Thursday, December 25, 2014

Enter into Joy: A Christmas Meditation

Listen to the angel speaking to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”[1]  There is a beautiful image of the shepherds in a 15th Century Dutch Book of Hours described by Rosalind Brown:  “Eight solid and solemn shepherds hold hands and are obviously doing a circle dance, although two are going in opposite directions and one seems to be standing still.  Another shepherd points to heaven, where the words of the angel appear in large letters.  Their expressions do not suggest even a glimmer of excitement – these are sturdy, no-nonsense shepherds – but as joy seeps into their souls, their feet cannot help dancing.”[2]

I wonder of this image doesn’t capture something of our own experience of Christmas.  Shepherds were a poor, hard-scrabble lot in 1st Century Palestine.  They knew that life isn’t always easy.  They were familiar with pain and injustice.   We may be a bit more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than these ancient rustics, but I suspect our worldliness only makes us more serious and, perhaps, even cynical.  But it’s Christmas, and the message of good news seeps in through the cracks in the armature of bad news that encloses us.   Joy threatens to fracture our defenses altogether, and our solemn looks are betrayed by the tapping toe on the verge of becoming a full-blown dance. 

It is Christmas and – yet again – we are surprised by joy.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of great joy for all people.  We find this proclamation of joy to the shepherds near the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, and Luke ends on the same note.  After the ascension of the Risen Christ, we are told that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”[3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the whole point of his coming is “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[4]  The beginning and end of the Christian life is to enter into that joy.[5] 

There is a bottomless wellspring of joy that lies just beneath the surface of our everyday experience.  God comes to us in Jesus to remove the barriers that prevent this living water of joy from bursting into our awareness.  Joy is not something we make, but something we find; or that finds us, often when we least expect it.  We enter into it whenever we touch into the Source that grounds our life.  The joy of the Gospel is the discovery of being fully alive in God, and this discovery is possible no matter what our circumstances may be.  This is because joy is qualitatively different from mere happiness.

Gerald May describes the difference between happiness and joy in this way:

Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle:  the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain.  Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain.  Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being.  It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.[6] 

In fact, our preoccupation with happiness – with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – may be the principal barrier to our experience of joy.  The angels are always telling us, “Don’t be afraid!” because being fully alive requires vulnerability.  The path to joy is a process of integration that embraces the whole of life, even the parts we’d rather deny or avoid.

Joy just comes.  It doesn’t follow our cultural scripts for how to achieve success or security.  It isn’t a reward for good behavior or a prize to be won.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who return to Church – often after many years away – mainly because they are perplexed by an experience of joy that they just can’t explain.  Frequently, this joy emerges under very painful circumstances – a searing divorce or recovering from an addiction or the surprising fulfillment of a long unmet spiritual longing.

Jesus described it like this:  “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come.  But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”[7]  Our experiences of pain – and pleasure – are simply part of the process of becoming a mature human being, fully alive and whole.

One memorable moment of joy for me was holding the hand of a dying friend, whose face radiated absolute love and acceptance.  She knew from her own experience the truth of Jesus’ words, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”[8]  Happiness can be given and it can be taken away, but joy is the taproot of experience that springs up whenever and wherever it will.  It cannot be taken away from us; not even by death.

Pain can be an opening to joy because it strips us of our defenses and makes us vulnerable to our experience in a very direct way, creating the possibility of acute awareness and compassionate responsiveness; but only if it opens us more fully to the whole of life.  Thankfully, pain in and of itself is hardly the only opening to the experience joy.  Like the mother who endures the pain of child bearing for the sake of life, pain is often born in the service of something much larger – the experience of love.   Falling deeply and indelibly in love is another way by which we enter into joy.

Love for another human being, a beloved place, or the creative process of writing or gardening or cooking – any and all such experiences can awaken an awareness of joy.  This past Sunday I taught the Godly Play class for our children.  The lesson focused on Advent as a time to get ready for the Mystery of Christmas.  One of the ways we get ready is to send people Christmas cards, so I invited the children to make Christmas cards.  They could decide to whom they would give them. 

Two of the kids decided to make a card for each other.  They were very focused on the creative process and presented the cards to each other with great respect.  Then they gave each other a shy hug and shared a moment of luminous being.  When we allow ourselves to be touched, to be moved, perhaps even changed by an encounter with another, we open ourselves to the possibility of joy.   All forms of creative love lead us to their Source in the divine eros.  Whenever we touch the Source, we know joy.

