Inside Out: In Praise of the Gift of Sadness

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”

In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service.  It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm.  Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.

My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too.  The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart.   Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal.  “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily.  Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.

I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list.  I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope.   Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too.   An argument ensued.  She wouldn’t let me leave.  Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved.  Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember.   It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight.  Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.

Merry Christmas indeed.

Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions.   A girl named Riley is at the center of the story.  Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.

Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’.   It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.

Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying.  The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.

Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry.  Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer.  Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told.   This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.

To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say:  “rubbish!”  Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.

Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.

Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior.  “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed  because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world.  Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.

There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life,  the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast.  War, followed by peace.

Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world.   Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring.  But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.

Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl.  I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy.  The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.

Sorrow and Joy.  Longing and fulfillment.  Suffering and Glory.  This is our world friends.  May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.

“Godspell” – Musings on the power of Art in God’s World

Godspell_Ext_emailbannerI saw Taproot Theatre’s spectacular version of Godspell last night and wept through a couple of the songs because they took me back to the two  darkest years of my life, and remembrances of my first encounter with Stephen Schwartz’ inspired musical.  Back then, lonely, unhealthy, uncertain of the future, one song in particular stood out, and when I heard it last night I closed my eyes and was transported back in time…
I’m 19 and a good friend had landed the part of Jesus in Godspell, so he invites me to see him on opening night.  It’s been two years since my dad has died, and this winter of my 19th year is the winter of my discontent.  I’m lonely, because high school’s over and my cadre of friends have scattered.  My future’s radically uncertain as I’ve applied for admittance to architecture school, but only one in six students will get in.  Since my self confidence is in the toilet, I’m certain I won’t be accepted and there’s no plan B.  The stress of living at home, a choice a made to help walk through my mom’s grief with her, is taking it’s toll.  All of these elements together have conspired to make my unhappy, unhealthy, and uncertain about this God I grew up learning I was supposed to love and obey.  “For what reason?” was the question I’d asked countless times in that dark era… “so that God can kill my dad?”  I’d heard sermons about rejoicing and giving thanks, but lately they’d pretty much bounced off of me as pious nonsense – good for little kids maybe, but not for the real world.
And then the music of Godspell begins.  There’s something about the masterful interplay of text and music that draws me in, so that by the time she sings the “Day by Day” prayer, I’m not only humming along, I’m wishing I had the courage to pray that very prayer.  “What would it be like” I remember thinking, “to love God in a real way?”  When the song ended, I began to see the possibility of loving God because the Jesus on the stage was lovable, mostly because he loves.  The text between the songs was almost wholly drawn from the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, and yet the words took on new life, became almost believable, in spite of my doubts, fears, unhappiness.
Then it happened.  With a guitar and a recorder, as setup, a man sings a thanksgiving song called All Good Gifts.
We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above.
So thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord for all his love.
[CHORUS]
We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life our health our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
[ALL]
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..
I really wanna thank you Lord!
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..
Oh thank the Lord…….
By the end of the song, back in 1975, I’m in tears, struck as no sermon had ever struck me, nor Bible study, nor Young Life talk, nor words at any funeral, party, or dinner conversation, that God is good because God is the source of all that IS good.  With eyes closed, I’d see the snows of my nearby Yosemite, the ripe fruits of my central California Valley, the rich bounty of harvests in my little corner of the world.  And more.  I recalled the bounty of friendships.  The joy of the family into which I’d been adopted.  The reality that God had, in spite of my dad’s death, taken a rather inauspicious beginning and, like a grain of wheat, turned it into something good.  “Yes it’s winter.  Yes there are things I don’t understand.  Yes, when this musical ends, there’s still no plan B”  But in spite of it all, I found myself recalling previous blessings and singing along, “I really wanna thank you Lord”  because I really did want to back then in Fresno, 1975, in my emptiness and frustration.
The song ended.  I dried my tears, which flowed again with the lyrics of Psalm 137 about weeping by the rivers of Babylon.  I knew my Bible well enough to understand that this song was a reminder:  There are lots of things in life that you don’t really love and appreciate until they’re gone.  And of course, in that moment, that was my dad, who was there for me in sport, in challenging me to rise to my best effort in study, in exemplifying teaching and gentle leadership, and in exemplary suffering.  I don’t think I valued any of it deeply until he was gone, and by then it was too late.  During the song, Jesus is saying good bye, knowing what’s coming.  His disciples?  Clueless like the rest of us, until darkness covers the earth.
IMG_9132And then hope.  “Long Live God!”  Only last night, August 20, 2015, did I realize that I left the theater a changed young man in the winter of 1975.  I’m reminded of Jacob in Genesis 28, on the run from his brother; alone; afraid; sleeping in the desert.  It’s there that God meets him and gives him a boatload of promises, causing Jacob to say, “Surely the Lord was in the place and I didn’t even know it.”
Surely indeed.  The Lord was in a tiny theater in Fresno in 1975, and seeds were planted then that would germinate a year later while studying architecture.  By the fall of ’76 I’d change majors, change schools, and change states.  Little did I know that as a music major back then, I’d be playing percussion for a Seattle Pacific University musical about John Wesley called “Ride Ride” starring none other than Scott Nolte, who founded  Taproot Theatre Company with his wife Pam, both of whom are now some of my closest friends.
That’s why I wrote, during intermission last night, that Taproot had become a worship service for me, as I celebrated God’s relentless faithfulness in my life.  Seeds were no doubt planted last night that will sprout in a new generation.
And yes, “I really wanna thank the Lord”
 (tickets are still available for Saturday’s 2PM showing.  Worth.  Every.  Minute.)

