Recapturing Joy

Posted: December 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

(The following meditation was shared at Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri, December 14, 2014)

We have a Christmas tree ornament on our tree that is glorified pipe cleaner art; the fiber is twisted in the form of that word, JOY, and then covered with some kind of glitter. And that’s it, the word joy. This week as I stared at the tree it winked at me and insisted that I spend some time thinking about it: Joy.

We talk a lot about joy this time of year. Bunches of carols include the word. Angels do flip flops insisting that it’s coming our way. The writers of the Bible insist that joy is more than an emotion; it is a holy substance, like a pear. It actually exists in the universe and you can pick it off the tree.

So I gave joy more than a passing thought this week. I asked myself about what it is and the ways it appears. It seems in short supply for so many people. I don’t know, maybe for most people.

I was at lunch with my daughter and started the inquiry there. So, I asked, what is the difference between happiness, on the one hand, and joy on the other?

She thought one might be short-term and the other long-term. Hmmm. Then she said that maybe not, because you could have either of them for short or long times, depending. So how are they different?

I answered that I thought happiness was grounded in external circumstance, like I’m really glad they had the right tree on sale and we bought it and put it up in the same day. I am happy because I finally got out of debt. I am happy because all the kids that are going to go to college have and I’m done with that phase. I am happy because my child is happy at Christmas. I am happy because somebody dropped by some delectable holiday cookies to my house. I’m happy because it was a tasty meal and a nice show. I’m happy because we grilled out at the lake and it was enjoyable. All these things fill me with happiness, a sense of pleasure in the way things are.

But happiness is often grounded in some external circumstance or happening. For that reason it can be fleeting. Once the particular experience has passed by so may go the sense of happiness. And I begin to put the wheels in motion to rack up something else I think will make me happy.

What’s more, I can be happy with the way the stars have lined up in my life at the moment but a gnawing sense that I still don’t have a deep down joy. What is that joy?

This is what it means to me: The deep down joy is a sense of belonging to everything, being connected to everything, and in a spiritual sense to be in the flow of God’s presence. I believe that’s a natural God-given natural state if we receive it, like the tranquility of Adam and Eve in the garden before things blew up. So why is it so very elusive for most people?

Here are some things I realized as I looked at the pipe cleaner ornament that spells joy:

I think that joy, this inward sense of being in the flow of the spirit, gets blocked, gets cut off. Sometimes this blocking is temporary, but for some people it seems to be life-long:

I think that feelings like sadness, guilt, anger or fear block natural joy from surfacing. These feelings also hang on our tree like pipe cleaner ornaments.

Unless we take them off the tree one-by-one, examine and then dismiss them, they continue to hold sway over is. Until we take them off the tree, the joy ornament can’t get through the depression or rage or remorse or worry; the thick curtain of those emotions prevents the singing of Joy to the World, and singing like you really believe it is true. Some people live their whole life with a tree decorated by those words and in the end it becomes their reality, they become those words on their tree.

One starting point to recapture joy is to undecorate our tree by taking down the sadness, guilt, anger and fear. That takes time and patience but we have powerful spiritual resources at our disposal to do it.

We have resources like forgiveness, humility, love and faith. The practice of these virtues almost always neutralizes sadness, guilt, anger and fear.

When it comes to taking down some ornaments and leaving other ones up we need to let loose our faith power. Here is a question: Do you really believe that God wants you to live indefinitely with sadness, guilt, anger and fear? As a life sentence?

Or do you take the angel song according to its word, that “I bring you tidings of great joy?” It has to be one way or the other because joy won’t tolerate all the others and the others won’t permit joy to rise.

So here is my suggestion. If it is long overdue for you, take down the pipe cleaner ornaments of sadness, guilt, anger and fear. Take each one off the tree, one at a time, and bid it farewell. Tell them that the tidings of great joy don’t have any room for them anymore. Then wrap them up in tissue paper, tape them in a box, tie a weight on them and sink them to the bottom of the ocean.

So you see, as much as we put things up during Advent it’s really important to take some down. In fact, the whole of Advent is exchanging some ornaments for others. If you will, if you will remove the ones that need to go, then you will make room for joy. If you put away sadness, guilt, anger and fear then joy may abound. You won’t need the substitutes that masquerade for joy. You can have the real thing.

I know it sounds overly simple but the question still bears asking: Do you choose joy? Will you actually give yourself permission to receive it?

So often we have told ourselves or others have told us that we can’t have it or we don’t deserve it or it doesn’t exist. What I have to say this morning is that those imposed barriers are all untrue. The promise of faith dismantles those assumed beliefs that keep us sad, guilty, angry and afraid. It offers joy instead.

