If 2020 walked into the Emergency Room
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST OCTOBER 11TH, 2020
The other night Gelind and I were discussing the nature of pain. In particular, how to answer the doctor in the emergency room when she asks you to grade your pain on a scale of 1-10. We tried to imagine what a ten would feel like. The problem is it’s all so subjective. One person’s ten may be someone else’s four. I kind of wonder if rating pain on a scale says more about the patient’s response to their pain rather than the pain itself.
If 2020 were to walk into the Emergency Room and take a seat in triage. And if a doctor asked her grade her pain on a scale of one to ten, I wonder what she’d say. I found some memes. If 2020 were a slide – and a picture of a child descending a cheese grater. If 2020 were a pinata, and a picture of a hornet’s nest. If 2020 were a hula hoop, and a picture of a coil of barbed wire. So, would 2020 look mournfully into the eyes of the ER doctor and say, ‘Well doc, I think it’s a ten.”
Well, not if she had a solid grasp of history. Medieval historian Michael McCormick says the worst year to be alive was not 2020, but 536. A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into total darkness, 24/7, for 18 months. Temperatures in the summer averaged 1.5°C – that is 18 months of temperatures below the growing season. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles recorded “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Well, I guess that puts things in perspective. Yes, I know there are still eleven weeks left in 2020 and who knows what the old girl might do next, but she’ll have to pull out all the stops if she is to beat 536 as the worst year in human history.
I don’t know, but I suspect our Patron Paul would agree. He would have a special word for us, the beloved people who have accompanied 2020 on her bitter and unpredictable journey. This would be an encouraging word. A hopeful word. A word to lift us out of the chaos of the dancefloor and onto the balcony, where we can see more clearly. Paul speaks to us a word of perspective.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice,” he beautifully instructs us in today’s epistle lesson from Philippians. If you are one of those people who thinks God’s commands are designed to make us miserable, then pin your ears back. God’s commandment is this: “Rejoice.” Why? Well, he continues, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” But there’s more. Dr Paul MD drops into his letter a prescription for one of the most effective and dynamic cures for all manner of human frailties. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. And the God of peace will be with you.”
It’s all about where we are looking. My eyes are often on the chaos. My ears are attuned to the voices of despair and the boasts of dishonesty. I focus on the reason to be miserable and the causes of doubt. I fix my eyes on the things I lack – some of those things belong to other people, some are beyond my ability to buy, some are denied me because I have responsibilities to work and serve and love. And this, I’m convinced, is the single greatest cause of my unhappiness, my wishful thinking, my resentment, my envy, my feelings of inadequacy and my fear of the future. Taking my eyes off God, rejecting Paul’s glorious invitation to focus on the beautiful, the true, the noble, the just, the honorable, the pure, the commendable.
Are our eyes on what we don’t have or on what we do have? You see, if we are forever focused on the things we lack then we will be restless. We’ll be hungry for more, maybe striving too hard or reaching beyond our limits to possess something that is forever just beyond our grasp. Happiness is like that. We don’t attain happiness by chasing after it, even though the Constitution gives us the right to try. Instead, we receive it, almost by accident, when we are pursuing other things. When we pursue happiness for its own sake we are prone to making poor decisions that can cause great harm to us and to other people. The secret that Paul knew, and that lies behind this wonderful passage of Scripture is that happiness is a by-product of pursuing other things – things like love, healthy relationships, the productive and fruitful use of our resources, our time and our money, and in things like serving others, giving ourselves for a higher purpose, in having faith in something transcendent that gives meaning and security to our lives, in the membership of a community that is held together by common values and aspirations and that we can look to for solidarity when we are in pain. These are what gives us happiness. People who chase after it usually don’t find it because the tendency is to think that it can be found in material things – money and the stuff it can buy, experiences and the endorphins they produce, in popularity and the fragile whisp of self-esteem it brings or in power and the adoration it produces in others.
Social scientists at the Harvard Business School get it. They asked a group of children to recall emotionally charged events. Some remembered happy events and the feelings that resulted, and others recalled events that made them sad. Then they asked all the children to help themselves from a large box of candy, and also to take some money from a bowl. They found that when it came to taking and eating the candy there was no difference between the kids who were happy and those who were sad. No surprise there. I can eat chocolate whatever mood I’m in. But something profound and amazing happened with the money. The kids who had been enjoying happy thoughts immediately before were more willing to give away their money to classmates than those who had been having the unhappy memories. So, the researchers concluded that happier people give more easily than sad people. But they also discovered something even greater – that the act of giving made the happy children even happier. So, it seems that Harvard Business School agrees with Jesus, that it is more blessed – more happy making – to give than to receive. And I’m sure Jesus is very grateful that Harvard has proved him right.
So, hear the word of the Lord. Where you look affects our joy. We can focus on the things we have, or we can fix our eyes on what we don’t have. I love the film Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey plays a cynical and unhappy TV news reporter in Buffalo. Now most people would think he lives an enviable life. A good job, an absurdly high salary, fame, a great personality, a wonderful sense of humor, Niagara Falls are practically in his backyard. And, oh yeah, his girlfriend is played by Jennifer Anniston. But Bruce is unhappy. He is focused on what he does not have – the anchor job for the network’s flagship news program. And because he is so fixated on the thing he doesn’t have it means there are many other things he doesn’t have either – like peace, contentment, a generous spirit, gratitude, a sense of all-round well-being.
But you may ask, ‘how is it possible to rejoice in the Lord always’, when ‘always’ is 2020. How can we rejoice when our emotions are raw, when we have lost someone dear to us or something important to us? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? I wish I could tell you. But I don’t think I know. It sounds like it needs superhuman powers. And maybe it does. After the pain it’s easier to have perspective, and to identify the good things that have resulted from your season of suffering. The number of saints who can do that while actually traveling that road of tears are few, and I don’t think I’m one. I’ve learned to look at my scars and be thankful. But looking at my open wounds is different. So, I’m not going to add guilt to whatever else you might be feeling right now. If you’re suffering a loss of some kind in this year of losses, please ignore what I’m about to say. In the depth of loss, it can be impossible to rejoice, and I don’t want to burden you with fantasies and platitudes. Go and pour yourself another cup of coffee and listen to this when you’re not feeling the acute pain of your loss. So, let me speak to these who are left. The key is gratitude. When we can look back at the pain and see how it was actually the soil for wisdom to grow in, for patience and compassion to take root and flourish in, then we have been in the garden of God. Brian McLaren says, “For the memory of something I used to enjoy but have now lost, thanks. For the ability not simply to rage over what has been taken, but to celebrate what was once given, thanks.”
So, back to Paul, I guess it really is all about where our eyes are fixed. The pain of the loss, or the joy that we had before the loss occurred.
And so, may you this week, Rejoice in the Lord. May your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. May you not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known to God. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And may whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, be the things you think about.