Surprised by Joy

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My wife Amelia was reminiscing about a time when her father went to a water park. He was already retired by that time, yet his inner child came out to play. Having plunged 100 feet down a water slide, he emerged from the water with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. That made me think, When was the last time I experienced this kind of childlike joy? I couldn’t remember. Sure, there are things I’ve enjoyed doing but nothing that prompted a belly laugh, jumping up and down, or that I’m-going-to-Disneyland open-mouthed smile.

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This bit of wisdom is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When someone quoted Honest Abe recently, it made me think maybe happiness isn’t something spontaneous that just happens. Perhaps it’s a choice we make. I spent the week trying to make up my mind to be happy. It worked. Sort of. Making a concerted effort to be happy improved my mental state, a little. But it didn’t evoke the kind of childlike glee I felt I was missing.

I decided to follow the example of one of my favorite saints, St. Augustine, who obeyed the voice of a child and was converted. In my case, the child was my twenty-year-old daughter Maddy, hardly a little kid but someone who still knows how to have a good time. Her older sister Nadine and I visited her last weekend at Virginia Military Institute for Family Weekend. Several times Maddy said she wanted to go to the Safari Park in Natural Bridge, VA. Finally, on Sunday afternoon I gave in (when her sister agreed to pay the steep admission fee!). Driving through the park was fun and I enjoyed watching my two grown daughters delight in feeding the animals through the car windows, but it still wasn’t doing a whole lot for me. I’d been to a real safari park in Africa a little over a year ago.

At the end of our drive-through safari adventure, we parked and visited the walk-through zoo. It was hot and I was ready to leave. Then I saw the aviary filled with colorful little birds called budgies (aka common parakeets). We went in. That’s when it happened. I little blue bird landed on my arm and started gentle nibbling at my skin. Another landed on my shoulder and nibbled at my neck. A big grin came across my face. I think God was smiling too.   

Is happiness a choice or just something that happens to you? It’s both. One of the keys to happiness is spending time with people you care about. Another is experiencing new things. Telling yourself to be happy can help a little, but creating the conditions for happiness helps a lot.

Living a good life doesn’t mean laughing all the time. The Bible says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.” We’re surprised by both joy and sorrow. If you’re a glass-half-empty person like me, weeping comes more naturally. Laughing takes effort. But it’s worth it.

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Who Am I?

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For the past seven or eight months, I’ve been in therapy. Not because there’s anything wrong with me. I’m not schizophrenic, bipolar, neurotic, alcoholic, nor am I thinking of harming myself or others. So why did I start seeing a psychologist? As I approached the big five-oh (which I’m thankful to have behind me), I was struggling with issues of identity. Who am I? What do I want to be? While I’m still working on answers, wrestling with those questions has led me to a career change, which I discussed in my last post.

One of the benefits of no longer being a pastor is getting to hear other people preach. The sermon this morning concerned issues of identity. In the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus quizzes Simon Peter, asking who people say he (Jesus) is, then asking Peter his opinion. Peter’s answer to the question earns him praise, not because he studied for the test and made an A, but because someone whispered the right answer in his ear: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). Grace, not nature (“flesh and blood”), enlightened Peter’s understanding of Jesus’s identity. And that grace came from Peter’s relationship with God (“my Father in heaven”). The preacher made the point that to know Jesus the way Peter did we must be willing to follow Peter’s life and example. He ended his message with this: “How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to know Jesus the way Peter did?” Good question.

Peter followed the Lord closely but imperfectly. When Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus to save his own skin. St. John Chrysostom speculated that Peter “fell into sin so that, remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.” Acknowledging our own sins allows us to do the same. Confession and repentance not only build self-knowledge and humility, they also develop empathy and encourage us to show mercy.

Studying today’s Bible lesson inevitably leads us to turn the main question back on ourselves: Who am I? It’s a difficult question. As with the original question, the right answer doesn’t come from preparation but from grace. The phrase “know thyself” was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi. The inscription implies that self-knowledge is an essential part of worship. That doesn’t mean religion is primarily self-focused. It isn’t about us. But as we grow in our knowledge and love of God and others, we also grow in our knowledge and love of ourselves.

