If you spend enough time sat in the waiting room of a maternity unit you’ll soon notice two types of people. The first lot are the sort you’d expect. They sit with nervous excitement, waiting for their scan, bouncing up out of their seat when their name is called. Later, they appear out of the examination room beaming, pouring over the grainy scan photo with proud smiles at their first glimpse of their unborn child. I’ve only ever been in that group, I’ve only ever been celebrating, rejoicing, thankful.
But if you wait and look beyond the joy and giddy excitement, you’ll see another type of person visiting the maternity unit on that same day. If it’s their first time, they too will sit with the same nervous excitement, and they too will bounce up out of their seat when their name is called. If it’s their second, third or tenth time, they will be sat quite differently; grasping each other’s hands in support, whispering silent prayers that this time it might be different.
They later appear out of the examination room and are ushered into another room, the counselling room. It is there, with a telling box of tissues ready laid out on the table, that they receive The News. For some it will be laying out the next steps of an ectopic pregnancy. For others it will be trying to explain why their baby has no heartbeat. And the others, they are told that they will need to ‘keep an eye on things to see how they progress.’
These two types of visitor sit in the same waiting room, they use the same water cooler and leave through the same door but that’s where the similarity of their maternity unit experience ends. One group leave with a bounce in their step, ready to post on Facebook and stick their scan picture on their fridge. The other group leave not sure how they will explain what has just happened to their friends and family, or if they will call them at all.
The title of this post is a lie.
Maternity units are not like church.
It’s true as far as both places have people who are entirely different places. Some are joy –filled and others heavy with sorrow. But, where a maternity unit understandably tries to keep these two groups separate, Church places us all in the same space.
Our culture creates these maternity unit type divides to protect us. But they are not there to protect those who are suffering but, instead, to protect everyone else from having to confront suffering.
How do we then read this instruction from Paul?
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Romans 12: 15
This passage is set within a list of what we could call ‘marks of a true Christian.’ They are practical instructions of how we can live out our Christian life within the community of the Church and, more broadly, our wider society. Here Paul issues a real challenge that, if you’re anything like me, you will struggle with due to your social upbringing.
As a Brit I find it awkward when someone is in pain and there’s nothing I can do about it. It would be so much easier for them to keep their pain hidden and carry on with a stiff upper lip. That’s what the majority of us have been taught to do. But when we carry that social awkwardness over into church, we fail to hear and obey Paul’s words. We place our social comfort above the challenge of the Gospel.
But the real challenge for the Church is not to merely amalgamate these two spaces by allowing those who are in pain to tell of their suffering while those who have joy rejoice beside them. Instead, this passage is instructing us to weep with those who are weeping and to rejoice with those who rejoice. Church isn’t merely sharing the same space, it is instead a corporate taking on of where various members of the body are at any given point. But how?
The Christian faith is one of tension; the holding together seemingly opposite concepts. The Kingdom is come but not yet. Jesus is fully man and fully God. The foolishness yet wisdom of Christ’s death on the cross.
What Paul is asking is for us to both fully rejoice yet fully mourn. What does that look like?
It looks like us rejoicing in our children, grateful for their safe arrival, for their beauty and the joy they bring while also sitting on our friend’s sofa weeping because they have miscarried, again.
This isn’t about faking it but living other people’s joy and pain along with our own. It’s a challenge, we have to continually keep ourselves in check. But the reward is something quite beautiful. It is at its heart the gospel message. A God who loves us so deeply that he became a man, experiencing our pain and sorrow, pleasure and joy so that we might be united once again.
It is hard, it is a struggle but the reward to chance to catch a glimpse of that unifying love in the here and now.
My dear friend Sheila has written a piece, featured by threads, on what this can look like in practice. Please do have a read.