Archive for June, 2010

Roughing up kill-joys

I’m sure you’ve heard the term kill-joy.  This past Sunday Pastor Mike’s message explored the kill-joy of more (feeling like you never have enough) and comparison. There’s a long list of these joy-muggers: fear, boredom, busyness, suffering.  What’s the big bully of gladness in your life? 

 The picture in my mind of a joy-killer is a skeet shooter, in which a hunter with loaded shot-gun tracks and blasts a clay disc that’s launched into the air.  Can’t you see it – gladness begins to arise in your heart and full-on joy takes flight, soaring higher when along comes the kill-joy, discharging a load of pain, heaviness, or irritation, blowing up gladness to smithereens, littering your life with a cloud of feathers, the remnants of a now thoroughly obliterated joy.

Today was a bad joy day for me.  From the get-go, I was immersed in a puddle of heaviness that sucked energy and life from the living, leaving me puckered with grumpiness.   I could feel strength leaving me as joy got the stuffing beat out of it.  In the words of the Psalmist, my soul was downcast.

But looking back on this day, here’s the truth – I let it happen; I didn’t fight back at all.  I let the joy-killers waltz in, unchallenged, to bully and blow away joy.  I did nothing to stand up for happiness, nothing to defend delight or guard gladness.

There are enemies to God’s joy for our lives and everyday they’re belching out threats and burgling God’s gift joy in life.  So the question for me is, will I limply allow that to happen?  Or will I get serious about joy and mount some intelligent counter-attack?

Mike Mason writes about the need to fight for joy: “I had to stop playing the victim and learn to be the aggressor.  I never used to think this way.  The idea of attacking my spiritual enemies would have chilled me to the bone.  Yet gradually I learned a surprising truth: What matters isn’t the force or skill of my attack, but the simple resolution to fight.  As long as I hang back in fear, I cannot win.  But the moment I take up arms with a will, the enemy’s on the run.”

Thankfully this is an experiment in joy – so I’m not going to beat myself up for struggling with joy today.  Tomorrow is another day; and tomorrow I’m going to rough up joy-killers and kick at the thieves of delight because God’s gift is too good not to fiercely protect.

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Joy on the saddest day of the year

I don’t know about you, but June 21 is a depressing day on my calendar.  It’s the start of summer, for sure; who can’t love that?  It’s the day of longest daylight hours, which here in Alberta means the horizon almost never quite goes dark.  But here’s the sad paradox of the day – starting today, the daylight of each day is getting shorter.  Today marks the long lead-up to winter – now is that a joy killer or what?

Which brings me back to the paradox of how joy and sorrow mingle in our hearts.  To avoid joy being shallow or glib, it has to wrestle this one through.  And its very real for me because this weekend I received a heavy, bleak email from someone I love very much.  It’s an email that echoes the lament of Psalm 88, which is unlike other lament psalms.  Instead of a long lament that finally finds the room to praise God, Psalm 88 is a consistently dark meditation that ends with this line: “and darkness is my closest friend.”  The last line of this email I received was “I have lost all hope.”

How can you find joy when darkness overwhelms your living, when all hope, which is the foundation for joy, gets eclipsed?  I hardly know the depth of tragedy this person is walking through, and so I measure my words, but in the sorrow and pain I do know, I’m finding there is a paradoxical quality to joy, that joy becomes deeper, even richer, against the foil of sorrow.

I find the austere Puritans pretty good tutors on joyful living, even in the face of some dire circumstances.  There is a gutsy yieldedness to their faith, throwing themselves fully at God.  In comparison, my faith feels so conditional and fair-weather, or so backwards.  One of the Puritan prayer books that has shaped me is called The Valley of Vision.  I find reading the prayers of these long dead Christians so helpful, teaching me to see things in radically new, and biblical, ways.  This current culture malforms my faith in various ways, and so reading the heart prayers of people from a different time and culture opens me up to consider God from new vistas and learn to walk out this faith in unexpected ways.

