Pausing to Celebrate the Joys of Life

I am guilty of thinking and worrying so much about the bad things that are happening in the world today that I often fail to think enough about the good things. Yes, I live in a world where meanness, selfishness and dishonesty abound, but I also live in a world full of people who are kind, generous and honest. I want and need to take a break from my worrying and pause to reflect on what is good. I’m going to start with the word joy, an emotion that reminds me of Christmas season, a time of celebration. But joy is an emotion that I can experience everyday, even during troubled times.

What does the word joy mean to me?

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure or happiness but the word that comes to my mind is delight. I spend most of my time in a state of contentment – not too high or too low. So when I experience joy, it is a special treat, an emotion that fills me with gratitude for the little pleasures of life. Joy is exponential; it is happiness squared.

What brings me joy?

One of the things that brings me joy is nature. I absolutely love wildlife and wildflowers and beautiful landscapes – mountains, rivers, lakes, the sky, moon, sun and stars. I see mountains in the distance every day but I don’t get to see wildlife every day. So when I can escape from the suburbs and I see deer or elk (which doesn’t happen every time), it fills me with joy. I like to photograph the wildflowers I see on the trails and have learned to recognize and name dozens of them. I am always delighted by the blooms, especially if I find a flower I have never seen before.

Another thing that brings me joy is small children, which might be surprising since I never had any of my own. I love their cuteness and innocence and sweetness. I love seeing their personalities develop and seeing how they resemble their parents. I love seeing them discover something for the first time. I also find joy in the love I see in a mother or father or grandparent who thinks that child is the most precious and special thing in the world.

Learning and discovery something new bring me joy. Figuring out something difficult brings me joy. Overcoming obstacles brings me joy. My faith brings me joy because there is nothing better than knowing I am loved and forgiven as imperfect as I am.

How can I celebrate and share joy everyday?

I get a lot of articles in my Facebook news feed. Many of them are dire news stories about things I cannot control. It is tempting to share them because I want people to be aware of what is going on and I want to resist injustice. But when I share these articles, I spread doom and gloom and I risk alienating people that I care about. So controlling the temptation to share negative news is important if I want to spread the joys of life to my friends.

I also get news feeds from  other pages that are not negative – pages that celebrate things I love like nature and pets. I follow a few religious pages that encourage me with uplifting scripture. I follow a page that promotes having a positive outlook. I can share and increase joy by making sure that these kinds of posts outweigh the negative ones.

I can also celebrate joy by being grateful for the good things in my life and by focusing on the good I see in ordinary people every day. I cannot take for granted the people who are kind and merciful and generous. They bring me joy.

Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

 

 

 

Today I march because…

Today I will march in Denver, Colorado because I believe in the foundational principle that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Everyday I walk by a framed poster that I purchased in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. It says: The struggle for freedom, equality, and justice transcends race, religion, political affiliation, and even death. This sentence reminds me that thousands of people before me, including my hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, fought to ensure that the freedoms I often take for granted were extended to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

In the days after the election, I vowed that I will stand up and defend those who live in fear because of the 45th President’s hateful, authoritarian rhetoric. Because God has shown me what is good, I promise to do what He requires of me: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). I pledge to be a Matthew 25 Christian. I promise to help the vulnerable (“the least of these” in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). That includes immigrants, Muslims, and people of color who still face discrimination. Turning my back on their suffering during these troubled times would be refusing to help my Lord and Savior.

During times of struggle, I often turn to the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

But I like the way Angela Davis put it even better: I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.

  • I cannot accept racism
  • I cannot accept sexism
  • I cannot accept xenophobia
  • I cannot accept homophobia
  • I cannot accept misogyny
  • I cannot accept threats to freedom of speech, including the free press
  • I cannot accept threats to religious freedom
  • I cannot accept threats to our democracy

I believe in truth. I believe in justice and mercy. I believe in basic human decency. This is why I am marching today with thousands of other women and men across this country.

I am a watchman, Harper Lee

My husband and I recently watched the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t remember ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird but have watched portions of the movie multiple times. My local library didn’t have the book so I read Go Set a Watchman, the book that was published 55 years after Lee wrote it. Although the book has been criticized for not being as polished as Mockingbird, I found it worth reading and am glad it was published.

