STUMBLING ONTO JOY

If you’ve lived long enough, or perhaps if you’ve just REALLY lived, you’ve been the giver of unconditional love a time or two.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to be a parent, it goes with the territory.  You  give without ever asking or even thinking about asking for anything in return.  The ones you truly love make mistakes (sometimes a lot of them) and you forgive them.

You love them as they are, at their very best and at their most challenging.  And if it is the perfect kind of unconditional love, it means letting the other be most perfectly themselves.  It is like water for the soul, helping it to blossom into what it is called to be.

 When we love like this, we are not hoping that they fit an image,  perhaps really just a mirror image of ourselves.  Actually, when you come right down to the heart of the matter, the self has nothing to do with unconditional love.  The self that cares so much about checks and balances, that wants to know “what have you done for me lately” always get stuck in this building we call the body.

When there is no clutching towards the self, no seeking to find something particular to and for us; we love joyfully and without hesitation. 

If you experience this kind of giving, you have been given a glimpse of heaven. In the Christian Bible, Jesus shares the Parable of the Hidden Treasure to explain how priceless this experience of real love is (Matthew 13:44), “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy sold all he had and bought that field.”  This is not to say that accepting another fully is without pain or is easy, but rather it is priceless. It is a wellspring.

It seems most often in my life (and perhaps in yours), that I have stumbled upon these moments, have been gifted with the people I have loved unconditionally, and so it makes the joy even more precious as I did nothing to make them come about.  They have come into my life, not as a payment earned, but as proof of grace.

The Sufi poet, Hafiz writes,   

 “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky.”   

When you love freely, there is no end to how the spirit soars, no limit to how Love can expand.  

I was given this gift by father and it wasn’t his to keep, but to enjoy.  I give this gift to my children and it isn’t mine to keep, but to enjoy.   I know it is now theirs to take and enjoy.

THE BOOK OF JOB: “WHY ME?”

For all those who say that the Bible has nothing to teach us, I say, “Read Job.”

Here is an open wound kind of story, a lament and a waiting, “Why?  Why me? Why?”  Job really tries not to complain. He simply and understandably wants answers to the injustice of it all.  Job is sore for the salve that most of the Bible ladles out…and there is none. Words of comfort and declaration of God’s mercy never come. Instead, grief and anguish rush deeply into every sinew of Job’s pain wracked body.

Job is blameless and upright.  He does all the right things.  He is faithful to his wife, they have seven sons and three daughters.  He rises early each morning to perform a good ritual, mixing herbs and sending up prayers, burnt offerings, so that his children will be protected against bad karma, so that they will be safe. 

By all accounts, Job was a saint. Like so many friends and family we know who daily do the right thing, often the hard thing, without complaint.  

He is the parent who daily prepares the injections for his chronically ill child, nurses the one with cancer, carries the one with cystic fibrosis, and soothes the one with a chemical imbalance.  It is love, this duty. It is all the hope that if they do everything right, all will end well.

God is pretty well pleased to be sure.  But then he gets talking to the devil (never a good idea) about what a great guy Job is.  And the Devil says: “Yeah, so what if he is your poster child for Righteous Living.  He leads a charmed life.  You’ve put a fence around him.  Let me at him: we’ll see how long it is before he starts hatin’ on you.”    

So God says, “Go for it.”  The devil kills all 10 children.  Still Job does not sin, does not rail mightily against God. 

God starts bragging to Job again. The devil replies, “He did all right, I’ll grant you, but let me get at his physical body, and I’ll turn him.” A nasty (that’s putting it mildly) skin disease is unleashed.

For the next 30 chapters or so, Job and his four friends try to figure this out.  This is not fair, this does not make sense.  His friends even go so far as to intimate that perhaps Job needs to review his life, that maybe he didn’t something wrong that he is not even aware of and this is God’s punishment.  Job is not buying it.  On top of all he has suffered, now others want to heap blame on him to boot. 

He is resentful, protesting God, he reads happiness in the Psalms and finds all the goody-two-shoes of the Bible hollow and a mockery of his pain.

He begins to build a legal case against God. God vs. the people.  Job is a hiccup in a book of praising God and a vital one.  Because sometimes you simply can’t kiss the ground with gratitude. Some things you go through not only knock the wind out of you, for good measure, they throw you down a well of hurt that takes more than a hot minute to climb out of.

