The Taser's Edge

Receiving Strange Gifts

For years, I have been hoping and striving to become a more joyful Christian.  The most miserable (in terms of the emotional aura she gave off) person I ever met was someone who talked freely of her Christianity to other drugstore co-workers and me, and it seemed like such a disconnect: publicly and openly bearing the bad news of the Good News of Jesus.

As for my own need for joy, I’m not a negative person, but I’m seriously serious.

[A word here on what joy is–it doesn’t mean all smiles and sunbeams, but it does mean a generally hopeful outlook, where, yes, cheerfulness is a regular occurrence.  I do not personally buy the set of popular theological definitions I have heard multiple times, where I’m told that joy and happiness are different from each other, that happiness depends altogether on circumstances, whereas joy has more stability.  Yes, it’s important to make some sort of distinction between the terms, and that one is helpful, but it misses something important.  Aquinas and a billion theologians with him let us know that ‘happiness’ is something we need to understand if we hope to understand ourselves or God (as Thomas and the billion also have described the after-life in terms of a blessed happiness in the experience of God).]

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Gustave Dore imagines wonderfully and surely poorly what the beatific vision might be.

Late last year I talked to my spiritual director about my pursuit of joy, and she definitely encouraged it (obviously, perhaps), as we had touched on it before in our then year-plus relationship.  Then she gave me some amazing advice.  In gist form, “When you seek joy in your prayers, don’t yourself set the limits on what joy might be.  Let God define the gift of joy which he gives you.”

Let that sink in for a second.

Since then, not only have I found this to be true of joy, but I keep seeing all kinds of life through the same lens.  How do we receive and then give thanks, rather than make our lives lives of demanding?  And how much of our unhappiness is due to the demands we make (to hear the Buddha’s sharing in truth) in our refusal to receive?

Maybe that’s because all that is life-giving is daily bread and manna from heaven, because life itself is received (both physically and metaphysically).

The problem, here, of course, is that if all we can do is receive, then what about the fact that for some of us what we receive just sucks?  Is there really no place for righteous complaint?  (I’m thinking here especially of the victims, the poor, the hungry, the abused, the disenfranchised, the homeless whether of nation or of shelter.  Is this a spirituality of roll-over-and-take-it-ism?)

Here I want to be clear that receiving from God is always a work of discernment, of “testing the spirits” (and I mean this literally).  We must ask, pray, discuss, struggle, moan, and sweat through certain questions when we claim that what we  are receiving is a gift of God.  What does what we are receiving have to do with the Bread of Heaven, that which feeds us and leaves us truly satisfied, never to hunger again?  What does what we are receiving have to do with the God who Jesus calls a good and loving Father who delights to give good gifts to those who ask?

Continuing the work of discernment, the idea of ‘receiving as gift’ requires that we have been given new eyes (in fact, that we have ‘received’ new eyes) to see things as they are.  For my own part, I write this post at the edge of eight months of unemployment, with host of unknowns and unsettled questions in my life.  To be clear, I would not have chosen this time for a second.  Except that I’m starting to see it all as a strange, wonderful gift, the kind you unwrap and then look at the giver trying not to be too rude with the “What is this?” look you can’t erase from your face.  The kind of gift that you talk to your significant other in the car on the way home from the gift exchange about how weird and inappropriate and useless a gift it is.  The kind of gift you start to set aside to take to Goodwill, and then decide to take just one more peek.  Five years later, you can’t believe how greatly and wonderfully it affected the trajectory of your life.  That is what I know that I will say of this time.

I am deeply thankful for this time, how I have found out more about my calling and had opportunities to see how following it doesn’t need to involve a paycheck (although it will be nice when this particular non-materially-paid season ends), how I have come to understand myself and love myself better in my identity in God, how I have been able to focus on my relationship with my wife, how I have truly received an overwhelming amount of joy.

This is just one particular gift.  Thankfully there are other things than unemployment that fit my description of good and strange gifts (although really, not all of them are actually easier than unemployment): a musical instrument, a long illness, a book that inspires you to write, a telescope, the end of a cherished relationship.

What are the things we will receive this day that we are actually being gifted by The Giver of All Good Gifts?  And are we willing to stay in relationship with the Giver and the circumstances which we receive long enough to find out what gift we might be being given?

That is the challenge and…the gift.

Turkey Day Comes Early

In February I got a job,
In June I started a job,
In November I started looking for a job,
In March I got offered two jobs,
In April I turned down two jobs,
In May I finish this job,
Come June I will be unemployed.

Sounds like a poem, and as everyone knows, poems (unless I am mixing them up with Disney movies) always have happy endings.

Yes, May 31st will be the last day of my chaplaincy residency at Duke Hospital and Duke Hospice.  This is an occasion of thanksgiving…

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

Why is it a time for thanksgiving?

  • I didn’t just end a job and I didn’t just leave it.  Truly I completed the job I signed up for over a year ago.
  • At the end of this marathon-endurance-requiring year, I am finishing up like you are supposed to finish a race–totally exhausted, nothing more to give.  My final eval from my final unit says basically that.  One of the reasons I could never be a competitive athlete is the fact that you’re supposed to use up all the reserve of energy you have by the time you cross the finish line.  To me, the pain isn’t worth it.  Yet in this chaplaincy residency, the pain has been worth it.  I hit a wall and kept running.  Then it seemed like another wall, and another, and another, and another.  And at the end of this race, I can truly say that I used up all my reserves.  I have nothing more to give (1:23 on viewer’s left).  Doesn’t feel like a good thing to my worn out spirit, but the sense of achievement is (or is becoming, as perspective is a work in progress) terrific. 
  • I have security.  When it began to seem like I would end this residency without a job beyond it, I could commiserate with the so many unemployed today.  But there are a lot of differences.  Holly has a job so I will continue to have food to eat, a roof over my head, a reliable car (which was itself a gift), and even Netflix.  We have savings.  We don’t have kids to worry about providing for.  And then, even if Holly did lose her job and we ran through ‘everything’ we have, I could easily name 5 or more households who would take us in.

So many things I could pick out of that Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer which speak to me this afternoon at the end of this year: “all you have done for us…wonder of life…mystery…blessing of family and friends…surrounds us on every side…tasks which demand our best efforts…accomplishments which satisfy and delight us…dissapointments and failures…dependence on you…Jesus Christ…in all things.”  Amen!