Sometimes timing is everything. If I had read Watchman when it was first out a couple of years ago, I don’t think it would have touched me in the same way that it does today. But coming after the election of a man who plays dog-whistle politics, it reflected my own feeling of betrayal by people I thought shared my belief that racism is wrong. It captured my own feeling of disconnectedness from the culture and politics of my time.

In Watchman, the 26 year-old Jean Louise (Scout), returns to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit. At church, the music director messed with the familiar doxology by changing the tempo to make it more upbeat – evidence that the people up North were even trying to influence worship services. Then the minister, Mr. Stone, preached a sermon on a Bible verse that provided the title to the book: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (Isaiah 21:6).

The pivotal event in the book began when Jean Louise found out that her father, Atticus, and her childhood sweetheart, Henry, were going to a Citizens’ Council meeting. She followed them to the meeting and watched from the balcony as an “ordinary, God-fearing man” gave a very racist speech to the Council, frequently using the offensive ‘n’ word. He ranted about blacks mongrelizing the race. He told the Council that God intended for the races to be separate. He spoke about preserving segregation and most hypocritically, of preserving “Christian civilization.”

Jean Louise was devastated to see her father and boyfriend sitting at the table listening to such vile racist speech. By being there and listening, her father seemed to be condoning it. Her father was the one man that she had ever “fully and wholeheartedly” trusted and she had always looked up to him as a true gentleman. In letting this racist man speak to the Council, she felt that he had failed her and “betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

Discovering that the man she idolized did not share her conviction that racism is wrong made Jean Louise wonder how she could have ever missed the clues when she was growing up. She realized “that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”

Later, Jean Louise’s aunt Alexandra hosted a coffee for the ladies of Maycomb.  Jean Louise had no idea what she would talk to them about. She listened to the idle chatter of Hester, a woman who didn’t seem to have an original thought; she merely repeated what her husband told her. Hester claimed that blacks up North were using Gandhi’s tactics – communism – to get a hold of the country. To herself, Jean Louise thought:

I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.

Jean Louise chatted with another friend, Claudine, who wondered what it was like to live in New York. The friend had visited once but couldn’t imagine living there with blacks, Italians and Puerto Ricans. Jean Louise told her that she didn’t even notice them. Claudine told her she must be blind. Jean Louise realized she had in fact been blind to not “look into people’s hearts.” In growing up around blacks, she  never got the idea that she should despise them or fear them or mistreat them. She thought to herself, I need a watchman to lead me and tell me what he sees and to teach me the difference between this kind of justice and that kind of justice.

When Jean Louise spoke to her Uncle Jack about her disillusionment, he told her that the South was not ready for the political philosophy being pushed on it – the end of segregation and changes in the country’s attitudes about the role of government. The resentments were much as they are today:

The have-nots have risen and demanded and received their due – sometimes more than their due.

You’re protected by old age by a government that makes you save because it doesn’t trust you to provide for yourself in old age.

Uncle Jack told Jean Louise that “every man’s watchman is his conscience.” She had confused her father with God and attached her own conscience to his. Seeing him do something that was the complete antithesis to what her conscience said was right made her feel physically ill.

Near the end of the book, Jean Louise decided to leave Maycomb but Uncle Jack asked her to stay. He told her there were people on her side. He said “we need some more of you.” Jean Louise said “I can’t fight them” and “I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.” But Jack told her, your friends need you when they’re wrong, not when they’re right. He encouraged her to stay and make a difference.

Betrayed. Bewildered. Confused.

This is how you feel when people you thought you knew and thought you could trust to do the right thing betray the values you thought you had in common. It is how you feel when you realize that you see the world differently than the people you grew up with or work with or socialize with. How can they condone racist behavior? How can they remain silent when someone says something so bigoted and outrageous? You’d like to understand how in they world they see the same things you see but fail to see or care about the injustices of racial stereotyping and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

The Swinging Pendulum of Social Justice

When I was in college, one of my professors told the class that throughout history progress has not been linear; it’s more like a pendulum swinging from one side to the other. When people on one side get uncomfortable with the rate of progress, they swing the pendulum the other way. In Watchman, the people of Maycomb resisted the efforts of the NAACP to end segregation and to change the jury selection process. In 2016, voter suppression efforts were implemented across the country.

