depression. Maybe just maybe, its because when we should, we refuse to grieve. We hold in the tears, when they should come out and find that the emotion we should give vent to in appropriate ways tends to leak out in other ways, at other times- some not nearly so appropriate or healthy.

I’m absolutely amazed when I see television coverage of third-world countries, particularly the coverage of disasters. When I see the keening, wailing women, the men tearing their clothes from their bodies and even the hair from their heads in anguish, I realize how emotionally impoverished we stoics in America are. I realize that the grief and mourning which the Bible actually speaks highly of, is completely missing from our vocabulary. We’ve lost the ability to grieve.

Without disagreeing with any of these perspectives, I’ve been thinking about yet another angle of the complicatedness of public, corporate grieving. My thinking on this came from an article a friend showed me recently in Scientific American. I’m working on the draft for that post, but it keeps spinning off into different rabbit trails. So, I’ve stopped writing it for a minute and am heading down one of those little side trails.

Have you seen those emotions charts, which are meant to help you put words to what you’re feeling? Have you ever noticed how they tend to be stilted towards negative emotions? The following chart from Dr. Phil’s website is pretty typical. Only about one in four of the emotions illustrated are positive. It makes me curious about why that is. What do you think?

feelings chart

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David Ker asked something like that on two Lingamish posts recently. Well, I thought he asked a question along those lines on either this post or this one.  But, what I find when I go looking is this statement:

Somebody really ought to write a song that includes the bad stuff. Life is all about contrasts.

In any case, the feeling that stuck itself in my mind in response to those two posts, finds expression in the form of this question, “Where have all the sad songs gone?”

Many of them, I have found, are in the Methodist hymnal from the church I attend, and the Lutheran hymnal from the church I visited on Sunday (I was invited to a special joint service with their English and Spanish congregations. It was beautiful.) And in the Presbyterian hymnal from the church just a block away from my church.

When I need a song to weep to (or with), when I need a song that puts words to the sorrows of my heart and the trust that I hold even in that sorrow, those hymnals come through for me (well, I don’t yet have a copy of the Lutheran hymnal yet. It’s on its way, though, and from what I saw, skimming through the hymnbook on Sunday, I expect it to come through for me, too.)

A surprising place to find songs that include the bad stuff and the contrasts is the Advent section of the hymal. Advent is the time we remember the years of waiting for the Messiah, and the time in which we can make space for the tears, the waiting and hoping we continue to do as we go on living in a world with sorrows.

The “Oh, Come Let Us Adore Him” of Christmas celebration perhaps reaches it’s fullest meaning, when it is taken as a response to the other “Come” carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Song of God appear.”

And the chorus, with it’s “Rejoice! Rejoice!” that is based, not in completed fulfillment, but in the hope that “Emmanuel shall come to thee.”

Even though I know and find comfort and peace in Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with us, my heart understands and responds to the cry, “O Come, O Come.” Today, as then, God-With-Us so seldom comes in the ways I most want to be delivered, and certainly not on my timetable. He continues to be WITH us. And at the same time I rejoice about that, my heart longs and grieves and cries out for more.

Another thing I appreciate about the three hymnals I’ve mentioned here is the presence of liturgical readings between songs.  So, for example, in the Methodist hymnal, between the seven mournful verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are seven short readings, each concluded with a corporate prayer, such as: “Come and save us, O Lord, our God.” or “Come, and with your outstretched arm redeem us.” Or, “Come, and deliver us whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.”

In the same hymnal is a “Canticle of Light and Darkness”–a group reading of prayers based on Scripture, with a line of music sung before, between and after the readings. The possible musical responses are:

–The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
–You are the light of the world; be light in our darkness, O Christ.
–O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

And here are the corporate readings (adapted from Isaiah 9:2, Isaiah 59:9-10; Psalm 139:11-12; Daniel 2:20 and I John 1:5). (R) indicates where the selected line of music is sung:

(R) We look for light, but find darkness,
for brightness, but walk in gloom.
We grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight. (R)

If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. (R)

Blessed be your name, O God, for ever.
You reveal deep and mysterious things;
you are light and in you is no darkness.
Our darkness is passing away
and already the true light is shining.” (R)

Are there songs you’ve sung in church, which you can weep with? Which make space for the “bad stuff” you face?

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A friend sent me the link to this photo from the Telegraph in the U.K. with this caption: “Children play in Tskhinvali, capital of Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia”

Here’s what my friend said about it: “To be happening in a place at war makes it really shocking, but it’s just two kids doing what kids do.”

For all of the horror I feel when I see this picture, especially in its context, I just can’t convince myself that those children are less filled with delight than their eyes and faces suggest in the moment captured here. The gun and the context makes me think I should interpret the picture with horror at children playing out the dynamics they’ve seen, of people terrorizing other people. But those children’s faces won’t let me make sense of the picture exclusively in that way–as only a painful acting out of terror and trauma.

As my friend said, “…it’s just two kids doing what kids do.” I have four children, and I know that look (though it is notoriously hard to capture on camera). They’re happy and they’re freely having fun, for that moment at least, in the middle of all the craziness and horror going around them.

I live with a lot of tension. I can’t find relief, usually, in definitive answers, one side or the other, and usually I find much defensible honesty in the questions that both sides ask on any given topic I sit with tension on. Is war a necessary evil? Is unequivocal pacifism the right answer? I. Just. Don’t. Know. Fill in the extremes, the questions and the challenges of both sides on any number of tensions. And keep responding I. Just.Don’t.Know. And you have the story of much of my life.

