Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Joy's Shadow and Joy in the Shadows
I sort of stepped in it the other day. I happened to read an article by my friend Kent about the first day of school--Kent is the father of a new kindergartener and the codirector of Haiti Partners, which works primarily on education issues in Haiti--and thought it was good and poignant, so I retweeted it. (You can read the article here.) What got me into a muddle was my quoting Kent alongside the link: "Joy is always accompanied by a shadow if you see the world realistically." I quoted it because, honestly, who's going to click on a link without at least a taste of what's on the other side of it? But also, I agree with it, and I think it's provocative in a really positive sense. It also, apparently, is provocative in the "slippery-slope" sense of Christian orthodoxy. I got a very quick tweeted response to my post from another friend suggesting that a fruit of the Holy Spirit carries no shadow, that to look for joy's shadow is to deny the joy of the Lord. I'm heavily paraphrasing, of course; my friend had only 140 characters to communicate his concern. But I got his point; I was flirting with heterodoxy, or something like that. So, editor that I am, I tried to make the reader happy by throwing out an alternate option: "Existential joy is always accompanied by a shadow;whereas theological joy always attends to the shadows." I copied Kent on the post because I thought he would find the back and forth interesting. It slipped my mind that he didn't know what led to this proposed edit, that by editing him I was tacitly (and unconsciously) distancing myself from his words, that I was--theologically, at least--throwing him under the bus. Editor that I am, I had pandered to the reader at the expense of the writer. Rookie blunder, I know. Sorry, Kent. Maybe it's the era we inhabit, or maybe it's my predilection, or maybe it's the truth, but I see most of life as improvised. We figure it out step by step, and we learn transcendent lessons mainly in the aftermath of hard experiences or troubling observations. We are each theological in our own way, in that we look for meaning in the events that unfold in our lives and map the world we walk through, and in the process we sketch a picture of our world's source and sustaining heart. We're all theologians, but we're mostly theologians after the fact. Christianity (and really all religions) make theological assertions before the fact--based of course on authoritative sources, not to mention the theological inferences of those who have gone before us. Doing so is a service; any journey is aided by tools that light the path and keep us cognizant of our ultimate destination. It helps us theologically to know that, although Jesus tells us "in this world you will have trouble," he also tells us to "take heart [for] I have overcome the world." It helps when we step out to trust theologically that we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who cultivates in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and that against these things there is no law--we won't be judged for being loving, joyful, peaceful, and so on. It helps to know these things ahead of time, and to call them to mind as we go, but it's not the whole picture. The whole picture includes Jesus walking from the courtyard to the cross, struggling under the weight of a beam and still bleeding from the beating he'd been given, looking left and right and telling weeping women not "Take heart! I have overcome the world!" but "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children." The whole picture includes lots and lots of shadows. It also includes joy, of course, but not the joy we sing about; Jesus didn't sing and dance his way to the cross but rather winced and moaned from the cross, taking courage and drawing strength from the joy set before him to say "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Joy is there in the hard cold facts of the world, but it's in the shadows. That's where it does its most important work. Martin Luther emphasized the paradoxical status of each Christian as simultaneously sinner and saint. To emphasize the one and neglect the other is to not see ourselves as we really are (or, perhaps more troubling, to not see our neighbor as he or she really is). This paradox is one of those many theological lights for our path and tool for our use in making sense of the world we find ourselves in. There's another paradox that I think is true but doesn't get as much press: we are simultaneously bearers of joy and lament. To lament is to view the world realistically and to hope that things change; to joy is to view the world theologically and to accept the reality we're presented with. They commingle in ways that are perplexing and confusing, but that also complement and inform one another. That's why we can celebrate the first day of school for our kids while simultaneously lamenting the life of poverty and persecution that a lack of education is condemning billions to. That's why we can recall the events of September 11, 2001, ten years latter with tears and even anger, while simultaneously enjoying our friends and family and flourishing on September 11, 2011. We lament in joy, but we also joyfully lament. As confusing as that is, it's a survival skill God is training us in, and it's a light God is regularly casting onto our path.