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The Rugged Road to Joy
By Matt Litton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Matt Litton
All rights reserved.
A NOMAD IN THE BASEMENT
THE SITUATION OF OUR SITUATION
Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. —Madeleine L'Engle
Sometimes it feels as though we are living out a life sentence....
I'm not an academic, a professional theologian, or the pastor of some Godzilla-sized mega-church. I began writing this book because, like many of you, I am often so preoccupied with securing a perfect ending that I can't seem to move forward. In a culture of "don't ask/don't tell" spirituality, my need for transformation, the urge written deep in my DNA to participate in creation's natural motion of progress, and my deficit of joy drove me to the confines of my basement—of all places—to write and reflect. In the intestines of my home, surrounded by the clutter of years, cast-off feelings, and boxes of hidden grief, I sat wrestling for a faith that seemed to hang in the balance like shoddy wiring strung loosely across the unfinished ceilings.
I had a silly theory when I was younger that there are five places where the realities of our lives are clear, our needs acutely evident; where we speak in the candid language of our true self; where the "condition our condition is in" is obscenely apparent: train stations, airports, weddings, funerals, and of course, here in the dark confines of life's storerooms. All of our energies working to convince the world (like Will Ferrell's Anchorman) that we are a pretty big deal mean little when we arrive at one of these ground zeroes. Now I know life provides scores of these places. I guess most of us at times occupy some sort of dull cell magnifying the hollowness of our systems and the futility of our pursuits.
Stacked next to my makeshift desk were photo albums of loved ones who had passed on. Close by, boxes of trophies, prizes from various "achievements," and keepsakes of my children's accomplishments shared shelf space with volumes of poems, letters, and stories now trivial and long forgotten. The dim and naked light bulb burned just bright enough to heighten the rawness of pink insulation crammed between rows of unpainted wood beams along the ceiling. The water heater griped and moaned. The air was stale and the cursor on my computer blinked rhythmically in a taunting action accentuating the lifelessness of the dingy space.
If this were a movie, I might be tied to my chair unable to move, with an inquisitor aggressively circling me, assailing me with questions. "What does your faith really matter? How are you moving forward? You are tethered to the inconsequential, left high and dry by the buoyancy of pursuits that end up decaying in this dreary place. Where is your joy?"
Maybe I am just a casualty of consumer culture, of broken relationships, of bad religion.
I once saw a forty-year-old dad of three on television in tears recalling the loss of his own father when he was only six. It was profound to me how he had allowed that experience to be the singular architect of his identity and desire. It seems we are all victims of circumstance, slaves to our longing to be somebody, fashioned by the nature of life's cold realities.
A picture book on the basement shelf reminded me of my seven-year-old's exasperation with the Sunday school story of Eve eating forbidden fruit from a tree: "If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to eat the bad fruit and get in trouble, why didn't he just destroy the tree before they could mess it all up?" Jake's grandma responded, "Well, I suppose that God let them mess up because he wants us to have a choice." I often disagree with a professor who conjectures that people don't really want freedom (despite what they say), and I wonder if this is accurate in our spiritual lives too. I think that's the new "religion" of coming years, an idea that we don't genuinely have a choice in what we believe or how we live or what molds us. Scientists talk about how our decisions are dictated by genetic codes, and our religion is a tribal superstition we've been conditioned to accept; we're biologically wired to live certain patterns. Change and forward motion are a big-time exception to the rule. Joy seems in short supply.
As I said before, it feels as though we are living out a life sentence.
I looked toward a fractured mirror with enough glass to catch my reflection leaning in a vacant space of stone gray wall. Mirrors cast honesty about ourselves that we cannot escape. I noticed a forgotten watercolor painting sheltered snugly behind the antique. Between jagged edges of my reflection, I could make out the picture of a dusty path through wilderness at the base of the tattered canvas. A road was winding upward toward the lone character in the piece. At the center of the brushstrokes was a rugged looking nomad in dirty robes. He was cresting a steep hill toward blue skies and untamed territories. With the painting shrouded behind the cracked mirror, I could scarcely see the lightly shaded footprints of his upward march.
