Joy

We lit the advent calendar at church last week.  I like Joy.  Joy is good.  But dang it’s hard to describe.  Sort of like describing the smell of a lemon, the sight of a double rainbow after a storm, the feeling you get at the birth of a child.  I’m reminded of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who tried but failed to describe exactly what amounted to pornography that was not entitled to the protection of the first amendment.  Eventually, Stewart threw up his hands and remarked, “I know it when I see it.”

I know what you mean, Judge.  Some things just defy easy description and must be experienced to be fully appreciated and understood.  So it is with Joy, yet we still try to put it in words.

Poet William Henry Davies’ very able attempt reads like this:

Now, joy is born of parents poor,
And pleasure of our richer kind;
Though pleasure’s free, she cannot sing
As sweet a song as joy confined.

Pleasure’s a Moth, that sleeps by day
And dances by false glare at night;
But Joy’s a Butterfly, that loves
To spread its wings in Nature’s light.

Joy’s like a Bee that gently sucks
Away on blossoms its sweet hour;
But pleasure’s like a greedy Wasp,
That plums and cherries would devour.

Joy’s like a Lark that lives alone,
Whose ties are very strong, though few;
But Pleasure like a Cuckoo roams,
Makes much acquaintance, no friends true.

Joy from her heart doth sing at home,
With little care if others hear;
But pleasure then is cold and dumb,
And sings and laughs with strangers near.

 

The Apostle Paul made joy a theme of his letters, referring often to his joy “in Christ”.  He spoke many times about the joy he experienced even while facing persecution, imprisonment and death.  Even in those times of adversity, especially in those times of adversity, Paul experienced the joy that comes of being in Christ.
The Psalmists also talked often of joy — the joy of salvation expressed through worship and praise of God.  Joy, for the psalmist, is described as a gift from the creator.  Joy, for the psalmist, is expressed in worship, and obedience, and reverence.
But perhaps my favorite illustration of joy comes from Dr. Seuss and the people of Whoville:
“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch,

“That I simply must hear!”
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

And what happened then…?
Well…in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

…HE HIMSELF…!
The Grinch carved the roast beast!

Joy’s not easy to describe.  But I think Paul, Poet Davies, the psalmist and Dr. Seuss, are all saying essentially the same thing.  Joy is a gift.  It is of God and from God.  It is enduring.  And it can be experienced even in the face of tragedy.  It is joy that permitted Paul to praise God even while facing death.  It is joy that allowed the people of Whoville to sing despite the Grinch’s best effort.  It is joy allows us to walk boldly and in peace even when things are rough and the future seems uncertain.  And it is Joy that will enable the people of Newtown, Conneticut to slowly pick up the pieces, press on, and sing this Christmas.
Joy to the world, y’all!

Peace

There He is.  The Prince of Peace.  Watching our chaos:  A country at war for nearly a decade; a government so dysfunctional that its leaders have taken the economy hostage and are threatening to throw it over a cliff; a town completely heart broken, busy preparing twenty precious and bullet riddled children for burial while the rest of us look on in shock and horror; families in constant conflict, with husbands and wives arguing endlessly over meaningless things while brothers and sisters are at each other’s throat one minute and united in open defiance of their parents the next.  And then there’s me, and maybe you, with our chaotic and stressed out minds, wracked with doubts and regrets and indecision and constant worries — so conflicted that we can barely move, much less act with any real conviction.  And in the midst of all this madness stands the Prince of Peace, watching.

I desperately wish He would do something.  Fix something.  Fix me or others around me.  Instead, it seems like everywhere He goes, chaos follows.  But in my better moments, I know it’s the other way around — everywhere chaos goes, He follows.  I know He’s been there amidst the fog of war, the heat of those political battles, the stress of family conflicts and the utter despair of the grieving parents of Newtown.  And He’s been there with you and me as we wrestle our stressed out thoughts struggling to keep it all in the road.

I get it that the Prince of Peace is needed most at scene of chaos.  And I get it that we are supposed to follow along.  But honestly, I wish He traveled with a giant spotlight — one with enough amperage to allow us to see clearly for miles and miles.  If He did, I think I would still follow but, no doubt, I would occasionally run ahead — either in search of the next adventure or at least in search of the next exit so that my family and I could get the hell out of some of the chaos around us.  But this is a Prince that travels light — with just enough light that we can see little more than our feet in front of us and then only if we stay close.

