The Frustration of Happiness

As a kid I listened repeatedly to the song Happiness, from the musical “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”  The old LP spun a marvelous vision.  “Happiness is . . . . learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time, . . . . . catching a fire fly and setting him free . . . . . and happiness is, anyone and anything that’s loved by you.”  I outgrew that song and some of those notions, but my search for happiness continued.

The flame and emptiness of holy desire calls us to happiness. The divine image will be satisfied with nothing less.   But here in this weary land we must constantly cope with the frustration of happiness. It is this harsh paradox at the heart of our experience that translates holy desire into addiction.  Wendy Farley 

Part of the frustration with happiness is that we can’t stop wanting it even in the face of our experiences in a world of pain.  An inner fragment of the Divine, a precious but forgotten memory,  “calls us to happiness.”  It is an inescapable longing within and we will travel the world in search of a cure.

The second part of the frustration is our own tendency to derail this pure pursuit. We get lost in the noise of voices, like the vendors in Vegas, that appeal to more immediate pleasures.  Not only does Vanity Fair call us, but our own inner compulsions mislead us.  Promises of less pain and more pleasure now seem an adequate substitute for our true calling.   These pain free pledges pull us away like a tide, further from the shore of God’s love.   In a world that consumes 14 billion doses of pain medication a day we need to ask deeper questions than “How can I ease the ache of living?”  Our attempts at happiness are turning us in to instant gratification addicts, content with momentary distractions from reality.

The frustration of happiness is further complicated by our attempts to find peace in religion.  Unfortunately, holiness rules, the emphasis on self sacrifice,  denial and control,  often communicate to our souls a message of shame, failure and guilt.  This misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus can place us outside of the experience of the love of God that we so desperately need.

The way through all of this complication is often something as simple as a compassionate, listening spiritual friend.  I have also found great comfort in the classic writings of people who have explored the heights and depths of Christian experience.

The yearning of our heart is for a deeper connection to the source of our longing, God.  “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in him,” St Augustine reminds us.  In Christian understanding, Christ is the fulfillment of this heart’s longing.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  and you have been filled in him. . . Col 2:9,10 

The abiding presence of the one who suffers with me, and for me,  is enough to sustain me in the pleasure and pain of life.  This is the beginning of real happiness.

Living Beyond the Rim

Only 5 percent of 5 million tourists that annually visit the Grand Canyon venture beyond the rim.  They do not mount a donkey or hike a trail to explore the rugged and interesting world below.  Some tourists are like drive-by-shooters; snapping shots with their camera, but not engaging in the world they are viewing through the lens.  Like these tourists, sometimes I find myself skimming through life without fully engaging in it.   Then, I’m living at the surface and avoiding the depth in my own soul and in the soul of others.  However, life is too precious to miss by passing  through it, as a casual observer.

Thoreau, in pursuit of life, built a small cabin on borrowed land near Walden pond.  He writes,

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…… Henry David Thoreau.

Moving beyond the rim requires leaving the comfort of the crowd above to face our inner fears and the vast world below.  It is the inward journey that leads to God.  Living life fully engaged we wake up, take notice, simplify and “put to rout all that is not life.”  We discover stillness and an awareness of God, who is life eternal.  We find a path that is good and a place that is restful for our souls.

 This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the cross-roads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16

In this pursuit we will also discover delight.  This is the ability of childlike wonder that marvels at all life’s many colors and shapes.   In this same way, we delight in the Lord who made our varied and vast world and whose character is like the world he made.

Peter in the Bible speaks of “rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory!” and David says, “I would go unto God, unto God my exceeding joy!”

There is really nothing ordinary about the life of a believer in the divine, — once they have decided to go beyond the rim.