Walter Mitty and the Art of Waking Up

There’s a glorious life in each of us that’s waiting to be lived.  It’s the crises we face that will either fan it to flame or kill it.  That, in two sentences, is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.  Richard Rohr, in a very good book I’m reading, says “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently.  The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push – usually a big one – or we will not go.”  Every story  worth telling, and every life that’s done something worthwhile, has been given such a push.  It comes, usually, in unwelcome wrappings such as the loss of a job, or infidelity, and getting caught up, or caught, in an addiction.  Maybe it’s cancer, the death of a parent, or an accident.  The point is that the push isn’t something we wanted, and yet in this fallen world, the painful push over the edge becomes the very thing that enables us to move to new heights; “abundant life” is the way Jesus spoke of it.

For Walter Mitty, masterfully played by Ben Stiller, the push comes in the form of a missing film negative.  He’s the “negatives accounts manager” for Life magazine.  The last issue’s about to be published, and the company’s just been bought out so that downsizing decisions are being made at the very time a negative’s gone missing.  This becomes Walter’s “push”.  His safe, familiar world is no longer sustainable, which is what happens to everyone eventually, in spite of our best efforts to keep the wolves of change at bay by building financial and emotional fortresses around our lives.  Still, they find their way in, and the crux of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to the unwelcome intrusions of change.  How Walter responds is the crux of the story.

Aside from the stunning cinematography (which makes the movie worth the big screen investment), 3 other things offered poignant revelations of the human condition:

The Reality of Ambivalence – There’s a scene when Walter needs to decide whether to hitch a ride on a helicopter, at the onset of a storm, piloted by a guy who’s drunk too much.  None of us would say yes under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances.  Walter realizes that he’s at a crossroads and though the risk of going is high, the certainty of not going is that he’ll fail in his quest.  As a result, an internal war ensues inside his own soul between courage and fear, vision and safety, yes and no.

If you think this is just the stuff of movies, think again.  Though the stakes aren’t always as visible and dramatic, all of us are fighting these internal wars every day.  Just on the way to the movie I had an internal debate about whether or not to have a hard conversation with my wife about a struggle I was facing.  “Stay silent.  It’s your first night out together in a long time.  Just enjoy it.” vs. “You’re playing a game, being dishonest, if you don’t bring this stuff into the light.  Speak!”  Back and forth, almost in rhythm with the windshield wipers.  The voice we listen to in such moments might rightly be safety sometimes, but not always, and if we stop listening and only choose safety we’ll miss transformation.

This, of course, was the problem with Israel when they failed to enter the promise land under Moses’ leadership.  They’d become so schooled in choosing safety that when the chance was given for them to move into their destiny they said no, preferring the assurance of risk free living in the desert to the chance at abundance.

The Beauty of Friendship – As Walter fights these battles between courage and fear, engagement and withdrawal, it becomes clear that a critical factor in his choices is the influence of a friend.  All of us need people at times who believe in us, or our calling, more fiercely than we believe it ourselves.   Such people, such voices, are a gift from God when they appear with encouragement, giving us the strength to continue, or take the next step.  That’s why I’m increasingly convinced that encouragement is an important value we’d all do well to nurture in our lives, particularly we who’ve received lots of it.

