The Common Good

Cold, Broken or Grumbled, Every Hallelujah Counts

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As I lay on the kitchen floor -- my body rocking with sobs, my mouth telling my husband, "I hate my life" -- it never occurred to me to pick up the phone and call a friend.

To tell someone about the life I was living, in which over the last few years rug after rug kept getting pulled out from under me -- my parents divorced, my husband's business tanked, our debt rose, health issues loomed, and our marriage sagged under the weight of it all -- was not something I was wired to do.

In fact, I was mortified when my husband rounded the bend and saw me there, sprawled out on the tile, weeping. Crying and hurting is something I do best alone.

So I was surprised to find Amy Dickinson write the following in her 2010 memoir of life as a single mom, The Mighty Queens of Freeville:

"I wanted two things when I first learned that my marriage was ending. First, I wanted it not to end. And second, I wanted for others to share a complete and interior knowledge of my heartbreak, followed by demonstrable grief."

Is that true? I wondered. Are there people whose first inclination amid heartbreak is to tell others? In person?

Even though my heartbreak and disappointment were quite different than hers (my marriage, thank God, was not ending), I couldn't imagine wanting to tell a soul.

And yet, Dickinson -- a.k.a. "Ask Amy," the syndicated columnist who filled Ann Landers's wise shoes -- laments that she could not share her grief.

"While there might be tiny streets tucked away somewhere in London where this sort of behavior is both possible and tolerated," she writes, "they remain like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels: attended by witches and warlocks and mysteriously hidden from view for the rest of us."

Though I've never lived in London (fictional or otherwise), I believe my middle America neighborhood is not unlike Diagon Alley. Maybe it's because I was taught growing up always to respond, "Fine, thank you. And how are you?" when asked how I was.

What I took from this well-meaning, good-mannered advice was, "No one wants to hear your problems, Caryn."

And then a few more "witches" and "warlocks" moved in to block the streets where I could speak.

All through my years of being disappointed with life, I spoke very little to anyone about what was going on.

I was ashamed. Scared. Confused.

For being angry with God, angry with my family, and generally hating my life.

I kept hearing the voice in the back of my head tell me that no one cared about my problems. Sometimes it did a duet with another voice, the one that said my problems were not real problems at all.

"Look at the world, Caryn!" it screamed. "People are suffering! Starving! Trafficked!!"

The voice I feared the most was the one that told me I shouldn't complain; that if I really loved Jesus, I'd trust and obey.

And shut up. And choose joy. And praise him.

I feared the voice that said expressing my hurt and disappointment not only had no place in an authentic Christian life, but was antithetical to it.

Not long after my fetal-positioned time-out on the kitchen floor, I cracked open my Bible. Then, I risked vulnerability and talked to a friend.

And I realized something: Complaining about the "supposed to be's" of life is not only cathartic, it's biblical.

Consider the epic complaining catalogued in the Bible. Think of the Psalms of lament. For that matter, consider the entire book of Lamentations! Or of Habbakuk whining that he had neither sheep in the pen, nor grapes on the vine. Or of the Israelites schlepping through the desert for 40 years.

Or think about Jesus himself in a heap on the ground, sweating and desperate for his cup to be taken away in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Each of these biblical lamenters turned to God in their suffering. God gave them direction and ultimately a kind of joy and peace that passes all understanding, even when the journey led to the cross.

I believe this complaining, this sacred lamenting, must to be part of our Christian lives and our churchy conversations.

More often than we'd like to admit, it's the down times of life -- the crises, suffering and sorrow -- that can lead us closer to God, especially when we realize that all along God's been as near to us as the breath on our lips.

In a Psychology Today article, Marcia Reynolds writes:

"Don't let people tell you that you have no right to be unhappy with your life. It is okay to lose your equilibrium when others think your life should be smooth sailing. It is okay to question your life's purpose. It's okay to say, 'I don't know who I am.' It is better to ask the questions and seek the answer than to live a numb life."

It's something Christians should be preaching as well, not simply because it's psychologically healthy but because it's spiritually true. Jesus told us as much when he said, "In this world you will have trouble." This is the same Jesus who also offers us a "full" life in him. I believe these babies go hand in hand.

The "full life" doesn't mean everything will come up roses, or that we have to paint on fake smiles and walk through life with nary a grumble. The full life means we recognize the one we've been given and seek God in it. It means that we begin to see the kitchen floor -- or wherever our hurt takes us -- as holy ground, as space to seek God and God's will for our lives. A place to begin inching toward a life that is truly full -- of troubles, of joy, of sorrows, of laughter, of disappointment, of fulfillment.

An imperfect, painful, beautiful, surprising life that we can love, and through which the world can see Jesus.

caryn-rivadeniera2011Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira is the author of Grumble Hallelujah: Learning to Love Your Life Even When It Lets You Down. She lives with her family in the western suburbs of Chicago, and writes regularly for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog, where this piece originally appeared.

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