The Elusive Spirit

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Snow leopards are one of the world’s rarest, most elusive and little studied large animals. They are generally very shy and well camouflaged, and hardly ever seen. Most encounters involve villagers looking for firewood or herding animals. The first photograph of one in the wild was taken in 1970 by the legendary zoologist George Schaller. Its long tail gives it amazing balance as it scales mountains as high as 18,000 feet. Known to catch a falling rock with its paw, the snow leopard can sneak up on its prey and not to be heard.  It is so elusive the locals call him the Holy Spirit of the mountains.

Have you ever felt like God’s presence is as elusive as the snow leopard? He shows up, it seems, in his time and usually by surprise. Then, just as often it feels as if he has left you waiting for some sign or sense that he is near. Living in this linear time bound world, I can easily miss precious, life changing, “sightings” when God is breaking in. The feeling that life is somewhere up ahead and that I must strive for it, or that life is behind in some former lost and lamented time, can squeeze life now in God out. However, God is always in the Eternal Now, as Thomas Kelly describes it. Behind this busy active life of time and place, the Eternal Now of God is knocking, and He desires to enter our world through us and change time for eternity. This invasion of God’s presence can be upsetting to a life driven by the ticking of the clock of progress. Don’t we sometimes look upon those who are yielding to the Eternal Presence as odd and out of place? Yet, we intuitively know there is something entirely credible about their compliance to God.   Sighting are not as rare for those who wait on God, those who learn to live in both times zones simultaneously – time now and Eternal Now.   Yes, and that is the Christian calling and joy.

“The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the aggressor, the invader, the initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. “ (Thomas Kelly)


A Gentle Voice

They say most people would rather do the following than attend a family function with certain relatives:

  • Be poked in the eye with a sharp stick (16%)
  • Get a case of hemorrhoids (12%)
  • Swallow a live bug (12%)
  • Get audited by Revenue Canada (11%)
  • Clean the toilet (9%)

When it comes to conflict, silence or violence are too often the dead end streets we go down. There must be a better way. I usually prefer to avoid conflict in order to keep the peace. However, I’ve discovered that peace keeping doesn’t work when the situation needs to change. When a relationship is dying from lack of respect, or when someone is being hurt by a corrupt system, we must speak out, or we risk becoming an accomplice to another’s suffering. Proverbs affirms this by saying,

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. “ (Prov. 31:8)

The challenge for me is how to confront with love and gentleness. On the surface it seems naïve to think we can confront that way, however, the example of Jesus shows us it can be done. Matthew saw in Jesus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy when he wrote,

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory.” (Matt. 12:20; Isaiah 42:3)

The apostle Paul similarly taught that,

“ . . . the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Tim. 2:24,25)

I believe that when we approach conflict from a heart of peace rather than a heart of war and when we speak out of a place of respect and non judgement, it’s easier to stay focused on the issues. When the accusations become personal and the emotions escalate, communication breaks down and no resolution is found.

I’ve discovered that whenever I doubt the motives of others and believe the best about myself, I contribute to the problem and often end up eating humble pie. However, if I will instead believe the best about others and doubt my own intentions, knowing how complicated the heart can be, I may find enough humility and peace of heart to get a conversation started. In conflict, communication is the goal. We are trying to add to the pool of meaning. It’s not about being right or looking good, it’s about understanding others and ourselves better.

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18

The Pilgrim’s Way: Clucking in Babylon

Walking in the woods one day, a man found an eagle’s egg, apparently abandoned.  He took it and placed it in the nest of one of his chickens, where it eventually hatched.  The eaglet grew up as a chicken, scratching at the ground and digging for worms and bugs.  He even learned to cluck like the other chickens.  Every once in a while, he flapped his wings and flew a few feet into the air, but he never tried to fly any higher than that.

One day, he saw a splendid bird soaring gracefully above him over the landscape.  “Who’s that?” he asked the other chickens,  Who told him it was and eagle.  “What a magnificent bird,” the eagle thought to himself, “Too bad I’m a chicken.”

It is easy to forget who we are and get stuck in our journey with God.  What does it take for us to move beyond the chicken coup and into the heights God has for us?