The hints of Christ in Sean –  Who invites us, though circumstances, to come to himself?  Who teaches us to see the world beauty in the midst of brokenness, to exalt servanthood over the trinkets of upward mobility, to take time for celebration, relationship, and really seeing?  The answer’s Christ, of course, for we who believe.  All those qualities, and more, are seen in Sean, the photographer whose lost negative is at the root of Walter’s quest and transformation.  Jesus was always building bridges between himself and the world around him, and we’d be wise to look for such bridges too.  They exist because artists are seeking to shake us awake and see things that are true about the human condition, and the truth is that all of us are in need of Someone who will help us see ourselves and the world with greater clarity, and who will be both the object of our seeking and our companion on the journey.  That we’re in need of such a Someone is a point in this film;  that the final answer to such a quest will be found in Christ is, I believe, the grand story of the Bible.  Sometimes, though, you need to go to the movies to be reminded of what you already know.

Habits, Endings, and Heights – Three great reads for the end of summer

ImageGreetings from New Hampshire, where I’m in the second of two weeks teaching at a delightful small family camp, sponsored by HIM and my good friends Paul and Virginia Friesen (whose new book I’ll be reviewing in a future post). 

Life’s more than full this week, and next, so I probably won’t be writing much for a few days.  In the meantime, I’ve wanted to  review three favorite books from the summer in hopes that some of you might find one of them helpful, or just plain fun: 

Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud has been a wonderful balance to my studies in the book of Hebrews, because the latter is all about endurance, pressing on when you feel like quitting, being heroic in your steadfastness, that sort of thing.  It’s marvelous to be reminded that there are also times to walk away, times to bring an end to things: programs, relationships, personal goals.   He talks about the necessity of pruning and the reality that life creates too much life, as I recently posted.  The book is filled with encouraging stories about people who faced reality honestly and had the guts to make hard changes.

My favorite part of the book is chapter 4, because that’s where the author talks about the needed paradigm shift most of us need to make so that we can come to view proper endings as normal and good rather than viewing every ending as necessarily a failure, or viewing all pain as bad.  We have internal maps that sometimes cause us to resist initiating endings and I’ve read Cloud’s discussion of these faulty maps several times this summer, each time learning something new about my own heart.

This isn’t about any particular element of my life in the moment.  It’s about the a maturing of my way of looking at the world so that I’m less threatened by the reality that nothing – nothing – lasts forever, and that sometimes God asks us to lead by saying no and saying enough.

Starlight and Storm is a classic mountaineering book written in 1954 by the famous French Mountaineer Gaston Rebuffat.  One of the things I love about earlier mountaineering works is the understated eloquence with which they write about things that those who climb get sweaty palms just reading, let alone experiencing.  He writes for example, of climbing 65 feet without placing any protection:

“The rope is a wonderful thing for the feeling of unity that it gives, and yet up here, attacking this crack and climbing it, I felt quite alone.  There was my companion, sixty-five feet below me.  What a fall I would have if I slipped.  For the rope behind me, splendid as it was, would be useless.  But I could not climb without it, without the friendliness it transmitted.  It gave me courage.”

Rebuffat is also a lover of beauty, and writes of the enchantment of the mountains, not as an adversary to be conquered, but as a lover to be explored, caressed, and enjoyed.  This is as it should be.  The blend of understated courage and the capacity for seeing and expressing the beauty of nature are precisely what I seek from my Cascade friends on a regular basis.  Rebuffat inspires to do it better.

Finally, don’t miss The Power of Habit:  Why we do what we do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  The story of Lisa in the introduction is nothing short of remarkable as she transforms herself from a wholly undisciplined person to one who gets a graduate degree, loses weight, gets out of debt, quits smoking, starts an exercise program, and runs a marathon – all because of the power of habit.

There are many gems in this book, including a chapter on discipleship, drawn from the work of Rick Warren.  Most significant for me, however, was the notion that to the extent that we can build some habits into our lives, we free space for creativity, growth, and transformation.  Since I’m looking for more space these days, I’ve begun to refine morning habits and some weekly routines so that I’ve the band width for creativity where it’s needed.

What are you reading?  We’d all like to know!