Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Finding Joy in the Chaos

Yesterday, I made the mistake of once again attempting the wilds of the Christmas Tree Shop. I know. I know. I should have known better. But I was honestly hopeful that it would not be that bad. It will be a quick stop. I’ll just run in and run out. Ten minutes top.


Between the throngs of shoppers, the endless lines, and the ransacked shelves it was far from the quick stop I imagined it would be. Add a tired, hungry baby with a dirty diaper and you have the recipe for disaster. After winding my way through the aisles, arms full of all I could carry (since there were no more carts to be had), scouring and scavenging the shelves for the last few boxes of lights, and standing in line for well and over 15 minutes, all the while listening to the inane, overly jolly Christmas music, I was about to lose it. And so when I walked out in the cold brisk winter wind to the sound of the Salvation Army guy wishing me a “Merry Christmas,” it was all I could do not to turn around and yell at the poor man. I was up to my limits of holly jolly frivolity and could feel myself about to snap. Merry Christmas, please!

Since Halloween we have been bombarded by the world’s shallow expressions of Christmas joy. Just turn on your TV. You can’t escape it. The constant loop of commercials advertising the happiness to be found in Gap sweaters, Folger’s coffee, or Kaye’s. The perennial parade of Christmas classics offering saccharine sweet stories of joy and hope. The images of happy families gathered around the Christmas tree arm in arm. TV this time of year is like the Hallmark channel on steroids.

And, yet, despite the onslaught of so-called joy, there remains the news ticker ever present scrolling across the screens of our lives with word of rising unemployment, increasing rates of poverty, escalating violence in the world, mounting costs of health care, intensifying harm done to environment, growing sense of dis-ease.

Despite the world’s celebrations going on all around us we know that just below the surface is a cauldron of fear, anxiety, and doubt. Our own lives are marked by these common fears and uncertainties…whether it is the anxious anticipation of having to spend the holidays feigning family bliss or the deep-seated fear of spending the days alone, whether it is the strain of buying gifts for everyone or the anxiety of not having enough to buy any gifts. Whether it is the pain of loved ones lost or the sting of friends estranged…the superficial holiday cheer seems only to heighten our own anxieties and leave feeling less than jolly this time of year.

It is in this chaotic and difficult context that we hear the dissonant words of Paul this evening. “Rejoice! Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.”

This is one of those texts that appears frequently in the lectionary in both Advent and Ordinary time, yet it is a text nonetheless that I have never, ever preached. The simplicity of joy always seemed too, well, overly optimistic given the state of our lives and the world around us. As you know, I prefer to preach a prophecy of woe…the world is rough, but God loves you. Too much sunshine, lollipops and puppy dogs can ruin a good Christian, right?

And yet, the words of Paul remain. Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.

In order to engage this text this week, I had to get over all of my negative connotations of this text engraved on sappy Christian tchotskys and emblazoned on evangelical bumper stickers. I had to let go of the cheesy camp songs, and blithe advice doled out late at night by creepy televangelists and let the text speak for itself. Despite popular renditions of this verse as a Christian version of “don’t worry, be happy,” Paul has something much deeper in mind than a simple “letting go and letting God.” The joy about which Paul speaks is not devoid of pain. How could it be?

Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians from jail. Arrested for preaching the gospel and endangering the State, Paul writes in a dingy, crowded, dirty jail cell from which he may leave only to head to the executioner’s block. This is a person who understands the reality of pain and suffering in the world.

William Loader reminds us that:

“joy is never alone. Its companions are pain and fear. ..Paul's sense of joy is not the absence of pain or fear, but the presence of Christ, in whom Paul places his hope and trust. That unity [both] takes him into pain and death, and…leads him over and over again on a journey from death to life, from pain to joy. Sometimes Paul’s joy stays alight as a flickering flame amid an oppressive darkness of criticism and downright hate. But it remains and can flare into brightness at relief and change.”
You see, joy for Paul is not a simple emotion, but rather a committed attitude or orientation toward life. It is a fundamental way of seeing things, a new perspective that radically changes one’s experience of the world. In this way, it is not a negation or avoidance of struggle, but rather the very way in and through the pain and fear of life. Joy is not a mask to cover up the less pleasant times of life, but rather the underlying foundation of hope without which one cannot encounter life’s pain and survive. This type of deep joy is what keeps us sane, what buoys us up, what helps us get out of bed in the morning and enables us to simply put our feet on the floor despite the chaos of our lives.

And where, do we find such joy, such hope? What brings about such a radical reorientation in our lives? What force can effect such a change?

