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Joy and Thunder

My wife loves thrift shops. She spends hours in them, unearthing all manner of hidden gems for herself, for the kids, for me. I, on the other hand, do not love thrift shops. Not even a little bit. Where my wife sees endless possibility and the challenge of hunting down a good bargain, I see a warehouse full of stuff that other people (quite rightly) didn’t want. On the rare occasion that I find myself in a thrift shop with my wife, I usually end up spending ten perfunctory minutes drifting through the book section and then resignedly making my way to the parking lot to wait until my ordeal is done.

Today, my wife and I are in the big city and found ourselves with a bit of time on our hands. So, it was off to the thrift shop. The book section was even more inadequate than usual (although I did find a collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories!), so I drifted over the to the CDs. Half an hour or so later, I emerged with a few gems from the dim, dark past that I had lost somewhere along the way! Nirvana, Dave Matthews, REM. Good stuff. I informed my wife that I would be listening to music in the car while she completed her exhaustive search of the warehouse.

I meandered out to the car, slid in REM’s Automatic for the People, tilted the seat back and closed my eyes. One of the first songs I heard was called “Sweetness Follows.” The lyrics began ominously thus:

Readying to bury your father and your mother

What did you think when you lost another?

As it happens, I had just dropped my own father off at the hospital for a surgical procedure. So these words were not exactly welcome ones. They seemed a bit perverse, truth be told. My dad’s life is not in immediate peril or anything. His surgery is “routine,” as far as these things can be, I suppose. He’s almost certainly healthier than I am in pretty much every way, and could still take me down quite easily if it came to it. But hospitals and surgeries, well, they get you thinking. About how we’re all getting older and about how things fall apart and about how all of us will have to say goodbye to people we love and about how to live is to lose things along the way.

So thanks a lot, REM, for that inspiring line. Really needed that today. Sheesh.

The song continued:

It’s these little things, they can pull you under

Live your life filled with joy and thunder

Now there’s a more interesting (or at least less depressing!) line. Live your life filled with joy and thunder. You could write a sermon on that line, I thought. Or a hastily assembled blog post in a shopping mall food court…

As I sat listening to REM in the thrift shop parking lot, I watched the people walk by—the young girl in the too-tight dress, the old man in suspenders, the rich guy with the BMW, the immigrant families, the bodybuilder with a collection of bizarre tattoos he will almost certainly come to regret, the young mom and her screaming kids… And I wondered what they had lost, what they would one day lose. I wondered what thunder might lurk beneath the surface of all these ordinary extraordinary lives. I wondered if they were “filled with joy.” I wondered if they were tending their loves as well as they ought to. I wondered if I was.

I replayed the song and listened to the line again. Live your life filled with joy and thunder. We probably can’t choose to live with thunder, because thunder inevitably comes. What we can choose is joy. Which can sound kind of trite, I know. “Choose joy” is one of those expressions that probably plays better on Pinterest than it does when the thunder is rolling. But I think it expresses a pretty deep and important truth about the dignity of being human. We can rise above our circumstances. We can refuse the final victory to those things that can so easily pull us under. We can choose how we will be in the world. Among all of God’s creatures, this is a gift and a task given only to us.

The famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth is rumoured to have said that joy, in the book of Philippians, is a “defiant nevertheless.” I like this expression. I’m not sure what REM would have to say about it, but it seems to me that given the nature of our lives, there will have be a bit of defiance in our attempts to live our “lives filled with joy.” It’s unnatural, after all. But maybe that’s the secret behind the defiance of the “nevertheless”—that we were made for higher and better and truer things than those that come naturally.

And the Christian hope is, in the end, a profoundly unnatural one.  Thanks be to God.

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