So this has been my week after the resurrection: the beauty of spring has come with such exuberance that I have been laid low! All those beautiful flowers and blossoms let forth an army of pollens hoping to reproduce more of their kind. But in me, they only produce sneezes, headaches and itchy eyes! It has been miserable. All the self-protection my body is attempting has made be exhausted, and has been all for naught. Sleep seems to be the only time when I get to ignore it. Such a beautiful spring. And I have been too protected inside my filtered-air house to enjoy it…. Enough complaining!
Now for the other side: I have been so grateful that this was the week after Easter. I had hardly any appointments to cancel. I could rest. And I still got all the necessary things done. (Makes me wonder whether I should review my standards for “necessary!”) From my windows I can see the trees leafing out. The children came over. There is plenty of food in the refrigerator. The light lasts late, which is my favorite time of year. And it is still cool enough inside that I can enjoy the flicker of my fireplace.
So the choice is mine: which way will I measure my week?
Today we read the story of the disciples’ week after the resurrection. The disciples knew joy. It overflowed through them. They were crazy-daring in their joy. In the interest of honesty, this story is not from the week after the resurrection, but sometime after Pentecost. It’s still a good story for the week after the resurrection, though. They were on a high, not just from the truth that life wins over death, but also from the energy of Holy Spirit filling their lungs. I can’t imagine the high they were on! No Trailblazer victory, even with a miraculous last shot at the buzzer, can compare!
What about a miraculous healing of someone you love? I have been following the blog posts of my pastor friend, who sits at his wife’s bedside, more sure of tragedy than restoration. And yet, the week before Easter, she rallies in a way even the doctors named “miraculous.” What joy!
And then Easter morning, we are greeted with the news of hundreds killed by suicide bombers at churches in Sri Lanka – worshipers gathering to celebrate resurrection. Just when we are lifting our hands and dancing with joy, we are sucker-punched with the reality that all is not well on planet earth. Joy has slipped through our fingers again.
But does it mean that the joy of a winning game, the joy of a miraculous recovery, the joy of Easter are nothing? No! Let us not turn our backs on joy for fear that pain is coming.
The disciples have something to teach us here. The disciples in Acts are not the people we knew in the gospels. Did Jesus recruit a new team? Those timid, or outspokenly wrong-headed disciples now are willing to take on the world! What happened to them!? Let me pull out one thread. They chose gratitude.
One little phrase, at the end of the story says it all: they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for God. Spied on, followed, jailed, flogged, berated – this brings them joy?! Yes! They found something to be grateful for.
I mention Pollyanna every so often, and today might be a good day for her. When she pulled a pair of crutches out of the missionary barrel instead of the doll she hoped for, her father taught her to play the glad game. She could be glad that she did not need the crutches. Pollyanna made this her life practice. And it wasn’t easy! Life was not good to her. But she chose the discipline of gratitude, the glad game, every time. And when she almost gave up, the townspeople stepped in and played the game for her, until she was whole.
I know people criticize the concept as silly, unrealistic, childish, even dangerous. It could make us lazy, not work for justice. But gratitude is work, too. Serious work!
Researchers are finding that joy is one of the most vulnerable of human emotions. We protect ourselves from it, fend it off so we won’t have to be embarrassed, lose it, feel the other shoe drop. We don’t trust joy. We don’t trust that joy will last. And so we guard our hearts from it. Just like we don’t trust the glad game. We resist feeling joy, in order to protect ourselves from disappointment. So, choosing joy takes work for many of us. The disciples chose it. They rejoiced that they could suffer for God. It sounds insane.
How do we choose joy? Again, the researchers have found that those who practice gratitude are much more open to joy. Our culture teaches us to practice fear and rehearse all the possible tragedies a situation offers. They found that people who are overwhelmed with joy in seeing their new baby sleep, move very quickly to fear of what it would be like if some tragedy happened to the child. Fear so quickly rushes in to smother joy. Not for the disciples this day. Joy multiplied, gave them energy and kept them talking to anyone who would listen.
So, learn the practice of paying attention. It seems small and ordinary. But sometimes we are so caught up in our own disappointments or worries or expectations, that we simply don’t notice life around us.
The photo symbol for the Divorce Recovery goup is a photo called “the Crack Pansy.” A simple photo, of a pansy blooming from the sidewalk crack outside our building. Someone noticed and took a picture. Healing from divorce is like that. The sprouts of new life need to be noticed and celebrated. They are often small and insignificant, and show up in difficult-to-thrive places, but they make all the difference. The group helps us notice them.
I guess what people don’t like about the glad game of Pollyanna is that it tends to make you think that everything will turn out in our favor if we play it. But Pollyanna suffered. Her friends suffered. The disciples suffered. All the disciples died violent deaths for their faith, except John who died in exile, which may be worse. The odds were not always in their favor. They did not have everything go “right” for them.
Or at least, it did not go right by contemporary standards. When scarcity is our standard, we hold out for the extraordinary. We are always chasing the extraordinary. The most money, the most goals, the most bread, the most…. fill in the blank. And then we are driven to protect what we have.
So when life gives us ordinary, we don’t even notice. I wonder how much of the ordinary, the doubting, the not-knowing-what-to-do-next the disciples experienced. The gospel writers didn’t take up much papyrus on that stuff. They only hit the high points. And so sometimes we think our lives should move from miracle to miracle.
But the Spirit is at work in the world ahead of us. Planting seeds, wondering who will water them, who will prune and who will eat the fruit. It is ordinary work. Like breathing in and out (certainly the work of the Spirit-breath). We may never see the fruit. Like those who plant date palms – they will never eat the fruit themselves, but they plant in hope for an unseen generation.
One of my favorite actors in this chapter is Gamaliel. He asks that the prisoners be removed from the room, so he can speak candidly with his colleagues. They grant him the privilege. He is, after all, the most revered of them all for his knowledge of the Law. And he uses his moment of personal privilege for some very simple logic. He doesn’t quote some esoteric point of law, but the logic of every day life. We have seen other teachers gather followings. They came to nothing. So why intervene now? Let this thing play out. If it is nothing, it will come to nothing. But if it is of God, we will find ourselves fighting against God. And we all know that will be to no avail. They had to agree.
The Spirit is at work in the world ahead of us – a wonderful little nugget hidden away in our church mission statement. And it makes all the difference. It is not all on us. Church is not our project, but God calling people into one body, one people. God calling us into life, into joy. And if God is doing the work, let’s not get in the way!
In fact, let’s go treasure hunting. I can see the Spirit putting up little trail ducks around our city to show where God is at work. We have to look for them to find them. They won’t demand our attention.
Like in church on Sunday. We have guests among us almost every week. Many churches don’t have this expereince. It is one of our assets. But do we notice? Often not. I had an argument with a member who finally resorted to calling me a liar because he did not see any guests. On the other hand, we have the Not Yet Supper Club – a comfy place to invite someone into community in a casual way. A place to be known, which is what most of us are looking for. What a gift! A seed, a trail duck.
I have a feeling that the more we look, the more we will find. Because God really is at work in our world ahead of us. And we are invited to join the joy. And sometimes that just means taking off your shoes.
One of the poems which turned me on to poetry is this excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
…Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only one who sees takes off their shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1857), Book VII, l. 812-826]
Blackberries are wonderful! …And – I want to practice taking off my shoes – for joy, in gratitude.