Huston Smith, renowned religious scholar, asserts that “The only power that can effect transformations of [that] order… is love.” Likening it to the immeasurable power contained in an atom, Smith writes,
“The 20th century discover[ed] that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine -- the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment -- in its case, love’s bombardment.”

We know this as we see it happen in our own lives. Smith writes, “A loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules and threats. Love takes root in children only when it comes to them.”

Watching children and their parents one gets a glimpse of the mutual way in which love arises. Parent and child, loved and loving, call forth the best in one another as they exchange glances, glimpses, caresses, nudges of tenderness, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. It is this love that brings forth the ground of joy that sees both parent and child through the inevitable rough times of life.

During those long nights of waking, during those unexpected crying jags where nothing will soothe him, it is the memory of the tender caresses and wide, sly smiles from Grady that sees me through. The gentle touch of his hand on my cheek, the warm embrace of his tiny arm wrapped tightly around my neck, the silly laughter echoing in my ear...all tie me back to the ground of love and my source of joy that sees me through the hard, long sleepless nights.

Think about your own experiences of love and the way in which they transformed your life…perhaps it was the glow of your first love that sent waves of ecstatic joy through you, that colored the world around you in ways that highlighted the joy and brilliance of the world in new and unimaginable ways. Or perhaps it is the memory of a loving parent, a compassionate friend, a kind stranger that for a moment transformed your world from hues of dull grey and shadows to brilliant rays of glorious light. It is the experience of being loved that elicits that deep, satisfying sense of joy.

And so it is also with God. It is the mutual love affair between human and divine which helps us access that joy of which Paul speaks. Whereas our human love, no matter how joyful or well-intended, always fails, God’s love never fails.

As wonderful as the love is that exists between me and Grady, I am all too well aware that one day, perhaps at age 13 or 15 or 17, the memory of those gentle touches and silly laughter may seem all too far away. And as much as I dread it, there will also come a day when despite my best efforts and intentions, the love I have for Grady will simply not be enough to satisfy his soul. Our human love, no matter how well intended, is always finite, limited and imperfect. And because of that there will come a time when both Grady and I will disappoint one another.
That is why we must connect to and remain grounded in the love of God. It is only that deep and abiding love that can evoke the joy to carry us through the pain and despair of life.

Imagine the power of connecting to that first, primal, unimaginable source of Love from the divine. How would our lives be transformed if we were certain that we were totally loved by the ultimate power in the universe? Huston Smith puts it this way,
“If we too felt loved -- not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally -- by one who unites all power and all goodness, the experience could dissolve fear, guilt and self-concern dramatically. If, as Kierkegard noted, we were at every moment certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy."

Paul understood that to remain in contact with such a real sense of God’s love, we needed to practice it among one another and so, the passage in Philippians ends with concrete instructions for cultivating that sense of love through community.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The joy and peace of God come most fully through the practice and cultivation of love…through gentleness, mercy, honor, truth and compassion. William Loader reminds us, “Paul is not just advocating the power of positive thinking. These concrete instructions to the community of faith are about filling one's mind with what Paul sees as the signs of God's life - not so that will feel good, but because this is another way of filling oneself with God's life and so allowing God's life to flow through us to the world around us.”

Truth be told, I went to the Christmas Tree Shop yesterday in search for lights for a tree…which I vowed I wouldn’t put up this year…there was simply too much to do to be bothered by Christmas! Yet, standing outside the store waiting for Josh to pick me up, something happened. Despite my own stoicism or perhaps even cynicism, the bell ringer kept talking.

“It sure is cold out here today. You should button up your coat. You don’t want to get sick.”

And, in the midst of his chatter I turned to look at him a man, in his 40s, dressed in not more than a fall jacket and a thin knit cap, ringing his bell and being concerned about my warmth, my health, my well-being. I was struck by his sincerity. The more he talked, the more I realized this was no schtick to get me to donate, this was simply a conversation from one cold person to another.

Suddenly the anxiety and worry that had nagged me as I shopped seemed to disappear in the light of this small conversation. Worries of finances, moving, transition, change, time, work, all melted for the moment and I let go of that which was keeping me not just from joy, but from real human interaction. And so, when the car pulled up and he said goodbye, wishing me a Merry Christmas, I turned and smiled, “Merry Christmas to you to.”

Despite my best intentions to keep Christmas at a distance this year, something in his words sunk in.

In this Advent, we are called not to bah humbug the superficial joy of the world that seems to negate the reality of pain in the world, but rather to cultivate and share a deeper sense of joy, a joy that reorients our vision and springs forth from the well of love the Divine has for us. Once we cultivate that experience of love in ourselves, we become able to openly share it with one another and move past the saccharine sentimentality to a true sharing of the Christmas spirit, that love and peace that passes all understanding.