EASTER: JOY, LAMENT & MYSTERY
Before coronavirus meant church buildings had to be temporarily closed, I was in a lively church service. As we entered the church, smiley people welcomed us. The music was loud and upbeat, and the musicians were as good as many professional bands I have seen in concert. The talk was positive and encouraging. In many ways it was an inspiring service, one that was clearly connecting with the youthful congregation.
But I still came away at the end feeling I had missed something. For all the life and energy in that church, for me something didn’t quite connect. When I got home, it started me thinking. What was I missing? What would have helped me feel the songs and the message made sense to me and my life that day?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised I was missing two things. One was a sense of mystery. Even if you have faith, you can still have unanswered questions. And it is OK to be honest about those questions. The second thing I was missing was lament, a chance to express grief or sadness.
As I sat in church that particular day, a number of things had been weighing heavy on my mind. A close friend of mine had recently died. I had had to navigate some stressful issues at work. Somebody I know was struggling with depression. Other people in that church service must have been going through similar things too. And that was before you even begin to factor in the crises in national and international politics, and the troubling global issues that had been causing me sleepless nights.
Don’t get me wrong. The spiritual life is unquestionably about joy. Joy is a frequent theme in the Psalms; St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit centers on love, joy and peace; Peter writes of the believer’s ‘inexpressible and glorious joy’; and in John’s Gospel, Jesus promises his followers that they will experience a joy nobody can take away. I have been with many people as they find faith, and sharing in those moments of intense joy has been like nothing else.
But the spiritual life is about more than joy. It is also about mystery and lament. Because those are also the stuff of real life.
It is the time of year when we turn our thoughts to the events of the first Easter. And as I read the Easter stories, I see there not only joy, but mystery and lament too. Ultimately, there is the joy of Easter Sunday as Jesus rises from the dead. But the journey to Easter Sunday passes through Good Friday, as Jesus is put to death on the cross. That is the lament part. Then comes the mystery of Easter Saturday, when Jesus’s friends find themselves wrestling with countless unanswered questions.
The Easter story reminds me that real spirituality involves tears and question-marks, as well as smiles of joy. And that is OK.
Similarly, the first Easter reminds me that when I talk to others about my faith, I don’t have to present only edited highlights – as if admitting to questions or complexities is somehow letting the side down, or showing lack of faith! Quite the opposite. In today’s culture our friends, colleagues and neighbours are minutely sensitive to hype, spin and fake news. An honest telling of my story will carry so much more conviction than an airbrushed version.
At the very heart of our faith are three momentous and defining days: Easter Sunday, Good Friday and that strange, empty Saturday in between. These are days of joy, lament and mystery. So I reckon a mature approach to faith and faith-sharing today should be able to factor in all three.
10 April 2020
Mike is the Head of Church Growth at the Diocese of Manchester and used to be a tutor training Church Army Evangelists. Mike is also the creator of Church Army’s Faith Pictures and why on earth…? resources for small groups.
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