Grace for complexity

As I write this, my husband is cooking dinner. That’s a word I’m still getting used to — not “cooking,” Christopher loves to cook, but “husband.” Married in late November, we are firmly nestled in our newlywed cocoon, bathed in the warm afterglow of the love and joy of our wedding day. However, I’ve encountered an unexpected companion in our newlywed bliss: mortality.

Whether it is in the show I’m watching, the news cycle, or the obituary of my parents’ friend, I find that I view death from a new perspective as a life partner. Christopher and I dated for three years before we were married — I have long passed the benchmark of loving him and, with that love, realizing that losing him would cause me great grief.

But we just promised to love each other forever. Under the canopy of that promise, I view death differently. I look at my husband and I know, unless I die first, that I will be at his funeral. It is no longer hypothetical. I have promised to love this man forever, to join hands and walk into the crucible of life, melting and fusing into a bonded unit. This means that I will be left to pick up the remnants of a shattered life in his absence one day — or that he will have to do the same in my absence.

As I try on the squeaky new shoes of marriage, I am realizing in a new way how love opens you up to loss. Even the best gifts and the brightest joy contain a note of sadness because all pleasure comes to an end in this world. Marriage is teaching me a lesson that I’ve learned and forgotten many times about the subtle nuance of being human. It isn’t just good or bad, happy or sad. Being human means you contain multitudes.

I find myself thinking about this complexity as we prepare to enter Lent. As this issue of the magazine explores, we are called as Christians to active love, to making our communities better places. I wholeheartedly agree with this. And I find that it doesn’t capture the whole story.

There are also times and seasons where we find that we are acted upon. In his book Finding My Way Home, Henri Nouwen shares the story of visiting a sick friend in the hospital. As they talk, Nouwen’s friend shares that his whole sense of worth has been built around doing things. But now, he can’t do anything. He has no control. And so, he asks, “who am I?”

In response, Nouwen points to the passion of Jesus. They look at how Jesus was betrayed or, in Greek, how Jesus was “handed over” (from the verb paradidomi). And it was in this handing over that God’s glory was revealed. The same hope stands true for us. When we allow ourselves to fully feel how we are being acted upon, we can learn something of God’s glory and come in touch with new life. We learn to see the love of a God that exists in a perpetual state of waiting. There is glory in acting to bring about the kingdom of God — Jesus demonstrates this for the first part of his life. But there is glory to be found in being handed over too.

To be human is to contain multitudes. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 famously proclaims, “there is time for everything” under the sun. Our pain makes our joy sweeter; our joy offers buoyance in our pain. And Christ, who knows both joy and pain, active love and passive acceptance is with us in all of it. I wonder if we have grace for ourselves in the complexity of being human, of loving others, of serving God, of accepting love, what Lent might look like this year.