Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If you cannot be happy... be cheerful...

In his own inimitable way Garrison Keillor manages to mix humor, sarcasm, truth, and wisdom in the stories he tells.  Having been at one of his monologues recently, I can attest to the ability of his words and character to touch the soul.  As I have oft reminded, Keillor pokes fun at most of us, Lutherans in particular, but at the same time lauds some of the more common Lutheran characteristics as hidden virtues.  He said that it is unrealistic to think that one will always be happy.  Suffering and struggle are too common to shoot for such an ideal.  But he told us that this should not prevent us from being cheerful.

There is wisdom in his words.  I fear that we have lost our cheerfulness, a casualty of too much disappointment, perhaps, but more likely a victim of our incessant need to dwell upon bad news.  Even in the Church, this affliction is rampant.  Naysayers are not so much those who disagree as much as they are disagreeable.  Whispers of discontent, misery which loves company, and pessimism out of control pervades the Church.  The folks outside the boundaries of the Church see this and, I believe, this awareness is one of the reasons why we are less effective in sharing the good news of the Gospel.

We can be cheerful.  It is this St. Paul urges when he bids us rejoice in the Lord even in the midst of sufferings.  The character of faith is not shaped by happiness, which is largely self-centered and which is as much a choice as it is the fruit of pleasant circumstances.  The character of faith is the holy joy of God's presence, His peace which surpasses understanding, and His grace which defies all reason.

We can be cheerful.  I fear that often Pastors, church leaders, and the whole company of those in the pews tend to forget this.  It is too easy and the instinct of our sinful natures to discount hope and postpone joy.  That means that too often the Church is seen less as a place where this holy joy is both given and cultivated by the Spirit than a place where we can let all our disappointment, frustration, and bitterness spill out.  It does not take much to note when and where this happens.  The occasional visitor or the new person checking out a congregation can readily sense such contentment with misery and it warns off people -- even when the Word that is read and proclaimed speaks a different message.

We can be cheerful.  Though we are often instruments of our own misery and we can confound the work of the Spirit by our cynicism, skepticism, and doubt, the Lord of the Church is in charge of the Church.  We are neither responsible for the success of God's work nor are the only causes for its failure.  The Spirit works in us repentant joy -- the acknowledgement that we boast in nothing except Jesus Christ is our joy even while we confess that we are sinful and unclean, offending against the Lord and one another in thought, word, and deed. 

We can be cheerful.  We ought to be cheerful.  If God is good to us, He will place in our midst those who will rebuke our lack of cheer and remind us of our cause for joy.  God has highly placed some folks like that in my life.  Not in the least of which were my grandparents.  Their own lives lived amid adversity, struggle, pain, and loss nevertheless were characterized by a joyful and cheerful demeanor that was not a personality trait but the fruit of a vigorous and deliberate faith.  Their giving natures, formed by the giving nature of our Lord, both fed their cheerful countenance and enabled them to pass on their holy joy in Christ to others.  Though they have been long gone, their witness to me remains one of joyful faith and cheerful heart.  I cannot name all those whom the Lord has sent through my life as calls to and reminders of this cheerful and joyful faith in Christ.  I remain ever in awe of the laughter and joy that inhabits my own home and family.  It is not the stuff of naivete or cruelty but of faith, amid struggle, but not overcome.  Gladness is gift even when it comes to us from those who mark that it is missing in our lives.

Keillor has spoken well of the lack of and need for a cheerful heart.  I have so often said that I really do not believe the world holds our lack of holiness against us (unless we are self-righteous) nor do I believe the world expects us be happy, healthy, and successful.  But the world does expect us to be joyful and it is right to complain when lack a cheerful countenance.  Faith imparts many things and bestows many gifts but one of its chief blessings is that we have learned cheerfulness and joy even while sufferings and struggles touch our lives.  This is hardly ever testament to us but always the work of the Lord and the fruit of the Spirit.  If you cannot be happy, the least you can be, as a Christian, is cheerful...


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