A duck had hit me in my face the night before. It just came out the trees, bounced off the ground, and flew headlong into my face. It had been a sign from God. The duck meant that God was with me, that God listens to silly prayers and immature kooks. (See last week’s blog for that story.) But this night, there were no ducks, and God, if God was anywhere nearby, God had stolen off with all the blankets and left me out in the cold to shiver off all the accumulated blubber from years of thanksgiving-sized portions.
This was my fourth night outdoors, my fourth day without a shower, my fourth dark evening huddled next to a campfire making my way to the mission volunteer conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was trying to read, sitting on the ground, hunkered over the campfire, but the cold wind funneled down the canyon-like walls of Steel Creek with an icy river’s fume. Each word in the book felt like a tooth-crunched icicle. I put it aside. Collecting downed branches and sticks had grown tiresome, so earlier I bought a mess of wood from a local guy – he called it a rick of wood but then changed his mind saying I hadn’t bought enough wood for it to be a rick of wood, maybe half a rick, he finally decided after a good deal of unnecessary thought.
The wood burned much better than sticks, but it was fireplace wood, the sort of long burning logs meant to heat a house over hours. I was trying to heat the planet.
There would be only one way to survive the evening, I decided: get in my sleeping bag now, zip it up, and thank God that death by cold is supposed to be uncomplicated and relatively painless. And that’s what I did, except that my sleeping bag, thanks to an ill-conceived laundry experiment, had shriveled up like a Styrofoam cup sitting too close to a fireplace. If layering shirts and jackets was a way to stay warm, layering sleeping bags must work as well, I thought.
I had brought a second sleeping bag for just this sort of emergency, and zipped it around my first sleeping bag; I laid in my tent like a crazy man in a straightjacket. My body heat filled the sleeping bags well enough that by morning I would pop out of my tent like an oven-toasted burrito.
Lying on the ground in two zipped sleeping bags gives a person plenty of time to think. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t really too early to go to bed. At home, one time zone away, it was 8PM, and then there had been that whole daylight savings thing. Really then, it was more like 9PM if I thought about it. I could see the ruins of my campfire flickering occasional yellow-orange flames and wondered how much heat was getting from the smoldering coals to the inside of my tent. This thought made me wonder how much our television and radio signals attenuate before reaching the nearest star system. Then I thought about our Founding Fathers, or some of them, the deistic ones anyway. If they believed God wound up the universe like a clock and then retreated to some transcendent corner for no particular purpose except to watch the ticking clock, where exactly did they think that corner was?
These were stupid thoughts, the same stupid, stream of consciousness that forever annoys me. I fidgeted in my sleeping bags, desperately trying to forget that I’m a touch claustrophobic, when I tripped into the library of embarrassing memories. I carry with me these memories to shame the first hint of self-esteem, and after decades of toting around this archive, I’ve discovered that it works.
I remembered the first time I went on an overseas mission trip. In 1992 I was 18, full of spunk and myself. God had called me for mission work, which to my callow mind meant fixing the world, saving souls, becoming God’s personal representative – “Step aside Mr. Pope, step aside Billy Graham, step aside Saint Peter, and make room for me Jesus, because here I come.” I wasn’t newly converted to the Christian faith, but shivering in my tent I decided that I had been new to the idea of Christian duty. This idea of Christian obligation was such a creative idea that I had declared myself some sort of spiritual genius for discovering it.
At 18 years old, you’re allowed these moments of ego. So, I had milked the novelty through undergraduate work and into divinity school. I had milked my own spiritual savvy so well, that without my intending to do so, I became a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
I had nourished myself on milk and cannibalized my soul. Soon the smallest ministerial task became a much larger cross than Christ ever intended us to carry. I mean it this way: serving God, Christian duty, carrying your cross doesn’t mean it will be a fun, happy, mushy experience. It should be, though, full of joy. And by joy, I don’t mean the joy we think of when we sing, Joy to the World, on Christmas Eve – with the expectation of stuffed stockings and a Christmas goose. I mean a kind of joy we know when a child places the palm of her hand on our cheek. The joy of an unexpected reunion. Being connected beyond ourselves, when our lives become a part of the lives and world around us. The joy of standing underneath the sky’s dome and feeling the twinkle of the universe. The burden of the cross is the constant struggle to push and tow this kind of joy.
