I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E.B. White
ON A GORGEOUS FALL DAY, I bundle up just a bit and go sit on the rock under the apple tree in the middle of the field. The low-angled sun pours its subdued warmth onto the splashy orange of the maples, transient yellows of the tamarack, and faithfully green cedar. Further to the west, the mountains cut a postcard-perfect silhouette against the seasonally pale blue sky.
Such grace, warming my heart with joy.
A loving God calls us to experience such profligate joy. Now, in the latter decades of my life, time picks up its pace at an alarming rate. So I often promise myself to seek more opportunities to sit on rocks.
But instead, each morning, the genes of my activist mother, the teachings of my faith, and probably a bit too much of my own hubris conspire to bring on the conflicting desire to “improve” (well, okay ... save) the world.
So I strongly identify with E.B. White’s dilemma, softened by his gentle humor-with-a-touch-of-wistfulness.
Working for social justice seems like forever. I am weary of being tedious to those around me who do not understand my seemingly quixotic campaigns. I am weary listening to the current loud, vicious, largely irrelevant public clamor surrounding issues to which I am dedicated. I am weary knowing that those of us preaching minority positions that were once slammed as unrealistic have been proven right. But it took so long: civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, climate change. As we slogged through our protests and The Powers That Be didn’t listen, lives were lost, billions of dollars spent, time wasted. I am impatient: Why can’t the arc of the moral universe run, rather than just bend, toward justice?
I RECENTLY MADE the mistake of taking an extended trip to my favorite city. Istanbul is a rambunctious sprawl of cultures and histories—catnip for a writer, as I am, and for a college student, as I was on my first visit nine years ago.
Chief among Istanbul’s delights is the Hagia Sophia, first basilica, then mosque, then museum—part architectural wonder, part historical jigsaw puzzle. Above the ochre-domed great hall is the famous juxtaposition: a gilded mosaic of Mary and the Christ Child flanked by two enormous placards in Arabic script—the names Allah and Muhammad. The effect is somehow both solemn and conspiratorial, as if some divine negotiation has happened behind the scenes.
Hagia Sophia means “holy wisdom,” and to enter into its hushed halls, a thin winter light stretching its way across 1,500-year-old pillars to twinkle through heavy chandeliers, is to enter a palpable mystery. It is constitutionally impossible to behold the Hagia Sophia for the first time and not feel a stirring in the soul.
But this was my second time. After eight years of living in Washington, D.C., and working for social justice, I was carrying with me a very different posture toward the world—a suspicion of appearances, a stubbornness to accept grand narrative. I have learned much more about the world and the many ways it fails us since my first glimpse of a shimmering Istanbul. I’ve written about systems that rely on marginalization and the politically convenient, and I’ve felt, deeply and insistently, all the ways the world has grown more threatening for the most vulnerable.
The phrase has captivated my imagination for some time now, as I seek joy in the midst of a world crying out in pain. In a nation of mass shootings and executions, in a world devastated by war crimes and the crime of war, where working for peace means learning the depths and pervasiveness of violence, despair threatens to seep in through the air I breathe. Hope often evades my grasp, and fear like a weight drags down my every movement.
But when I find myself in a morass of bitterness, my soul gets a jolt of energy from my laughing toddler, or the accidentally insightful comment from my precocious 6-year-old, or the warm hand of my husband on my shoulder. I savor the comfort of these gestures and let them lift me out of my cynicism. And as the tears clouding my vision disperse, I remind myself that joy, too, permeates the world and can be found by those with eyes to see it.
We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry. And so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us — with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration — we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.
We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human, and I daresay without anger we would never have won women the right to vote, school desegregation, or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.
So be angry when you are angry. The Bible says so. Do not be ashamed to say, in the moment, "This is not right. I'm angry."
I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself — to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world — would be a tall order; an impossibly high standard that could turn into, “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.”
Over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more.” I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full.
Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything. Time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it will stop at the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death.
If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.
There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?
I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?
On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.
This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.
But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.
The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.
For the past several years, I have been less outwardly celebratory during the Christmas season. No wreaths, trees, or bad sweaters for me; I have chosen to be introspective during the end of the year season in order to keep my focus on the true meaning of Christmas. This has become increasingly difficult, as the process of commercializing the celebration of Christ’s birth begins right after Halloween and extends itself until after the nation celebrates the life of Dr. King in January. This year, it has been increasingly difficult to concentrate on this Season of Advent in light of all of the anger and protests going on around the country. The protests over grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown (Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York) cases and the heartbreak and anger over the deaths of Tamir Rice (Ohio) and Akai Gurley (also in New York) have served for me as a reminder that we need to rally around life.
