I love a good, old-fashioned General Store with wide-plank wood floors, large windows, and a random inventory. These days, of course, most General Stores are nothing more than glorified gift shops, selling things that are made to look old, but every once in awhile you find one that feels authentic, complete with an ill-tempered cat and a crusty old curmudgeon behind the counter, neither of whom has moved (or been happy) since FDR was in office.
Last weekend I wandered into a General Store in a small town I’d never visited before, and while I was waiting to check out, I took a look at the stack of puzzles for sale. I was interested (and a tad bit offended) to see that one of the puzzles had a “nostalgia” theme, featuring a collage of lunch box covers I recognized from my childhood.
Tin lunch boxes, like mimeographs and the PE closet, had a distinct smell — a sort of olfactory bouquet of warm peanut butter and jelly, forgotten bananas, and stale apple juice. I had a Snoopy lunch box. I loved — and still love — All Things Snoopy. Of the few childhood memories I’ve retained, one of the most vivid is of picking out my favorite yellow turtleneck and blue Snoopy jumper for school picture day. I wore it with saddle oxfords, and coupled with my Snoopy lunchbox, I am sure that I felt that I was setting an incredibly high style standard in the halls of second grade.
Being a kid in the 1970’s was fun. My brother and I spent every waking moment outside, roaming the neighborhood or swimming. The only time we watched TV was on Saturday mornings, and on the rare Saturday evenings when that wonderful, star-shooting logo started spinning on the screen, heralding the start of a television movie like The Shaggy D.A., The Sound of Music, or The Love Bug.
Commercials were different in the ’70’s; somehow they seemed more memorable — maybe because we weren’t bombarded with them 24/7. Remember Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American who shed a single, poignant tear because of pollution? Turns out he was Sicilian (or so his half-sister claimed in 1996), but regardless of his tribal credentials, that commercial is indelibly inked into our collective psyche.
One of the craziest, and longest-running, ad campaigns was the Kool Aid man. Remember that one? A group of kids would be playing basketball in a gymnasium, wearing short-shorts and knee socks, and one kid would dramatically wipe the sweat from his brow with his super-cool rainbow striped sweatband. Suddenly, fueled by an overwhelming desire for flavored sugar water, that kid would stop in his tracks and yell, “Hey, Kool Aid!”
Summoned by this urgent incantation, the Kool Aid man, an obese pitcher of maniacally-grinning red drink product, would manifest, crashing through the brick walls of the gym and crushing everything in his path — small children, referees, concession workers, coaches and spectators — in his quest to satiate the kid’s thirst.
God is like that pitcher of Kool Aid, sometimes. You’re just humming along, minding your own business, at one with the universe….when out of nowhere, boom! God appears, minus the artificial flavor and Red Dye 40. Of course, he doesn’t appear as himself, per se, since none of us are really equipped to handle a theophany, but comes to us instead as some incident or event or entity that turns our life on its ear. Whether it’s the death of someone we love or the death of a dream we’ve held dear, the beginning of a new life or the beginning of a life-altering love, an opportunity or an obstacle that we never saw coming, God can interrupt our lives in the most unexpected ways.
Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the disruption, even when it’s to our benefit, because the ruts we live in — the holes we spend years digging, decorating, feathering — can be so familiar and comfortable. But I don’t believe God calls us to be comfortable. I think he calls us to constantly challenge ourselves.
If you spend some time in the Old Testament, you come away with the clear perception that Yahweh wasn’t overly concerned with anyone being comfortable. In establishing the covenant with the Israelites, he did promise blessings and land and abundance — but no one got to sit on a rock and wait for those things to be delivered, that’s for sure. And Jesus, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, was anything but complacent. He was a radical force within the world of the 1st century CE, turning social conventions on their heads and sending the disciples out into a fairly hostile world with nothing but a staff, old sandals, and new faith. The whole story of the people of Israel is one of constant challenge, as is the account of the very first believers in Jesus Christ, so where did we get the idea that life is supposed to comfortable?
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest who wrote a number of great books about discernment, the spiritual life, and pastoral theology. He was a professor at Yale for many years (with frequent, unusual sabbaticals), before leaving New Haven for South America, where he worked in the slums of Lima, Peru. Invigorated by the liberation theology he encountered there, Nouwen returned to North America to take a position at Harvard, and then at Daybreak L’Arche, a residential center for disabled people in Toronto.
Nouwen’s career path, which I’ve only briefly touched on here, was far from typical. He was constantly searching, discerning, and seeking opportunities to challenge himself; to many of his colleagues, who envied his tenured positions at Yale and Harvard, Nouwen’s inability to remain comfortably ensconced in the cushy halls of academia was downright incomprehensible.
When I attempt to identify the situations in which I’ve felt most closely aligned with God — most triumphant, most fulfilled, most joyous, most complete — the common thread between each situation is abundantly clear. While some of those situations were professional, some personal, some on the tennis court or in the ring, in each of them, fulfillment came when I felt vulnerable, unworthy, or ill-equipped, but somehow — with the help of God and grace and the will to push through — rose to the challenge.
So I’ll go on record as saying I don’t think life is meant to be comfortable. I don’t think we were put here to be background music or muted colors; we were created to shine, to thrive, to live and love and find our joy. We were meant to avoid ruts at all costs, because ruts — like graves — are not meant for the living.
I’ll leave you with this thought from Henri Nouwen:
Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.
Bring it on.