I was born at the end of the Civil Rights Era so I was not aware of how bad things were at the time. Unlike Jean Louise, I grew up in a small white town in the Midwest. I had no direct exposure to racial issues. But I learned to sing “Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and I believed it.

In my 50 plus years, I watched as racial stereotypes of the 1950’s and 60’s were broken. I watched African-Americans become more successful – financially, politically, academically, and professionally. Interracial relationships became acceptable. As a nation, we have made great progress, but we still have a long way to go. Racism, and prejudice still lurk below the surface. Inequalities of opportunities and outcomes still persist.

Eight years ago, I voted for the first black president. My Christian friends called Obama a socialist and the anti-Christ. I had a conversation with a loved one who told me that Obama was trying to force something into law because that’s what “they” do. I couldn’t understand why she would believe that. So much hostility has been directed at our black President and First Lady, it is hard to believe that racism does not play a role. The current president-elect repeatedly tried to delegitimize the President with the lie that Obama was not born in the U.S.

Then blacks started protesting the senseless deaths of black men, many at the hands of law enforcement. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. A new racial movement began – Black Lives Matter. And many whites, unwilling to listen to their concerns, countered with “All Lives Matter.” When famous athletes kneeled during the national anthem to call attention to racial issues, whites became angry that they weren’t showing proper respect for symbols of our flawed country.

History has shown that when people get uncomfortable with progress, they swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.

I am a watchman

It’s been 60 years since Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman. Watchman reminded me that history really does repeat itself. Throughout history, people have resisted social progress, often by spreading fear. Jean Louise’s uncle was a wise man. Those of us who believe in racial equality can let our friends know when they’re wrong. We can stand up for the rights of people of all races. This nation needs more people to be a watchman – a social conscience pointing out the difference between the kind of justice freely given to white men and the kind of justice that women and minorities have always had to fight for.

In Isaiah 21:6, a watchman was posted at the city wall to look out and report what he sees. I’m also watching and listening. I’ll tell you what I see. I see that racial prejudice still exists. I see that blacks are still not treated with the same dignity and respect as whites, even when they’re smarter and more capable. I see that blacks live in fear of being arrested for something they did not do, or worse, that their children will not survive to adulthood. I invite you to climb inside the skin of a black person and walk around in it.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. – Harper Lee

Today the United States is once again divided on issues of religion, immigration, race, globalism, and the role of government. Many people blame “others” for their own worsening socio-economic status. Yesterday Dan Rather asked how people would describe the age in which we find ourselves. One woman wrote that we’re in the One Step Back phase of progress. I agree. Thankfully, we’ve taken many steps forward in my lifetime. Now we’re regressing as people try desperately to get back to the way things used to be. But those of us who believe in social justice should see this as a temporary setback, as a call to activism. Let’s stand on watch and tell the world what we see. Let us be the social conscience of this country.

 

Going Where Compassion Leads Me

When I graduated high school, my grandma wrote a note on my graduation card. She said we wish you great success and hope you will become famous. The second part of the sentence was a puzzle to me. What kind of life did Grandma C.  envision for me, a smart but shy kid? Why did she think I could or would ever be famous and why did she want that for me? I never asked so I will never know. If grandma were here today, I would tell her that my own dream is to be even half the kind, gentle woman of faith that she was. I don’t need fame, I don’t need a fortune. I just want to love and accept people for who they are just like she did.

My grandpa had been feeling sick the May I graduated and soon found out he had pancreatic cancer. He died just a couple of months later. Grandma saw me graduate from college and start my career in accounting. She was proud of me even though I chose a behind-the-scenes career that fit my introverted personality. I know that she would be proud of all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, regardless of how big their circle of fame.

A lot has changed since my grandparents’ day. In my second job out of college, I was introduced to the internet for the first time. That would have been in the mid 90’s, somewhere near the end of my grandma’s life. Since then, the internet has revolutionized the way we work, the way we socialize, the way we communicate and for many people, the way to pursue fame and followers.

About five years ago, the internet became a way for me to try out my long-suppressed desire to write. Even though I don’t talk a lot, my mind is full of thoughts that I long to express. I have learned a lot about myself along this blogging journey. I learned why it is so much easier for an introvert to communicate in writing. I learned that I have a strong social conscience. I learned that I have a deep, unshakeable faith. I learned that it is sometimes easier to share myself with people I don’t know. And I found an outlet for sharing my love of nature.

