Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parade of Joy

Years ago, I preached a sermon I still regret: a rambling, ill-focused, and sneering screed of a Palm Sunday sermon in which I took cheap potshots at parades. I talked about out-of-tune bands, out-of-sync drill teams, and out-of-shape military veterans crammed into their old uniforms. I critiqued floats hastily constructed on the back of flatbed trucks or pulled by loud, smoke-belching tractors. It was a perfectly awful sermon. 

Part of what made the sermon so dreadful was how clever and sophisticated I thought I was. I even tried, lamely and unsuccessfully, to claim, that my curmudgeonly cynicism was a spiritual gift. Almost as soon as the worship service was over, however, there flashed across my mind what had happened to Peter the night Jesus was arrested and he denied any connection with Jesus. After the third denial, Peter heard a rooster crow, and it woke him up to the terrible thing he had done. After I preached my sermon in praise of cynicism, I heard a rooster crow; I had denied something essential about the gospel. I had denied joy; and, like Peter, I wept bitterly about how misguided I could be. I still do that sometimes; I cry over how easy it is to miss the joy God intends for us.

For a variety of reasons, some stretching back to my very early years, joy has been a struggle for me. Theologian David Ford diagnosed my spiritual condition perfectly when he wrote: “Joy may be a greater scandal than evil, suffering, or death. Some people have a realism that can come to terms with the darker side but cannot cope with something that seems too good to be true.” (The Shape of Living, p. 179).

Over the last year, because of some difficult challenges I have faced, I have come to know, firsthand, the unfailingly gentle presence of Jesus in harsh circumstances, been surprised by laughter in the midst of tears, and felt life rise up from weakness.  These experiences have called me to turn, more decisively than ever before, from my practiced pessimism, cultivated cynicism, and familiar melancholy. 

I am more convinced than ever before that Jesus is in us and with us—anywhere and everywhere, anytime and all the time. For that reason, joy is always as near to us as our own breath. Again, in the words of David Ford: “God does not coerce us with joy but there is always more on offer than we can take” (p. 183).

Parade, anyone?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Awake to Life

The narrator of one of Alice Munro’s short stories described a middle aged woman this way: “Here she sat and saw her day as hurdles got through.  Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that’s over, that’s over.  What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this was over?” (Selected Stories, 1997).  Sometimes it’s that way for us, I think.  We live with the dull ache of low expectations: just get through the next thing, get it over with, move on to the next thing, and get it over with, too.  Endure today, then tomorrow, and a series of tomorrows after that.  We’re not living our lives; they’re living us.  We might as well be sleepwalking, because we aren’t awake to ourselves, to others, or to the wonders and possibilities around us. 

It’s not easy staying awake, though.  You know that feeling you have after Thanksgiving dinner—stuffed, hardly able to keep your eyes open, and wanting nothing more than a long nap?  I think something like that happens to our minds and hearts.  They’re overfilled with all the ideas, images, issues, and demands which come at us from email, voice mail, text and Facebook messages, RSS feeds, snail mail, memos, reports, television, radio, billboards, magazines, newspapers, coworkers, family members, and strangers on the street.  All these things work their way into our psyches, make claims on our capacity for awareness, and take away from our limited supply of time and energy. 

We experience sensory overload. Our mental hard-drive maxes out. Our emotional inbox gets full.  We can’t take-in any more.  We start to shut down.  People talk to us, but we can’t really listen.  We read, but the words on the page bounce off our brains.  We miss subtle clues, overlook important details, and fail to see nuance.  We’re numb, and drowsy from too much for too long.    

That kind of drowsiness puts us at risk for missing the surprises of grace and serendipities of joy which are always happening around us.  We don’t have the inner freedom to look beyond, beneath, and above the pressure of the immediate and the clamor of the urgent.  We lack the interior space for anything new or delightful or peaceful.