Although touching the Source can be an ecstatic experience of joy, the kids exchanging Christmas cards points to an abiding joy that comes from the ordinariness of our connection to Being in the patterns of everyday life.  The love of spouse or friends or children develops into a rhythm of listening, sharing, and serving that can be profoundly integrating, expanding out to a deep sense of being at home in the world.  But it is only as we inhabit these patterns with intention and awareness that they hold open the possibility of joy.  Otherwise, we are simply going through the motions. 

The best way I know to cultivate openness to the Source is to take time each day just to rest in God’s love.  Nothing precludes the experience of joy so much as busyness.  We have to cultivate a willingness to slow down, to listen, to pay attention, to notice the flow of joy just beneath the surface of our experience. Contemplative prayer, meditation, call it what you will:  it is the royal road to joy in all the great spiritual traditions. 

Such joy is not only a personal experience: it is the means of reconciliation and healing in a divided world.  It is the foundational experience of reality that connects us.  Audre Lorde wisely noted that “The sharing of joy . . . forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”[9]

We cannot even begin to acknowledge and appreciate our differences, much less heal our sad divisions, until we realize this core truth:  we were made for joy – all of us – and this rejoicing knows no boundaries.   The song of the angels rings out not just for you and me, but for each and all.   The greatest gift that Christians can offer the world is the good news of joy for all people, and the only way we can share this joy is through a renewed experience of it our selves.  This Christmas, may the joy of Christ be born anew in our hearts and manifest in our love for one another. 

The world needs to see us dancing.

[1] Luke 2:10.
[2] Rosalind Brown, “Go out in joy,” Christian Century, December 16, 1998.
[3] Luke 24:52. 
[4] John 15:11.
[5] Alexander Schmemann, “The Proclamation of Joy:  An Orthodox View,” The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996. 
[6] Gerald May, Will and Spirit, p. 16.
[7] John 16:21.
[8] John 16:22.
[9] Audre Lorde, Sister, Outsider quoted in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 33. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Reason for Hope

There are seven reasons why I’m hopeful despite the heart-breaking travesties of justice we have witnessed in Missouri, New York, Ohio, California and countless other places around the country, as police officers continue to kill black boys and men with impunity.   Those reasons are:

·      Ashley Yates, Millennial Activists United
·      Rasheen Aldridge, Young Activists St. Louis
·      Brittany Packnett, St. Louis educator and activist
·      T-Dubb-O, St. Louis hip-hop artist
·      James Hayes, Ohio Students Association
·      Phillip Agnew, Dream Defenders
·      Jose Lopez, Make the Road New York      

These seven brilliant young leaders met with President Obama on December 1, 2014 to push for positive steps to address the criminal abuse of power on the part of police in our country.  The offered a series of common sense proposals that should be enacted immediately:

·      The federal government using its power to prosecute police officers that kill or abuse people.
·      Removing local district attorneys from the job of holding police accountable, and instead having independent prosecutors at the local level charged with prosecuting officers.
·      The establishment of community review boards that can make recommendations for police misconduct, instead of allowing police departments to police themselves.
·      Defunding local police departments that use excessive force or racially profile. Instead of having the Department of Justice (DOJ) wholesale giving more than $250 million to local police departments annually, DOJ should only fund departments that agree to adopt DOJ best practices for training and meaningful community input.
·      The demilitarization of local police departments.
·      Investing in programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, such as community-led restorative justice programs and community groups that educate people about their rights.

President Obama met with these young people because he could no longer ignore the movement for justice they are igniting around the country.  They recognize that the problem is not a few “bad” cops.  The problem is a broken criminal justice system that is designed to protect its own and is structured in such a way as to reinforce white privilege.  The issue isn’t personal prejudice but systemic racism.  We have to change the system.

One of the consequences of the age of social media, smart phones, and instant communications is that police jurisdictions can no longer sustain the lie that police misconduct is a function of the occasional rogue cop.  What might have been passed off as a local anomaly in the past is now revealed to be part of a persistent and invidious pattern of unequal justice, excessive use of force, and corrupt cronyism among police and prosecutors.  We are discovering that what is happening in my city is not unique.  Ferguson is everywhere.

African Americans have, of course, always known this.  What is different now is that white people must grapple with this truth.  It is creating enormous cognitive dissonance as white people struggle to square their belief in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system with the evidence of their own eyes and ears.  We are in a moment of tremendous disorientation in white America, not unlike the response to television images of Birmingham police attacking peaceful protestors with dogs and fire hoses during the 1963 Southern Christian Leadership Conferences’ civil rights campaign there. 