I suspect the Prince of Peace is more comfortable with chaos than I am. He was both made for it and born into it. I guess in that way, He’s the perfect travel companion. And so we travel with Him. Lugging our chaos from place to place.  In the dark.  Barely able to see the ground in front of us.  Following a Prince who is in search of more chaos, another place that could use His peace.

I know He is in Newtown this week.  I hope and pray that the people there can feel His presence and that they stand close to His light.  They are surely experiencing a chaos I can only imagine.  But the Prince is comfortable there.  He’s there right now.  No doubt.

Hope

Today, Sunday, December 2, 2012, we celebrated the first day of Advent by lighting the candle of hope at church.  True to form, my devotional for today was also about hope.  It was the story of Elizabeth and Zacharia and the difficulties and frustrations they experienced trying to get pregnant.  But the story goes that through it all they remained hopeful and faithful and God eventually rewarded them.  Elizabeth bore a child and his name was John the Baptist.

Yesterday, Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot his girlfriend and then drove to his team’s training facility, where he thanked his coach and the team’s general manager and then shot himself in the head.  It was later determined that he had shot and killed his girlfriend just an hour prior.

The story of Elizabeth and Zacharia as an illustration of hope and faith makes me a bit uncomfortable. Things worked out ok for Elizabeth and Zacharia.  But that is not always the case.  I know plenty of people who have prayed earnestly and persistently for years and years but their prayers have gone unanswered.  Some times things work out ok.  But some times they don’t.  It is when they don’t that we really need hope.

For me, hope seems to come from two different sources.  The first is my own past experience.  I have hope now because I have experienced God’s hand at work many times in the past.  I have both hope and faith that things will eventually work out, because it has been my experience that they generally do.

My other source of hope, even when things do not work out ok, is that I believe I know the end of the story.  I believe that in the end, God wins.  I believe that in the end, I’m going to be ok even if things and circumstances around me are not.  I believe that in in the end, this has all been worth it and will make sense.  It is my belief that I know the end of the story that allows me to remain hopeful even when some chapters of my story really suck.  My faith tells me that God is in control.  With God in control, even my tragedy has a context, and that gives me hope.

But I know that there are many Javon Belcher’s in the world.  There are many that have not experienced God’s hand at work in the past and for whom things have not worked out ok.  Their prayers have gone unanswered.  They are without hope.  They have reached then end of their rope.  The story of Javon Belcher tells us that that is a dangerous place to be.

I guess the take home message for me, in this season of Advent, is how easy it is for some of us to have hope, how difficult for others, but how vitally important for all of us.  And how necessary it is for those of us who have it, to spread it to those who don’t.

As for me, I can give people hope by telling of my experience — that of God and his faithfulness.  But also, I can give people hope by sharing with them my understanding of the end of the story — that despite life’s ups and downs, some of which are tragic, the end of the story has been written and it is good.

For unto us, a child is born…

My Jesus is Blue. What’s Yours?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus? – CNN Belief Blog 

My quiz results suggest I lean toward a “blue state Jesus” (which is sort of funny since I live in the reddest of red states…)  But, in light of the very conservative church background of my childhood and the fairly liberal church participation of adulthood, it’s no wonder my results are somewhat mixed.  Interesting quiz, though.  I do think a lot of the cultural and political discord of today can be traced to these differing views of the divine.

So which are you?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?

Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus? – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

…And the Power of Forgiveness

A follow up to my previous post entitled “The power of an apology”.

Colossians 3:12-17 (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I generally enjoy accusing Paul of putting hard edges on Jesus’ otherwise grace-filled teachings (See this post for proof).  But on the issue of forgiveness, it may actually be Paul who is the softee.  In the passage in Corinthians cited above, Paul says that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.  That sounds like a mighty tall order but, frankly, it’s not nearly as scary as Jesus makes it sound in the Gospels.  Jesus, when speaking of our obligation to forgive, is far more blunt:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Woah.  That’s heavy.  It’s one thing to say, as Paul does, that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.  It’s a whole other thing to say, as Jesus does, that if we do not forgive as our Father has forgiven us, our Father will not forgive us.  That’s strong stuff.  And I don’t think it’s a misspeak.  Or a typo.  I think Jesus probably meant what he said, because it’s repeated over and over in the Gospels.  And, for that matter, we pray that very language every Sunday at my church when reciting the Lord’s prayer:

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

The truth is, that’s not really what I want.  I don’t really want God to forgive my debts the way I have forgiven the debts of others.  I want God to forgive my debts way beyond that.  But that’s not what I pray for and that’s not what God has promised me.  And I find that a bit scary.

