After 18 months of cancelled holidays, I was more than ready for the much-anticipated trip. I imagined seven days of beautiful scenery, sun-soaked beaches, my first Cornish pasty and plenty of R&R. But the holiday didn’t quite deliver. It was still lovely – but overshadowed by falling ill in the days leading up to the trip. The weather was hardly tropical. And through a series of unfortunate events, I didn’t even get to enjoy a pasty.
A week later, I was cleaning out a desk drawer and found a stack of cards written by dear friends during a season of particular sorrow. Those cards gave me the tangible proof that I wasn’t walking the hard path alone, and the songs and verses they quoted carried me through dark days. Those handwritten words had been little shafts of light and warmth in an otherwise difficult time.
Gratitude for a holiday was dampened by setbacks and frustrations. Sorrow was punctuated by the love of good friends.
Life is mixed
Life is funny like that, isn’t it? We hope the happy times will be wholly happy – no difficulty diluting the joy or smiles sliding into frowns. And in the harder places, it is so easy to feel as if no good could possibly coexist alongside or break into the bad. But reality mixes our categories. Joy does get watered down by sorrow; sorrow does get interrupted by the good. Life isn’t just black and white.
Can you feel that tension? Where might the lines be blurred in your own life right now? Where are joy and sorrow (or gratitude and frustration – the list goes on) mingled together?
Experiencing this tangle of conflicting emotions can be confusing and prompt a range of responses:
Frustration and irritation – when difficulty creeps into occasions that should feel positive.
Pessimism – why not guard against disappointment by expecting very little?
Annoyance – when someone tells us to ‘count our blessings’ in the midst of suffering.
Exhaustion – at the emotional roller coaster.
Denial of the sorrows – via excessive busyness, over-cheerfulness, escapism.
Life will be mixed – but not forever
How can we make sense of this dynamic? A wedding in John 2 gives us a few clues.
Weddings are intended to be happy, celebratory experiences – a day where everyone involved works hard to keep any upsets to a minimum. But three verses into the account, the joy at this wedding is undermined, at least for those organising the festivities. Running out of wine was more than an annoying inconvenience. In the culture of the time, it was a social disaster with repercussions for the family’s reputation – and nobody wants their wedding day to be overshadowed by scandal. Wedded bliss was about to be upended.
Into the panic comes the Lord of the feast. He turns water into the choicest of wines. But Jesus is not just giving the people a good time or simply displaying his divine power. In the background, even as the guests are sipping to their heart’s content, the prophecies of Isaiah echo:
“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 25:6-8).
Yes, Jesus’ first miracle points us forward to the blessings of new creation life, where all things will be healed and transformed, but it also reminds us that the coming restoration has broken into this life already. Six jugs of wine at a wedding in Cana and a relieved master of ceremonies was a tiny taste in this life of the fullness that is to come.
The wedding in Cana reminds us that we still live in the “not yet”: difficulty, pain, sorrow, grief still seep into even the happiest moments of our lives. But the wedding also reminds us we live in the “already”: foretastes of the good that is coming break into even the deepest of our sorrows.
Living with the mixed
While we continue to live in a mixed reality, here are some thoughts for those who particularly feel conscious of the tension:
1. Lament: when your joys are disappointed or frustrated, accept the Lord’s invitation to pour out your heart to him. Happy moments that get tainted by life’s difficulties are not how it’s meant to be – and we can unashamedly acknowledge the sorrow and tension of this.
2. Make room in your heart for the “now” of the Kingdom. It’s not hard to accept we live in the “not yet” – the evidence is all around us. But the ‘already’ is here. Ask the Lord to help you see the way he is interrupting sorrow with glimmers of his hope and restoration. Invite others to help you in this.
3. Evaluate your expectations. I’m often guilty of expecting a holiday or other much-anticipated events to be nothing but pure bliss – and find myself disappointed when they don’t deliver on those hopes. But I’m slowly learning to re-evaluate what is wise and reasonable to expect in a world where joy and sorrow are mingled. By all means, get excited for the holiday / party / new stage of life, but also pray for a heart that is ready to receive however the Lord provides.
4. “Come, Lord Jesus” – this mixed reality is not how things will be forever. Let your joy mingled with tears spur you on to pray for that day when Isaiah 35:10 is our reality forever: “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”