I learned that no matter how many thousands of words I’ve arranged on the screen, no matter how many people have told me they like my writing, no matter how much I learn about myself, I can’t seem to shake my self-doubts. I always hold myself back, afraid to share myself fully and authentically because I expect to be criticized and rejected. Henri Nouwen understood this. He wrote that perhaps “the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.”

Time and time again, after publishing my thoughts on the great blogosphere, as I think about sharing my latest post with friends and family, I instead listen to that dark voice in my head that says I’m not good enough. Somebody won’t like it. I deserve to be ignored.

I learned a long time ago that the easiest way to avoid being rejected by other people is to reject myself first. I am my greatest spiritual enemy. Henri said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved.”

Vulnerability comes with a great deal of risk. I will be rejected and cast aside by many people; I take that as a given. But if sharing a bit of myself with other people can make a positive difference to even one person, just as my grandma did for me, it is worth it. I am flawed. I am weak. But I am also beloved by One far stronger than me. His compassion moves me to go where it hurts, to share my brokenness, my fear, my confusion and my anguish with others.

So at the start of a new year, I continue on my spiritual journey, seeking truth in my innermost being, going where Compassion asks me to go, immersing myself in this imperfect condition of being human. On my new Innermost Being blog, I write using my grandma’s maiden name to honor the quiet, gentle woman of faith that I aspire to be. Grandma has been gone for many years, but her compassion lives forever in my heart. I hope that she would be proud me even though I’m not famous and not nearly as nice as she was.

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. – Henri Nouwen

Love Your Enemies, Guard Your Heart

I rarely use the verb “hate” when speaking about a person because I was taught that hating people is wrong. Instead, I choose words that basically mean the same thing: I “despise” or “can’t stand” him or her.  Or I use words that are a bit softer than the word hate:  I “dislike” or “don’t care” for the person who rubs me the wrong way. Sometimes I say as Christians often do, that I hate the behavior rather than the person; hate the sin, love the sinner.

The night after the presidential election, I had a dream – a nightmare really – that The Apprentice star was having a victory parade with thousands of people cheering. I yelled out, “I hate him!” My sleeping mind was honest. Over the many months of the campaign, I was so repulsed by the Nightmare’s words that I couldn’t stand to watch him. I still can’t bear to listen to him or see his face for more than a few seconds. I hold his dishonesty, self-centeredness, and meanness in contempt. I despise his self-aggrandizement and his ugliness towards anyone who doesn’t praise him.

But I knew I had to put my anger to bed and accept the new reality, no matter how abhorrent it is to me. Anger is a dangerous emotion that fuels hate and makes it so you can’t see straight. Anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires (James 1:20, NIV). Even though my anger at bad behavior is justified, I can’t nurse it. Instead, I am called to love and defend the people who are hurt by his anti-gospel message. I put my hope in the gospel, not politics.

The man who starred in my nightmare is not a personal enemy to me but he is an enemy of goodness. He is an enemy of honesty and integrity, justice and mercy for the oppressed, freedom of speech, and the religious freedom of non-Christians. He bullies and persecutes his enemies. I can hate what he does and says but I must have some measure of compassion for him.

How do I love someone who is wicked, especially when I know that God doesn’t like wickedness either? Proverbs says that God hates a perverse man (3:32), a false witness who pours out lies (6:19), a heart that devises wicked schemes (6:18), and all of the proud of heart (16:5). Jesus condemned greed, self-indulgence, pride and hypocrisy. How am I to love a sinner if I can’t see something lovable in him? How do I learn to see the human soul apart from his behavior?

Love Your Enemies

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors and our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45). He even said to pray for those who persecute you. After all, anyone can love people who are easy to love – people who share their interests and beliefs. When Jesus said that we should love our enemies, he did not explain how to do it. Instead, he pointed straight to God. He reminded us that God is kind to both the righteous and the wicked. Loving your enemies is how you show the world that you belong to God. He said that if you don’t forgive others, God will not forgive you (Matthew 6:15).

