One of the criticisms of Gospel preaching is that it can, at times, be gloomy. “Do we have to hear about sin again?”, the complaint goes, “Do you have to be so down on humanity?”, “Can’t we talk about how great life is sometimes?”, “Can’t you give me some self-improvement tools?”

To these voices the Gospel preacher replies that life is often (perhaps mostly) hard, and that as much as we might crave a word of optimism, a little fuel for the part of us that longs to live in blissful ignorance (or denial), what we really need is not to have our humanity built up, but rather put to death. True hope – hope in God and his unbreakable love for us in Jesus Christ – comes only when we let go of our false hopes, and this happens only in the crucible of real, hard, life. In this view, church ceases to be a venue for fairy tales and bedtime stories, but rather a haven for sufferers. Church is the place where we come together to hear and tell the truth about our lives, our sin, and to receive grace and mercy. As Martin Luther poignantly once wrote, “If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear a true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.”

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Secondarily, we might also say that there is tremendous comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering. Although our “better selves” may crave an environment of collective positivity, our real selves need fellow sufferers. Counterintuitively, we find a community of truth-telling to be a balm, not a depressant, in the midst of our own trials. Just check out your local 12-step meeting sometime.

Along these lines, there was a very interesting little piece on NPR this morning about a group in Verona, Italy which exists for the sole purpose of answering the over 6,000 letters written to Juliet every year. These letters are overwhelmingly sad; women (and some men) who have had their hearts broken, often repeatedly, and are reaching out to the love-struck suicidal teenager in search of some relief. While one might think that reading and responding to these letters would be the most depressing job imaginable, it is, in fact, quite the opposite:

Despite the heartbreak, many of the secretaries have been doing this for years — decades even. But the odd effect of witnessing so much loneliness, the secretaries explain, is that it actually makes them feel closer to humanity at large. “Seeing that so many people are sharing the same feeling,” says Marchi, “makes you a little less lonely.”

Amen.