Growing up, there was a member of my family (who will now and forever remain unidentified because I still like to show up at family functions) who had a favourite phrase that made my sister and I shake our heads and smile. “Life is a struggle at best.” Wow…what encouraging words, right? But that was this person’s way of managing expectations….to make sure everyone knew life wasn’t going to be easy and we all needed to be prepared for the long haul. On the other hand, my husband is fond of quoting Scott Peck’s statement that “life is difficult.” I can get behind that perspective a little more easily because I know from experience that life IS difficult. I think, though, particularly for those of us who come from a conservative religious tradition, we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the hard places, the losses in life, the struggles, the sacrifices. In many ways we elevate and glorify the hard places, supposing they are our primary link with God.
I don’t think I’m the only one that finds it much easier to focus on the hard things. I don’t have to choose to find the difficult, it finds me well enough. The choice comes when I’m faced with the question of what to do in response to the hard and the painful. Life cannot be sustained as an unrelenting march of the hard, but somehow I find myself winding my arms around the hard things and embracing them, holding them to myself as though the fact of them is proof of my existence, my value, my medal of honour. I clench my losses to my soul until their imprint scars my heart, until I begin to see my life and even my relationship with God through the lens of my loss. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said his yoke was easy and his burden was light.
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I love the word “exuberance.” Have you ever seen one of those old black and white movies from the 30s or 40s where long-separated lovers are finally reunited? Their exuberance as they rush toward one another, desperate to experience the other’s touch, to reach the point of embrace. That’s who I want to be as I look for the good, the celebration, the joy. I want to run into the embrace of celebration until its imprint reaches deeply into my heart, breathing life into my soul.
I’m learning to celebrate good things no matter how small. Coming from a faith tradition that emphasizes sacrifice, I feel downright decadent when I unreservedly celebrate the good, or when I linger for a moment (or several moments) to savour beauty, or when I decide to throw a party just because it’s finally spring (and after the winter we’ve had here in Toronto, this spring is cause for a large party)! Somehow, without any conscious thought on my part, my soul seems to know how to drink in the joy of celebration and take strength from it. I know that when I enthusiastically embrace celebration, I fill up my emotional and spiritual “tank” so that I am in a better position to weather the bad, the hard, the loss and the painful that are all an inevitable part of life. I know this, and yet on many days I still feel like I’m breaking the rules if I loosen my hold even slightly on my losses. I’m a work in progress.
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Practicing gratitude….choosing joy….embracing celebration….none of these can merely be about gritting my teeth and looking away from the painful things in life. Loss must be acknowledged. Grief must be processed. That takes time and effort and a great deal of soul strength. I don’t have all the answers, but I know this. God is the friend who stays right beside me all the way as I work through my grief and anger. God is also the one who encourages me to celebrate. I’m learning the secret that as much as my heart is drawn into the grief…into the struggle…into the sorrow…into the anger, that’s how much I need to run into the celebration and embrace it. Creating space for celebration is part of tending my soul.