Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Test of All Happiness

"The test of all happiness is gratitude."
-G.K. Chesterton

There's a moment in the Lord of the Rings movies that has always bothered me a little. It's actually my favorite scene, when Frodo and Sam are in Osgiliath, and all hope is dead, it seems. Frodo, despairing, says, "What are we holding onto, Sam?"

Sam turns, grabs Frodo by the shoulders, and hauls him to his feet, staring him eye-to-eye. "There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it's worth fighting for."

The music swells. Gollum, remembering that little plan about the big spider, looks sheepish. And everyone feels a little better than they did before. It's by far my favorite scene. But, watching it again and again, there was always something nagging me. I knew that it wasn't actually in the books, so I never worried about Tolkien's theology...but here I was, swept up into the clouds by something I didn't believe was true.

I believed that to be theologically correct, we must say there is no good in the world, and there hasn't been since Adam's Fall (excepting a certain carpenter in early AD). All our righteousness is as filthy rags, after all. I didn't feel like it was right to call anything this side of heaven truly good.

I'm not alone. We live in a culture of pessimism and dissatisfaction, all masquerading under the name of realism. When people say “That’s just the way it is” or “Life isn’t fair, move on”, they say they’re just being realistic. They're the sort of person that would say "How can you enjoy that milkshake when people are starving in China?" On the other hand, you have people who are blind to the faults of the world.

I know that ultimately we must accept that our world is broken, but there’s something fundamentally defeatist about believing that everything is evil because of it. And God certainly isn't a defeatist kinda guy. He's out to win. Being certain that everything is sullied feels almost worst than the alternative: believing that everything will go right because it should. Many Christians reject the notion that “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo”, because they say we live in a broken world—there is no good to fight for.

Most Christians fall into one of two categories (both dangerous). N.D. Wilson identifies the two camps in this way: "God made kittens. They are cute in baskets. They are also killing machines. People who like kittens in baskets want to forget that part, and ignore that if kittens were big enough they would kill you: Your own house cat would take you down. But God made them. Look at tornadoes. Did God make them?"

Some people like kittens. They’re the people that post pictures of cute rodents on Facebook with a Bible verse in the margin. The sort of thing that makes me go “Bleh…” They like to think there's some good in everyone. But other people focus entirely on the fact that kittens are killing machines. They’re the ones that post scathing rants on Facebook, wondering why people can’t get over their problems. They (and I) like the God of storms.

The thing is, both are true. There are kittens, and there are tornadoes. We have the two extremes, and both result in dissatisfaction. The kitten crowd ends up glossing over the things they don’t like, and thus are devastated when the ugliness of the world makes itself known. The tornado group refuses to see the beauty, and can never love it.

But there is a third option.

Over the last few months, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to find Earthly fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy is to be fully both. To accept the world in everything it is, and remember that it is a reflection of its Maker, though an imperfect one. God is a God of “love and thunder.” (AP) We can look at the storm gathering and be in awe of its terror, and jog down a country road, marveling at the thick-scented flowers and the clouds of butterflies that flutter up around our worn-out sneakers.

The world is broken, but it is not fully evil. Earth retains visions of Eden. When you look out the window at seven in the morning and the sun is shining on green hills, it is beautiful and it is good. What we’re really saying when we are awestruck by a piece of art, is that it reminds us and awakens our “longing for the world that was, before the Fall.” (AP)

C.S. Lewis said that the beauty in Narnia was just a shadow of the reality of heaven—the true Narnia. He was right. When you see something beautiful, it is only a shadow, it is not the real thing. But its resemblance to the truth is so strong that it awakens the nostalgia of our hearts. Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos which means “return” and algos, “pain.” It means homesickness. We all feel a deep homesickness in our hearts—we all know what the world should look like: Eden. The New Jerusalem.

And that brings me back to thankfulness. While we have not yet passed beyond the Grey Havens, we’re still on this Earth. That means, we’ve got to deal with it as it is, both tornadoes and kittens. So what can we do? Chesterton split the world into optimists and pessimists.
“My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”
-G.K. Chesterton "Orthodoxy"
We cannot be optimists, nor pessimists - we must be patriots. We live in a beautiful and broken world. Our world—God’s world. There is light, and there is dark. God made this, and he called it good. He is writing this story in all its splendor and ugliness. The things you see on the news are all in his hands. He gives and takes away. How are we to come to terms with all this? Thankfulness.

Recently, my family and I went an Andrew Peterson concert in Winston-Salem. Right before the next-to-last song, he said that he and his friend Ben Shive had been given the opportunity to meet Paul Simon last spring. They spent about forty-five minutes talking, and one of the things Simon said to Andrew was “I don’t know if there is a God, but if there was, I’d just want to tell him one thing: ‘Thank you for all the beauty in the world.’” It made Andrew think of a Chesterton misquote: “‘The worst moment in an atheist’s life must be when he looks around at the beauty of the world, and realizes he has no one to thank.’”

Andrew then began the last song on his new album: Don’t You Want to Thank Someone. In his simple and poetic way, he summarizes what I’m trying to say.

Can't you feel it in your bones
Something isn't right here
Something that you've always known
But you don't know why

'Cause every time the sun goes down
We face another night here
Waiting for the world to spin around
Just to survive

But when you see the morning sun
Burning through a silver mist
Don't you want to thank someone?
Don't you want to thank someone for this?

Don't you want to thank someone for this? And it’s more than just throwing a quick thank you at the ceiling during prayer time. When you make breakfast, breathe in the wheaty smell of the cereal, watch the velvet milk flow into the bowl, and wonder how that milk made it all the way from a cow in Iowa to your refrigerator. Marvel at the sky, sunny, snowy, or (my personal preference) stormy. Thank Someone for This. Problems start to fade into the background. We live in a world full of infinite blessing and beauty, and we walk around with our eyes closed. Bored.

Open your eyes. Keep them open. Our world is not boring. When you get in the car, remember that it’s a ton of metal hurtling along at 70 mph propelled by burning liquid. The thousands of people in traffic, pressing around you, each possesses their own narrative. Their own story is far more complicated than any book character you can imagine. If you gathered them together, you’d have more than enough excitement to fill a million novels. The story isn’t about you. Get outside of yourself and wake up to the world—our wild and R-rated world.

Wake up! Be thankful! Thank God for everything—the little and the big. Spin in the fields like Maria and hear the sound of music over the mountains. Hear the voice of God in every cricket-chirp and bird-song. N.D. Wilson said that God doesn’t speak in English, as we wish he did. He is telling a story, a story that is being acted out around us every moment of every day. It falls to us both to listen, and to watch. There was a reason that Jesus urged the Pharisees again and again to open their eyes, for if their deep, heart-eyes had really been open, they would have seen that there is some good in this world, and that it shows the "invisible attributes of God" to our doubting souls.

Don't you ever wonder why
In spite of all that's wrong here
There's still so much that goes so right
And beauty abounds?

'Cause sometimes when you walk outside
The air is full of song here
The thunder rolls and the baby sighs
And the rain comes down

And when you see the spring has come
And it warms you like a mother's kiss
Don't you want to thank someone?
Don't you want to thank someone for this?

Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America

(All quotes marked AP are from Andrew Peterson).

P.S. And it turns out Tolkien did agree with that idea too. In response to a letter to a woman going through some tough times, he said,

"What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in... Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of This World flying: but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them."
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter

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