I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for Charlie Brown, especially since I played Violet (Lucy’s sidekick) in the musical Snoopy! in high school. Peanuts is not my favorite cartoon, since it’s a little depressing rather often and I totally sympathize with Charlie, but I do love it and I freely admit to watching the holiday specials on their respective days. I find that Charlie’s signature phrase, “good grief!”, is sadly underused.
But what is that? I realize it’s just a phrase of disbelief and resignation on Charlie’s part, but what is good grief? Isn’t grief inherently frustrating and unwanted? How can it be good?
No, no one has died in my life, Reader, if that’s what you’re wondering. But I was at my denomination’s regional conference last week (hence no post, sorry about not really announcing that) and the theme of grief was surprisingly prevalent. One of the reports spoke of grieving for the Church that used to be the center of life and the need to adapt to what church is now as it continues to change and shrink in some areas even while growing in others. And that’s true, and I’m very glad it was acknowledged. Another part of a different worship service remembered the pastors and spouses of our conference who have died over the last year, and while I didn’t know any of them personally, that is its own kind of grief. And, in my own little corner of the conference, I realized I have been grieving the loss of my other life.
It must seem like an ad infinitum repetition that ministry wasn’t what I wanted/planned for, that I miss academia, etc. I tire of hearing myself continually make the comparisons and “what if”s sometimes, so I appreciate your letting me have the space to do so. But as I’ve been bellyaching about how God totally wrecked the stream of my life, I didn’t really understand why I was so upset. Was it because I was afraid of this new direction? Was it because I missed the old plans? Was it because I didn’t want to “waste” the ten years of money, time, and learning I’d put into being in academia?
Yes, it was all of that. And as I was sitting on a rock next to the most metaphor-laden waterfall I could have found on the campus of this conference, I realized that part of why I was upset about this and dragging my feet as much as possible was that I was grieving what could have been.
Here’s the thing: I don’t do grief well. I don’t do many emotions well, but I really don’t do grief well because it’s a messy, vulnerable, exhausting thing. So part of why I’ve been so balky about ministry is that I didn’t know how to truly grieve for what I was leaving behind—and I was, indeed, leaving something behind. I would be a great professor—that’s not arrogance, that’s an understanding of feedback I’ve received from other people. I teach very well, I write pretty well, I present pretty well. I could do that job.
And it would kill me slowly, but that’s not the point. I’m not leaving that because I couldn’t hack it. I’m leaving it because God asked me to, and just as when you move away from the house you lovingly shaped into your dream home or when your best friend takes a job on the other side of the country or your favorite cousin has a child that takes all of his time now, that hurts. It is change, and it is new, and it is not what I planned. So there is grief, because what I planned will never be, and not because it was detrimental or unhealthy but because God saw something different and said it would be better.
If this seems like something I should have realized months ago and you’ve been waiting at that conclusion for ages, I apologize for looking a dolt. As ever, we are far better at diagnosing others than ourselves. But by that pond, watched by a very cool but very wary heron, I realized I had never allowed myself the acknowledgment of and permission to grieve what could have been, who I could have been. I had, instead, just been pissed off about it.
The amazing realization that followed on its heels was that God was letting me grieve.
He understood that I needed that space—hence the job that I have that’s academia-but-not-really, the incredible space I have at church to explore but still stay in the shadows (sort of), even this blog where I can muse without actually stamping myself with a plan. I needed to learn to let go of my other self, little by little, before I could ever be effective or content in a ministerial life. And so He let me do that.
And then He said it’s time to move on.
Because the thing about “good” grief is that it doesn’t stay in one shape. You grieve what is lost forever, the same way you’ll always be in love with that first someone forever, but the grief and the love don’t look like they first did. They meld into the wider tapestry of who you are, not to fade into unimportance but to bolster the larger picture of where you have been in the wide world. For me, to stay in the place of anger and frustration is neither productive nor healthy, because I can forever grieve but I can’t bring that other life back. If I’m honest, I wouldn’t want to. So God says, “You have had time to heal. Let’s get to work.”
And I have. And will. It’s shocking how, even in the last month, God has thrown me into conversations and spaces that are absolutely ministry where I am, not waiting to become A Minister with a Degree but being a minister with a heart. A heart that grieves.
But celebrates in the beautiful tapestry still being made.
One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:5-6, ESV)