Jesus illustrated the concept of redeeming, unconditional love in The Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son. The younger son ran off and squandered everything his father gave him, while the older son worked hard and obeyed his father. When the younger son finally came to his senses, he returned to his father’s home, humbled and ready to confess his sins. His father welcomed him with compassion. He was joyful because his lost son came home.

The prophet Jonah knew that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love (Jonah 4:2). Jonah did not want to deliver God’s message to the wicked people of Nineveh. It made him angry that God was merciful. But God said, shouldn’t I have concern for them? Even the wicked are God’s children and when they repent, he shows them mercy.

Learning from Dr. King

I admire the wisdom, courage, and grace of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who had every reason to hate white people. King fought to end racial segregation and other forms of racial inequality. He was beaten and jailed for his nonviolent resistance to social injustice. Yet he chose to love his enemies. He understood the destructive power of hate. Hate begets hate. If you respond to hate with hate, it does nothing but intensify the level of evil in the universe. He said that at some point, you must have the moral sense to break the chain of hate.

Even when I do my best to put aside anger at his wickedness, I do not feel any warmth or affection for my moral enemy. I can’t empathize with him because I don’t understand or share his feelings. Dr. King explained that God does not expect us to love our enemies in the same way we love our friends. It would be ridiculous to expect people to love their oppressors in an affectionate way.

The kind of love we should have for our enemies is agape. Agape is not philia, brotherly love. It is the highest form of love – an unconditional love that transcends circumstances. Dr. King described agape as an understanding, redeeming love motivated by good will for all men. It is not motivated by any quality of its object. In other words, it does not distinguish between worthy and unworthy people. Agape love does not seek its own good but the good of its neighbor. King described this kind of love as “disinterested” in the sense that you are not loving the person because it benefits you to love them. You love them for their own sake.

Dr. King said that agape originates from the need of the other person – “his need for belonging to the best in the human family.” We are all interrelated as human beings – blacks, whites, Christians, Muslims, atheists, gay, straight, etc. No matter how bad we are, we are never completely depraved. Dr. King said that there is something in our nature that responds to goodness. Just as an evil person like Hitler can appeal to the element of evil in us, someone like Jesus or Gandhi can appeal to the element of good in us.

Pitying My Enemy’s Neediness

I pity my enemy, the gloating man of my nightmare. Pity may seem like a strange emotion to feel for a man who has wealth, power and worldly success. After all, pity is compassion for the suffering or misfortune of others. Though he would hardly be called unfortunate in material terms, he lacks something more precious than gold: love. I think the man who lives in luxury suffers from a lack of self-esteem. You can see it in the way the grand tweeter so quickly tears down anyone who wounds his pride. Perhaps denigrating other people is the only way he can feel good about himself. Perhaps he spends so much time talking about how great he is because inside he really does not believe that he is lovable.

I pity a man who does not love his neighbor – immigrants and refugees. I pity the man who does not have the love for others that is evidenced by fruit of the Spirit: peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. I pity a man who does not know how to forgive. Without love, he is nothing but a resounding gong.

And I know that the odds of redemption are stacked against him. Yes, he won the election. Yes, he reached the pinnacle of power in the United States government. Yes, he lives in luxury. Yes, millions of people worship him. But as Jesus said, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). You can’t worship both God and money. It is really hard for someone who worships wealth and material possessions to build his treasures in heaven.

I pity a man who is afraid to look too closely at himself, to engage in honest introspection, because he is missing the opportunity to know God. He is fighting a battle he cannot win unless he surrenders his distorted sense of self. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are.

Will my enemy ever realize that the key to becoming the greatest in the human family is humility? That as long as you strut about like a silly idiot trying to prove your worthiness to the world, you will never know God? I am skeptical but have to keep in mind that if even a tiny corner of his heart is open to God’s goodness, my enemy is redeemable.

Guarding My Heart from Hate

Timothy wrote about the terrible times of the last days. The people he describes sound just like my enemy. So while I need to see him as God does, as a lost son in need of God’s redeeming love and mercy, I also have to guard my own heart against his wickedness. I also have to guard my heart against the destructive power of anger.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NIV)

Learning to love my enemy with a disinterested, redeeming love is going to be hard. But my heart belongs to Jesus and hatred of anyone, no matter how I feel about their behavior, does not sit well in my heart. Above all else, I must guard my heart because everything I do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23).