One of the things I dearly love about the Biblical story from Isaiah 35 is its raucous imagery.

In place of the desert, sand and wasteland appear growing things like flowers. Nature itself is rising up in applause, clapping its hands and making a joyful noise. Such a joyful thing, to have new birth springing out of the wilderness places, like a flower springing out of a crack in the rock.

And this is the other side of joy we can’t miss. The desert doesn’t have to disappear before joy shows up. Like my earlier conversation with my daughter at lunch, there is a difference between happiness in external things and deep joy. The flowers of joy can bloom even in the unhappiness of the desert.

And that, of course, is the angel’s proclamation, that joy pours over the plains and the hills, that ultimately God reigns, the world is full of the presence of the Spirit, and that very same spirit is in us. Joy sometimes breaks forth because it is impossible to extinguish. It comes in its own way and in its own terms, unexpected and delightful. And the very best thing is when surprises us, like a crocus in the desert; it was never really gone, just hiding.

When I sat in front of my tree and gazed at the pipe cleaner ornament, JOY, it chose me as much as I chose it. And once it captured my attention and I gave it all there was, as far as I was concerned, there was no other ornament on the tree. The only thing I saw was this word, JOY, hanging against the background of green. And that’s how it is with joy itself. Joy often comes to us in the midst of desert and even despair. It arises when we had given up on having a share for ourselves. And then, at just the right moment, under the cover of night, it appears. When it does there is nothing else that is needed. Regardless of how happy you may or may not feel, regardless of competing ornaments that have needed to come down for the longest time, it comes anyway.

When it does simply receive it for it is an unearned gift of God. Go for a swim in it, bask in it, and let it wash over you. And you will know something of the flower within you that never has been gone, but only waiting for the right time to bloom.

Think Slow, Church

Posted: December 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

This evening at the Bluegrass worship service I shared a meditation on the slow journey of the Magi as they searched for the Christ. I drew on some of the key insights of a recent book that is quite worth the read, Slow Church (Smith and Pattison, 2014). The authors’ work reflects a larger slow church movement in the United States, one that is, yes, slowly gaining traction.

They recognize, and I think rightly, our cultural captivity to the idol of fast, efficient and personalized. In the same way that “fast food” has devised efficient and delivery systems for food, so we have commodified all aspects of life – what some have referred to as the “McDonaldization” of everything. But fast and efficient does not always equal better. In fact,they may often work against deep communal life and values.

This has created what Smith and Pattison have called a culture of impatience. From a spiritual standpoint this impatience has created church structures of fast delivery. The problem is, of course, that the Spirit doesn’t work in that kind of way. In the same way that a “slow food” movement arose against the “fast food” invasion of culture, so a “slow church” movement has arisen to offset the insidious invasion of “fast church.”

Here is the way that I allowed the insights of Slow Church to intersect with the narrative of the Magi and its implications for life in the Spirit:

“You see the slow pace that was required of them, how the way forward could only unfold in time. There would be no rushing of it. Only slow, deliberate, uncertain progress could be expected.

Seen from 30,000 feet, the ways of God are ponderous and emerge and flourish over incredibly long periods of time, much longer than any one lifetime. And in terms of individuals the time required for faith to mature, grow and shape the soul is equally long. Some things cannot be rushed and are only the result of the spirit acting over long periods of time.

The way the spirit works is often unseen by mortal eyes even after long journeying. We are left with questions even after arriving in Jerusalem. And that is why it is called faith.

If there is one, great gift this story can provide us it is found in these words: Slow down, Church. Slow down and look for the star. Slow down and follow. Slow down and ask your questions. Slow down and trek forward stage by stage. Slow down, Church. Stop your frantic activity. Don’t force. Stop trying to dish out fast food faith. The way forward will not be found that way. It never has been…

What would happen if we received the gift of the Magi to trek with them, to slow down? Many things, I think.

We could offer and receive the gift of unhurried hospitality. We could discern the wise way forward rather than an impulsive, unthoughtful one. We could begin to understand things not in terms of years or even decades, but in the light of centuries, millennia, yes, even eternity. We could deliberately join in God’s rhythm in the world rather than our own. We could tune ourselves to the large seasonal arc of nature…

Slow down, Church. Wait, watch, follow, question, surrender, love, bow down. All in good time. Slow down, Church. Follow the star.”

I don’t know why the power and purpose of life has set my feet upon this rock
this rock, and not another
with a more comfortable vantage point,
without the contradictions

I don’t know why I have conversations with police officers
who describe the harm they experience from angry crowds
as well as marchers angry about excessive force.

