Sunday, December 14, 2014

Don't Leave Joy Unopened

Imagine that, under the Christmas tree, there’s a gift for you; it’s in a box about the size of a human heart, wrapped in shining bright green and topped with a velvety red bow.  It has your name on it, but there’s isn’t another name. The gift is clearly for you, but you’re not quite sure who it’s from.  Though there are other present for you, this one intrigues you.  When no one is watching, you pick-up the box to feel its weight (it’s surprisingly light), and shake it to see if it makes a sound (it doesn’t, but its silence sounds like music).

On Christmas Day, you open your gifts: a tie, a dozen golf balls, a watch.  A scarf, a new purse, a necklace. But, somehow, you can’t quite bring yourself to open the heart-sized box wrapped in green paper with a red bow. It fascinates you, but it somehow makes you anxious. Despite the nudging of your family, you leave the mysterious gift unopened.

During this Advent season, we’re opening the gifts of Christmas: hope, peace, joy, and love—gifts which are ours because of Jesus. I’m at risk for leaving one of them unopened: the gift of joy. I’ve done it before, far too often. 

I’ve wondered why.

I don’t think it’s because I am a Grinch.  Remember what Dr. Seuss said about him:

               The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
               Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
               It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
               It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
               But I think that the most likely reason of all,
               May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

I don’t hate Christmas, my shoes aren’t tight, and my heart isn’t small. But, even though I am not a full-blown Grinch, it could be that my head hasn’t been screwed on right. 

Maybe, I’ve thought that joy would dishonor the pain I see in the world and the hurt I feel hiding just beneath the veneer of Sunday smiles so many of us wear.  What right do I have to laughter when there are so many people in tears?

It could be that I’ve wanted to deserve joy—to earn it, rather than to receive it as a free gift of grace. Perhaps, I have taken on gloominess and sadness as a kind of penance—a sentence to serve and a price to pay for my flaws, faults, and failures.  How can I be glad when I know, as the familiar prayer puts it, “that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; and I have done those things which I ought not to have done?”

If it’s true that I resist joy because there is so much pain and hurt in the world or refuse joy because of my own shame, guilt, and pride, then my head really isn’t screwed on right.  I’m living as if Christmas hasn’t happened, as if Jesus has not been born into the world.

After all, Jesus shows us the unending presence, the unfailing faithfulness and the unflagging kindness of God.  He assures us that God has mercy for our guilt, grace for our shame, and love for our fears. There is nothing in God which keeps us from joy.
In one of his first public statements, Pope Francis said: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” 

I have had a challenging year: cancer diagnosis and treatment which made it impossible for me to avoid any longer a stark confrontation with my limits. From that confrontation came a jarring awareness of my pervasive brokenness: not only my body, but my mind, heart, and spirit cried out for mercy.  I concluded that I need to leave a job and a church I love.  I came face-to-face with death.  I stand on the threshold of an uncertain future.

And, I have never been surer of the reality of Joy, because I have never been more certain of the truth of the gospel.  I know that, at the bottom of everything and at the heart of all things, there is Jesus. Because he has been born, we, too, can be born again and again. 

We dare not and we need not leave any of his gifts unopened. Even his joy is for me, for you, for everyone.    

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Last Saturday afternoon, while walking downtown among crowds of tourists and Christmas shoppers, I saw and heard:

An older couple fussing with each other about what to do next. They were coming out of Mast General Store. He had a huge bag in each hand.  She pointed to the stores on Biltmore Avenue they’d not yet been in, and made it clear to him that she intended to keep shopping.  He plainly said that he wanted to get the car and go home. Later, I saw him sitting by himself on a bench in Pack Square, bags nestled around him. 

A little girl, maybe two years old, dissolve into tears.  She was dressed like a princess and riding in a fancy stroller more expensive than my first car.  She had thrown her cupcake on the sidewalk, because it had white icing instead of chocolate. Her father, beside the stroller, said some things that a princess shouldn’t hear. Pushing the stroller was the princess’ mother; she wore a Christmas sweater and a forced smile.  She had the weary look of someone whose fantasy of a perfect family day had just evaporated. Ironically (you can’t make these things up), a street musician, squeakily playing a saxophone, was just finishing “Silent Night”: “Sleep in heavenly peace.”

It’s also ironic that, during this season, we sing about peace while storm-clouds of violence and fear darken the horizon.  War.  A billion people in abject poverty. Inner city schools, where despair has overtaken both students and educators. Racism, sexism, and classism.

In the face of such overwhelming problems, I feel paralyzed. They’re too big for me to do anything about.

But, the problems are not too big for Jesus, and he isn’t powerless to change them. He announced and enacted a peaceable kingdom in the face of imperial violence and oppression. He called for mercy in a land governed by merciless tyrants. He was executed by a conspiracy of elite religious and political powerbrokers. 

Then, God raised Jesus from the dead, a declaration that life is stronger than the death and love is mightier than fear. Through Jesus, God has unleashed resurrection power in the world, and God is at work for freedom, wholeness, and peace.

The work we do for the sake of justice and mercy, however modest, becomes part of God’s restless determination to heal us and the world.  It expresses and intensifies the resurrecting, recreating, and redeeming power of God. Somehow (I don’t know how), God gathers and uses our prayers and our deeds: nothing born of love is ever lost. That’s the good news: Hope endures. Peace triumphs. Love wins. 

It’s the gospel for the great problems of our world and for our everyday and ordinary lives, lives in which harmony disappears when a toddler throws her cupcake on the ground and conflict arises between a tired husband and a shop-till-you drop wife. It’s the gospel for all of us who live in a whirlwind of busyness and anxiety.

A few years ago, as I ran breathlessly from one thing to another, a friend asked: “Do you think Jesus wants you to live the way you’re living?” The question made me angry, but it also made its way to my heart. I said, in a moment of realization I keep coming back to: “No. Jesus is not my problem.  My problem is the relentless demands I’ve placed on myself and the endless expectations of others.”

After all, Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

What Jesus wants from us is what he wants for us: a way of life that is graceful, grateful, hopeful, and peaceful.