This picture captures the horror and delights of life, all mixed together in a way that makes me want to look away. Yet, I can’t really do that. My eyes keep being drawn back to the photo. I’ve had the webpage open to it for a couple days straight now. I’ve so seldom seen a photo that really captures that free (carefree?) look of delight in children. But still. They’re looking carefree while one of them is pointing a gun at the other? While their country is at war? How to make sense of that? I can’t.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo articulates very well the tensions I live with in so many areas of my life. I want things to make sense, but they don’t. I want there to be perfect answers, but even good answers to bad problems seem to bring much fallenness with them.  And even the fallenness is not as miserably and perfectly and exclusively hopeless as I might sometimes like to imagine.

I can’t explain the tensions and the emotions that this photo stirs. I only know that they feel honest and real and familiar. By stirring me in such a way that anguish and delight, heart smiles and horror collide, I’m faced even more intensely than usual with the reality that the world has no easy answers, and blanket condemnations are no more helpful than pat answers.

(My Wonderful World Blog from National Geographic has an interesting read about some of the geographical realities that contribute to the Georgia conflict being more complex than it can seem on the surface).

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I checked out a book from the library that I’ve not really been able to get into reading. But it was not a complete waste (checking out a book seldom is, even if I don’t actually read it), because I found this quote at the beginning, which reminded me of some thoughts I was trying to develop several months ago:

History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret. So that hard on the heels of the Why comes the sly and wistful word If. If it hand not been for… If only… Were it not… Those useless Ifs of history. And, constantly impeding, deflecting, distracting the backward searchings of the question why, exists this other form of retrogression: If only we could have it back. A New Beginning. If only we could return…

To get the technicalities out of the way, the quote is from Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan, and she is quoting Graham Swift in Waterland.

I don’t think I’ve completely sorted out all the complexities of that quote, which is no surprise, because I often enjoy reading things that I only understand 15 to 25 percent of. It stretches my brain, it makes me think, it makes me think outside my own natural box and ponder things from different perspectives, and sometimes it makes me think of things that weren’t exactly the point of the quote.

In this case, the quote served as a trigger to my previous thoughts on regret. My life has taken some pretty rough turns and gone down paths that I’d rather not have gone down. But I end up a bit baffled sometimes because it seems like people expect me to have more regrets than I do.

I find that often there is a tendency for people to want to analyze every single decision and find “the thing” that they (or I) did wrong which could have prevented the outcome that happened. There is a sense in which the regret that comes from that seems to be therapeutic. If I can find something to regret, I can place guilt (or perhaps shame) someplace/anyplace and make some sense of what happened, and maybe over assure myself that I won’t let THAT happen again. I don’t know for sure. I think those are a couple of the functions and benefits of regret. Perhaps you can think of some more?

As a disclaimer before I get where I’m going with this, when I talk about not really giving much space to regret, I’m not against looking at cause and effect and making connections. We learn that way. We run by the pool, slip on the slippery surface and back up in our minds and come to the conclusion that we could have likely avoided that skinned knee by being a bit more careful on a slippery surface. A lot of wisdom is gained by looking carefully and reflecting on the past, and then learning from it.

But, if we make regret carry more certainty that it should, I believe we make a grave error.

I was thinking that regret is often to the past what fantasy is to the future. A big picture imagining that becomes realer than real.

The problem about regret is not what it does know–I did this and this happened–but the confident assumptions and assertions of what it doesn’t know–if I’d have done this other thing, things would have been much better.

But regret, unlike what really did happen, (and like fantasy) is created in an ideal, imagined world. The alternative possibility(ies) that make up regret, were they lived out, though, would have been lived out, not in that ideal imagined world, but in just as complicated, complex and often messed up world as the original action/choice.

I’m not against being sad about choices made and actions done which caused pain. I’m just against letting the fantasy reality of regrets fuel the sadness and grief into some sort of absolutely certain, “Things would have been better if I had done this other thing.”

That kind of thinking feels very similar to the fantastic thinking of fantasies: Things would be absolutely wonderful and certainly infinitely better than they are now, if only THIS were true.

It’s just not realistic. And neither, I’m thinking are regrets the way I mostly hear them used. Give me grief and sadness and when I really see that I have certainly blown something, repentance. Regret, though, does not feel productive, in that it purports to know with certainty what can’t be known and longs for the changing of a past in ways that can’t be changed. Regret doesn’t even seem to honestly accept or reflect reality.

“The useless Ifs of history…” I’m all for learning from my past. I’m not for trying to reinvent it. I’d rather allow the past to be what it is. Remembering the past accurately is important to me. It is what it is. It’s what has made me who and what I am today–all of me the good, the bad, the traumatized, the confident, the strengths, the weaknesses. To try to imagine, with the help of regret, how things could have been different, immediately begins a hugely impossible task. There are too many variables too complexly intertwined with each other to say with certainty “If I had done this differently” or “If so and so had done that differently” X would have happened. I am not even convinced we can say with certainty, “If…. then Y would NOT have happened.” All we can say with certainty is X happened. And grieve it or rejoice in it, or, usually, some difficult combination.

What I know is, This is what happened. This is Who I am. There is a lot of happiness and there is a lot of grief in the past. It most certainly continues to affect me and shape who I am, but I cannot live in the past, trying to make it more palatable or rework it like a video game where I get a second chance to make it work out differently. I can live in the present, remembering and making space for the past–the good, the bad, the ugly. But I cannot live in the past, and usually I think that is what Regret does.

What are your thoughts? As definitive as I sound, I’m still thinking through these things and open to the possibility that I’m making more of the semantics of “regret” than is really there.

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