26 July 2007

Absurdly happy

I've been absurdly happy for as long as I can remember. I do mean "absurdly," because the evidence for an opposite attitude has been overwhelming at times. Alcoholism and violence in my own family of origin, even the killing of my sister by a drug dealer in Chicago, was just a microsample of the world's realities. But to my relief and occasional embarrassment, I seem to bounce back.

The world doesn't approve of "absurd happiness," as Sebastian Moore made clear in his fascinating book, The Inner Loneliness. This was the first book that helped me understand that we're supposed to pretend to want to be happy--being happy is good in principle--but in fact if we don't express all the ways we're too busy or overwhelmed to be happy, people will let us know that we're not carrying our full load. Or we worry that they will.

All this came back to me in reading Colin Saxton's keynote address to Northwest Yearly Meeting. He quoted Douglas Steere, who in turn had quoted with approval William Russell Maltby, as in this excerpt from Steere's Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Prayer in the Contemporary World.
There was a Roman Catholic priest in Detroit who used his church in the derelict section of the city as a place of service for the outcasts whom no one else wanted. The city welfare office called him one day about one of their “cases” and told him that the city of Detroit was through for good with this man, that he was undeserving, and they would do nothing more for him. The priest said, “Send him along to us. We’re all undeserving down here.” In my community, as the Gospel ethic begins to dawn on me, all kinds of new and alarming and highly unpopular insights begin to lift above the parapet. Are there to be no limits at all to my vulnerability? William Russell Maltby would answer this question by noting that Jesus promised the disciples who would follow him only three things: “that they should be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.”
The theme of fear and happiness, light and shadow, was powerfully reinforced by David Niyonzima on Tuesday night, in the first of his two plenary-session talks at our yearly meeting. David's organization, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services, works among those who are perhaps the least likely in the world to talk glibly about happiness--survivors of the indescribable horrors of civil war and genocide in Central Africa.

David set up his comments by mentioning the phrase used by some early European missionaries--Africa as the "dark continent"--and responding that the continent is the opposite of dark. To those who are born and raised in Africa, there's plenty of sun for all--more than, say, in Newberg, Oregon! He went on to talk about the dark of the night: when he was a child, his parents warned him about all the dangers lurking in the dark, to encourage him--as he says now--not to come home too late. That fear of the dark worked for the child David Niyonzima, just as it did for the young Colin Saxton, hustling home quickly lest the crickets stop their comforting sound.

David then talked about the "dark" in terms of the Central African horrors of recent years, and how the "children of the Light" should respond to such horrors. He illustrated the power of the Light (John 1:5, "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend [or overcome] it") by asking that the house lights of Bauman Auditorium be dimmed completely. He took out a tiny flashlight and shone it at us, the audience. We could all see it. He went on to say (by my memory), "You Americans have invented many clever things. But I believe nobody has invented something that can project darkness. Yet even a small light can penetrate what might otherwise be overwhelming darkness."

Just as the brightest, most unfiltered light we can see comprehends all colors, the children of the Light must comprehend all conditions. Together, we must be ready to shine the light into places where unspeakable horror is hiding. We may be personally sheltered from those realities in ways that David Niyonzima has not been; as a teacher, he witnessed the massacre of all of his students. And, individually, we vary in our capacity to see those things, both by location and by temperament. But together we can see, and we can shine. For me, happiness and joy are names for that experience of shining together, and are subversive of the shadows in which the principalities and powers conceal themselves to do hideous things to God's beloved creation.

And we need that light, not just for others, but for ourselves, because too often we find that we are unwilling or unconscious accomplices of those same principalities and powers. Our own sins may not be dramatic, but my correctable ignorance about how my tax money is spent, how my spending habits reinforce injustice, and how my looking away increases a victim's isolation, will probably only be reduced in dialogue with others.

I'm so grateful that Yearly Meeting is turning out to be a place where such "mutual irradiation" (to borrow again from Douglas Steere) is happening. It makes me very happy!

Absurdly happy, part two.

* That is, by a human being created by God, Tyrone King, who somehow became a drug dealer and murderer by processes that I wish we were far more curious about as a society.

A topic for another time, one that arose from the FUM board retreat I wrote about last week: What is the healthy function of boundaries and borders, and when do they become destructive? The topic just came to my mind again, because of the page of Douglas Steere's pamphlet just after the one I quoted above. See how potent his words are today, especially the last line:
It is not easy to see how to reconcile the claims which the state may make upon my loyalty and the unlimited liability which I as a Christian bear for all people. There are surely duties I owe to the state which orders the relatively secure roof over my head. Yet ready as we must be to help the state sustain this order, the Christian’s duty does not stop at the frontier of the nation-state. For the state is only an arbitrary limitation, and what happens to the sister or brother who is outside its boundaries is of primary concern for the Christian. God is always revising our boundaries outwards.

Righteous links:
  • In a week or two, I hope to write a review here of Philip Jenkins' important book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis But in the meantime, the Pew Global Attitudes Project Web site has a couple of relevant pages. Their report, "A rising tide lifts mood in the developing world" bears the intriguing subtitle, "Sharp decline in support for suicide bombings in Muslim countries." An earlier report on the site concerns Muslims in Europe, and includes this comment that seems to me to be in accord with Jenkins' book: "No clear European point of view emerges with regard to the Muslim experience, either among Muslims or in the majority populations on many issues."
  • I've linked several times to items about the rise of neo-Nazis in Russia. Here's an item from the 24/7 Prayer Web site about, among other things, confronting this phenomenon spiritually right in Germany.
  • Forgiveness envy: I was both blessed and angered by the item in Peggy Parsons' blog about Hamid Karzai, "hero of the faith," for having pardoned Rafiqullah, a 14-year-old would-be suicide bomber. Try as we might to muzzle the awkward message of grace, it will come out. The words of Martin Luther King came back to me with striking force (and I'm not making a point about comparative religions here!): "...Don't let anyone make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, 'You're too arrogant. If you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name.'"
  • The reality-based community and the Onion: which is which? Have they merged? Visit the Belly of the Whale and judge for yourself.
  • Quaker convergence in Barnesville: Thanks to Peter Blood for drawing my attention to some Web documents that emerged from the recent "Quakercamp at Stillwater," which he described as "an effort to bring together Friends who wanted to seek & share together in a rather unprogrammed way for where God is leading us as Friends today both individually and as a movement." The pages: The epistle; queries on confidentiality and openness; queries on faithfulness in sexual relations. It seems to me that there's a little current of excitement and open dialogue and hope that is coming from a common Holy Spirit source, and the evidence for which includes this Barnesville event, the diligent spirit at the FUM Board retreat, the energy and direction evident in Cherice Bock's recent Beacon Hill lecture, and many other reports on meetings and visitations of recent months. But maybe I'm just absurdly happy!

I think I promised this one a couple of weeks ago: David Johansen as the voice for Hubert Sumlin. Charlie Musselwhite's on harp. Blues is full-spectrum happiness, too.

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