When it comes to matters of the spirit, less is often more.  Intentional self-emptying and cultivated silence instead of frenzied consumption of noisy and insistent media make room for authentic, rather than ersatz, fulfillment.  Lingering reflectively over our experience and not rushing to the next thing is a way to discover the marvels and mysteries hiding in plain sight.  Listening with focus and love to the people in front of us now, rather than hurrying in our minds to all the other people we will meet with today, tunes us in to the music of their lives and to the melodies and harmonies of the Divine which echo in their songs. 

I know these things are true, but I forget.  When I do, I find myself  back in the hypnotizing swirl which wants me to settle for the numbed passivity induced by too much.  I want to remember, more readily and more often than I do, that taking-in just-enough is a way to stay awake.  It’s a way to live my life rather than simply to get through it. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Prayers from the River and Waterfall

In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said: “Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so close together!” 

My experience mirrors hers. I remember the first time Amanda performed in a little preschool choir—how happy I was to watch her stand with her friends and sing those nursery rhymes, and how sad I was that such simple pleasures do not last—not for the children, and not for their parents.

And, I remember how my eyes filled with tears when Eliot got his first hit in a little league baseball game—I was so glad for him to get on base, so sorry that the world is divided into winners and losers, and so troubled that our kids learn far too early in which category to place themselves. 

Joy and sadness often come together.  We weep at weddings and laugh at funerals.  The borders between grief and gladness are not clear and fixed.  We laugh until we cry, cry until we laugh, and laugh to keep from crying.
Life is usually troubled and joyful, simultaneously.  I think that’s why the Apostle Paul urged his friends both to “rejoice evermore” and “to pray without ceasing.”  Pray about the troubles.  Be glad about the joys.  In all things, lean into the nearness of God. 

Frederick Buechner, in an interview, spoke of the struggle he has, as he ages, not to allow the losses and diminishments he has experienced to color his whole life.  He admitted to feeling “shadowy and sad, geriatric . . .  Yet I don’t want to write out of the shadowy part of myself, but out of the part that is still young and full of joy.” I am struck by Buechner’s determination to write out of his joy.  He’s well acquainted with the shadow of grief, but he’s drawn toward the golden light.  He chooses gladness. 

We can choose to keep company with gladness, even when it feels natural to side with sadness.  I want, though, to be careful with this claim.  There are seasons in some people’s lives when clinical depression and/or addiction interfere mightily both with their capacities to perceive reasons for happiness and joy and with the powers of will to open themselves to those reasons, even if they perceive them. I am not suggesting, in the least, that people who need the help of medical treatment for depression should be able to “snap out of it” or “sing out of it” or “pray out of it.” 

I am talking, instead, about the choices we make as part of ordinary life—and the bog of depression and the prison of addiction are not the “locations” of  ordinary life—life with problems and possibilities, losses and hopes, disappointments and delights.
Some of us can box ourselves into ways of looking at the world which prevent us from choosing gladness, even though we could.  We’ve developed a habit of privileging melancholy.  It’s a habit we can unlearn.  Delight requires a discipline, a discipline.  In her story The Wide Net, Eudora Welty said, “The excursion is the same when you go looking for you sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.”  The discipline of delight attunes our senses to joy.

We have very limited choices about the pain that comes into our lives, but we do have many more choices about whether we will allow it that pain completely to cloud our vision of the glory and goodness that are just as surely and truly a part of life.

The “discipline” is not new and it is not hard to explain.  It is really hard to put into practice, and I am such a novice.  It involves letting every experience of life become the raw material for communion with, wrestling with, or resting in, or giving thanks to God.  It means praying by living and living by praying. 

In Psalm 42 are two beautiful stanzas which I am sure I do not fully understand:

Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls;
    all your massive waves surged over me.
By day the Lord commands his faithful love;
    by night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life (CEB).

Here’s what they mean to me just now:  God cascading, abundant, and powerful love is always sounding, and there is something in me which resonates to that sound, no matter where I am.  As I draw near, God washes over me with, and immerses me in, the ever-flowing love.  It reaches me and restores me, like night songs along a river.  My prayers become witnesses to, questions about, and praises for what I learn about life when I lie next to God’s glad river and rest near the waterfall of Spirit.

