Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wow, Richard, you've really opened my eyes to what a loser I am!

I was talking with my brother (who is also my pastor, for those of you who don't know) the other day. He was describing another pastor with whom he had met this past week. The other pastor was jolly, laughing all the time, and really just brought his joy into any room he entered. He had a jar full of "vitamins" on his desk which were actually Jelly Belly brand jelly beans. He gives them to children with some words about taking vitamins and, of course, he is giving the children jelly beans. My brother said that the man was so obviously full of joy, contentment and happiness. I thought "I used to be like that. What happened?"

I have a deep respect for people like that, people who are joyful and not deluded or mentally unstable in any visible way. In a lot of ways I think that that is one of the most courageous ways to live especially for those whose vocation brings to them some of the most horrible conditions in life.

I was reading in the gospel of Mark the other day. I was reading the parable of the sower which goes like this:
"Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."
And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." - Mark 4:3-20 (ESV)
It's a passage that, in Puritanical style, makes me examine my own life and the state of my own soul. Some fall away when persecution or tribulation comes. Some fall away when the cares of the world come. That's me! So much of the time that is me. When the cotton is high I'm all spiritual, but lay me off from work for 5 months and just try to weigh my faith in God's provision against a mustard seed. And then it's easy to continue the spiral by feeling like a spiritual loser.
Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that joy is a fruit of the spirit, meaning a sign by which believers can identify one another, as well as a means by which we nourish one another. And in Philippians, in the very passage I read to Laurie when I proposed to her, he commands us to "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." Of course, earlier in the same book he says "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." The rejoicing comes with the realization of the extent of humankind's trespass and the entirely undeserved grace extended to God's elect.
John Piper talks often about levity (and I talk often about John Piper talking often about levity.) He distinguishes joy from levity. Joy springs from a spirit of hope, goodness and peace. Levity is a mask for a heart of aggression, anger and discontent. Which is why I try to almost never, never, never use the form of humor known as sarcasm.

Which brings me to the movie we watched last night. We watched an amazing film called Little Miss Sunshine. It's one of those where if you're anything like me you laugh and cry all the way through. Its major themes, as I understood it, dealt with winners and losers, competition, how so often so many aspects of life are a beauty contest, and how the defeated deal with it in various ways, which reminded me of a quote I posted on my other blog a few weeks ago:
“What I hate most in life are people who are not really the peach of the day but who want to be young and sexy. You can fool nobody. There is a moment when you have to accept that somebody else is younger and fresher and hotter. Life is not a beauty contest.”
-Karl Lagerfeld

Which is all well and good and true. Lagerfeld is warning against a Death In Venice end, but then how does one deal? I remember a phenomenon from my goth clubbing days back when I was ages 16-20ish. The phenomemon was that there would very often be a male over 25 at a goth club and everyone else could readily identify that as creepy. Aside from the blantant sexual predatory thing that would usually be going on, there was the general understanding that there was something wrong with a grown man dressing in that manner and associating with teenagers. Of course it took a few years before I caught on that what that really meant was that the whole scene was trite and childish, but that's not the point. Also reminds me of how I smoked cigarettes in my teens and, now, when I see a high school (or even college) student smoking I naturally find myself thinking "Oh look. A child smoking!" I hasten to add that I was warned about how silly I looked smoking in my teens and I did it anyway.

There's more reason not to be all Death in Venice than simply not making an embarrassment of one's self. The better reason is an utter rejection of the fleeting, arbitrary and ridiculous standards of beauty and "winning" that Western Civilization (more specifically advertising) has just kind of made up. As the late physicist Richard Feynman said in his Nobel Lecture "
The chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off chance that it is in another direction — a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory — who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unfashionable point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself."
Or, as the great sage of the last century, Mama Cass Elliot said "Make your own kind of music."
There is a reason why God populated the world with so many variations.

I found myself identifying with each of the males in the film (we were talking about Little Miss Sunshine, remember? Before I drifted off) in some way or another. From the grandfather's self-medicated nihilism, the angsty teen's defiance, the brother's struggle to reconcile the nobility of suffering with the very real despair and hopelessness in which he finds himself against his will, and even the horrid father's trying his very best and failing. Those who know me know that last one is one of my greatest fears in life and, therefore, one of my recurring themes.

One thing that is clear from the "fruit of the spirit" passage is that Paul is not commanding a "fake it until you feel it" approach, but rather the expressing of what comes from the abundance of the heart of believers. Just because the world around you is a beauty contest and everyone insists on putting you on the catwalk does not mean you have to behave on the catwalk in the manner in which they expect you to behave. The film ended with the lesson (and I don't think I'm spoiling anything here. I try to be dilligent against spoilers) that one ought not care what others think. It was an anti-fear-of-other-people message which is a good message and one that I think ought to be given more of a platform today.

However, you can't live on disgust with society and non-conformity. Actually, I guess you can. A good deal of the people I read made a tidy living off of that. I did it for years! But given the choice, I would take the negative for all it is worth and try to focus on a positive. The earnest Christian walk provides tremendous freedom for the believer. Freedom from the fear of man, as we are not citizens of this world; and the meaning of life has nothing to do with the ridiculous constructs of human society. Freedom from the shackles of our depraved nature, as our imperfections have been atoned for in full. Freedom from our inability to fulfill the Law, as the Law has been fulfilled in Christ. And freedom to focus on the only thing that really matters, which is God. In short, I'm all for non-conformity, but I really feel that when one comes up against a negative, one ought to offer a positive alternative. In this case, as I continue to think constantly about fear of man and judge myself against it, I think that the cure once again points back to the Great Commandment passage from Mark 12:
"Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Joy is quenched when I shove the cares and expectations of the world so close to my face that I am unable to see around them. So often I lose track of what's important in light of what is merely visible.

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