Forgiveness is hard to define, much less practice.  I suppose on some level, forgiveness is a choice.  But sometimes it feels like anything but a choice.  In fact, sometimes it feels like an almost impossible path to choose.

I suppose on another level, forgiveness is an act.  But generally, if seems more like a process or, at the very least, a whole bunch of acts.

But some times I think forgiveness is neither an act nor a process but rather an emotion  or a feeling.  I mean, it’s easy to say you’ve forgiven someone but much harder to know whether you really have.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, it’s hard to describe forgiveness, but you know it when you feel it (actually, that’s not exactly what Justice Stewart said about pornography, but you get the picture).  Whether or not we are able to pinpoint our specific act of forgiveness, we are often able to identify the feelings associated with forgiveness.

What I do know is that beyond the unmistakable biblical mandate to forgive, there’s lots of other good reasons to practice forgiveness.  In fact, one could argue that forgiveness is a health issues as much as it is a theological or moral issue.  And precisely because it is a health issue, forgiveness and its benefits have been studied by a number of health care institutions, including the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School.  Both those studies, and many others, have shown that those who work through a process of forgiveness (much like a process of grief), enjoy healthier relationships, lower blood pressure, less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression and lower risks of alcohol and drug abuse.

So why don’t we do more of it?  Forgiveness is difficult and, in those times when I’ve needed to practice it most, I’ve given myself lots of reasons not to.  And those reasons are varied:  the offender doesn’t deserve it, revenge is more appropriate and feels so much better, I can’t just act like it didn’t happen, I don’t want to reconcile with the person and I have no interest in being their friend, I’ll look weak or, my personal favorite, it’ll seem like I’m condoning their behavior and I don’t want to be an enabler.

But forgiveness is required.  Our need for forgiveness is deep rooted and, when given, is beautifully redemptive.  I discovered one of the most beautiful stories of the redemptive power of forgiveness just a few days ago.  I was sent an email about a program sponsored by an organization called Restorative Justice.  The email was announcing a speaking engagement of two women bound together by tragedy:  the death of one lady’s child at the hands of the other lady.  I leave you with a letter that the perpetrator’s mother wrote some years ago — a letter that beautifully illustrates the redemptive power of forgiveness:

Two mothers,  that’s what we were… two mothers, alone with our pain.  Not to say we didn’t have people  around  us, we did. When the jury went into deliberation we could hear the quiet chatter of the reporters, police  officers, family and friends echoing  in a void we could not touch.

And then, one by one the people disappeared up the hall, looking for coffee and a bite to eat. In the awkward silence the victim’s mother and I found ourselves standing alone on opposite sides of the corridor. I went over to her; the one whose son my own had killed.

They were only sixteen … the thoughts  in my mind went round and round, searching for some understanding, some reason why life had taken our two sons so young. Holding out my arms I approached the fragile woman with caution.

“We’re in this together.”, I whispered.

The grieving mother hugged me back and then quickly released my embrace. “I must go.”, she whispered. “My family will be coming back soon and they won’t understand.”

Within the hour we were called back into the courtroom and the judge announced the verdict.  “Guilty”, he said. “Ten to life.”

That night I cried myself to sleep. Brutal scenes from prison movies  and stories  of rape and violence flashed through my mind as the relent less sobs racked my body with grief. Towards morning I had a dream. The victim’s mother was leaning over my bed compassionately holding out her arms to give me a hug.  “We’re in this together.” she said, and I awoke with my arms reaching high in the air.

It was almost twenty years later before I saw the woman again. She had come for my son’s parole hearing and was waiting for the proceed ings to begin. Over the past several months, a mediator from the Restorative Opportunities Program had been helping my son communicate with her and her daughter through a series of letters. When the daughter agreed to meet with my son, two ladies from the program filmed their healing exchange and then brought it to my house for a private viewing. They also showed it to the victim’s mother  who lived across  the country, near her daughter.

After watching the video, the victim’s mother was so touched by the changes she saw in my son that she offered to speak on his behalf at his parole hearing. She also asked to meet privately with us after the hearing. It was during this time that the two Restorative Opportunities mediators helped  the victim’s mother  and my son speak openly about the horrible night he killed her son. After so many years of keeping it all inside, my son was finally given the opportunity  to express how sorry he was and offered  to answer  any and all questions the woman needed to ask.

After a couple  hours of frank discussion she turned to face me.  “And I want to apologize to you.” she said. “Apologize to me?” I asked, rather shocked by her offer.

“Yes” she said. “I was so angry and hurt that I think I treated you poorly during the trial.