That’s why this book of Job so significant.  Because you do not have to deny your life experience, round off its rough edges, and tiptoe, kowtowing with false deference to the Almighty.  You can have faith in all its messy and contradictory guises and be honest with how horrible are some of the things you have endured.  

At the end of Job, the LORD answers Job “out of the whirlwind” and it is mesmerizing and mysterious and unfathomable.  God’s response does not negate or dismiss his pain, but puts him face to face with the awe-inspiring mystery of all of creation with all its immensity and grandeur. 

At the end of all the protest and anger and confusion, Job begins to hear the old strains of his faith, the words and music and traditions that had once soothed and he sees them differently, with fresh eyes.  He has developed a stance towards life without a ‘tit for a tat’ expectation of anyone, including God.

And so it is with me.   I don’t take the bible stories literally as I did when I was a little girl. Yet  metaphorically their stories continue to enrich my own inner life.  The songs I sing at church are not with the same lightheartedness I sang them as a kid, but they can and do make me laugh and cry at the same time.

Job does not give neat little answers about why God is so great.  In fact, he understands less than when he started. He knows he lost too much, that he didn’t deserve any of the things that befell him.

And while he can easily be let off the hook to be bitter and twisted for the remainder of his days, he chooses to be drawn back into the incomprehensible  grandeur of life, with new eyes, eyes wide open.

WORD UP SOCRATES

It was Socrates who said that “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  Of course, being a philosopher in the 4 century B.C.E., one didn’t have Voice Mail, Email, Facebook, Twitter, and Super Bowl predictions amidst a countless sea of daily to-do’s clamoring to distract you from this special task.    

But is it a luxury, examining your life, or is it a necessity? 

Here is where religion and theology, fightin’ words too often, can truly have some redeeming value.  Fundamentally, religion has to do with the problem of finding meaning and orientation in life, one of the most basic human needs.  Psychologist James Fowler, for example, describes human beings as “creatures who cannot live without meaning.” While this need for meaning is present in each of us, it cannot be addressed exclusively-or even primarily- as an individual matter.  And none of us really gets to start from scratch.  We have been born into traditions, as a member of a family or as a member of the society we live in, and this has helped us to orient ourselves in the world, for better and for worse.

This means for many a total rejection of anything that smacks of organized religion.  Unfortunately, there is usually no back up plan in place that helps to frame the BIG QUESTIONS and then live in dialogue with them.  Questions about the meaning of life and death, how we understand our place in the cosmos, whether there is some “ultimate reality” (Paul Tillich) that we can relate to or belong.  As theologian Sallie McFague argues, “The goal of theology, as I see it, is to be functional, that is, to actually work in someone’s life.  It is meant to be an aid to right living.”

 I have also discovered that this meaning making is only eked out in relationship with others, it is the ONLY way we gather context in order to do any kind of self-examination. Maintaining relationships, having conversations with others, and choosing to be in community with those who are also trying to live their lives with intention helps to correct the all too human tendency (this correction is exacted sometimes with a feather, sometimes with a 2×4!) to make and keep assumptions about people, places, and things.

OK.  If I didn’t like a lot of the large-scale world pictures that the faith I was brought up in was painting as final truth (and I didn’t), I did discover for myself a theology that goes beyond labeling myself as a “Something.”  Theology can and should be more than just a label but a resource, a grounding for spiritual practice, for social critique, even for healing.   Saying that you are a Christian doesn’t by itself explain how you think of Jesus or how much authority you give to biblical teachings.  Even calling yourself a humanist or an atheist doesn’t say much about you.

To understand your theology, other need to know things like: “What sort of God do you believe, or don’t you believe in?”  “Do you find any directionality or purpose in the universe, in evolution, or is it random?” Equally important, as Paul Rasor asks, in his book Faith without Certainty, ” What sorts of normative claims do you make about the way society should be structured, and where do they come from?” Saying you affirm justice for all is nice, but what social arrangements count as just, and who gets to decide?”

These are individual questions, collective questions, and for each of us to answer.  And over the course of a life, many of those answers will change and a rare few, I would wager, will remain unaltered.  And it is worth it.