Fighting for Joy

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” – C.S. Lewis

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Sunday, we lit the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. I don’t know why joy has to be pink. If my 4-year-old friend Alice were designing it, her joy candle would include paw prints, a picture of the sun and glitter. But thousands of years of church history being what they are, we’re stuck with pink I guess.

Joy is elusive. At least for me it is. There are moments when I can hardly contain it, when joy crashes down like a powerful wave on the beach and wants to burst out of me in floods of words and hugs and laughter. But there are also moments when joy is like a mirage in a hot, dusty desert, when it feels like joy is everyone else’s state of being, but not my own.

I assume that we all want more joy, less parched mouth and dried up skin, more of the good waves on the beach. Why is something we want so much sometimes so hard to find and hang on to?

It’s hard because joy has its enemies, and they can be fierce.

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Are you aware of how the news, politicians and even some pastors are often appealing only to our fears?

“Fear your child’s winter coat.” (Really!)

“Fear the Muslims.”

“Fear the ‘liberals.”

Do you know they do this because when we are afraid, we are easily duped into voting, buying or behaving in the way they want us to? Appealing to our fear is manipulative, but highly effective in nearly every context. And fear is an enemy of joy.

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For you enneafreaks (yes, that is a thing), I’m a three on the Enneagram, which means that I’m often struggling with feelings of shame when I don’t perform to my own (unrealistically) high expectations. When I give in to shame, when I allow the voices in my head to run rampant, when I believe the drunken monkeys when they tell me I’m not good enough, joy is elusive. It’s nearly impossible to find joy when you feel unworthy of love. When you’re hustling for your own worth, it’s hard to receive joy.

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The same is true of judgment. When I am standing in judgment of others (or even myself), I can’t experience life as joy. If I assume the role of judge and jury in someone’s life, I won’t be able to celebrate with them. And when I’m standing in a place of judgement over “the culture” or another religious group or against large groups of people in general.

It’s easy for some of us to believe that we really know best. We know best how our kids, spouse, friend should live. We know best how the church should be run, how the school should function and the “right way” to organize the family Christmas. To the degree to which we live in a state of “one-up” to the world around us, we will find it difficult to enter into a state of joy.

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Several weeks ago I noticed that someone had “planted” a bouquet of fake flowers next to the curb of the church drive. (See the picture at the top of the post.) Over the weekend, another bouquet of fake flowers showed up in the lawn outside my office window.

It’s completely absurd that someone is “planting” fake flowers in the church yard. And yet, I keep laughing. For some reason, it makes me ridiculously happy that someone has this sense of humor, that someone is sticking fake bouquets in the ground – bright, garish bouquets – with what I assume is a mischievous grin and an abundance of joy.

That’s the person I want to be. I want to be the person who overflows with joy so it spreads all around, even if it’s a bit absurd. I want less desert and more crashing waves of joy that leave people smiling, laughing and feeling filled up in my wake.

But to get there, I will have to do battle with fear. I will need to silence the voices of shame and I will need to move towards accepting others as they are, and not as I wish them to be.

Joy can be mine, but I might have to fight for it.

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May you this Advent Season find joy. May you ruthlessly battle against the enemies of joy – fear, shame and judgement – and may you be a co-conspirator with heaven in the “serious business of heaven” bringing joy everywhere you go.

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Peace in a World Gone Crazy

At church this past Sunday, we lit the second candle in the Advent Wreath – the one that represents peace. Ironically, peace seems fragile in the world right now. It feels like extremists of all types are hellbent on saber rattling, stereotyping and pandering to fear and violence.

This morning, I’m little overwhelmed by everything in the news. The world seems to have gone crazy. It’s almost beyond belief. It’s almost beyond belief that there have been more shootings than days in America in 2015. It’s almost beyond belief that Christian leaders are calling for more guns in hopes they can “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” It’s almost beyond belief that the leading Republican candidate called for a ban on Muslims (both American and foreign) entering America. It’s almost beyond belief the comments and conversations on my newsfeed.

And so, on this second week of Advent, when the church calendar tells me that I’m supposed to be thinking about “Immanuel” – God with us – and peace, I’m struggling with how to live in the world and yet at the same time take Jesus seriously.

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I understand that the world is a complicated place. I understand that when it comes to political solutions, nothing is simple, especially when we’re talking about peace and safety and terrorism and the like. I understand that when it comes to gun ownership, there are devout, level-headed Christians who disagree. I’ve had deeply respectful, loving discussions with people all over the political spectrum.

In fact, I think the argument can be made that the only people who don’t see it as complicated are the extremists – the fundamentalists – on either side of any given debate. To the right wingers and left wingers, to the conservatives and the liberals, the solutions are general, sweeping and simple. But to the vast majority of us who don’t overly identify with either side, being peacemakers is complicated.

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What grieves me most this morning, as a pastor, is how we subvert or just ignore Jesus in all of this. You don’t really need to be all that religious or devout in order to say that Jesus is one of the most important ethical teachers in the history of the world. (I think he’s much more than that, but for this conversation, we don’t need to go any further.)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I wonder how you take that seriously and then talk with humor about “killing those Muslims.” Maybe you sincerely believe that you should defend yourself. We can debate that. (I’m actually not an all-the-way pacifist.) But there shouldn’t be a celebration of that harsh reality. There shouldn’t be joyful anticipation of the opportunity to kill someone to “teach them a lesson.” I believe if we are put in that situation, it should grieve us. It should trouble us to no end that we might be asked to violate “thou shalt not kill.”