Midthought I was interrupted by a loud thud on the ceiling, the rumble of feet across the kitchen floor above, and the voices of my children laughing and wrestling, and my wife scolding them. The sound of living, the echo of moving, of action, a tiny reverberation of real life ... the disturbance led my attention back to those footprints veiled beyond my broken reflection. The energy and progression above me seemed to accompany the painting, and I sensed a symphony of joy in the route of those footprints.... I imagined placing my feet on his path.... I could hear a voice beckoning me in a familiar tone....
My desperation brought me here, a resting place for the trappings of life: my materialism, my fragmented community, my grief, my "practical" religion: my life sentence. Here, alone with my realities in this common den of stark inertia, I perceived the call from a living Nomad—to "Come out," to "Go," to "Follow."
It occurred to me that the absence of joy in my life was connected to my reticence to move toward those treaded steps. Maybe I, maybe we, do have a choice.
I suppose we all have similar evidence: an apartment closet, some old pictures on a computer, a church pew, a relationship, or maybe a fluorescent-lit cubicle that suffocates our passions hour by hour. Perhaps the mention of the Nomad's words embolden you to consider how paralyzed you feel in your confined space as well. There is a steady voice inviting us beyond this place and into a journey.
This writing is my attempt to rejoin the dynamic motion of faith: to find freedom from a life sentence. It is divided into movements that explore each area of life and wrestle with how we may reconnect to the truths of a vibrant faith, the call to a nomadic way of life, the catalyst for deep and steady joy.CHAPTER 2
SPIRITUAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME
THE CALL TO COME FORTH
Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, It will set you free, to be more like the man you were made to be. —"Sigh No More," Mumford & Sons
The dim lights and grey musty walls of the basement bring to mind a story. Imagine with me that there was once a prisoner of war incarcerated as a very young man. The conflict between neighboring lands was long and the captive spent decades confined to a stale and diminutive cell. He survived on rations, rarely saw the sunlight, and was never called by his true name.
After countless years, he woke one morning to yelling, confusion, and singing, as the chambers of inmates all around him were opened. A bearded and authoritative-looking adventurer, with shoes soiled by the dust of a thousand roads and hands calloused from significant work, wrenched open the bolted door. The traveler stepped into the small cell with a peaceful expression at odds with his road-worn appearance. His face was weathered by the elements, but there was a spark of something fierce and untamed beaming from the rescuer's eyes; his aura reflected a spirit unbroken beyond articulation and it made the prisoner desire to shrink away and come closer all at once.
The journeyman's clothes were tattered, although not from the confines of dark prisons but the wind of seas, the wear of wilderness, the subtle stains of good food, rich wine, regular tears, and the fingerprints of profound fellowship. His presence filled the prisoner's small cell with a sense of anticipation, of an impending invitation.
It was as if the source of all the prisoner's longing was at hand in that moment. With a voice thick in the tones of an old childhood friend and endowed with a parental tenor of familiarity, the journeyman called to the prisoner, not by number, but by name, proclaiming, "Come out! The war is won. You have been pardoned and are free to go."
You might expect the man to collapse through the door into the sunshine with tears of joy.
Our parable, though, ends with a more recognizable turn. The prisoner couldn't bring himself to leave. He knew he was pardoned, but the story goes that he lived out the rest of his days in the "comfortable" surroundings of the foreign prison.
The parable's conclusion is maddening. But I think it is also familiar. Most of us can identify with the prisoner's resistance a little too well.
I've heard somewhere that more than 80 percent of Americans believe in Jesus; over half claim to be "born again." I suppose most of the folks I know would say Jesus died to forgive our sins and we have been set free.
But, if I'm honest about my life and the lives of the people I know—found, lost, forgiven, convicted, or somewhere in between, we all seem to reside in some variation of joyless confinement.
Even religious-acting folks are shackled to longings to be a pretty big deal: for the greener grass of the next neighborhood, nicer cars, better promotions, holier reputations. Meanwhile, we seem wrapped tight in addictions, bound by obsessions, constricted in suffocating relationships.
Our religious ideas can't help us bear ten-thousand-ton lives of guilt and lethargy—we seem crushed by life's demands. A doctor friend of mind told me that millions of us devour prescribed medicinal remedies like Halloween candy—mostly to keep the rampant anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction with our lives in check. He said, in effect, we are missing an important part in Our Story.