These prayers are echoes of those night songs of God’s love. They help me to “see” and to “hear” my life as God has seen and heard it and as grace and mercy have washed through it.  Slowly, I learn to see and hear what God sees and hears more simultaneously and “in the present moment." The more we see and hear life with God, the more we will see, hear, and feel the numberless reasons for joy, even the joy the seeks us through pain.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fear Keeps us in a World Smaller than the One God Loves

Fear often runs and ruins our lives.  It causes us to hide our truest selves, hedge our deepest convictions, and hesitate to use our finest gifts.  Fear makes us obsessed with security, status, and success. It makes us reluctant to venture beyond the walls of the familiar, and it bars the way to meaningful friendships with people whose experiences and viewpoints are different from our own.  Fear causes us to live in a world so much smaller than the one God loves.

When I was a boy in Atlanta, I often visited the Grant Park Zoo.  The zoo’s most famous resident was a gorilla whose nickname was “Willie B.” in honor of a former Atlanta mayor, William B. Hartsfield.  I always sent to see the massive gorilla, and it always made me sad that he lived in a glass cage instead of in the jungle.  These days, I wonder if “Willie B.” was sad, too; or had he been captive for so long that he had lost sight of a world beyond the narrow confines of his cage? Had he surrendered his desire to run free?

The God made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is always flinging open the doors to our cages.  We don’t have to be paralyzed by fear.  Love sends us and goes with us into God’s vast, wonderful, troubled, and beautiful word, the world God sent Jesus to reclaim and to heal.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The River Says

I got to the river today. 

I didn’t, as I often enjoy doing, head to Madison County and hike the mountain trails which ring the French Broad near Hot Springs.  Instead, I parked my Subaru at the old “transfer station” and ambled along the path to the “Race Track” park and then made my way back.  It wasn’t a long walk, and, because my energy was ebbing a bit, I didn’t make great time.  What mattered, though, was that I was at the river. 

Ever since I was a boy, walking the flood wall next to the Ohio River with my grandfather, there has been something restoring to my body and soul about seeing and hearing the water flow.  

After my walk, I sat for a while and listened and, not unexpectedly, given where I was, I heard William Stafford’s poem “Ask Me” echoing in my mind and heart.

“Ask Me” is one of the poems Stafford wrote about the Methow River in Washington State.  He imagines standing riverside on a bitingly cold day with a friend and inviting that friend to ask him some hard questions:

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

Think about how real, trusting, and honest a friendship has to be for it to sustain such a searching and vulnerable conversation.  To give voice to our fears, to admit that we have failed, and to acknowledge that we aren’t living the lives we were meant to live require much more courage than we can often muster.  And, we have to trust that the person who hears us loves us so fiercely and so tenderly that he or she will not reject, judge, or condemn us for how we feel.

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

The poet promises to hear the heart of the other: “I will listen to what you say.”

Next to that frozen river, these two friends meet in ways we all too rarely meet each other: in honest, respectful and mutual love.  When words are spent, the poet says: 

               You and I can turn and look
               at the silent river and wait. We know
               the current is there, hidden; and there
               are comings and goings from miles away
               that hold the stillness exactly before us.
               What the river says, that is what I say.

On the surface, the river is ice, frozen and immobile.  On the surface, a human life is stuck in mistakes and failures to be and become.  Far beneath the surface, hidden from the eye, even a frozen river flows: there are comings and goings from miles away. 

And here’s what I believe: deep down in the heart of the person most stuck, most paralyzed, and most lost in the chill of lovelessnes, the Spirit of Jesus flows.  Here’s what the river says, what the Spirit of Jesus says:  

You are alive in the world.  My life, my energy, my vitality surge and move in you.  So, live your life and live it now, fully, and freely.  Live it passionately, compassionately and adventurously

You are forgiven: don’t let regret freeze you into place or guilt paralyze you. 

You are loved—I love you—so don’t let fear hold you down and hold you back.   Love the world, love your neighbors, love the strangers as I have loved you.

That’s what the river—what the Spirit of Jesus—says: you are alive, so live.  You are forgiven, so celebrate.  You are loved, so love.