That campaign exposed injustice for the entire world to see, and galvanized passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  The new civil rights movement being energized by the young leaders who met with President Obama has the same potential today. 

This movement is providing a great service to white America.  It is providing us with the opportunity to wake-up: to cleanse the lens of perception and see more clearly the reality of racism.  It is also issuing a call to repentance: to change our minds and bring our actions into conformity with the demands of justice.  The new civil rights movement is offering us the gift of wholeness.

In this season of Advent, these young leaders are our collective “John the Baptist” crying out in the wilderness.  Mike Huckabee referred to them as thugs.  I call them prophets. I’m hopeful that white America will listen to them, and not to the Herods and Huckabees. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent Homecoming

stained glass windows at St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
Isaiah speaks these words of comfort to a people suffering in exile in Babylon, longing to return home to Israel. They were bereft of hope, their Temple in ruins, certain that God was punishing them for their sins, when along comes the prophet to proclaim forgiveness and a vision of homecoming. This is good news indeed! Then, in 539 the Persian King, Cyrus, conquered Babylon and a year later declared that the exiled Jews were free to return home and rebuild their Temple.
Baruch appropriated this vision of homecoming more than three hundred years later, after the return of the exiles to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple. Even when we are “home” we can feel alienated and unsafe.  Israel was home again, but now under the rule of a Syrian king, Antiochus, who profaned the Temple and executed Jews who refused to forsake their religion.  When home becomes an occupied territory, when one’s culture and identity is being suppressed, it doesn’t feel much like home anymore.

Thus, the promise of homecoming must be renewed: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God . . . For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and justice that come from him.” (Baruch 5:1, 9)  This promise was fulfilled, in part, by the Maccabean revolt against Syria that restored the Temple and re-established Judean independence.
Then, along came the Roman Empire. Judea and all of Palestine became an occupied territory again, leading to further revolts in opposition to Roman oppression. Some two hundred years after Baruch’s writing the Temple was destroyed again; Jerusalem became a wasteland. Many Jews went into exile again, fleeing their homeland.
Not long afterward, Luke’s Gospel appeared conveying the message of yet another prophet, John the Baptizer, who once again appropriates Isaiah’s promise of homecoming for his own time and place. John gathered a new community that was preparing for the renewal of Israel. God would once again make a way for the return of the exiles, a true homecoming in which all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Do you see a pattern here? Exile and return, occupation and liberation, alienation and homecoming: this seems to be the way of the world. It isn’t merely a long ago and far away story. It is our story. It is the story of millions of refugees around the world: Palestinians, Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghanis, fleeing occupied territories they long to reclaim as home. It is the story of brave U.S. servicemen and women serving abroad in a tragic exile not of their own choosing. It is past time for them to come home.  It is the story of Central Americans fleeing across our borders, many of them children, hoping to build a new home here free from destitution and violence. 
It is the story of people living with disabilities, struggling to feel at home again in their own bodies.  It is the story of people caring for loved ones with dementia: exiled to a forgetfulness that can leave them feeling lost, while their loved ones grieve the sense of home they once shared.  For many of our neighbors, exile and the fear of exile has to do with rising housing costs and the threat of eviction.  Their sense of “home” in San Francisco feels tenuous at best.  “Home” can also be a relationship that is no longer viable, with divorce feeling like a kind of exile from what was at least familiar, even if it wasn’t always happy.
We are all characters in the story of exile and return. Sometimes the home for which we long is a place on a map; sometimes we find ourselves exiled from the landscape of our own heart. Too often, we live in exile from both. We long to come home to our people, to our family, to our self. Even more, we long to come home to God, in whom we find our true and lasting rest.
Thus, we find ourselves here again in the season of Advent, listening to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “O God, make a way for us to come home again. Let us, all of us, see your salvation. We’re tired of wrapping ourselves in threadbare garments of sorrow and affliction. Dress us instead in the beauty of your presence, in the warmth of your peace and justice, in the splendor of your compassion and forgiveness. Please, please, dear God, bring us home again.”
This Advent Season, I invite you to reflect on your own experience of exile and return. In what sense are you grieving a lost sense of “home?”  What does “homecoming” look like for you?  How can we find our home in God together at St. James?