108. Can you drink the cup?

I have read this little book by Henri Nouwen several times now and I think it will be one of those books regularly taken out of the bookshelf for a recap.  It’s a book about the story of our lives.  Our lives are made up of a mixture of both joy and sorrow, although if we aren’t careful the sorrow can take over the joy.  Or on the other hand, our focus on joy may mean we don’t allow ourselves to really drink the cup of sorrow.

The mother of James and John asked Jesus if one of her boys could sit at his right hand and the other on his left in the kingdom. Jesus asked them, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?”  They gave the right answer – “of course we can.”  Mt 20:20-23.  They did too.  But have we really thought what cup the Lord is asking us to drink?  The disciples didn’t really know the depths of the sacrifice and challenge and heartache that was ahead of them.  They wanted to follow in Jesus’ footsteps though and so they stepped up to drink the cup.  It was a cup of joy and sorrow.  The mix will vary – sometimes more of one than the other but that’s where we need, like Jesus, to count it all joy!  For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.  It seems we can’t have one without the other.

The question for me is, do I drink the cup to the bottom – all of it to the last dregs?  I often don’t make the most of the joys in life and then don’t grieve through the sorrows of life in order to make them sacred.  If we pass through life just to get through it, we miss out on the cup of blessing.  Blessing comes from reflection on drinking the cups of joy and sorrow.  Our joy is made full as we drink it and pass it on to others.  Our sorrow is turned into blessing as we endure it and offer it up as a sacrifice to the Lord.  When we can share our lives, allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, in our sorrows, storms and sadness’s, then we really live.  It’s a paradox – we try so hard to create an image that is strong and courageous and immoveable.  We want people to think well of us.  But it’s in the sharing of our joys and sorrows that we can drink the cup of blessing together.  Hospitality is drinking the cup of life together.  We welcome people to our table to drink deeply, to share deeply and enjoy rich fellowship that lifts us all up by the end of our time together.

There is a personal cup of joy and sorrow and then there is a leadership cup.  We enter leadership with only the thought of a joyful cup – fruitful ministry, people being blessed and restored, life flowing in the community, the Spirit of God hovering over us and speaking words of vision through us. Then we get there and find that there is a cup of sorrow too – conflicts among our colleagues, struggles to see fruitfulness emerge, frustration of lack of the right personnel and gifting, sadness’s of one kind and another, challenges of dealing with the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, an issue from the past that is hindering blessing for the present, financial needs, lack of intimacy that is longed for, and the list goes on.  How do we as leaders maintain that position of faith in the midst of trying to drink the cup of sorrow?  Even when we have a blessed life, there is that inward struggle of unmet desires, secret longings, hopes that have been deferred. 

The mystery is this – our cup of sorrow is also our cup of joy and one day we will be able to taste the joy as fully as we now taste the sorrow.  We all have a mixed cup and we can’t escape from it.

Jesus experienced the cup of joy in seeing lives healed, set free and finding purpose.  But he also experienced the cup of sorrow in thinking of those that didn’t receive his message, those that went away sad because they couldn’t step up to the standard of letting go of everything and following Him, seeing his own disciples having selfish ambition and competing among themselves to determine who is the greatest, falling into fear and unbelief and not praying with him on the night of his greatest darkness.

Now I look at the man of sorrows. He hangs on a cross with outstretched arms. It is Jesus, condemned by Pontius Pilate, crucified by Roman soldiers, and ridiculed by Jews and Gentiles alike.  “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by” (Matthew 26: 39). Jesus couldn’t face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suffering to embrace, too much agony to live through. He didn’t feel he could drink that cup filled to the brim with sorrows.

Jesus was able to understand the mystery. He knew his sorrow would bring forth joy and that’s why we read, ‘For the joy set before me, I endured the cross.’

If we are going to walk in Jesus’ steps as a leader, we have a very high calling.  We require resilience in the face of the cup of sorrow.  Will we let the challenges take us down?  Will we try to escape and not drink the cup of sorrow to the last dregs and try and get away with as little pain as possible?  If we are to live life to the full, the cup needs to be drunk to the bottom – both the joy and the sorrow.  Life is to be lived not escaped from.  It’s there in the depths, that lie the lessons we so need to learn.  Embracing life requires this grace filled, mercy oriented, spirit anointed resilience. 

We had a meal with our son not so long ago where we shared stories of joy and sorrow. As we shared a joy story, we drank some sweet wine and as we shared a story of sorrow, we drank some dry wine. The sensorial experience of different tastes underlined the meaning of each story.

Sometimes we like to think that when we grow more mature these moments of inner darkness will go,” or “Age will diminish our emotional needs.” But actually, our sorrows are ours to keep and they won’t leave us. The sting perhaps is lessened but the paradox is finding the jewel in the pain.

Often when we wish to comfort people, we say: “Well, it is sad this has happened to you, but try to make the best of it.” But “making the best of it” is not what drinking the cup is about. Drinking our cup is not simply adapting ourselves to a bad situation and trying to use it as well as we can. Drinking our cup is a hopeful, courageous, and self-confident way of living.

How do we drink our cup?

Here are three edited disciplines of Nouwen that my wife passed on, to help me to drink the cup:

1. Silence. For many of us silence is scary. We will try everything not to face the silence because we come face to face with our own issues that we don’t want to think about. Who needs to be reminded of pain?  Why dwell on the difficulties of life?  Why allow our emotions to come to the surface again?  And we allow doubts to fill our hearts and say, ‘what is going to change anyway?’  It’s in the silence we become real. When we drink the cup of sorrow, we feel the sadness, we identify the losses, we recognise the disappointment, without noise all around us, no music, no people’s opinions and perspective and no work to drown out the reality of what is going on deep down. This is not a time to cover up but to face up, with the help of our constant companion Jesus who is there to comfort and encourage us.

2. Service. Drinking our cup involves carefully choosing those actions which lead us closer to the complete emptying of it, so that at the end of our lives we can say with Jesus: “It is fulfilled” (John 19: 30). That indeed, is the paradox: We fulfill life by emptying it. In Jesus’ own words: “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10: 39).  There are jobs to be done, assignments to fulfil and it is in following through on those priorities of the Lord for us, that helps to bring joy out of the sorrow and makes our joy complete.

3. Sacred companions. We cannot live a spiritual life in secrecy. We cannot find our way to true freedom in isolation. Silence without speaking is as dangerous as solitude without community. They belong together. Nouwen suggests that we need loving and caring friends with whom we can speak from the depth of our heart. Such friends can take away the paralysis that secrecy creates. They can offer us a safe and sacred place, where we can express our deepest sorrows and joys, and they can confront us in love, challenging us to a greater spiritual maturity.

One of the challenges as missionaries is that people in our churches back home want to hear about fruitfulness and good news and joy and blessing.  But the truth is, it doesn’t come without drinking the cup of sorrows. It’s hard to talk about in our newsletters because so many wouldn’t understand. But we can share authentically with sacred companions. If you are short on these godly friends, search them out and you will mutually be blessed. Will you, as a leader, drink the cup of joy and sorrow and thus enjoy the cup of blessing and life. I hope so. I pray so. This is real living.

Until next month



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