Monday, March 16, 2015

The DMV, the Difference a Year Makes, and Vision Tests

I recently spent a couple of hours at the DMV; it was time to renew my driver’s license.  The place was crowded with, in the words of the old Prayerbook, “all sorts and conditions” of people.  It was a multiracial and multigenerational melting pot.  Around me, people were speaking in a variety of languages, including that version of English I associate with New Jersey (it really is a different language, I think!).  Every imaginable style of dress and undress was on display.  People had done things with their hair I didn’t know could be done.  Almost all of us were talking or texting or emailing on our smartphones.

Against stereotype, the DMV personnel were all friendly and helpful. The younger woman who helped me was particularly kind.  After I took and passed (whew!) the vision and road signage tests, she reviewed the information on my license to update my address, phone number, height, weight, and organ donor information.  She also asked, ever so gently, “Mr. Sayles, is it alright with you if I change the hair color we have listed from brown to grey?”  I laughed and said to her, “I think that’s the only honest thing to do, don’t you?”  She smiled and said, “But your eyes are still brown.”  “They are,” I said, and I thought, “At least that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”  My eyes get more tired more quickly, and the magnification I need for reading glasses goes slowly but steadily higher.  My eyes fill with tears of both grief and joy more often than they used to, but, their color hasn’t changed.  It’s not something I’d not thought to be concerned about or grateful for before this last visit to the DMV.      

The expiration and renewal dates for drivers’ licenses are tied, of course, to birthdays. In the interval between the last renewal and this one, so much has happened to me, in me, and around me. The year between my 57th and 58th birthdays has especially been a whirlwind of change and challenge. 

Last year at this time, I was in the early rounds of chemotherapy; my body had not yet undergone much of the pain and weakness that treatment would bring. 

I served as pastor of a wonderful church, but I was also aware that cancer had made more insistent and urgent some questions I had long had about the shape of my vocation (not just about “job” but about how, with my whole life, I respond to God’s call). 

Last year at this time, I did not know how life-giving it could be to come as close as I would come to death.

I hadn’t yet experienced what I am still learning about how healing utter brokenness can be. 

I hadn’t yet discovered what I am now discovering about vulnerability’s illusion-shattering and pride-breaking gifts. 

This year has given me a deeper assurance than I have ever had that mercy does not crumble even though I do, that joy swims across the river of my tears, and that love is more powerful than all the powers which seem, for a time, to defeat it. 

When I was a toddler, I had a couple of corrective surgeries to my eyes. In some ways, all the years since have been about learning to see—about finding vision, sharpening perception, and developing insight. My eyes are still brown, but I see differently now, far differently even than a year ago. I am grateful, and I am curious about what I will see in the days ahead.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

On Not Losing Heart

”My heart isn't in it any more." 

When we feel that way, we’re in good company.  Twice in 2 Corinthians 4, early and late in his reflections on the relationship of our humanity and the good news of Jesus, Paul claimed: "We do not lose heart."  It’s as if he were trying to convince himself while reassuring his friends.  He must have been tempted to lose heart, or it wouldn’t have been so much on his mind. 

In the valley of discouragement and close to the edge of despair, what kept Paul from completely losing heart?

He had learned that God responds our brokenness and pain with mercy, to our failures and guilt with grace, and to our loneliness and longing with love.  And, after years of falling down and getting up again—after seeing the best and the worst in himself and his brothers and sisters among the followers of Jesus—Paul had become a faithful realist about both the power of God and the weakness of the God’s people.  Such realism (which isn’t, by the way, the same thing as cynicism) helped him to hold onto his heart. 

A group of fourth and fifth graders had this Sunday School assignment:  Attend morning worship and write the pastor a letter about the experience.  Margaret, a ten year old, sent this brief note: “Dear Reverend, I like to go to church on Sunday because I don't have any choice.” 

Late in his ministry, after his pastorates in Austin and Charlotte, Carlyle Marney said: "The church is like Noah's ark: the stench inside is almost unbearable.  But the alternative is unthinkable" (in James Fowler, Weaving the New Creation, 150). 

Devotion to the church often keeps company with doubts about the church.  Young Margaret and old Marney—like Paul—were on to something important: often, we like church because we have no other choice.

Paul thought of himself and his sisters and brothers in Christ as earthen vessels: "We have this treasure in clay jars."  Paul thought of Christian life and ministry in paradoxical terms.  On the one hand, there was the treasure of the gospel, what he called "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  On the other hand, there was this community of clay, men and women like Paul who were wonderfully but woefully human.  The good news of God’s love is inestimably valuable, but the community through which the gospel finds us is inescapably human. 

The image of an earthen vessel, or clay jar, picks-up on the biblical witness that God fashioned us from the dust of the ground.  We are, according to Genesis, in-spirited clay, heaven-shaped earth, and divinely-animated dirt.

Anything made of clay is, at its essence, fragile, susceptible to damage, and prone to brokenness.

And, it’s important for us to remember that the presence of treasure in a clay jar doesn’t make the clay jar any less a clay jar.  If we identify the gospel too closely with the vessel, we can begin to expect the vessel to be the gospel.  We come to believe that the community of clay will never disappoint or hurt us, because we think of the community as God-like rather than as merely God's instrument.  We need to remember that the community of clay remains fallen and fragile.

Still, the community of clay is of great importance because it’s a vessel of the treasure. Paul strained his vocabulary to find words sufficient to describe the treasure.  He piled superlative on superlative: "the gospel of the glory of Christ, the image of God"; "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ."  Jesus is the treasure because he is "the human face of God"  (a phrase from John A.T. Robinson). 

On the face of Jesus, we discover that God is for us, not against us.  We see that God is powerful love, not disinterested power.  On the face of Jesus we catch sight of God's mercy, a mercy both tender and strong, mighty and gentle. 

Since the community of clay is a vessel through which this treasure comes to us, our calling is to find signs of the gospel in the messy and marvelous, running and stumbling, life of that community.

Paul's paradoxical realism about the gospel and the church kept him from losing heart.  It can keep us from discouragement as well. Years ago, John Claypool observed that "dis-illusionment" was a stripping away of illusions; and, therefore, ultimately healthy and life-giving. 

A lot of our disillusionments about church are experiences in which our illusions of human perfection and perfecitibilty are stripped away. To expect perfection from ourselves or anyone else is to live with an illusion that sets us up for discouragement.

A young idealist once asked Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, how she could tolerate hypocrisy among the people who worked with her in ministry to the poor.  She replied, "If we were going to forbid hypocrites to work here with us, there'd be no one to do the work and no one to do the forbidding!  Each day we try to do the best we can--for all our faults and imperfections" (in Robert Coles, The Call of Service.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993: xxv).

Flawed, fragile, and fallible—the church is all of those things.  It is also a place to discover the grace and glory of God.