Jesus also said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” I wonder how we’re supposed to do this in reality. It is undoubtedly difficult, but that doesn’t mean I just get to ignore it. And I’m pretty sure praying for my enemies doesn’t mean killing them or stereotyping them.

This is a really small thing, but today I reached out to a local imam, just to say, “How do I bless you in a time where many want to persecute you? I don’t know what will come of this, but just maybe, in a small way, it will help foster peace in our community.

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I was arguing in my head with someone who wrote something on my Facebook page about how violent Jesus was, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures and Revelation 21 as justifications to set aside – or at least to minimize – the pacifist leanings of Jesus.  And I had this thought:

What if the disciples had their concealed carry permits? What if the disciples had defended Jesus with deadly force? Oh, wait. Peter did, and Jesus told him to put away his sword.

It’s really, really hard to read the gospels and ignore the non-violence of Jesus. My goal here isn’t to shame those who aren’t pacifists, or even to advocate for pacifism, really.  I understand that theology is complicated and people see it differently. I mainly want to say:  let’s keep it complicated.  Let’s keep going round and round with the hard stuff, even if we think we’ve landed on a position. I think the faithful response to Scripture and tradition is to keep talking, debating, arguing and loving each other the whole time.

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At the very minimum, and maybe especially when the world is as it is right now, we ought to daily pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

AMEN?

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Hope Rising

Fair warning: if you have sensibilities about strong language, you might want to skip this post. The “grandaddy” of swear words lies below. You’ve been warned.

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It was exactly a year ago when Jennifer sent me a text while I was at work. “Have you read this post yet? You need to.”

We were both in gloomy, dark places. We each had our individual griefs, heartaches, doubts and fears, and on top of those were some we carried together. Last winter was hard for us.

And when I read Micah’s post the first week of Advent last year, it ripped through me. Especially this part:

Oh that you would rend the inky blackness and

crash into this ice cold planet in an explosion of light

again

How long oh Lord?

How long oh Lord?

How long oh Lord?

Fuck this shit, oh Lord.

This is my tired advent prayer. Fuck this shit indeed. Amen.

which, being translated, means:

how long oh lord? until you heal what has been

rent nearly beyond repair.

I forwarded it to my friends. I think they probably thought I was being cheeky or just swearing for effect, but in my quiet spaces, where it’s just God and me, it’s all I could say last year at this time. “Fuck this shit indeed. Amen.”

How many nights, my love, did we whisper this to each other in the dark, because it’s the only thing we knew to pray? How many times did we read Micah’s post to each other and promise each other that we were in it together?

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I think we sanitize religion too much sometimes. If you read Micah’s blog regularly, you know he gets a lot of flack for his use of colorful language. And yet, there are times in our lives when “church language” doesn’t even come close to expressing the despair of our hearts. There are times when the most true thing I can say to God is not suitable for children. But, hey, news flash: the condition of my heart isn’t always suitable for children.

The lament Psalms demonstrate that this is okay with God – that God seems more interested in my honest, passionate engagement than he is with the culturally-defined “bad” words I use. God seems much more okay with me sounding off expletives to the heavens than me running away and saying nothing.

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At a gathering of pastors in Minneapolis a month ago, a song written by EastLake Community Church in Seattle cut through me like a beam of light, like Cupid had threaded his arrow with hope. (I sang that song, “Thank God,” to our congregation my first week back.) So, I downloaded the album from Bandcamp. And another song on the album got stuck in my head a couple of weeks ago:

Hope is building in my chest

I can feel it like a heartbeat

Somewhere underneath this mess

I can feel it like a heartbeat

“Heartbeat”

Something good happened inside me during Sabbatical, and the darkness I felt for most of 2014 and 2015 started to lift. I went on an amazing trip to Asia, I kept having breakfasts with a friend who kept telling me he loved me despite my prickliness, I hung out with pastors I really liked in Minneapolis, I had an 18-course dinner with a dear friend, I ran a half marathon, I went to a Halloween party and for the first time in a long time, I started to feel like myself again, like winter was turning to springtime.

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In the winter of last year, I thought things had been damaged beyond repair. For awhile, I thought I might just be scarred for life in some areas deep inside. I was afraid my insecurities, my anger, my grief would just become my new way of life. I rumbled with my story, and I was resigned to living my life in that dark place.

Last week, a friend loved me enough to start a long conversation, one that isn’t finished yet, but one that’s bringing me hope that all is not lost. The night before Thanksgiving, our families hung out, ate pizza, played games, talked and cried like old times, and hope filled me that maybe, sometimes, things I thought were dead will come back to life.

Hmmm. That rings familiar.

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May you experience hope this Advent season. I hope wherever you are, no matter how dark the night, you experience shreds and glimmers and arrows of hope that light your way, even in the darkness. The sunrise may still be a long way off, but my wish for you, in this Advent season, is that you will find something – or perhaps someone(s) – that will remind you that at the heart of the Christian story lies hope – that things we thought were dead sometimes come back to life.

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