Joy spoils and rots quickly. It is a paradoxical burden that sustains us but isn’t self-sustaining. The burden of the cross that once felt so light will now weight us down. We start talking about things like time management and financial campaigns. We have committee meetings to discuss problems. Passive aggressive behavior becomes the modus operandi. Study becomes less devotional and more tasking. Humility becomes a visual enterprise and compassion a charade. Autopilot kicks in and the fire burning within smolders on its own ash.
This is altogether natural and a good thing. Our grip on joy can only last for so long before it unconsciously slips away into a mechanical function of clocking in and out of intention. Then not long after the hand’s grip slides away from joy, our attention to beauty follows. Joy is a fugitive, on the run, hard to capture, and easily escapes. Maybe joy’s itinerant lifestyle is a result of our human condition, or maybe joy’s here-and-gone-again regimen is all we can manage on this edge of eternity. But I think it is a good thing that joy slips away from us from time to time.
It is spiritually healthy to want to pull your hair out and be contemptuous of those we are called to serve, if for no other reason than the allowance of honesty it provides. Even Jesus called his own disciples faithless and perverse and questioned out loud how much longer he had to put up with them. Joy’s vagrancy keeps us from becoming the insufferable Pollyanna who can’t help but trivialize the actual weight of the cross, or the tin-foil-hatted demigod who smiles like a clandestine misanthrope ready to sell you, yet again, another 7-steps to happiness. And nothing brings us back to gracious dependence on God like a good bout of despair.
But to fight just this kind of spiritual atrophy and helplessness, we must remember the song, again. “Repeat the sounding joy/Repeat the sounding joy/ Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.” And now with the warmth of my sleeping bag taking over and my eyes starting to lean heavily in favor of sleep, I wondered if I could repeat that young joy I had when I departed for my first mission trip. Could I do it again? Could I repeat the sounding Joy?
I crawled out of my tent an hour before sunrise, started my truck, and broke down my campsite. I had ten hours or more before I was supposed to be at the mission volunteer conference. I explored and took photos for a while and then started the short drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas. When I was there I was still hours too early so I drove to Oklahoma just to be able to say, “I drove to Oklahoma.”
All I wanted from the mission volunteer conference was a shower, an indoor bathroom, a bed, and food that wasn’t prepared in a gas station. As the other volunteers started showing up, though, I knew I was getting more than I wanted. There was Joe, who seemed like a man born with a chainsaw in his hands. Allee, the sort of teacher I wish I had when I went to school. Gene, a farmer who could grow corn on Mars if someone would just give him transportation. John, my roommate and man who wakes up at three o’clock in the morning, was, well, to call him a weirdo would be the Christian’s way of saying his cheese slid off his cracker a long time ago. And eight or so others were brimming over with compassion and personality and looking for a chance to serve their God and their Church.
The twelve-hour days of lectures and conversations, bible studies and role play taught everything from the organizational principles of the United Methodist Church to how to deal with tricky cultural differences. The tables were covered with bibles, notebooks, pens, scrape sheets of paper, coffee cups, candy, jackets and sweaters, telephones, and bottled water. And despite the fact that breaks were limited to small group discussions, lunch, and dinner, the days passed quickly.
By the end of the third night, many knew where they were going to serve. One was going to China, another to Israel, another to Tanzania, and still others were going to some forgotten pocket in the United States. Two were leaving when the conference ended, some were leaving in several months, and others wouldn’t be leaving until summertime or even a year later. Some would serve for just a handful of months and others would be serving up to a couple of years. My placement is still being worked out. But those who knew where they were going brought a level of excitement that enveloped the conference, comparable, I imagined, to what was shared by the apostles thousands of years ago when they branched off from one another for their individual journeys.
The joy of fellowship and excitement of placements touched every soul with the question “May I?” May I serve? May I volunteer? May I leave my home and family, the place where I am most comfortable? Christian duty and obligation reacquainted our callings to witness the transformative power of God. We closed our conference with a great thanksgiving, saying, “Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
There will be days for everyone when we can no longer ask, “May I Volunteer?” Instead, cultural shock, tedium, loneliness, medical issues, the constant bombardment of poverty and need will crush that initial joy and transform the question from “May I?” into “Must I?” On those days, it will be my prayer that we rejoice, which is to say, re-joice. We “Repeat the sounding joy/Repeat the sounding joy/repeat, repeat the sounding joy.”
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