Can I Please Have Some Joy?

I deliberately skipped last week’s Advent blog, because I got my Sundays mixed up. I thought that last week was the Joy Candle, and that this week was the Love Candle. Love is easy to write about – I’ve been writing about it since high school oratory competition (I was State Champ, and I am bragging.)

But, me being who I am – and God being who God is – my carefully steered boat got rocked this morning. I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual this week – I had remembrance for two more combat deaths this past week – and I was giving serious consideration to skipping church again, regardless of which candle we were lighting today. But, my wife reminded me that my mood is always vastly improved by attending church. As she is much wiser than I, and employed by the VA to be the guardian of my mental health, I decided to sacrifice a little sleep to attend worship.

I was looking forward to a good sermon, as my pastor is a 30-year veteran of pastoral ministry and missions. He always delivers the goods. At first, I was simply suffering through the Christmas carols (our worship band is spectacular, but I am something of a grumpy purist when it comes to carols, and they do non-traditional/contemporary music.) Then, the Advent liturgical and Scripture reading happened, and it started with, “Today we light the Candle of Joy.”

And in my mind, I thought, “Oh shit.

I looked at my wife, and said (out loud), “Since I tried to avoid this candle, he’s going to preach directly at me this morning.” (He doesn’t mean to do this, but he almost always does when it comes to theological topics that I struggle with. This is why I say that he delivers the goods.)

His sermon wasn’t particularly challenging to me, personally. It was all about his own travels to Bethlehem, and the irony of the most important people in history being in a small town in Palestine on Christmas night. And, that particular message has resonated with me for the past few years, ever since I embraced the dangerous, subversive, revolutionary overall message of the Gospel. BUT… while I know intellectually why the birth of Jesus should bring me great joy, and while I desire it greatly, I don’t feel it in my soul. I don’t have that peace and contentment that I have always felt is the prerequisite for joy.

As an aside, and by way of explanation, I’ll tell you this: a few years ago, as I was undertaking a serious search for my place in the five-fold ministry, I had an experience that left me with a certainty that my place was that of the prophet. I might explain that in more detail in the New Year – I only tell you now to provide a little insight into why peace and joy are such difficult concepts for my spirit. Go back and read some Old Testament prophets, and you won’t find a great deal of joy or peace. Very rarely (if ever) do you hear a prophet – either ancient or modern – say, “You know what? We’re doing okay. Everything is pretty great. You guys just keep doing what you’re doing.” NOPE. The prophet doesn’t exist to comfort; the prophet exists to challenge, to cry out and rail against injustice, to confront. It’s a pretty lonely place, which is why there are a lot of pastors, teachers, and evangelists out there, but not so many people who embrace the role of the prophet. Our lives are generally difficult even before we embrace our ministry, and acceptance of it typically only increases that difficulty.

So, joy? Peace? Not typically on the menu for me.

I’m sitting there in church, half-listening to the sermon and contemplating why I can’t feel joy, why I have such a hard time with the concept, why I feel like such a terrible Jesus follower for not walking around with a Giant Joy Halo all the time. And, suddenly, Joy walked in.

Actually, his name was Da’Von. He’s one of my favorite teenagers ever, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I think about him often, but I don’t stay up nights worrying about him. He’s a good kid, and I am pretty sure that he’s staying out of trouble. But, seeing him… it brought me such a feeling of peace and contentment, that I can only describe it as absolute, unfettered joy. And, he was excited to see me too. It was an epic hug that we shared, huge smiles all around.

And, as I knelt at the rail later and prayed, “God, can I please have some joy?” it was as if the Spirit descended as a dove and said, “Look around, Prophet.” And, I realized that I experience that joy every Sunday morning. This is the reason that my wife sees my mood soar after church: it’s the 10 teenagers that greet me with a hug and a smile when I come in. It’s the older men and women who greet me with those same smiles and hugs, one of my “spiritual fathers” ragging me about my wrinkled shirt and my messy hair, my “spiritual mother” telling me how handsome I look and how happy she is to see me. It’s dancing to the familiar praise and worship songs, or to 80s funk in the burrito joint after church. It’s making those employees laugh, giving a good tip to them, jamming out to Colin Hay and Indigo Girls on my iPod. It’s all these little things in my life, but it’s especially all these everyday – yet extraordinarypeople in my life.

The life of the prophet might be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be lived alone. And, while I don’t get this spiritual ecstasy listening to the Christmas story, I do get it from living like Jesus is in the face of every person that I meet. Whether it’s a teenage man-child that I haven’t seen in a while, or it’s in a homeless, hopeless family on the side of the road – Jesus is born in those people each day, and it’s up to us to be the shepherds and the magi that recognize the glory and the majesty of what we’re witnessing. We’re witnessing the Incarnation forever and ever, world without end.

Now, here’s the challenge: I can’t just find that joy, that Jesus, in the faces of the people that I love. I have to find it in those people that I nearly despise, those people whose deeds and words I rail and cry out in opposition to. I have to see the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ child, in those that I would make my enemies. Because, that baby in the manger that turned history and power on its head, the one who grew up to say, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor”… He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.” I feel like, today, He’s saying to me, “Michael, Prophet, find joy in your enemies, in those who hate you (and others), in those who persecute you and those that you love. Find me in their faces.”

I may be a grumpy old Christmas carol purist, I may feel like hell every December, I may not get all tingly at the Christmas story – but, I have joy. It just takes a little effort to recognize it.

May I bring that joy to the world. May we all bring that joy to the world.

Merry Christmas.

