Kin(g)dom Living: Jesus, the Party Animal

Sacred Writings: Matthew 22: 1- 14; Sutta Nipata 1.18
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV DMIN
February 12, 2017

As I was recovering from surgery last month, I reflected on a story that the late great Dr. Fred Craddock once told.

I went to see a lady in our church who was facing surgery.  I went to see her in the hospital.  She had never been in the hospital before, and the surgery was major.  I walked in there.  She was a nervous wreck, and she started crying.  She wanted me to pray with her, which I did.  By her bed there was a stack of books and magazines:  True Love, Mirror, Hollywood Today, stuff about Elizabeth Taylor and folks.  She just had a stack of them there, and she was a wreck.  It occurred to me, “There’s not a calorie in that whole stack to help her through her experience.  She had no place to dip down into a reservoir and come up with something – a word, a phrase, a though, an idea, a memory, a person.  Just empty” (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 30).

I thought about that story often during my recovery from surgery – for if that woman had no calories in that stack of books, you, conversely, provided me with a feast.  In addition to the physical calories of meals, you provided me with spiritual calories from cards, phone calls, prayers, Raiki, and a stack of meaningful, thought-filled, spiritual enriching books.  Though I did not get to read through all of the books with which you provided for me (after all, I was a recovering with a 2 year old at home), I got to read through most of one book which I found to be quite intriguing.  A book given to me by Judith Turian, our Shepherd Area Leader, The Book of Joy.   

In April 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.  Two of the world’s great religions, Christianity and Buddhism, entered into deep dialogue.  For these two spiritual giants spent 5 days together to answer 1 timeless question.  How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?  More than going through mere surgery, these two have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression.  Despite their hardships, they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. How could that be so?

I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu preach at General Synod when I was a teenager. I remember well the image of this short man from South Africa with a gorgeous smile on this face, laughing heartily from his belly, emanating a spirit of intoxicating joy, dancing in the pulpit.  But the background story of his life is not as joyful.  During the horrific time of apartheid in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela and other political leaders were imprisoned, Archbishop Desmond Tutu became the de facto ambassador of the anti-apartheid struggle.  He was able to campaign for the end of the oppression of people of color in South Africa because he was protected by his Anglican robes and the Nobel Prize he won in 1984.  “During that bloody struggle, he buried countless men, women, and children” (Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy, p. 44).  After Nelson Mandela was released, Tutu was asked to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I listened to him preach I wondered how does a man who has faced such intense oppression and immense grief respond with such exuberant joy?

Also, the Dalai Lama faced unimaginable atrocities.  The Dalai Lama was one of 16 children, 9 of whom died in infancy.  The nearest town three hours away by mule.  At age two, he was determined to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.  He was swept away from his rural home surrounded by his family to a lonely palace in the capital city.  He was raised in isolation as the future spiritual and political leader of Tibet and as a godlike incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  “After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama was thrust into politics.  At the age of 15 he found himself the ruler of 6 million people and facing a desperately unequal war.  For nine years, he tried to negotiate with China; however, in 1959, during an uprising that risked resulting in a massacre, the Dalai Lama decided, with a heavy heart, to go into exile.  In the middle of the night, dressed as a palace guard, he fled, enduring sand storms, snow storms, and 19,000 foot peaks” (Abrams, The Book of Joy, p. 36).  The Dalai Lama and a hundred thousand other Tibetan refugees fled to India, where he lives now.

Despite the enormous hardships they have faced throughout their lives, how have Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama become two of the most joyful people on this planet? They have endured hardships without becoming hard.  Heartbreak without becoming broken.

Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama share 8 pillars of joy. The one that particularly spoke to me is the pillar of gratitude.  Dalai Lama says that when he wakes up every morning, he thinks, “I am fortunate to be alive.  I have a precious human life.  I am not going to waste it” (Abram, p. 242).  Gratitude moves us from the narrow-minded focus of scarcity to the wider perspective of abundance.  Dalai Lama says that in Buddhism, one can be grateful even for one’s enemies because they are our “most precious spiritual teachers”.  In fact, rejoicing is one of the spiritual practices of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.  Desmond Tutu speaks of how some avoid the rain, complain about the rain, but he says, for many in South African who were unfairly imprisoned for many years, they run into the rain, asking, “How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious?  Having missed the rain for so many years, (they) are grateful for every drop.  Just to feel it on (their) faces” (Abram, p. 244).  Or Tutu said that as he faced surgery during a long running battle with prostate cancer, “Oh, aren’t I blessed that I have qualified doctors, skilled and gentle nurses to look after me, and that I can be in a hospital?”  This is a much different response than the woman whom Fred Craddock visited in the hospital (Abram, p. 46).  Yes, grateful people are joyful people.

Two weeks ago, I held up the UCC “Be the Church” t-shirt which says, “Protect the environment.  Care for the poor.  Reject racism.  Fight for the powerless. And Enjoy this Life!”  The Kingdom, the Kin-dom of God is both a political vision and it is a party.  It is resistance and recreation.  It is marching and merriment.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us what the Kingdom of God is really like?”  And Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a wedding reception, to a party where there is singing, dancing, celebration.  A party where God tells God’s servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring everybody in.  God says, “I want this place jumping.”  (That’s a loose translation.)

Like Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Jesus, too, faced oppression and opposition.  Like Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama, Jesus, too worked for liberation and justice.  Like Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama, Jesus, too, knew how to party.  After all, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of all the wrong kind of people.  His first miracle was turning water into wine.  In essence, his first miracle was to keep the party going.  Jesus says the Kingdom / the Kin-dom of God is a party!  It appears that there has been a missing commandment for 2000 years in the Christian Church:  Thou Shall Party!

For Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday (the occasion for which Desmond Tutu made his visit to His Holiness), the Tibetan Children’s Village threw a party for the Dalai Lama.  These children are refugees; many have had to leave their families behind. They understand oppression and injustice.  But they also are so grateful that India has opened their borders to their families.  They are grateful for the Dalai Lama who is their spiritual and political leader.  And they wanted to celebrate his magnificent 80 years of life.  They hung red, green, yellow, white and blue prayer flags.  Two thousand children lined the streets singing a Tibetan version of, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” with clapping their hands, wiggling their hips, shaking their heads, and stamping their feet.    The boys played guitars and drums.  The girls began to sing, “We Are the World.  We are the children.  We are the ones who make a brighter day.”  Desmond Tutu got up to dance his irrepressible, elbow-waving boogie.  He encouraged the Dalai Lama to get up and dance.  As a Tibetan Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama’s vows prohibit dancing, but that day, on his 80th birthday he got up to dance for the first time in his life.  He started to sway.  At first, he looked as uncomfortable as a middle school boy on the dance floor.  But Desmond Tutu’s joy was contagious.  The two men took each other’s hands and moved to the music, celebrating the true joy of friendship, the true joy of their unbreakable connection to one another, the true joy of the world coming together as one.

Then, a huge multilayered cake with candles burning was brought to the Dalai Lama.  The community sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Tibetan.  During the singing of the birthday song, the candles had burned so low that the cake was starting to catch fire.  The Dalai Lama blew out the candles, but the candles relit.  A second time, he blew out the candles, and the candles relit.  A third time he blew out the candles and the candles relit.  On the one hand, these were quite literally trick candles and on the other hand, they were symbolic of a light that never burns out.

As we continue to “Be the Church”:  protecting the environment, caring for the poor, rejecting racism, sharing our spiritual and material resources, fighting for the powerless, let us also not forget to enjoy this life and dance in the streets.  For the Kingdom / Kin-dom of God is a party!