Joy in the Midst of Grief – Br. Lain Wilson

Luke 18:9-14
Psalm 30
Philippians 1:15-20

Just over 1600 years ago, a young couple dreamed a dream:

“One night we went to sleep, greatly upset, and we saw ourselves, both of us, passing through a very narrow crack in a wall. We were gripped with panic by the cramped space, so that it seemed as if we were about to die.”

This young couple was Valerius Pinianus and his wife, Melania. They were two of the super-rich of the later Roman world. They were also Christians. And at this period in history these two things, wealth and Christian faith, were increasingly at odds with one another.

Pinianus and Melania, along with many of their contemporaries, were uncomfortable with their vast wealth. They grieved what their wealth afforded them. The open vistas of estates, the splendor and ostentation, the luxury of free time, had become for them a “narrow crack” and a “cramped space.” They grieved the weight of wealth on their souls. And this grief prompted them to make an unprecedented renunciation of their worldly wealth.[1]

Grief comes to each of us in a thousand shades and hues. We experience a vivid spectrum of grief. As loss—of loved ones in death, of relationships, of direction. As missed opportunities, roads not taken, paths unexplored. As things we may never be or do because of what we already are or have done. As limitations imposed on us, or by us.

For what do you grieve today? For what does your heart ache?

In Lent especially, we grieve our sins. We grieve how we have denied God’s goodness, how we have partaken of all that is not God, how we have treated others as if they were not fellow children of God. We grieve how we fail to see ourselves as God’s beloved children. We grieve what separates us from relationship with God and others.

The tax collector in our parable from Luke’s gospel grieves. Unlike the Pharisee, he knows he is a sinner. He grieves his sin. For me, the most important detail of this parable is that the tax collector stands “far off” and “would not even look up to heaven” (Lk 18:13).

How do you feel grief in your body? Whether it’s grief for sins, for losses, or for paths not taken, how familiar is the tax collector’s stance to you? How familiar is it to separate, to close in on yourself, to make yourself smaller? How familiar it is to contort yourself to the cramped space of your grief?

But if this parable is about grief, it is also about how God meets us in the midst of our grief: with mercy. It’s about how God’s mercy can open up the cramped, narrow spaces onto new, boundless vistas.

During my recent retreat, I spent a lot of time on rocks in front of the ocean. The blue-gray water stretched out as far as I could see, merging at the horizon with the blue-gray sky, a vast sameness. It brought back my favorite line from Shakespeare—“My bounty is as boundless as the sea”—and I felt in that boundless bounty what God’s infinite mercy means. At the same time, as the waves lapped up on the shore, or crashed on the rocks, I felt what it meant for that infinity, that vastness, to care particularly for me—to be merciful to me.

God’s mercy covers us, enfolds us, sustains us, and gives us strength to persevere. God’s mercy allows us to be in our grief, to bear the narrow and cramped space of our limited lives, to face our sins and failures squarely.

God’s mercy allows us to be in our grief because it assures us that we will pass through it, to pass through that grief to joy: “Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me,” the Psalmist cries, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy” (Ps 30:11, 12). “I will continue to rejoice,” Paul assures the church at Philippi, “for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision . . . what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil 1:18-19).

“One night we went to sleep, greatly upset, and we saw ourselves, both of us, passing through a very narrow crack in a wall. We were gripped with panic by the cramped space, so that it seemed as if we were about to die. When we came through the pain of that place, we found huge relief and joy unspeakable.”

For what do you grieve today? Ask God for the mercy to come through it, and to bring you to the limitless horizons of joy unspeakable.


[1] P. Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012), 291-94 (quotation at 291).

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