Christmas Advent HERO

When joy and sadness live together

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

November 1st in the church calendar is All Saints Day, a day where the church celebrates all saints and remembers the promise of God’s grace and resurrection. In many churches around the world the names of those that have died since the previous All Saints Day are read. At the Chapel of the Resurrection it’s our practice to have four voices simultaneously reading the names of the many people that were connected to Valpo or to the people who are part of the community now. The names swirl around the congregation interspersed with the choir singing, “All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”  This ritual always reminds me of how our lives are woven together with one another and how the Holy Spirit flows through each of us, connecting us with each other, and joining us together as the Body of Christ.   

All Saints Day is a day that not only swirls with voices and names, but also with a swirl of emotions, like grief always seems to do.  As people gather and rejoice in the promises of God, they also often feel the sadness, grief, and loss that those they loved are no longer on this earth with them. The memories that sprout up may give moments of laughter, joy, and peace followed or intermingled with sadness that new memories cannot be made.

In 2015 Pixar came out with an animated movie called “Inside Out.” It is a movie whose main characters are a little girl’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. The two main emotions that the movie engages are Joy and Sadness. At one point Joy draws a circle and tells Sadness not to touch anything and just to stay in that circle. Spoiler alert: Sadness can’t seem to do that. By the end of the movie there is a realization that joy and sadness can live together in the experiences and memories of the little girl. It is truly a profound movie in how we think about emotions, and how we might even think about grief.

Sometimes we try to put a timeline on grief, as if “you have these bereavement days to be sad and then it’s time to pack that away.”  I have heard people say, “I don’t know why their death impacts me so deeply still, it was 5 years ago.”

The thing is that grief swirls with the joys of our everyday life. And grief swirls while we still claim God’s promise of life and resurrection.

The saints that surround us will also fill us with a mix of emotions from joy, peace, sadness, anger, inspiration, and so much more.  Christ meets us fully in this space, in this swirl. One of the most powerful moments in Jesus’ ministry is when he arrives at the grave of Lazarus. Yes, there is power in the fact that he raises Lazarus from the dead, but there is also power in the simple words, “Jesus wept.”

Even Jesus knows the swirl of emotions, the impact of grief, loss, and pain. Jesus weeps with us when we weep.  

On Monday, my deaconess community was blind sided by the news that one of our dear sisters, Gwen Sayler, had suddenly died. Gwen was a deaconess, pastor, and professor of Hebrew Bible at Wartburg Seminary. For me she was a pillar of the LDA community with a delightful sense of humor, calm presence, prophetic voice, and deep wisdom. She was a professor at Wartburg Seminary for over 30 years and that community and the community of the LDA began instantly sharing memories via text, e-mails, and social media of the many ways and the many people that Gwen supported, inspired, challenged, and served. Gwen was just in Valparaiso this past weekend on retreat with her deaconess sisters from the class of ‘71 and celebrating the LDA’s 100th anniversary at a banquet on Friday and worship at the Chapel Sunday morning.  She was on her way home from that celebration when she made a stop at a restaurant; an ambulance was called but they were not able to save her. As I read the news I was sad, shocked, and angry. I was also grateful that I had the opportunity to know Gwen for over 10 years. In my grief on Monday night I needed the community that I knew and those I didn’t, that loved Gwen, to come together to share, laugh, and cry. All people need community to surround them in the days, weeks, months, and years after someone in our life dies. A community that reminds us of God’s love and of our loved one’s spirit. 

I also need to be reminded of the cloud of witnesses that Gwen is now a part of that surround us. You see, the cloud of witnesses that surround us are those that have died who we loved, who taught us, impacted us, inspired us, and supported us. Gwen’s spirit will continue to be felt in the students she taught that share her wisdom in a variety of ministry contexts and in the hundreds of people who knew her and were inspired by her.  

Each All Saints Sunday when the names of those that have died are read and God’s promise proclaimed, the Body of Christ continues to sit with one another, pray with one another, sing with one another, and be formed into a community of faith. At the banquet on Friday Gwen purchased a beautiful wooden Advent wreath made from wood from Deaconess Hall (which became Huegli Hall, which was torn down and is now known as our beautiful west lawn). She was so proud of this purchase and the image in my mind is of her beaming smile with her winning wreath — a wreath of candles that we will begin lighting together in a few weeks to mark time as we wait for the moment when we will celebrate Christ’s birth into this world, Emmanuel, God with us.  

May we all remember the promise of God with us in our joy and in our grief, in our life and in our death, and in the messy swirl of emotions and life together. 

Dcs. Kristin Lewis

Nov. 13, 2019

Deaconess Kristin Lewis and University Pastor James Wetzstein take turns writing weekly reflections. You can contact Deaconess Kristin here and Pastor Jim here