Many of those critical of the decisions in these cases say that black lives do not matter, and there is some validity to that in a nation that has never truly been delivered and healed from the effects of chattel slavery. Those on the other side say that these cases have gone to the judicial system and that the system should be respected, the issue dropped, and that personal responsibility is the mindset that will move the nation forward. While there is truth in both of those opinions, I am led to think of the joy the families of these dead men and boys must have felt at their birth – a moment of endless possibilities – and I also think of the finality – the end of chances represented by their deaths.
It’s interesting how the word “grace” gets used a lot, even by those who don’t necessarily consider themselves religious. It’s a favorite name for a character that represents someone who is a gift to us — I’m thinking about Bruce’s girlfriend Grace in Bruce Almighty, or Eli’s reassuring encounter with a woman named Grace in the second season of the TV series Eli Stone.
You can probably cite many more examples of characters named Grace in different movies, television shows, and books.
We like to put flesh-and-blood on the notion that we are recipients of some great gift that arrives unexpectedly and is given freely. Someone or something that comes into our life and significantly changes it for the better in some ways.
But what is grace? Who is grace to us?
The television show Castle involves a mystery writer (Richard Castle) who helps a New York City homicide detective (Kate Beckett) solve tough cases. Beckett decided to become a police officer after her mother, a community activist, was murdered and the case was never solved.
In one episode, Castle notices that Beckett keeps a stick figure in the top drawer of her desk at the precinct. It’s odd-looking. The sticks that form the limbs don’t match exactly. The head looks like one of those football-shaped coin purses. It’s all held together by what appears to be seaweed and twine.
Castle wants to know the story behind it.
Beckett tells how on the day of her mother’s funeral, she was really sad so her father took her to Coney Island, one of her favorite places. They walked along the beach in their funeral clothes for a long time. It became a special time for the two of them.
At one point, they decided to gather items that had washed up on the beach and they made the stick figure.
So, why does she keep it in her drawer?
“He’s a reminder,“ Beckett says, “that even on the worst days, there is a possibility for joy.“
I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.
Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.
I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”
I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”
Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.
I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12
War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?
These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?
Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.
How do you talk about joy in times like these and not sound like a traveling salesman with a bottle of snake oil up his sleeve?
Recently, I received word that Robert Gittelson, the cofounder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, had died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Over the next seven days, the prolific 63-year-old comedian and actor, Robin Williams, committed suicide, and revered screen legend, Lauren Bacall, passed away at the age of 89.
You can smile at someone, but you can’t really smile with someone until you’ve cried with them, too. Shared their pain, their doubts, their questions, their uncertainty, even their despair. And their joy as well, those moments when your eyes fill with tears for a different reason. You end up smiling together with tear-stained cheeks. And those smiles matter the most.
“You are not only a coward but a non-believer as well.”
It may not quite be at the level of Captain America’s vibranium shield, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. When you start a blog that promotes something as insanely unorthodox as the idea that the author of Genesis 1-3 might have (like most other biblical authors) made use of a metaphor here and there, you come to expect that some fundamentalists are going to call Father Merrin and start reaching for the holy water.
It’s unfortunate — and, often, perplexing — but you learn to get used to it.
Even so, there are times I receive emailed messages like the one quoted above, and it hits like a punch in the gut. I know I should just ignore such trollishness. Usually I can. But not always.
Don’t worry, though. This is not a whiny column about how mean the conservatives are to us open-minded, forward-thinking progressives. Instead, it’s about how messages like this are helping me rethink almost everything I thought I knew about the Christian faith.
I live in Washington D.C., a city in which mistakes are messaged and shortcomings are spun. True confession and true repentance do not occur — unless it is politically advantageous. Naturally, cynicism runs rampant.
In this environment, though we all know our own weaknesses, grace is rarely offered for failures.
Which is why Lent is such an important season on the Christian calendar. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect, to examine our hearts, and to acknowledge the ways in which we have fallen short. But we don’t confess our failures to a public waiting to crucify us. Instead, we confess our sins to one who loves us and was willing to be crucified in order to reconcile us once and for all.
Lent is rarely talked about as a celebration, but it is an opportunity to revel in the joy of forgiveness.
Last year, I wrote about my journey from forcing joy to finding that love is what is everlasting, not joy — that we sometimes hear and believe that Jesus only lives in the places of our lives where we recognize him with joy. But that that is not true.
And so, almost as an afterthought, I've been thinking lately of other ideals that Christians hold as truth, somehow in the process giving a lifeless principle more weight than a Living Christ who reveals himself beyond what can be wrapped up with words and smacked with a theological bow.
Like the concept of Presence.
We know and rest our restless hearts in the idea that Jesus is with us always, lo, even unto the very end of the age. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. And this is good. We sing songs and pray prayers and feel goose bumps and know that it is true … at least in those moments.
But what about the God who seems to be known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence? What happens when we don't feel God’s proximity uninterrupted?
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.