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History Comes Full Circle

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U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

Sorting through boxes in our basement to downsize ahead of a move, I came across a research paper I wrote in high school on the Third Seminole Indian War. You’ve probably never heard of it. Most folks haven’t. Even those who grew up in Florida, as I did, know little, if anything, about the Seminole Wars which began two hundred years ago. Attending Osceola Middle School, named after a famous Seminole leader, made me curious to learn more. In the eighth grade I pulled a book off the display shelf in my school library and couldn’t put it down. Even when the bell rang I sat cross-legged on the library floor, engrossed in the book on my lap: History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. My fascination with the Seminole Wars inspired a family trip to the Dade Battlefield in Bushnell and more visits to the library.

After high school, I kept my love of history but moved on from U.S. military history to other interests. Eventually I earned a PhD in history. My specialization was about as far from U.S. military history as possible: sixteenth-century German religious and cultural history. After five years of college teaching and not securing a coveted tenure-track job, I applied for and was offered a position at the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) in Washington, D.C. I turned it down but regretted my decision afterward. Five years later another career opportunity opened up at CMH. Again I was offered a job. This time I took it.

My interest in history has come full circle. Once hooked by U.S. Army history, I am now a U.S. Army historian. I get a kick out of the fact that I, a Navy Reserve Chaplain and non-combatant, am researching and writing about Army combat operations. God must have a sense of humor.

 

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Dying to Live for Others

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Today I visited a home for the impoverished elderly in DC run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. This trip, like a previous one to their home in Richmond, was the result of a promise I made last year to a spunky Irish nun named Sister Helen Creed, when I visited her order’s Nyumba Ya Wazee (Home for the Elderly) in Nairobi, Kenya.

While the humble facility in Africa can’t compare to the ones in our wealthy nation, the love for the elderly poor in both places is the same. What impressed me most today was watching three sisters caring for a woman who was dying, talking to her, stroking her, encouraging her to eat. The nun who led my tour of the facility explained that someone stays with the dying person around the clock “until they go to God.” I thought, “What secular nursing home would do that?”

When we care for the least privileged in society, we are caring for Jesus. That’s what the Lord explained in Matthew 25:31-46. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, put it like this: “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well. . . . Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” The nuns I met in Nairobi, Richmond, and DC not only minister to the poor, they are themselves poor. They’ve chosen a life of voluntarily poverty in order to preach the Gospel, not in words but in deeds. They die to self in order to live for others. If you were to ask me where I’ve seen God lately, I’d answer in the Little Sisters of the Poor and the people they care for.

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Follow Me

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On Thursday I watched the new Martin Scorsese movie Silence. It’s about two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians. Many Japanese were tortured and killed for their faith. Many more gave up their faith to avoid persecution. At the climax of the movie, one of the missionaries is given a choice – renounce his faith and save the lives of five Japanese Christians or keep his faith and watch them die a cruel and painful death. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what he did, but I will say that it was a difficult film to watch at times.

Like the missionaries in the movie, the earliest disciples had no idea what they were getting themselves into when Jesus called them. The first four, two sets of brothers, were all fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story. What’s impressive is how these men left their nets and followed Jesus IMMEDIATELY when Jesus came and said to them, “Follow me.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Traveling from town to town with a rabbi must have sounded better than doing the same strenuous work day after day. To be sure, Jesus didn’t promise them a rose garden. Not by any means. But he did promise that they’d still be fishermen of sorts. Only instead of catching fish, they’d catch people for God.

I often wish God’s call to me were as clear as the one the disciples received by the lakeshore. Before I went to seminary, I struggled with my calling. I thought I might want to become a psychologist instead of a minster, so I enrolled in a psychology class at the local community college and applied for a graduate studies program in counseling psychology at the University of Florida. In the end, I decided to go into the ministry instead. My wife Amelia and I hitched a U-Haul trailer to our 1974 Chevy Impala, loaded up our furniture and personal belongings, and drove from Florida to North Carolina where I enrolled in seminary. I’d like to tell you that making that leap of faith settled all doubt about my calling. It did not. I continued to struggle with the question of what God wanted me to be. A missionary? A pastor? A Navy chaplain? A college or seminary professor? I didn’t know. I’ve done all those things except for being a missionary. I’ve found good in all of them. I’ve sensed God’s blessing in all of them. But I’ve never heard a voice telling me, “This is the way, walk in it.”

