Andrea Zuercher lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and attends Peace Mennonite Church. In a previous life she lived and worked in Washington, D.C., where she pursued professional choral singing as an avocation. A copy editor by professionand inclination, she now enjoys the slower pace of living in a smaller city. She spends her free time reading, knitting, working in her ornery garden, tending a 104-year-old house, playing the piano, following KU sports and Sporting Kansas City, and looking after two cats.
This post was originally published on December 16, 2014.
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How much sweeter it is to feel good after having felt bad. If we never had to suffer, would we appreciate the things that make us rejoice, or would we blissfully move through life, never knowing how good we have it? Of course, from my vantage point in the relative privilege of white middle-class small-town North America, I cannot begin to imagine the suffering of those whose villages are decimated by Ebola, whose young women are kidnapped and sold as slaves, who face constant fear and stress from warfare raging all around them, whose sons are gunned down in the street, or who see their life’s work swept away in a Pacific typhoon.
Yet within our own context, we do suffer. We fail at relationships or jobs. We get sick, or our kids or parents or loved ones do. We disappoint others or become disappointed by others. We wreck our cars, or trees fall on our houses in a windstorm. The basement fills with water; squirrels get into our attics and chew up the wires. We endure discrimination, either overt or subtle, when we try to live our lives the best way we know how. Our crops fail, our vines wither, and we “sow in tears,” unable to see that the Lord is still present with us and that another day will come.
Last summer I went through a period of anxiety and depression more severe than anything I had experienced before. Recognizing it for what it was, I sought help from my physician assistant, who pointed me toward medical solutions. In many ways I hit the “reset” button on my life, changing some habits and modes of thinking and, with the help of a compassionate therapist, beginning to regain my sense of self and my equilibrium as a person, no longer a passive party in my life’s events. I also sought help from my pastor, Joanna, and began listening to the daily podcasts of “Pray as You Go.”
The meditation for one particular day, September 21, focused on Isaiah 55:6-9, a familiar passage that begins, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” The writer mused: “If you sometimes think that God is somewhere else, and that you could really do God’s will if only you were somewhere else, if only you had made different life-choices, if only you weren’t living among such impossible people…. is there a message for you here? – that God is not somewhere else, but where you are now?”
During the time I was depressed, I was consumed with wishing I was somewhere else, in some other situation; that if only I’d chosen differently, I wouldn’t be feeling so bad now. Fear and dread were my constant companions; worry and rumination greeted me every morning, and I wanted out. “Make it stop!” I pleaded. The wise words I heard that September day helped bring me to a sense of acceptance: I was where I was, and so was God, and I just had to continue on this journey until I discovered what God was trying to tell me and what my next move should be. I’d be lying if I said I had it all figured out, several months down the road, but one thing I know is true: God is not somewhere else. God is where I am now. The words were just what I needed to hear. I wrote them on a piece of paper and kept them on my desktop. That piece of paper is still there.
So: Psalm 126. God has restored the fortunes of Zion, and the people who sowed in tears were reaping with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. Would they have felt this much joy if their lives had gone according to plan, if only those Babylonians hadn’t come and swept them away into captivity, asking them to sing the songs of the old country while in a foreign land — as if we Mennonites were swept up by a group of Vikings and forced to sing 606 (a classic Mennonite setting of the Doxology) a cappella in four-part harmony? I don’t think so. I believe that we need the times of suffering, of sowing in tears, to make the eventual harvest truly a cause for rejoicing.
Gratitude is a lot easier when we get what we want. But we tend to get fussy and whiny, feeling persecuted, when life does not go our way. We could all benefit from the insight that suffering and joy are both parts of our human experience. Words such as those in Psalm 126 serve to remind us of this and to comfort us, if only we let them.
A fellow Peace Mennonite parishioner, Joe, gave a sermon this fall in which he offered a new insight into the concept of gratitude. “In everything give thanks,” says I Thessalonians 5:13. Joe pointed out that the verse doesn’t say, “FOR everything give thanks,” but rather, “IN everything give thanks.” That seems a whole lot more doable somehow. I don’t have to be thankful for having felt depressed and anxious. But it took a bout with depression to bring me to this realization: I can remain thankful for what I do have, understand that growth often brings pain, try to listen to what God is trying to tell me, and eventually feel gratitude for the ways in which the experience brought me closer to God and others around me.
We might not be in the best situation, feeling our most healthy, enjoying life fully, being treated fairly by our society. But we can believe that God is with us even when we are out sowing in tears. We can continue on our journey, knowing that a day will come when the Lord will restore our fortunes, and shouts of joy will drown out yesterday’s sad songs.