joy

The Joy of Forgiveness and the Seven Deadly Sins

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.

Changing the World with Joy

lzf / Shutterstock
lzf / Shutterstock

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?

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Making Room for Delight

Artur Bogacki / Shutterstock
Artur Bogacki / Shutterstock

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.

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The Urgency of Joy

Alexey Losevich / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Alexey Losevich / Shutterstock.com

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.

'Mommy, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger'

Image via /Shutterstock

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."

Hurry Up and Don’t Die: Life, Death, and Lessons on Self-Compassion

CarTelephonePole
Image via /Shutterstock

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.

The Soulful Bells of Summer

THE SEASON AFTER PENTECOST is a challenge. Some churches call it “ordinary time.” This is where most of our life is lived, spiritually speaking. The fact that other churches call it “the season after Pentecost” reminds us that a miraculous tongue of fire is needed for any sermon to work—and the Holy Spirit has a tongue of fire for us. Pentecost propels us through ordinary time. The Holy Spirit can take as sorry a lot of losers as the ones Jesus chose as disciples and turn them into apostles, martyrs, world-changers. God has always done more with less-promising material.

A retreat at a monastery gave me a glimpse of what ordinary time means. By the time 8 a.m. Mass rolls around, we’ve already been in church three times that day. Mass is beautiful, we leave buoyantly, the Trappist monks are nearly chatty. Then the bell rings. It’s time for Terce, another hour of prayer. That bell sets me to sighing—weren’t we just in church? Terce is like the Sunday after Easter or Christmas—a letdown. Same building, half full of people, and with a quarter of the energy. And it is precisely then that it’s important to worship God. The church’s worship of God carries on when we’ve all gotten bored or tired. Such worship is good for souls. Preachers’ souls included.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[ June 7 ]

Out of the Depths
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15; Psalms 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL famously said that the biblical prophets show God’s pain. Here in 1 Samuel, God grants the people’s wish for a king because “they have rejected me from being king over them” from “the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day” (8:7-8).

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The Beginners' Guide to the Sound of Sap

Photo by Timothy King
Photo by Timothy King

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?

Wearing Black in Advent

Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy Man wearing black holds a gift. I
Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy leolintang/shutterstock.com.

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.

 

A Celebration of Life

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.

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