Let me leave you with a beautifully paradoxical prayer called the “valley of vision.”  Somehow, this prayer gets it right, the odd mingling of pain and praise, joy and sorrow, without negating either one, a paradox that finds its logic only in the gospel.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, you have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see You in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Your glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Your stars shine; let me find Your light in my darkness, Your life in my death, Your joy in my sorrow, Your grace in my sin, Your riches in my poverty, Your glory in my valley.

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Joy portrait

The day started with a really good message on joy from my Pastor Mike (just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I don’t need one too) – he shared this wise observation that God likely won’t give you more joy if you aren’t taking in the joy he’s already set before you (sort of like pearls before swine).  Good start to living and practicing joy.

It was a sunny, warm Father’s Day today and I wanted to head for the mountains.  So after church and lunch, we hustled off to Kananaskis (a local area in the Rocky Mountains) and went to Elbow Falls. After checking out the falls and soaking our feet in the icy runoff, we settled down on some rocks beside the river.  With the kids tossing rocks (which they can do endlessly – Owen said that was the best part of his day, which get us back to a child’s/God’s capacity to exult in repetition and monotony – see yesterday’s post), I was mesmerized by the water.  At this time of year, the river runs high and fast and it was magical – the water was glistening and glinting in the afternoon sun, constantly moving, and I was amazed at the sheer volume of water that runs by me in one minute, the seemingly endless supply of this water.  

It became a metaphor of joy (2 Corinthians 2:8 gives the picture of the overflowing joy in the Corinthians), a refreshing flow of glistening life streaming over me, through me, over-flowing, cascading, carving out the hard, rocky places of my life.  And it made me thirsty for more.

And here are a few images I took of the swirling, chugging, glinting water at Elbow Falls (I love how the sun on the water almost looks like sparks), but I think they also might be portraits of joy for me.

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Kidlet joy

Today I had a front-row seat to joy – watching my kids.  After a week away, it was great simply to hang out together as a family (more on that later).  But its so often what they say that brings great gladness (or makes me stifle my laughter because it sounds so funny coming out of the mouth of a child – like Lily telling me about hurting her hand and how she was “screaming bloody murder.”   Yeah, I know, she learned it from me.)

Before heading to one friend’s art show tonight, we had dinner with other friends.  Driving to our gourmet destination (burger chain), Lily was talking about how much she loved her friend who we were going to dinner with, and Owen chimes in, “Yeah, I think they’re BFF’s” (that he didn’t learn from me).

On the way home, Betty was telling me about a growing wasp nest underneath the eaves near Lily’s bedroom window, and I hear Lily in the back seat asking, with great indignation, “Why did Jesus make wasps?  They’re totally in Satan’s camp.”

And then all day long today, I was asked the best question a dad can be asked: “When can we play Dad?”  So I took Owen and Lily to the playground, where I chased and tagged and swung like a monkey, and then simply delighted in watching their faces as they played.  One of their games had Lily perched on the bottom of the slide with Owen slipping down and taking Lily out, both of them a mangled pile on top of each other, hooting and hollering away – and every time Lily would say “Again – do it again.”

There’s something about joy that is young.  Not childish, but unsullied by a world-weary cynicism that ages one so quickly.  There’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton that I’ve always loved.  He’s commenting on God’s child-like nature, and joy seems to pulse throughout his words:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

It’s that last line that always gets me – “for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”  I miss out on  joy because I’m jaded, so bored with all the ordinary splendor staring me in the face, so often unable to even spot it and revel in it.  But my children are teaching me about my Father and his tireless joy.

Tomorrow God is going to tell the sun to “do it again,” and if I’m given the gift of another day, I’ll have the chance, once again, to grow young like my eternal Father and choose joy.

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Buechner on joy

I’ve always loved author Frederick Buechner’s way with words and his take on life.  Here’s a few words of his on joy:

“Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.

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Defiant gladness

“Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.” Augustine

Ok, let’s dive into one of the central struggles of living in joy – can we know joy in the face of pain, suffering, and tragedy?  Is it possible, even advisable, to choose joy in seasons of devastating sorrow?  Does joy trivialize our sufferings?

