A Legacy of Joy

As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.

It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.

No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.

Lifting with our Legs

I spent a good portion of my Saturday splitting wood. My friend Tom let me use his beefy, old hydraulic splitter which is a good thing because I’m working with massive sections of trunk from this mammoth ash, and these pieces are big ol’ mothers. Of course, once they get to manageable size, the fun starts because there’s nothing like the thrill of splitting a log with one great swing of the axe. Seth and I decided to name our axe Big Bertha or maybe The Grim Reaper.

However, as I was rolling those gargantuan slices of trunk and heaving them onto the splitter, I remembered the advice from my high school football coach during weightlifting: “Lift with your legs, not your back.” It does make all the difference. Saturday, with my back, I was exerting all kinds of energy and making grotesque facial expressions and grunting noises but was about to snap something I’d rather not snap or blow something out I’d rather keep intact. When I used my legs, there was a sturdiness, an ease even – and also there was a better gauge of my limitations. It’s good to know when to push harder; it’s also good to know when to stop.

This all got me wondering how many things in my life, or in the world around me, I’m trying to lift with my back (my straining, my chaotic energy, my fear, my not-quite-righteous indignation) instead of my legs (my steadiness, my muck-along faith, my reliance on the grace, mercy and love that unnerves most every power or idealogy in this world). I’m not sure, but something tells me that in these days before us, we’re going to be tempted to lift with our back, but we’re really going to need to lift with our legs.

Advent: Imagining a Different Day

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

The One Necessary Thing

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Whether we find ourselves in places of crisis and despair or elation and confidence, whether we know rage or desperation or triumph or sadness or joy or debilitating fear – wherever we find ourselves, the one thing we must do, the one thing we must pursue, the one thing we must cling to is what Jesus insisted was the great, essential commandment: love. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Love upends us all, corrects us all, makes space for us all, holds out hope for us all. Love, as St. Paul says, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love is not merely a means to some other end, some trite sentimental ideal that can be discarded when the stakes are high or the path impenetrable. “Love is the upmost,” Rilke wrote, “the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” Another wise one told us that even if we gave our life defending the poor and even if we enacted monumental works of faith or courage or justice – even if we gave ourself into the martyr’s flames – if we don’t have love, we have lost the truest thing.

Of course, love, stripped of its tenacity to enact goodness and neutered of its fierceness, its staunch rejection of evil and defense of the vulnerable, isn’t really love at all. Likewise, love, separated from its open, hopeful posture for the person in front of you (even the person you staunchly dislike or disagree with or believe to be disastrously wrong) or love overwhelmed by disgust that closes the possibility for relationship or the ability to see complexity and beauty in another isn’t really love at all. Love, we’re finding out, is immensely difficult work.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian of the past century, wrote (and, interestingly, in the preface to one of his heady theological tomes): Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. And I think we could also say the pastor must listen to them; the writer must listen to them, the mother, the father, the activist, the friend, the politician, the anti-politician.

We need lovers, people grounded in the gritty work of love, now – right now. We need people who refuse to buy into the lie that some moments are so dark or are careening out of control so fast that love is no longer practical. Love has never been practical. However love, modeled by the strength and tenderness of Jesus, has always been our only hope. Love never fails.

 

image: Lorenzo Scheda

Don’t Lose Heart

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Whenever Jesus wanted to encourage his friends to keep praying and to not lose heart, he told them a story. It was a strange story, I’ll grant you: a tenacious widow who badgered a louse of a judge until the scoundrel relented and handed her a legal verdict, though only to get her off his back. Nonetheless, the odd story did the necessary work. We need stories to help us remember that all is not lost, that what we see in this dire moment is not all there is to see, that God is not nearly so far away as it may appear.

People of faith have always told one another stories in order to keep the fire burning. When I was young, we called these stories testimonies. We knew we needed to bear witness to the faithful love that carries us even through the howling night. We needed to receive one another’s faith in those weary stretches where our faith was weak and faltering. God knows, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose heart. It’s the easiest thing in the world to sink into despair or cynicism.

And so Jesus told a story and said, Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. I think this is one good way to describe prayer: the refusal to lose heart, the refusal to relenquish our hope in God.

So hear these words today: Do not lose heart. I know our world is in the thick of it, ripping at the seams – but do not lose heart. I know your family may be buckling under the crush – but do not lose heart. I know you may feel you are alone without any true friend who knows the deepest parts of you – but do not lose heart. I know you may be tired of holding on, tired of playing your fiddle while the boat sinks – but do not lose heart. I know the questions and the fears claw at your soul – but do not lose heart.

I’ll keep telling my stories, and you keep telling yours. When one of us lags or buckles, we’ll pick each other up, knock off the dust, keep walking toward the dawn. Together, we’ll stand up bold, even if a bit wobbly, and we’ll refuse to relinquish our faith or our hope or our love. Somehow, we’ll make it through.

The History of our Heart

I wonder how so many of us can sit in the same office suite with someone for decades, or sit on a pew in a church in the company of others for year after year, or sleep in a bed with one to whom we profess love, and yet know so little about their longings, their joys, their fears. How is it possible that we could live with ourselves for literally every day of our life and not know our own true desires and wounds and pleasures? How can we live as such strangers, to ourselves and to others, in this magnificent life we’ve been given?

Maybe we know more than we tell, only we have real difficulty knowing what to do with such intimate knowledge. It can be a fearful thing to carry tenderness and hope with you in such a snarling world. How do we move toward another when self-protective distance and a warped kind of self-reliance controls our narratives? How do we offer ourselves without apology but also without constantly scanning the room (or the comments section or the Twitter feed) to judge whether or not we’ve been accepted, whether or not we’ll have the grit to venture further down this uninhibited, self-forgetful path?

Willie Nelson refers to his life’s story as the history of his heart. I like that. Whenever I ask someone to tell me about their life, I’m wanting more than only the biological and geographical storyline. I’m also wanting to know how these places and triumphs and disasters, these loves and these disappointments, these plodding stretches and jolts of wild adrenaline, have formed that beautiful and unique fabric that makes them them.

Each of us are living the history of our heart. I hope we will have the courage to be faithful to this history, to see our life in all of its scuffed and lurching brilliance, to see others for the beauty of their unique history as well.

Gazing Toward the Hopeful Tune

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

A Word for Cowards

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.

Hopes for These Days to Come

Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.

To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.

And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.

I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

Something More Than Fear

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There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.