We are about to wade into very dangerous water
and all I can ask is that you don’t blame the river guide.
I tried to add a little levity by marrying
Ecclesiastes to Luke
with that poem by Billy Collins
(“Aimless Love” – Google it),
but humor can only soften it just so much.
In case you missed it
among all the images and metaphors,
the character narrating the poem
which is not always the poet remember,
loves to love;
yearns to love more and more;
whatever and wherever his fancy is stimulated to love.
The character narrating the poem
is contrasting this current unanchored love
that flits from thing to thing
like a sparrow picking bread off the sidewalk,
with the ghost of a different kind of love
that has within it
the jagged memory of a slammed door,
a puffed up huffiness,
a rancid rancor,
a hi-way of gifts tracing offenses with paybacks,
silence on the other end of the telephone.
In other words,
the contrast is between shiftless fancy
with the reality that when two people love one another
within the earthen mud of a real relationship,
they hurt each other
and fail one another
and do not live up to their best selves
or the promises of their better angels.
True love is not cotton candy.
Specifically, authentic love
is just like every other thing in our lives:
full of seasons that pluck up and plant,
build up and destroy,
dance and mourn,
laugh and weep.
All else is vanity.
I want to dig deep here
for it is the burial ground of hope,
and the landfill of cast-off love,
and the plugged up drain that backs up the option for joy.
But let me open the envelope wider.
Love is easily mistaken for lust.
Hope is often confused with wishful thinking.
And joy too often made synonymous with happiness.
I want us to think about all three today
because when we get them wrong
it is inevitably because of vanity,
and the end result is our bewilderment
and even despair.
As already noted by Billy Collins,
aimless love is actually lust –
the hunger to fill that black hole at our center
that can never be filled.
Lust is bigger than sexual desire,
it is an insatiable hunger
that gnaws at us from the inside out
and that we so often imagine we can staunch
with something we hunger for.
But nothing, absolutely nothing
satiates that hunger.
It is a black hole that will not be filled, ever.
It is something we learn to live with,
grant a presence to,
and observe with an appropriate detachment.
When we trick ourselves into trying to fill it
with whatever thing we most want at the moment,
we fall into it
and get lost.
But true love learns to live with lust
and does not try to satiate it.
True love learns to traverse the seasons
without longing for the good old days
or dreaming about the Promised Land.
True love lives in the presence
of whatever season it is
and walks one step at a time through it.
True love is not aimless
but is intentional
as it walks forward
from wherever it stands in the moment
and is fully present to whoever and whatever
shares the moment with it.
Knowing the difference
between true love and aimless love
is the difference between vanity
and meaning, and
don’t we all long for lives of meaning –
lives underwritten by authentic love
rather than an aimless imposter?
Likewise, we need to know the difference
between hope and wishful thinking
if we want to avoid an early death of hope in our lives.
Hope finds an early grave
as wishful thinking inevitably turns to cynicism.
We often confuse hope with wishful thinking,
which is almost always based upon our own vanity.
When it turns out we hung our hat
on the wrong thing,
we get mad and turn cynical.
How many times have we not gotten our own way,
believing that what is in our best interest
is what should be the public interest?
Then when the thing we put our hope in
turns our to be just another dead end
or bad policy decision
or awful politician,
we fold our arms across our chest and
stomp our feet
and give up on hope.
But the problem is
our hope was wishful thinking
based upon our personal preference and self-interest;
rooted in our vanity.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
How many times have we placed
an inordinate amount of faith in a leader
or an organization
only to discover it wasn’t what we imagined,
or couldn’t deliver what we expected,
or fell far short of what it or they promised?
When that happens,
and happens often enough,
we recoil into a sheath of cynicism
in which we say to ourselves
that nothing works,
and no one has the answer,
and it will all end badly regardless
of what we do or don’t do.
It becomes a rolling ocean of Either/Or –
either what I expected and wanted comes to pass
OR “It’s no good and I told you so.”
We do not like being hurt
or let down
and we protect ourselves
by not allowing anything to hurt us like that ever again.
We turn off the hope-faucet
and live instead in the cocoon of cynicism.
What we neglect to realize
is that what hurts
is that it didn’t turn out the way WE wanted,
and OUR team didn’t win
and what WE expected was disappointed or spurned.
It really is,
when we live in the kingdom of wishful thinking,
all about us.
But authentic hope does not live
with our self-interest coursing through its veins.
Authentic hope is painted on a canvass
we cannot fully see
no matter how much perspective we try to gain.
It is bigger than us,
bigger than us here and now
and beyond us even tomorrow.
That kind of hope is found in a gods-eye view
we are only given when the veil is lifted for a nanosecond
and we take it in.
We only get a few of those views across
an entire life-time,
so we have to hold onto them
and use them to comprehend how much bigger it is
than us – any of us.
“Father, not my will but your will”
and, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”
are statements of authentic hope
garnered from a peek at the bigger canvass
and without having seen the entire painting.
That kind of hope never leads to cynicism
and it has no bitterness whatsoever.
And isn’t that the hope we all want to taste?
So often confused with its scrawnier, lesser cousin:
The root of “happy” is hap, meaning chance;
literally, a reaction to chance events
that we consider fortunate.
Happiness, as my friend Peter points out,
is reactive to what is happening.
So we know how to make ourselves happy.
It is a manufactured state of mind
in which we give ourselves a thrill
or a spike or a jolt
because we know how we will react to certain things.
Particular food or drink or drug
makes us happy.
Specific activities make us happy.
Seeing certain people makes us happy.
Getting something we wanted makes us happy.
If we are UNhappy
we know what to do to make ourselves happy
because happiness is reactive.
Joy is a gift.
We cannot make ourselves joyful no matter what we do.
Joy is not reactive;
it rises up from within
or is bestowed upon us from above or beyond.
Joy, from Old French (gaudere) means to “rejoice;”
it is evoked or given – caused to rise up within us.
No matter how much
we may have enjoyed something previously
we cannot DO anything to bring the joy back.
At best we will give ourselves momentary happiness
and if not, great disappointment.
All we can do for joy
is open ourselves to receive it when it arrives.
Becoming a person
who lives their life more open to joy
is better than all forms of happiness, is it not?
So love, hope, and joy
are often mistaken for lust, wishful thinking,
Love, hope, and joy
give substance and meaning to our lives
while aimless love,
and an obsession with happiness
lead only to vanity.
It seems to me
that what we do here,
in this place,
in our worship
and in our program
and in our relationships,
ought to give us a clear-eyed lens
with which to know the difference,
and both the nurture and courage
to live the difference.