What’s So Tough About Grace?

Grace is, arguably, the foundation of the Christian faith.

“It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

“Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me!”

The idea is that God saves us – from our sin, from ourselves – with His grace. We cannot be in relationship with a perfect, infinite God as finite, imperfect beings. Thus, God gives His grace as a bridge between Himself and His creation (forgive the gender pronouns – it’s hard to break a 30+ year habit.) And though we have different ideas about the atonement through Jesus – whether it was a substitution, an exemplar, a liberation from death – we have always understood grace as having come from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, what’s so tough about grace?

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about what I saw as the idolatry in our pursuit of religious freedom. That post generated more discussion – both positive and negative – than I have seen on my writing, since I started writing publicly. But, what was meant to be a discussion of our pursuit of religious freedom at any cost and our willingness to hurt others in the name of it quickly turned into a discussion of who God’s grace was for. Also, there were many words said about who deserves God’s grace, who can have God’s grace. There are some who believe that His grace is available to all, a gift freely given that must only be realized and accepted. Others believe that grace can only be received through repentance. Some believe that God’s grace can only be given by God, to an elect group of people.

There are enough different theologies of grace that I would require months worth of weekly posts to discuss them all. I am a Wesleyan in my personal belief system, but I know Southern Baptists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and many others whose grace theology is very different than mine.

From many discussions, I think I’ve narrowed down our problem with grace to two areas.

For some, the issue with grace is in receiving grace. We live in a culture that constantly reminds us of our unworthiness. The airwaves are flooded with weight loss products, because you’re too fat. We hear about anti-aging creams and cosmetics, because you’re not pretty enough. We have all experienced failure and rejection, whether it be from a career, a relationship, a church. We pile on these responsibilities in order to make ourselves more worthy. We do good deeds to feel like we deserve better in life than we sometimes get.

I understand this very well, because I have experienced these feelings of unworthiness for many years. After my time in Iraq, I felt as though anything that was good in me had died, and that I had to atone for the lives lost, my personal failures. I was unwilling to receive the love and grace of the people closest to me, and thus could not even approach the love and grace of God.

But, over years, something happened (which is something that I also wrote about very recently): I began to understand that my worthiness or unworthiness had nothing to do with grace or love. Love, true love, flows freely from the giver to the receiver. I have always understood this in my family relationships. I have two sons, and I love them both dearly. They don’t deserve my love – they are constantly doing and saying things that are hurtful, that make me angry, that go against everything that I have taught them. Yet, just as there is nothing that they could do to deserve my love, there is also nothing that they could do to become unworthy of my love. They’re my kids – I could stop breathing more easily than I could stop loving my children. There is no talk of earning or deserving or being worthy when I tell my sons that I love them. My love is a gift, and all that they have to do is receive it.

So it is with the grace of God. We might be unworthy, but that doesn’t matter. We might not deserve it, but that doesn’t matter. We can’t earn it, because it’s not ours to earn. It’s only His to give, and ours to receive.

The second problem that I think we have with grace is in the area of sharing grace. You can see this most clearly in the constant war of words and legislative actions surrounding the LGBT community. Religious people are almost always at the forefront of attempts to discriminate against this group of people. More than that, religious heterosexual people are telling religious LGBT people that they are not welcome in communion, in congregation, in fellowship, because of their sin. Grace is supposed to be a free gift, available to all who want it, and yet people who confess Jesus as Lord and seek that grace are denied it by the same people who had no problem receiving it for themselves.

Obviously, I think this is the worse of the two offenses. The Bible tells me that we cannot say that we love God, yet hate our neighbor. And, for all the talk about “speaking the truth in love” and “tough love”, I cannot imagine a love that looks more like hate than the “love” that much of the Christian community has shown to LGBT persons.

While that is the most egregious example of ways that we have failed to share the grace given to us, it is certainly not the only one. How many churches keep the poor at arms length? How many churches refuse to visit prisons, or would accept a felon into their congregation? How many churches would accept a drug addict? How many would accept a prostitute?

Time and time again, we see grace denied to those who are willing to receive it, who need grace in their life the most.

Why do we do this? What’s so tough about grace?

We quote verses like Ephesians 2:8-9, but in the end, we think we get grace because we’re better than those others. Even though we’ll speak the words about how “we’re all sinners”, the grace that is afforded to us can’t be extended to those whose sin is worse in our eyes. I also often hear, “Well, I’ve repented of my sin. They (homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes) are still living in sin.”

“Repentance” is a kind of buzzword in much of church culture. It’s much like a child who grudgingly says, “I’m sorry” when caught hitting their sibling. The behavior probably won’t stop, but at least we apologized. In much of Christianity, we seem to think that cheating on your taxes, lying to your boss, divorcing and remarrying – these are all things that we can do regularly, but as long as we repent, we are still “covered by grace.”

The word for that is hypocrisy, and we’re really, really good at it.

What’s so tough about grace is that receiving grace is hardest for those who need it most: the drug addict, the prostitute, the war veteran, the felon. Those plagued with feelings of unworthiness just can’t see why they’d ever be worth loving, forgiving or saving.

What’s so tough about grace is that sharing or giving grace is hardest for those who never really felt the need for it: the righteous of the world, who have never felt the shame, the guilt, the desperate sense of unworthiness that claws at the soul of so many. For those righteous ones, they can’t imagine what a wondrous gift grace is, how abundant it is, how amazing it really is. And so, they hoard it for themselves, never realizing that it’s only free so that you can give it away.

What’s so tough about grace? Nothing.

And everything.