I’m wondering because of a few things that came up today.  I received an email from my niece who talked of significant struggles she’s experienced this past year and the struggle to find joy in it.  Then at Synod tonight, the President of Synod talked of how 5 years ago his grandson was suddenly killed, and all the sorrow over my nephew David’s death ambushed me.  How can we make the choice to rejoice when young lives are snuffed out, when brutality crushes, when tragedy sears our life?

One thing is for certain, it’s not the choice to find joy for the circumstance.  Tragedy is bitter, even though there may be a larger meaning in it.  To ask someone to choose joy for whatever circumstance would be simply a cruel distortion of faith.

So how can joy be a real option even in the midst of stinging tragedy?  Its source has to be somewhere else, no less real but outside of what we now see and experience.

I don’t know any other answer than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I can’t think of any other foundation for genuine gladness than a real person raised from the dead, resurrected.  Because if the resurrection is true, then all the suffering and tragedies that scar life don’t have the final say.  If true, then the best is yet to come and we get everything back.  The resurrection means that one day all things will be made new again, everything that was lost in this life will be restored and given back, every wrong and tragedy undone.

Resurrection means this real world healed, cleansed, made new again, birthed into something new and wonderful.  The ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah looked forward to the glory of that day and said that the mountains will be breaking out into song and the trees of the field will be clapping their hands.  If that’s what trees and mountains will be doing, can you imagine what we’ll be like?

It doesn’t mean that whatever we suffer is taken away, but the resurrection changes it.  Our life isn’t defined by loss or tragedy. Every sorrow, every loss, every failure is changed into a greater glory – that’s God’s story.

And the depth of the joy we can experience today is woven into how well we can see and taste and long for God’s good future.  We’ve got to think deeply, imaginatively about our future – ditch the inane “strum-the-harp-on-your-cloud” ideas and get really concrete – mountains, camping, great music, reunions with loved ones, minds that think clearly, legs that work, all those years and experiences you missed out on restored, an eternity to experience all those things you wanted to do but were either too busy or scared or unable to do.

Real joy is never an escape from suffering; it’s a defiance in the face of it.

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Weary gladness

Tonight I’m a very happy man.  Tired, but very glad.  For the past few days I’ve been chairing an advisory committee at the CRC Synod in Chicago.  One of the big items on our agenda was to shepherd through Synod the Study Committee Report on the Migration of Workers.

It’s a report birthed in pain – the pain of so many migrant workers who come seeking a life but now live daily in fear, the pain of cultural misunderstanding within the CRC at a past Synod.  But it’s a wonderful report that outlines how we, as a Christian community, can respond with the welcoming grace and compassion of Jesus to undocumented immigrants and refugees in Canada and the United States.  It’s a highly polarized issue rife with hardened political positions on either side of the political spectrum.  But this report laid out the marvellous biblical narrative, how we are all aliens but welcomed by God, and called to enfold the stranger, extending the same welcoming grace to others that we’ve received.

Preparing for the discussion and debate that happened tonight, I worried about the potential for debate to turn ugly, I was anxious that partisan political agendas and talk-radio vitriol would dominate.  But instead we heard stories of real people who are affected by this reality. Tonight we saw a move of the Holy Spirit in the CRC to openly embrace the call of this report, we saw God taking the hurt, pain and alienation of the past and turning it into healing, into a commitment to accept the “alien within our gates” and to serve the voiceless marginalized.

Tonight, I’m rejoicing in the beauty of God’s church, which can shine with glory; I’m revelling in the large heart of the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch-immigrant church that is understanding that perhaps its best gift to North America today is to reach back to our immigrant past and respond to the needs of the many new strangers from across the globe coming to cities and towns; I’m glad for the wisdom of so many thoughtful gifted people God has blessed the CRC with, and some of whom I’ve been privileged to work with on this report.

I’m tired, but it’s a glad weariness.  This work at Synod reminds me that joy will have the last word, that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

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