I had just spent the day with a colleague evaluating and planning for ministry at a college campus in Indiana — a campus that in the last year had seen many lives transformed by Christ, including the president of the campus pagan group. The students there had experienced a renewed energy to share the love of God, and new life is happening. I left the day with my heart full. It’s beautiful to see the glory of God’s love so clearly.
As I came home from campus that evening, I received a phone call from my mom. My aunt had had a pain in her side. At a doctor’s appointment she decided to mention this annoyance, which she had assumed was a pulled muscle. But it wasn’t. The diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, stage four. She was already receiving chemotherapy for the cancer that was quickly spreading throughout her body. I felt my insides churn at this news. Could I see God as clearly in this cancer diagnosis as I could see him on campus? How quickly my heart had to shift from the delight of the day’s experiences to the pain of this evening. Or could I hold both in my heart at the same time?
A few weeks later, my mom and I traveled to Iowa to see my aunt, along with my uncle and cousins. We wanted to encourage her and spend time with her before the sickness took over her body. My aunt, who is incredibly hospitable, wanted to turn our visit into a party. She suggested we have a big bonfire and cook out on their farm, and why don’t we invite the rest of our extended family, too? Before we knew it, there were 17 of us gathered together. Many of us hadn’t seen each other in a decade. My aunt had brought all of us together and we celebrated the bonds we shared as family and the heritage we have in common. Although the reality of cancer was palpable, the night was filled with love, laughter, and joy. As we hugged my aunt goodbye the next morning, tears were streaming down my face. My heart was full from the gift she had given us of time with family, and at the same time, my heart ached knowing this was probably our final goodbye.
It seems like a formidable task in the Christian faith to hold death and life in the same hand. It feels impossible to be honest about both the hope of a situation and the pain that often accompanies it. It is much more in our human nature to swing toward one end of the pendulum or the other. It’s a little cleaner that way, and not as overwhelming. I wonder, though, if we are missing something very important that may lie at the intersection of death and life held together.
We can focus on all of the pain in the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or the injustice of a situation. Where is God in the cancer diagnosis? Where is God in the midst of divorce? Where is God in the long-term unemployment? It can be tempting to be see nothing good in these seasons of life. Surely God is absent in this grief. I am all too familiar with this pain.
On the other hand, when we see great things happening and sense blessing, it is easy to see God and how he is at work. The birth of twin babies who are healthy and beautiful. The joyful couple getting married. The successful entrepreneur who gives much of her profits to charity. These are beautiful examples of God’s love and presence. We can easily live into the hope and love of these situations.
But the longer I live life, the more I notice that rarely are these blessings without a story of accompanying angst and pain. Can we really see the circumstances of our lives as all death or all life? All good or all bad? I’m not sure they are to be separated. We see the beautiful babies being born, but do we fully understand the years of pain the couple endured through miscarriages and infertility? We celebrate the wedding of this couple, but do we comprehend the path of pain that was endured through past broken relationships, or the trials in the marriage ahead? We praise God for the example of a generous business owner in the community, but do we know the multiple failed businesses before this? Is it possible that God could be found in both the death of a dream and in the fulfillment?
I’m not certain it comes naturally for us to see God’s presence in both death and life at the same time. It’s as if we need practice to purposefully choose to see God’s grace and presence in the not-so-evident circumstances of life. It’s hard to hold all of these emotions together simultaneously, but that is what the Kingdom of God is like on this side of heaven. We experience God’s holiness and beauty along with the brokenness and depravity. Somewhere in the middle of this storm of emotions we happen upon joy. A joy only given by God himself. A joy that actively chooses to be open to God’s glory and presence no matter what — even if that joy is accompanied by tears.
I attended my aunt’s funeral several weeks ago. I hugged my cousin as she sobbed over the grief of losing her mom. My heart hurt as I thought of the gap that was now left in our family. And at the same time, we were able to find joy. We had to help each other find it, and we had to be intentional, but the joy was there, waiting to be found.
Before long stories from our childhood rolled out — riding in lawn chairs in the back of my uncle's pick-up truck (hello?!), rolling and giggling down the grassy hills of their backyard, eating grandma's pies, the day we rode our bikes down the country roads and then had to race like the wind to get back before an impending tornado. The memories and laughter poured out. This may or may not have led to a joy ride on my uncle’s four-wheeler in the middle of cornfields. Laughter and tears together might be one of my favorite emotions.
Maybe holding death and life together is possible by the grace of God. Perhaps the joy found in the pain of death can remind us of the presence of a loving God who is always near and always faithful. Perhaps that is where our true joy lies.