Right in the middle of your tears – that’s where the dance starts and joy is first felt. In this crazy world, there’s an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. But in the eyes of God, they’re never separated. Where there is pain, there is healing. Where there is mourning, there is dancing. Where there is poverty, there is the kingdom.
– Henri Nouwen
I’ve had to think quite a bit lately about being fully present in both the good times and bad. Not necessarily by choice. I’ve had some trying times with my health and I oftentimes I just want to escape the reality of it. Sometimes I think back to days when I was pain free. Sometimes I think towards the future and the health I hope for. I’ve also tried to will myself better (and may have disproved the power of positive thinking). But through a gentle nudging from my friend Val, I’ve realized God wants me present right in the middle it all. Since then each day offers the choice to be present or escape. (thanks val)
So, the first time I read what Nouwen wrote above, I thought about how we are missing the point and become distracted by feelings of good and bad, sorrow and joy. During the hard times, we run with everything we’ve got. And during the good times, we cling with everything we’ve got. In all these determined efforts we end up putting these desires before our desire for God. But, if instead we slow down and start paying attention to these feelings, life could be less about the chaos of moving between emotional highs and lows, and more so about encountering God who is faithfully present in it all.
In this space, feelings of pain or anger or joy or peace, while valid and important, are not the end. Meaning, our feelings are not what fills us up. Instead, they become signposts that point us towards the movement God. As if they were signs saying, “Hey. Pay attention to this part of life. God has something to show you.” In practice it could look like asking yourself, “Why am I so angry about being sick? Do I feel wronged in some way? Why? God, what do you have to say about sickness?” It could also mean journaling observations during times of joy and reflecting on what helped cultivate this fruit from the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-23) Whatever it looks like, our emotions are ultimately an outward manifestation of our inner reality and God is calling us to pay attention. When we do, we’re drawn into that inner reality where we can most intimately meet God.
I imagine I’ll be present in pain for bit. Yet, its not just pain anymore, there is hope. While the aim is to get better, my hope is not dependent upon that. I’d be back to escaping towards the future. The hope is from finding that God is right here in this moment
Pain can be a place for formational encounters with God if we are willing to be present in it. When we pay attention to life through this lens, the highs and lows will look less like the superficial drama of a soap opera, and more so like the life giving story of God’s presence at work in and around us.
Nouwen, Henri. Moving from Solitude to Community to Leadership. Leadership Journal, Spring 1995, Volume XVI, #2.