I don’t know why I hear the voice of my black brother one day
speaking of his numb soul, the decades old story
and overhear the coffee conversation of my white males the next,
describing a different world altogether.

I don’t know why I sit surrounded by my gizmos, like the one in front of me  now,
knowing that in other places I have been they live without so much as bread.

I don’t know why most of my waking hours are filled with the already believing
but I am frequently put in the way of those who call it all into question.

I don’t know why one day I share time with those who are most informed by guiding myths,
but the next day shoot the breeze with those who assume quantum everything.

I don’t know why I fully understand plunging into the sensory world of now,
but also hear those select few who know that the party is always ending as soon as it begins.

I really don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Nor do I know why my feet, these feet, stand here.

But they do and they are mine.

I have to believe that beyond every polar opposite and duality,
beyond every jarring contrast,
lives some unifying truth, a core kind of reality,
that unites these diverse little worlds that so often spin out and away from each other.

At least I pray so. And I’m not even sure for what I am praying.

It may be nothing more than a confession of not knowing but trusting.
Maybe that’s enough.
It better be.

Be a good stocking stuffer!

Posted: November 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

And now for some garish self-promotion:

Looking for that unique and stimulating small Christmas gift for someone special? Why not a book? And why not …

Six Doors to the Seventh Dimension


The Square Root of God 

Both are available through fine book sellers everywhere including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


I attended a vigil tonight, a gathering of the faith community and others to await the verdict of the grand jury on the Michael Brown case. Though most were not surprised by the outcome they were filled with more grief.

For some the shape of that grief bends to the perceived injustice of another white police officer taking the life of another black man. Of course, they said, there will be no trial. The streets are filled with that rage.

Beyond the actual evidence and testimony of the case and conclusions drawn on that, beyond the technicalities and data, there exists a massive history of racism, discrimination, white privilege, lynchings and systematic inequality. That precedes what occurred with Michael Brown, the latest wound covering an even deeper unhealed wound. It is a wound that has festered for decades, centuries, a wound carried by this nation from its beginning. And no matter the strides – and there have been mighty ones – our painful heritage lives on.

It is never enough to say let’s just get over it.

We have to create a way of life in which such things are much, much less likely to happen. Until then justice will not have prevailed. And like the old, old wound from yesterday and the day before yesterday healing will unfold over time. But let’s not tarry. This is no time to procrastinate. Now is always the right time to make a powerful witness for a new way of life. When else?

In Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return he describes the necessary and daunting journey for those who have descended into the hell of war – its trauma and moral injury – and returned with healing and restoration. This journey requires exposing the wounding and allowing for catharsis, struggling toward self and other forgiveness, reconciliation with those who were enemies, rehumanizing those who had once been dehumanized, reintegrating with community, making amends and restitution for past wrongs, and finally rising to new meaning and purpose.

I was struck by the depth and sincerity of this prayer from wounded/healed veteran Hugh Scanlen, a man who spent decades of work to heal other vets and himself:

O God, as I begin my walk out of the darkness
and turmoil of conflict,
give me the strength to find a lasting and gentle existence.
Give me the desire to treat all living creatures with respect.
Help me to do no harm for the remaining days of my life.
May I accept who I am now –
not who I have been in the past.
Help me to remember and to dim –
not forget — the tragic past.
Take my experiences and teach me to use them
to understand others
wherever I go. To ban fear, hate,
and violence from my thinking.
Let me understand how one person can make
the world a better place.
Show me the reasons I am still here and what I am to do.
Give me the strength to face the time I have left here
to reconnect with humanity. To feel and give love.
O God, make me whole again.

The Subway Huddle

Posted: November 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

I’m not trying to eavesdrop but it’s unavoidable. I’m eating at a table right beside a 6 top of guys who are sharing a tutorial. When I arrived one guy was drawing a pattern on a napkin and his friends were leaning in and listening. It was a discussion about strategy – how to disciple people. Relationships, content, and setting the hook in that first eight weeks.

By the time I was halfway through my sandwich the topic had shifted to “complimentary” but different roles prescribed by God through the Bible. Men are meant to lead and even though women don’t know it they secretly want to follow. When they don’t they are in a state of rebellion against God’s will…

By the time I was cleaning up my trash they were summarizing – this is the roadmap to get you to the right relationship with God. It’s not easy but it will transform you…

Yes, I thought, it will transform us … into the perfect culturally shaped First Century person, one whose church and concept of Biblical manhood is slowly being left in the dustbin of history…