One thing that God has been teaching me lately is the difference between being and doing. Who I am is more important that what I do. God calls everyone to follow him. For some that involves leaving everything and entering full-time ministry like the Jesuit missionaries in the movie Silence. For many following Jesus means being a faithful witness right where we are. No change of employment. No new address. The important thing is that we’re living for Jesus now – this day, in this moment.

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Christmas – Holiday or Holy Day?

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Christmas falls on Sunday this year. Even though it’s special to have the birthday of Jesus fall on the Lord’s day, I expect church attendance to be low. Really low. Maybe half, if we’re lucky. Why is that? Let’s be honest: Christmas has become a holiday. It’s no longer a holy day. To understand why this is we have to look back and see what’s changed.

In pre-modern times, there were two approaches to knowledge: symbolic and rational. The symbolic approach was embedded in the religious stories and rituals. It was the expertise of the prophet, the priest, and the poet. The rational approach helped people understand the stars overhead and the ground beneath their feet. It allowed them to craft better tools, engineer better bridges, and raise healthier animals. Both approaches – symbolic and rational – were held in equally high regard. The same was true in pre-modern Christianity. The sacred stories (Scripture) and rituals (sacraments), on the one hand, and sacred beliefs (theology), on the other, were equally important.

The Greeks called these two approaches: mythos (myth) and logos (reason). In our modern, scientific age the word “myth” has fallen into ill repute and means a story that’s untrue. “Myth,” in this earlier sense of the word, doesn’t mean a fairy tale. As one famous anthropologist explained, it’s “not merely a story told, but a reality lived. […] It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and enforces practical rules for the guidance of man” (Bronislaw Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” 1926). A myth isn’t just something to be understood and believed, like reason. It’s a program for reform. It points to a better way to live.

Myths and rituals are mutually reinforcing. In ancient times the two were always tied together.  As Karen Armstrong explains, “Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.  Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally” (The Case for God).

By rejecting sacred stories and rituals, secular modern man has lost his core. There’s no more grounding for values and no more source for meaning. Jungian psychologist James Hollis puts it neatly: “When the gods are not expressed inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.” That’s why at this time of year the Christmas cookie has replaced the communion wafer. The materialistic rituals of Christmas (gift buying and giving, binge eating and drinking) leave us emptier than before we filled our homes and stomachs with more stuff.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to cancel Christmas. I like a lot of those outward projections. I don’t want to give them up. But when opening presents or cooking Christmas dinner trumps going to church on Christmas Sunday, I think it’s time to call timeout. It’s time to re-evaluate our sacred myths and re-engage with our sacred rituals. Going to church on Christmas morning won’t solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.

Merry Christmas!

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(Im)Perfectly Beautiful

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Vase with Landscape and Dinosaurs (2014) by Steven Young Lee

Visiting an art museum always brings surprises. Today I went to the Renwick Gallery in DC to look at art glass by well-known artists such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. I found impressive examples of both. But what surprised me most were the beautifully damaged pieces of traditional blue-and-white ceramic by artist Steven Young Lee. They’re part of the special exhibit Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016.

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Peonies and Butterflies (2013) by Steven Young Lee

Some pieces appear cracked, others exploded, still others melting like objects in a Salvador Dali painting. The combination of traditional craft and contemporary abstraction makes these porcelain vases poignant and haunting. They remind me that beauty doesn’t require perfection. Imperfect pieces can be just a beautiful and even more memorable.

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Vase with Scroll Pattern (2014) by Steven Young Lee

“Deconstructing and imploding the forms creates a visceral reaction that defies the human desire for perfection and confronts the perception of value. It is in this act that I hope to challenge and redefine what is beautiful.”—Steven Young Lee

 

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