There are religious folks who describe eternal life as a train ticket to "the sweet by and by" or a heavenly bond that is payable upon death. They preach that we are all just here waiting for the perfect end. But when I really ask the tough questions about my own life and faith, I have a difficult time believing that is the whole truth. I am desperate to explore the idea that there is another part of the Story. I am caught up in a hope that we are invited into a meaningful life today. What about the sound of joy, the footsteps up that painted path, the compulsion to follow?
There is a story from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament when God chooses a leader to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt. This Moses character is quite the journeyman. After some big mistakes and excuses, he finally follows God's call and performs a series of miracles that convince the ruler of Egypt to set God's people free. I think I live my life like the people of Israel in the narrative: just days after being liberated and hours after witnessing God's unbelievable miracles (even with the wounds of Egyptian slavery still healing on their shoulders), these folks start to complain to Moses that they want to go back to captivity in Egypt (back to the unfinished basement, back to the cell, back to familiarity) where they at least were provided the assurance of three square meals and a place to lie down.
We resist the journey.
Like the prisoner of war, we're pardoned, but are too comfortable with our surroundings to leave. We would much prefer to remain prisoners to our own constructs. Once I watched a documentary about Stockholm syndrome. The term describes a psychological phenomenon in which captives experience positive and even empathetic feelings for the criminals who detain them. The condition is named after the observation of this type of curious behavior in victims of a hostage crisis in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1970s. Maybe we have Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. After all, we willingly reside under the lingering effects of the dark and joyless cell from which we have been freed.
Even in our best moments we are obsessed with our desire to possess: the season tickets, a Movado watch, that dress from Bloomingdale's.
Consumed with "protecting" what is ours: the closest parking spot, our place in line, our role at work, the recognition we deserve.
Racing to accumulate more: the bigger house, the newer Lexus, the secure retirement, the Hawaiian vacation, friends with gravitas—the hipster, the artist, the pastor, the CEO who can bring prestige to our holiday parties.
Waiting for someone else to care for our neighbors in need—because we are too busy. It is someone else's responsibility; there is a government program for that; because they don't look like we do.
Scurrying to maintain our image and preserve our reputations—hiding our anger behind closed doors, overcome with embarrassment when our kids don't succeed, making sure we win at all costs.
And even church offers no reprieve as we dress, talk, act, manipulate, and generally labor with tireless determination to earn some type of spiritual approval—front row seats in the sanctuary, disguising our problems to protect our status among church members.
Many of us haunt much darker "cells" than these. We refuse to let go of loss, of pain, of hurt. We cling to dependence, jealousy, prejudice, and greed. We do anything but go.
Yet opening the pages of the Bible, we discover a main character whose message is painted in the compulsion to move forward, a God who walks our dusty roads in human skin and speaks frequently of the rich journey we can experience if we will simply follow, a way of living tethered securely to qualities that last forever, a grace grounded in going, a journey toward joy, a condition of living called "life to the fullest."
It sounds rather remarkable, but very distant and almost foreign. As I survey the trappings of my existence relegated to the storage units and shelves of my dimly lit cell, and as I examine the lives of even the most religious of folks I know, I am left wondering—is this really the sort of life the Bible was talking about?
There has to be more.
Jesus' words seem an invitation to emerge. Spiritual freedom and the movement toward joy must somehow begin with the call to pursue the one who seems an ardent journeyer. It haunts me that there is an adventure embedded in the words of the Bible fiercely aligned against the coercive and powerful voices of the religious and popculture worlds in which we live. But we can't begin this movement until we willingly:
The call to emerge from the cell that runs through all of the biblical narrative is road-worn and joyful, familiar and intimidating all at once; it is the voice of the very one who intimately designed each of us. Even from the confines of our secure life, the introspection of our ground-zero moments, through the iron bars of our personalized cell doors, he is commanding us: "Come out."
The power of this voice resonates across life and death. Those who have lost a loved one know that you never quite forget the very moment when you first heard the news. Jesus had three close friends named Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Story tells us that when Jesus first hears that Lazarus is very sick, he does not hurry to help. His reaction seems difficult to understand. After all, who receives news of a friend's grave condition and doesn't travel immediately to be by his side? By the time Jesus arrives at the scene, Lazarus has already been dead four days. The Gospel says that Jesus' friend was laid to rest in "a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it." The condition of this Lazarus fellow sounds evocatively familiar.
Excerpted from Holy Nomad by Matt Litton. Copyright © 2012 Matt Litton. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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