Saturday, November 28, 2009

Will I Choose Joy?

I've been reflecting this week on the story of the lost or prodigal son. To guide my reflections I read Henri Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son, in which he shares his insights into this story in light of Rembrandt's famous painting by the same name. As I finished reading the book this morning, I found myself challenged by a basic question. This question also indirectly arose from our Sunday morning worship time last week. In many places Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being a celebration--a party, to use the language Tony Campolo has used to describe it. The story of the lost son shows us a father who welcomes his wayward son home, not with recriminations and reluctance, but with joy and celebration, pulling out all the stops. Reflecting on this Nouwen writes: "Celebration belongs to God's kingdom....God does not want to keep his joy to himself. He wants everyone to share in it."

But Nouwen reminds us as well that we must choose to enter into this celebration. God does not force us. The elder son and others in the story face a choice. In Nouwen's words, "Will they understand the father's joy? Will they let the father embrace them? Will I?"

As I read this section of his book and probably in light of all that preceeded it in earlier chapters, I wrestled with the question he asks. Am I able to let the father embrace me? Am I able to understand and enter into the father's joy? I look at the world around me and more often than not respond with cynicism and gloom. I see the negative far more readily than the positive. I expect sadness, disappointment and pain. To quote Nouwen's words again, "Somehow I have become accustomed to living with sadness, and so have lost the eyes to see the joy and the ears to hear the gladness that belongs to God and which is to be found in the hidden corners of the world."

I see myself as a realist, one who sees things as they are. (My wife might disagree with this, since there is definitely an idealist in me as well.) Although I want to rejoice and celebrate God's goodness and love, I see a world filled with sorrow and suffering, with pain and grief. I see a world in which his kingdom, his shalom, have not yet been made complete. Not only that, but I look at my own life and I see the shortcomings and imperfections in myself and those closest to me. These things tend to draw more of my attention than the moments of joy, the moments of light, the moments when shalom breaks through in some small way. But God calls me to rejoice, not because everything has been made right in this world, but to rejoice when his kingdom breaks through in any way, no matter how small.

"God rejoices," writes Nouwen. "Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into that joy."

The recognition that I lack the ability to rejoice, that I more often choose cynicism or gloom rather than with joy and celebration, hurts deeply. I don't want to be this way. Changing this pattern of behavior won't be a quick and easy process though, nor will it be one that I can accomplish on my own. But I want to begin that journey. I want to choose joy. I want to choose to enter into the joy of my father, to join him at the table of celebration rather than standing outside, refusing to participate. The circumstances in which I currently live do not promote a lifestyle of joyful celebration, but I think that if we as God's children can learn to live in his shalom even in the midst of those circumstances, that joy can become a powerful magnet to others.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning to Love

I've been reflecting a lot lately on love, what it means to love and what it means to receive love. I began reading 1 Corinthians 13 again, intending to read a small portion and meditate on it. Well, I didn't get very far before the Spirit called specific issues to my attention.

In the first verse we read (following the New Living Translation): "If I could speak in any language in heaven or on earth but didn't love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal." My area of specialty for the past several years has been language learning, so when I read these words what struck me was that this verse speaks about that topic. If I, or any other person, undertakes the learn another language, particularly for the sake of communicating the Good News, but I do so without love, then my efforts are pointless and my ability to communicate in that other language will be meaningless, no matter how proficient I may become. In other words, if I don't love the people who speak that language, then there is no point in my learning the language to begin with. This brought me to the place of asking God to renew or fuel in my heart a love for the people whose language I am learning. I believe that this love already exists, but I also realize that it can certainly grow and increase.

Reflecting on this further I see that loving a people group can be quite a different thing from loving specific members of that group. I can (perhaps) easily say "I love the X people" and picture them in my mind as an abstract concept, an image I have in my mind of this group of people. That is not a bad thing, but it is only a first step. In some cases that step alone can be quite difficult. For example, I think many American Christians would find it difficult to say with all their heart that they love Arab people, because we have developed some very strong cultural biases against them. But loving a people group as a concept remains rather nebulous, until you find yourself confronted with the reality of loving particular members of that group. Sometimes this can make it easier to love, because the concept becomes a concrete reality with flesh and bones, with needs and emotions. But sometimes this reality can make it more difficult to express love from the heart, because some people are not very lovable. I may say "I love the X people," but can I love the specific X person who is crowded next to me on the bus, smelling like he or she hasn't bathed in several days? Or can I love the X person who is complicating my life by demands to do something for him or her? Can I love the person who has done things to hurt me or those I love? Confronted with these questions, I can only pray "Jesus, teach me to love."

I think that both of these aspects of loving others are useful. We as believers should ask God to give us a love for the different people groups of the world, particularly those for whom we currently feel enmity. But in order to express that love in action, we need to take the next step and love the members of a group as individuals, entering into their lives and listening to them, seeing them as Jesus does--as precious people uniquely and individually created and loved by him. In the end both of these aspects can only be done out of the overflow of Jesus' love in our hearts. I can manufacture love towards others to a certain point. I can seek to develop feelings of sympathy and humanity towards others and that's not a bad thing. But I cannot sustain it nor can I truly love others simply from my own understanding of human love. The well is simply not deep enough.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Turning 40

I recently celebrated my 40th birthday. My American culture presents this as a significant milestone, the point at which one has reached the pinnacle of life. The fact that we speak of turning 40 as being "over the hill" indicates that we look at the rest of life as a decline. I think most of my friends who are of similar age don't really look at it this way. In fact only those who are younger probably think in these terms. I was encouraged by a couple friends who informed me that in their culture reaching 40 marks the point of maturity. At 40 years old one can finally be considered to have grown up and the best years of life now lie ahead. I rather like this perspective. I certainly don't feel like I've reached the high point of life and all that awaits me from this point onward is a slow decline into old age.

Turning 40 does serve as a marker along the journey of life and offers an opportunity to stop and reflect on the path one has taken. For some, this reflection frightens them, because they realize that they have invested their lives in meaningless things that have no lasting value. Or maybe they measure their lives against the values pushed by our media-driven culture and feel that they have come up with the short end of the stick. In response they might push to obtain those "things" that they think will make life complete and fulfill their happiness, be it a newer, nicer car, a bigger house, or a different spouse.

Although I've spent some time ruminating on my life at this junction, I don't find myself experiencing a mid-life crisis. I don't feel the need to add some new spark to a dull and meaningless life because I have the privilege of living a purpose-driven, meaningful life. In fact, sometimes I wish my life were a little more mundane! I really have nothing to complain about. I have been blessed with a wonderful wife and two delightful (most of the time!) children. I enjoy my work (most of the time!) and am blessed with dear friends, friends from around the world. By the standards of the culture I may have sacrificed a lot. I haven't achieved much, if anything, that our culture considers significant. I don't own my own house. I don't even own a car! I'm not on the path of upward mobility. Sometimes these things tempt me, but then God reminds me of the blessings he's given me. He reminds me of the purpose and calling on my life. He reminds me that I have the opportunity to impact lives for eternity--though I may not see the fruit myself in this life. I haven't sacrificed anything that I haven't received something better in return.

Do I wish I could live life over? Not really. I could change some decisions I regret, but I would inevitably make other regrettable decisions in their place. No, I will thank God instead for the journey I have made and continue to make and for his grace and providence along the path. I will thank him that he has chosen me and filled my life with meaning and purpose for the sake of his name and his glory. And I will pray that my life will continue to be of service to him as long as I draw breath on this earth.