Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Buffoon on a Tricycle

Some children’s greatest fears live underneath their beds, and their parents have gotten up many a weary night and gone to their child’s bedroom, flashlight in hand, lifted the covers, shone the light on the dusty floor, and proved, once again, that there is no monster.

When I was a boy, I had a recurring dream about a giant, scowling, and mean-eyed lumberjack, who wore a bright red flannel shirt, blood stained jeans, and muddy boots, and who carried an enormous gleaming axe in his right hand.  Not only did I dream about that lumberjack; I was sure he lived in my bedroom closet.  Whenever I dreamed about the lumberjack, I would wake-up frightened, short-of-breath, and sweaty; and I knew what I had to do:  turn on the lamp beside my bed, find some courage, tiptoe to the closet, and throw open the door, either to be axed by my fear or to be relieved that, once again, it was only a nightmare.

As fearsome as that lumberjack in my dreams was, there was one thing odd and buffoonish about him. Instead of a horse or a pickup truck, he rode, I kid you not, a tricycle—his knees up around his ears and his enormous feet slipping off the pedals.  When I was a child, the dream struck me with terror; years later, though, I laughed at myself and at the dream: my Goliath-sized fear looked like a monster, but he was nothing more than an overgrown child who wanted nothing more than to get to play. 

These days, the memory of that dream reminds me of something the poet Rilke said: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something that wants our love.”

I think that, day by day, our fears of rejection and failure most diminish us.   

There’s a tug of war in us between our fear of rejection and our yearning to be clearly seen, fully known, and deeply loved. Too often, fear wins; the result is that we won’t risk saying what we think, doing what we believe, and becoming who we truly are, because we are afraid that “they” will not accept us. 

There’s also a conflict in us between our desire to flourish and to succeed, on the one hand, and our fear of change and failure on the other. We shrink back from the call to transformation which comes to us in our challenges and opportunities.  We conspire in our own diminishment by refusing to risk newness. 

Life has me in a place which is forcing me to face-off with some of my most intimidating fears.  I am trying to remember that the monsters I most fear are actually buffoons on a tricycle, to laugh at them rather than to be held down and held back by them, and to love them into beauty. 

Most of all, I am trying to remember that the real God is like Jesus. God knows everything about us: our limits and our possibilities, our weaknesses and our strengths, what hides in the shadows of our shame and what shines in the glory of our best selves.  God knows it all, never rejects us, always welcomes us, and unfailingly loves us. 

And, God has mercy for our failures, grace for our wrongs, and forgiveness for our sins. With our God, failure is not final and it is not fatal.  God stands us back on our feet when we fall, restores us when we are broken, and gives us hope when we have given up.  That means we can take, without fear, the risks of learning, growth, and change.

With a God like that, we are freer than we know, as free as we dare to be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ain't Srong Enough to Kill This Music

In a New Yorker article about Duke Ellington and race in America, I learned about a gathering of leading black jazz musicians at Yale University in 1972.  There were three days of concerts, jam sessions, and workshops.  Duke Ellington was there, as were Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, Willie (the Lion) Smith, and Charles Mingus. 

Even in enlightened New Haven, not everyone was glad about this gathering of black musicians.  One night, Dizzy Gillespie was directing the performance of a sextet that included Charles Mingus, when word came of a bomb threat. The police tried to clear the theater, but Mingus refused to leave.  He was determined, despite the danger, to remain onstage with his bass.  He said to the police captain: “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music.  If I’m going to die, I’m ready but I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’” 

Once outside, Gillespie and the other musicians could hear, coming from the inside,  “the sound of Mingus intently playing Ellington’s dreamy thirties hit, which, that day, became a protest song, as the performance just kept going on and on and getting hotter.”  It was just two years before Ellington would die.  That night he “stood with the waiting crowd, just beyond the theater’s open doors, smiling“

No doubt, there are sounds of discord and trouble everywhere in our world and often in our own hearts; but they aren’t strong enough to kill the music.  Long after the voices of anger, accusation, and violence have spent themselves, our songs linger and dance in the air. Even with the brokenness we see around us and feel within us, Louis Armstrong was right: “It’s a Wonderful World.”  “Amazing Grace” lifts and heartens us when we are down and discouraged.  “O God our Help in Ages Past, our Hope for Years to Come” is mightier than any present pain or problem. 

Many years ago, I was in a jazz joint in the French Quarter of New Orleans where a so-so singer fronted a not-so-great band.  Mostly I ignored the music, until, most improbably, God spoke to me through a song which I would not have expected God to use (I need to be reminded, over and over again that God is vaster and more creative and more determined to speak to us than we ever know).  The so-so singer sang: "It's all right to have a good time, baby, it’s all right.” And God whispered in my ears: “Hey, Guy, it really is all right to enjoy the life I gave you.  Remember what you tell everybody else: ‘My glory is a human being fully alive.’”

It might be “Sophisticated Lady” in New Haven or “It’s All Right” in New Orleans or “Amazing Grace” in any place we find ourselves; songs can become a faithful protest against all that is wrong and an affirmation of trust all shall be well.

[The story about Mingus and the quotations above come from Claudia Ruth Pierpoint, “Black, Brown and Beige: Duke Ellington’s Music and Race in America.”  The New Yorker, May 17, 2010, pp. 96-103).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

To be Loved

In my dream, the old man was dressed in once-elegant but now slightly-shabby clothes.  He was in a wheelchair.  Only with great difficulty could he manage to hold his head up straight. His dark eyes took-in the handful of acquaintances gathered around a nearby table.  At the same time, his eyes had a faraway look to them, as if he were straining to see a place he had longed to call home but at which he had never arrived.  The other people in the room were mostly younger than he, people he had worked with or helped across the years.

A meeting of some kind was breaking up, one of thousands of meetings he had endured across the more-than-five decades of his working life. He had been in meetings when it would have been better from him to talk and laugh and cry with friends, or to walk, when he could still walk, hand-in-hand with his beloved beside a mountain stream, or to sit quietly by a roaring fire, listening to Miles Davis and letting his soul breathe-in the rhythms of grace. 

Nonetheless, he spent still another evening in yet another meeting.  Suddenly, or so it seemed to everyone in the room, even to him, hot tears began to stream down his cheeks.  Embarrassed, he tried wiping them away, but doing so only called attention to his distress.  “Are you alright?  In pain?  Do you need for us to call a doctor?”  He tried to answer, but, for a few awkward moments, no words would come, only soft but troubled moaning.  Finally, he managed to choke out the last words he would ever speak: “All I ever wanted was to be loved.”

In waking life, I knew that old man in my dream pretty well.  Only at the end was he able to say what had been true about him—what is true about all of us—from the beginning: “All I ever wanted was to be loved.”  

We want to feel cradled close to our mother’s breast, to feel the stubble of our father’s whiskers on our cheeks as he embraces us, to hear her sing us into peaceful sleep, and to listen to another of his stories.  We want friends who let us into their circle, join is in our dreams, stay by our sides when we fail, catch our tears, and share our laughter.  We want someone who will have us gladly and hold us tenderly, “for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”  We want a church where we don’t have to pretend to be perfect or wear masks to hide our fears or feel pressured to affirm more than we know.  

A young child reaching up to his grandfather; a teenage girl yearning for the boy in her fourth-period class to speak to her; a young adult desperate not to eat dinner alone; a middle-aged man, out on the road, struggling with his loneliness; and a grieving spouse, who buried her husband, returns night after night to house chilled by his absence all want what we all want: to be loved and to love.
“All I ever wanted was to be loved.”