The Sorrow/Joy Continuum



In an online conversation a couple of months ago, one of the women who is active at A Life Overseas said this: “Sorrow and joy can coexist under the umbrella of grace.”*

Moms and dads feel it. One kid rejoices with a a new job, while the other kid loses their livelihood. One daughter has a miscarriage, another rejoices in a birth. One child is brilliant, the other struggles with every learning task.

Medical professionals feel it – one person is diagnosed with cancer while another walks out of the hospital with a newborn baby. One person has a child that was born prematurely and will have lifelong needs while another gives birth to an Olympic athlete.

Refugees and internally displaced people feel it. The grief of loss walks beside the relief and joy of survival. They continue to survive, they create a new normal, but it is not without the deep wounds of loss and pain. As a young woman in Iraq said to me a year ago: “There are only two choices – to stop living or to continue living. We choose to continue living.”

Humans in general feel it. Sorrow walking beside Joy; Joy keeping in step with sorrow. They are somehow deeply connected.

During the Advent season, the sorrow-joy continuum is profoundly present. Joy comes early morning when most of my world is still asleep. It is then that I sit by our Christmas tree and for a short time, all of life makes sense. Sorrow comes soon after. Our city is cold and the homeless huddle in doorways bundled in dull, grey blankets. Joy comes as I greet the fruit man from Albania; ever-generous with his gifts of bananas and apples. Sorrow comes as I skim the news – it is all too much to bear. Lights still sparkle in a market where 12 died from a lorry crashing through, seemingly intent on destruction. Sorrow comes as I read yet another story of Aleppo. “How long, O Lord? How Long?” The Psalmist’s words from long ago could not be more pertinent.

But Joy doesn’t stay away. It’s around the next corner as two colleagues and I laugh about an incident at work. Joy continues as I click on a photo my daughter sends me of my grandson

Our world may be weary of tragedy; it may be broken and hurting, but we are dishonest if we do not acknowledge the moments of absolute joy. 

It seems no matter how difficult life is, we can find our moments of joy. Like sprinkles on cookies, or glitter on a bag that seems to get on everything it touches, Joy can’t be contained.

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy.  I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will continue to hold on to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

The longer you live, the more you realize that life can change in a second. You can be shopping at a market with no worry of safety and the next minute be in the midst of a tragedy. You can be happily sipping a cocktail at a holiday party and receive a phone call that changes your life. We can fight this, we can scream that it is unfair, we can grow bitter, or we can live the continuum under an umbrella of grace.

It really is our choice. 

*Colleen Mitchell




christmas ornamentBarren, brown ground and leafless trees are my landscape as I stare absently through the bus window. I’m on my way to visit my parents, taking a Greyhound bus from Boston to Rochester, New York.  I am not a bus traveler, preferring the imagination that planes and airports afford to the bleak of bus stations, seemingly always in depressed downtown areas, where any attempts to make them nice feel thwarted by economics and defeat.

The landscape feels absent, void, lifeless. It is a picture of a world waiting.

And December, above all, is a month of waiting. Some of this waiting is hopeful and some of it is terrible. The hopeful waiting comes in white lights and kitchens that smell of butter and cinnamon, Carols that speak of a coming King, hushed churches filled with candle light. The terrible waiting comes in the form of diagnoses of cancer and news of death; in the people who still occupy the streets, despite cold and snow; in the knowing we are part of a world broken, not yet fixed.

Yesterday I found out that someone dear to me is full of the insidious parasite that goes by the name of cancer. I found out just as I was ready to board a crowded subway that would take me home at the end of a tedious workday. Tears filled my eyes, tears that I had to control because it wasn’t safe to cry. Not there. Not in a public space.

Later I heard the news of the death of Nelson Mandela, a man whose commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation was a challenge and model. A man whose death will be felt by his nation and the world.

If Shakespeare were to write a play about December it would be a mixture of tragedy and joy. Why is it that so much hard news comes in December? Why is it that this is when the body is found to be so full of cancer that a person’s lifespan is suddenly reduced to months not years? Why is it that marriages are at their most fragile during this time? Why is it that even as we wrap presents, we are aware that next year, the person we love will no longer be with us?

The calls for happiness that assault us from television screens and advertising seem at best irrelevant, at worst like a mockery of our grief.

Yet isn’t this life in all its complexity?  One weeps while the other shouts for joy; one has plenty and the other crawls their way to a homeless shelter; one has health while the other faces death. One land has peace while the other has war.

So as I look out the window and see barren from a land that just weeks ago was filled with the brilliance of fall colors, I think of Advent. For Advent is about waiting, about coming, about expectancy. It is hope combined with longing. It is joy combined with sorrow. It is living between the already here and the not yet. Advent is December in all of its contrasts, all of its paradoxes, The sorrow is strong, but hope is stronger still.


No longer will violence be heard in your land,
    nor ruin or destruction within your borders,
but you will call your walls Salvation
    and your gates Praise.
The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.
Your sun will never set again,
    and your moon will wane no more;
the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your days of sorrow will end.
Then all your people will be righteous
    and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
    the work of my hands,
    for the display of my splendor.
The least of you will become a thousand,
    the smallest a mighty nation.
I am the Lord;
    in its time I will do this swiftly.”  Isaiah 60: 18-22

Note: Fridays with Robynn will be back next week. Robynn is in India and says this: “Tandoori Chicken from a street side food cart on day one. Taxi rides through crowded city streets on day two. Sweet reunions with wonderful friends. We are having, quite literally, the time of our lives! Thanks for your prayers and well wishes!”


For Those Who Cry in the Night

The day time is busy. People, projects, expectations, tasks — they fall into each other like dominoes and there is no time to cry. This busyness, endless chatter of ‘must do’s’ – this is a gift. A gift that takes the mind off the dull ache of sorrow.

But the night does come. And when it comes and takes over, when you can hear a pin drop in the silence, when all is dark — that’s when the tears come. Fast and furious they come, with big gulps of silent anguish. Tears like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – dragon tears, hot and salty.

All over this city are those who cry in the night. All over this nation, this world, are those whose sorrow hides by day and cries by night. Whether hospitals or homeless shelters, brick mansions, or slum hovels, grief is no respecter of people or status. And God sees them all, knows them all by name. Calls them. Seeks Them. Sometimes even hunts them down.

And His Word whispers by day and shouts by night: Weeping may endure for a night, But Joy comes in the morning.*

Psalm 30:5b