Carrying Covenant

Jesus tells us to bear each other’s burdens, and it seems to me that this burden-bearing is part of the covenant we make with our neighbors. But I would like to expand it as well, and say that we are also covenanted to carry each other’s joy. There are moments that have a certain magic, that happen when we are in great distress. In our sorrow, we sometimes look up, and witness great joy. I was sitting in a bar, having a drink in a time of heavy sadness, and I heard, behind me, voices raised and full of emotion. For a moment, I mistook the emotion for my own, and turned around to see if I could do something for someone who was hurting. But instead of hurt, I witnessed joy. A young woman was approaching an older woman, her eyes tear-filled, her face shining with pleasure and surprise. The older woman responded with rapture, disbelief, standing still and then embracing the other. Who were they? What past had led them to such an unexpected and joy-filled reunion? I’ll never know. But as I watched them, I began to weep, not out of sadness, but because they had given me a tremendous gift. In a moment when I knew nothing but grief, they publicly carried their joy, and I recognized it as my joy, a joy I would return to, a joy that would be waiting for me when I was ready.

Bear each other’s burdens, carry each other’s joys. It is one of the most beautiful aspects of the spirituality of covenant, and its beauty lies in its inevitability. When someone is sad, those who have empathy, which is most of us, feel some of that sadness. We can’t help it. When someone is joyful, our empathy leads us to experience the lift of that joy. We don’t really set out to do this, it’s part of our nature. That’s what makes it so beautiful. We bear burdens and carry joys almost by reflex. It’s easier for us to carry the sorrows of another, because we are not them, and don’t feel the full weight. But that doesn’t mean that some part of the burden isn’t shared. And when we’re carrying our own demonstrable joy we send little tendrils of it off into the atmosphere around us, just as we add breath to the atmosphere. It is a gift we give without thought or intention, a surprising gift that is our human contribution to the experience of grace.

One of my seminary professors, John Dreibelbis, had a well-developed theology of burden bearing. When one of us would come to him with a problem, he had a remarkable practice. He would look at his calendar and say, “I have some time free at 2:40 tomorrow, when I’ll pray about your problem.” Then he’d write that prayer time into his schedule. After we had told him the full scope of our problem, he would ask “Can I bear some of it for you?” He believed that he could carry some of the problem’s weight so that the problem could become more manageable for us. He also suggested that we put some of the weight on the Holy Spirit, especially when we were trying to sleep. “The Holy Spirit will hold your problem throughout the night, and work on it for you. When you wake up, the Holy Spirit will give it back to you, and you’ll find that some small portion of it has been solved.” If that is the action of the Holy Spirit, then we become participants in the work of the spirit when we bear each other’s burdens. And if God’s love is the wellspring of human joy, we are participant in the spirit when we share that joy with eachother.

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