She looked relieved when I told her my only memory of her was our short exchange in the hallway outside the courtroom while waiting for the verdict to come in. I shared with her that, “I cried myself to sleep that night and towards morning I dreamed you were leaning over my bed to comfort me. ‘We’re in this together,’ you said kindly, and when I awoke I was reaching up to hug you. I have no memory of your treating me poorly. In fact, I’ve been praying for you all these  years;  that someday you might  find forgiveness  in your heart so you won’t have to hurt so much anymore.”

Just then, the victim’s mother pulled out a plastic bag she’d been holding on her lap.

“I brought you a gift,·she said, passing it to my son across the large oval table.

“A gift?” he replied, his wide-eyed surprise impossible  to conceal.

“Yes, it’s a dog,” she said, as he pulled the small stuffed animal out of the bag.

“A dog! Just what you always  wanted!” I said, recalling our prison  visit conversations over the years.

“And when you get out I’m going to buy you your first real dog.” the woman promised. Then, quite unexpectedly, she pushed back her chair and went around the table  to embrace my son. Without a moment’s hesitation  he stood up to accept her hug. Before going back to sit down, the woman whispered something in my son’s ear.

As the meeting came to a close the woman asked if she could continue to contact us, to which of course, we both heartily agreed. Once everyone  was gone I asked my son what the woman said to him while they were hugging.

Turning the little dog over and over in his hands he replied quietly, “She said, ‘I forgive you’.”

Forgiveness.  May we give it and get it today.  Peace, friends.

The Power of An Apology…

On October 27, 2010, Declan Sullivan, a student at the University of Notre Dame, was killed when a hydraulic lift from which he was videotaping the Notre Dame football team practice, collapsed. Within days, with investigators just beginning their work and lawyers warning of potential liability, Notre Dame University President Rev. John Jenkins issued a statement of apology in which he said, in part:

There is no greater sadness for a university community than the death of one of its students under any circumstances. Yet this loss is more devastating, for Declan died in a tragic accident while in our care. For that, I am profoundly sorry. We are conducting an investigation and we must be careful not to pre-judge its results, but I will say this: Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe. We at Notre Dame — and ultimately I, as President — are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.

Apologies come in all shapes and sizes.  There is the “I deeply regret” apology where the apologizer connects the with the consequence of his actions but does not actually  accepting blame for the act itself.  Then there’s the “mistakes were made” apology, that acknowledges that something wasn’t done right by someone, but does not accept responsibility on the part of a specific person for a specific action.  There is the vacuous apology extended to “those who misunderstood me” and the equally hollow apology directed to those of you “who feel that way”.  Then there is the “I’m sorry, but … apology that simply shifts blame to someone or someplace else.  And lastly, there is the “I’m sorry I got caught” apology which is, of course, no apology at all.

Some apologies are the stuff of legend.  Who can forget Bill Clinton’s non-apology apology in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal?  And then there was was the Mel Gibson apology after his anti semitic tirade following a DUI arrest; the Tiger Woods’ apology after word of his multiple affairs and Kramer’s apology after his racial tirade in a comedy nightclub; or Chris Brown’s apology for beating up his girlfriend Rihanna and Kanye West’s apology for interrupting Taylor Swift at the CMT Awards.  This political season alone has brought us a rash of new apologies:  Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, for his reference to “legitimate rape” and his suggestion that it does not lead to pregnancy; Richard Mourdock, another candidate for U.S. Senator, for his suggestion that either rape was God’s will (according to the interpretation of some, though not me) or, that a pregnancy occasioned by rape, is God’s will.  And then just last night, in my home state of South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley’s attempted apology upon word that 3.7 million social security numbers may have been hacked from South Carolina Department of Revenue web servers.

All of these apologies are memorable.  Only a few were meaningful.  A good apology is powerful in part because it is sincere.  A good apology is completely genuine.  It accepts full responsibility and does not attempt to shift blame.  It speaks of repentance and tries to make amends.  It is timely given and given with no expectations.  But perhaps the real power of an apology, appropriately given, is that it can mark both an end as well as a beginning — an end to active conflict and a beginning to the long process of reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness.  And, ultimately, healing.

See this related post on forgiveness.

The Critical Eye of History – Redux

After touring a slave plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, I posed this question in a previous blog post:  100 years from now, what is it that people will say was the evil of our times — that thing or those things that we engaged in and really didn’t appreciate how wrong they really were?

Here’s a fascinating, and perhaps foreboding, look at one man’s take of being on the losing end of history.  Is he right?  Does being on the wrong side of history matter?  What say you?