A duty to rejoice


The story is familiar: Jesus is a guest at a wedding in Cana in Galilee.  Way too early, the wine runs out. Jesus turns six huge jars of water into the very best tasting wine.

Now, if you are like me, perhaps one of your reactions to this story is, Hey, this seems a somewhat inappropriate use of Jesus’ divine power. Elsewhere in the Gospels we are accustomed to hearing about Jesus using his miraculous power to relieve human suffering: he heals the sick, the lame, cleanses the lepers, feeds the hungry — that sort of thing. These seem appropriate usages of divine power. Here, however, the power is being used simply to allow the party to go on, indeed, to enhance the quality of the intoxicating refreshments. In contrast to what we’re accustomed to, this use of divine power seems almost frivolous. Then again, maybe celebration isn’t frivolous at all. Maybe there is something absolutely essential about savoring the times for rejoicing. Allow me to be a bit autobiographical. I was an overly serious young person. I came of age during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, which impressed upon me the notion that the world was a pretty serious place, full of great suffering, and that human beings needed to get focused on the work of relieving suffering.  My own family broke apart as I was entering adolescence, which heightened this reaction to the world.

Part of what drew me to Jesus was the powerful image presented in the Gospels of him reaching out to the suffering of the world with healing balm. My personal sense of a call to ministry was connected to my desire to follow Jesus in the work of relieving suffering.

I ended up in seminary, where, after two years, I took a year off to try my hand at being a full time minister devoted to relieving suffering, serving at the baby-faced age of 24 as the pastor of a United Methodist church in a small town in Michigan. I worked pretty much every day, never taking a real day off, spending countless hours visiting the sick and the lonely, and was considered pretty successful as far as these things go.  Recently I calculated what I was getting paid back in those days, and it worked out to about $2 an hour. At the time it never occurred to me I was being underpaid. And I was given one week of vacation.

I remember that week I took away from my church, traveling back east. Part of me felt like a prisoner out on a weekend pass, while the other part felt guilty, like I should be back in Michigan attending to my flock, doing my job.  I didn’t feel deserving of vacation time.

At the end of my year I was so glad to get out of there.  I was dried up, withered inside.  I had spent too much time attending to suffering, and too little time attending to joy.

This past week I returned from two weeks of vacation, having left on Christmas day with my whole family. Sarah, Andrew, Kate, Bobby and myself went back to our favorite place in the world, St. John’s Island in the Virgin Islands, where two thirds of the land is preserved as national park. It’s all so very beautiful and so very relaxed.

My wife set this trip it up last summer when the airfare was cheaper. We stay in a campground where the only showers available are cold in a common bathhouse. Nonetheless it cost a good piece of change.  It seemed an awful lot of money to spend on something which, when it was done, we wouldn’t have anything to show for it but our fading tans. I dragged my feet on it, saying we couldn’t afford it, which was true, but I’m here today to tell you I’m glad we went.

We had a wonderful time — our own Cana in Galilee time. Time to rejoice, to play, to savor the beauty of the earth and sea; time to savor and celebrate our love for one another apart from the pressing routines of daily life and work that so easily get in the way of appreciating what God has given us.

We even sent the kids home early so that Sarah and I could have a couple of days to ourselves.

So I’ve come a long way from that guilt–ridden vacation I took from my church work in Michigan. The key to taking a vacation is  learning how to let go and get out of work mode and set aside all the stuff that gets in the way of simply enjoying life. I didn’t feel guilty once in St. John’s. I did, however, feel very fortunate. Blessed. I realized it was a great privilege to be there, for which I felt very grateful. And in a strange way I felt a moral obligation to have a really good time. This was an opportunity not given to the vast majority of people at this particular stretch of time, and it would be obscene not to take advantage of it, to fritter it away with anxiety and guilt.

In the book The Color Purple, there is a scene where one of the characters puts forth her belief that if you pass by a meadow full of purple flowers and you don’t pause to enjoy the beauty, it pisses God off.  I think she’s on to something.

Anybody with a modicum of sensitivity knows that there is an enormous amount of pain and sorrow in this world. Sometimes it can be pretty overwhelming. If all there is in life is pain and sorrow, than life is simply a curse. But suffering isn’t all there is in life. There is also an exquisite joy woven in to the sorrow and the pain. Suffering and joy exist side by side. The presence of the joy is what sustains us for the journey.

I’ve come to believe that the great tragedy of life isn’t the presence of the suffering. Some of the most noble actions and beautiful creations are produced in the midst of great suffering. Rather, the great tragedy of life is that all too often we miss the joy. It’s a terrible thing to have Jesus provide us with the very best wine and then not even notice how good it tastes.

Surely there are times in life where we are called to open our hearts up to suffering, whether it be our own or the suffering of another. But there are also times when we are called to drink deeply from the wine of joy. Sometimes these can be pretty much simultaneous times. The joy moments come scattered throughout each day. It’s your duty — to God, to the human race, to yourself — to embrace these moments.





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