Speaking to his beloved people God challenged the Israelites:

Forget the former things,
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland. Isa 43:18,19

At this moment in their history, Israel was back in exile and living in Bablyon.  Going back to the promised land again would mean facing the ruins of the past.  This kind of soul work takes courage and is difficult.  It may seem easier just to stay put and die again outside the promised land.

Going back into the rubble created by sin is the only way to recover our real identity as a child of God.  In the movie Get Low, Felix Bus is a man who is unable to face his past guilt and so spends 30 years locked in a self imposed exile as a hermit.  The only way for him to get free was to confront his past and confess to the one person he had hurt the most, his once girl friend Mattie.

With the help of a funeral director and an old country preacher he manages to gather a crowd for an unconventional funeral party, his own. There he musters the courage to confesses his shameful past.  In the end he finds forgiveness for himself and freedom from his prison.

Holding onto the past, whether guilt, or loss, failure, or disappointment can stop us on the path to the promised land.  God’s love can set us free if we can only receive it.

Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 1  Mark 2:9




The Interrupted Life

It has been said, “Life is in the interruptions.” Christmas also reminds us that God is in the interruptions.  We spend so much of our lives on hold, it seems.   Now we are waiting for Christmas holidays to start and then we’ll wait for the next paycheck to pay for them.  We stand in line at the checkout; sit in traffic jams; wait at the doctor’s office.   We look forward to the birth of a child, long for a prayer to be answered and hope for a problem to be solved.   Can it be that these delays are opportunities for life too?  Can we find God in the middle of unfinished tasks and unfulfilled longings?  I think this is where we will most often find him, if we are looking.

The whole world is in a Grand Interruption.  The first Advent of Christ was the first phase of God’s great rescue mission.  We are in the in-between times while we wait for his return and our final adoption as sons and daughters of God.  According to scripture, creation is like an expectant mother,

  “ . . . we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”  (Rom 8:22)

Creation has been subjected to futility by the will of God as a consequence of fall of humankind.   Yet creation hasn’t given up hope, but rather groans like a woman in labor longing for the birth of her child.  The sons whom creation is giving birth to are every believer who longs for Christ’s return.  Because we live in a fallen groaning world, we too groan with expectant longing for the good that God intends for mankind.   For the word of God says

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,g for those who are called according to his purpose.  (Rom 8: 28)

Most of us prefer things that are neat and tidy and with happy endings.  Christmas is about Jesus coming into a mixed up world and God dwelling among us.  If God can be born in an obscure and stinky stable, he is able to abide in our messes.   Do you ever feel like you have to get it together for God before you can let him into your life?  It’s as if he is standing at the door and knocking but we leave him there because we are so busy tidying up.  Let’s invite him into the middle of our muddle, because life is in the interruptions.

The Alphabet Prayer

One Sunday morning, a young shepherd boy was caring for his sheep when he heard the bells of the church ringing. Watching the people walk by on their way to church, he thought, “I would like to talk to God, but what can I say to him?”

He had never been taught a prayer. So, kneeling down, he began to recite the alphabet. Although the boy was hidden from view, one of the men going to church heard the boy’s voice. Peering through the bush, he saw the small boy kneeling with his hands folded and his eyes closed, continuing to say, “V, W, X, Y, Z . . . A, B, C . . .”

He interrupted the boy. “What are you doing, child?” he asked.

The boy replied, “Praying.”

The man seemed surprised and said, “But why are you reciting the alphabet?”

The boy explained, “I don’t know how to pray. But I want God to take care of me and my sheep. So I prayed the alphabet, hoping God could make the letters into words. He’ll know what I want and what to say.”

The man smiled and said, “Bless your heart, God will!” And he carried on to church, knowing that he had already heard the finest sermon he could possibly hear that day. His encounter with this young shepherd boy reminded him of Jesus’ teaching,

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:3,4.