Last night, I was sitting on the sofa after dinner looking over the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday, trying to decide which passage or combination of passages I could preach on. When my wife wandered over and inquired as to what I was doing, I immediately solicited her advice in choice of texts. She read them over, hummed and hawed noncommittally, then took a deep, trepidation-filled breath, and said, “Can I make a suggestion? Do you think this week’s sermon could, you know, maybe focus a bit less on the negative?”
Those who know me well are likely chuckling right now (not least because enthusiastically embracing “constructive criticism” is not among my strengths…). For those who do not, perhaps some context will help. It may surprise you to discover that I am not, by disposition, a relentlessly cheerful optimist. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. Call it a character flaw, a faulty gene, spiritual obtuseness, or just plain stubbornness on my part, but I simply have never been a “glass half full” kind of person.
I have never understood or experienced faith as a one-way trip to happy-land. I was always a little suspicious of those Christians who couldn’t clap and sing loudly or eagerly enough, and gave the impression that the Christian life was one of unqualified and uninterrupted bliss. I always viewed with a mixture of curiosity and envy those people who stood up in churches and talked about how miserable their life was before meeting Jesus, and of how, since converting or recommitting or whatever, their view of the world had been instantly changed for the better. It sounded appealing, but it just didn’t reflect so much of what I saw and experienced. It still doesn’t, truth be told.
It’s not that I don’t think that joy is not or ought not to be a part of the life of faith. I do. It’s just that, for whatever reason, my own journey has tended to gravitate toward the shadow side of faith. I know the terrain well here. I understand doubt and skepticism—both how it feels and the aspects of existence that produce it. I feel the pain and sadness of the world, both in sharing in the lives of others, and on a more abstract, global level. I am reasonably comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and am convinced that “the fact of the matter” is rarely as simply as many would have us believe. I know fear and anxiety.
In other words, to borrow the “now”/”not yet” paradigm of the nature of the kingdom of God and the life of faith between Christ’s Advents, I have rarely had problems understanding and communicating the “not yet.”
The problem, as my dear wife pointed out to me last night, is that I because this is my default perspective, it tends to be over-represented in my writing and preaching. There are other important things that need to be said about the life of faith that are easily missed or inadequately addressed when one tends to consistently look at the world through a certain lens. It is one thing to accurately—even compellingly—map the landscape of the “not yet,” but what about the “now?” What about the life to which we are called, the life we believe is pulling us along, guiding and shaping those aspects of reality that are not yet what we believe they will one day be? What about the gifts that have been given to sustain, embolden, and enliven us in the in-between time? What about the foretastes of eternity that can be experienced in the present? What about periodically moving from the cold comfort and “security” of shadowland and enjoying the light every now and then?
In other words, what about the joy of faith? What about enjoying God and the life he has given? What about celebrating the story that we are graced to participate in and gladly thanking and praising the Storyteller?
The life of faith is not a grim exercise in duty, after all, much as Christians have, at times throughout history, given this impression. It is participation in the very life and purposes of God! It is joining with all creation on a journey of reconciliation and redemption! It’s actually kind of exciting! Wait, did I say that? Out loud?! I’d better stop before I get carried away….
I had to suppress a chuckle when I saw that one of the suggested texts for this Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. The passage begins thus: “Rejoice always.” Rejoice! Always!
I think I have my text for a happy(er) Sunday sermon.