Wanna hear a confession? Sometimes I believe in God despite my beliefs about him.
I know you understand. You have to. I mean, if you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you must understand me. He’s vengeful. He has so many rules you can’t possibly remember them all. He approves of war and has very little to say against slavery. His star disciple in the New Testament prefers us all to be poor and single. He put the bad fruit there but told us not to eat it. (Why did he put it there?!) He told Abraham to do something so impossible I can’t even go there and didn’t let him out of it until the very last second. The FLOOD. I mean, I could go on. Growing up, I heard so many sermons about this God that I could barely see him any other way. I was taught several important tenets: “Die to yourself,” “Live for others,” “Obey no matter what”, and this one – life is not to make us happy, but holy. There are entire books about this, specifically one about marriage. I got so burdened by these concepts, Dad actually asked me once, “Where do you get this idea that whatever is miserable or unpleasant will be God’s plan for you?” Well. See all of the above.
The interesting thing is that I still believe. Sometimes I’ve wondered if I only believe because I’m afraid of him honestly. But, the thing is, my experiential faith is something wholly different than these things – it’s kind. And there is evidence for that in the bible, too. And the kindness has always won me so thoroughly and irrevocably that I could never go back.
Still, the teachings linger. And it’s always given me this conviction that the pursuit of happiness is a sin. When someone says, “Just do what makes you happy,” I flinch. And I look over my shoulder for a church leader to scold them. It’s not right to pursue happiness in your finances, your home, your job, your marriage. Only obedience and constant death to self. It may not make you happy, but it will make you holy.
Confession #2. I pursue it anyway. Relentlessly. And I want it for others.
You know I have been reading L.M. Montgomery’s journals, and the lack of happiness in her life makes me want to crawl through the pages and re-order everything around her until she feels as peaceful and happy as her books always make me feel. Her husband suffers from terrible mental illness, and she occasionally does, too. She worries constantly about her children, her peace of mind anchored in whether or not their lives appear successful, traditional, and near-perfect. She does what she does not want to do – all the time – and takes very little time to do the things that always bring her perfect peace and contentment. For her, a walk in nature did this. And if I could prescribe a life for her, she would have taken a walk like that every. single. day.
And there it is. My own relentless pursuit. I so want her to be happy. And then, at the end of this volume, Montgomery posted a picture of this home. As a minister’s wife, she always lived in a manse. This is the first (and only) house she would ever own. And though she only mentioned it once or twice when she was young, I know it was a dream of hers to own a home. I think it represented the ownership she wanted to feel over her life.
LM Montgomery had a gift. There is a veil between what we see every day and whatever the whole, big picture is. The universe, the plane on which our souls dwell, eternity. And Montgomery could step right up to this veil, so close that she could feel that perfect joy and peace that could only come from an understanding of all things and the belief that in the end, it’s good. And she knew that if she could have just a little more control over her days, her home, her life, then she could remain by the veil much more often. And I believe her. And I wish I could go back and remove certain conventions from her life – the tradition that women had to marry and that there was no need for it to be a great and romantic love; the convention of ministry as a profession, in which a man could be thoroughly screwed up about faith and still preach its tenets every Sunday while no one helped him have faith himself; or the misplaced conviction that your children were there to reflect perfection rather than to live their own messy, questioning journey and be madly loved and supported by you from the beginning to their end.
When I saw the picture of her house, I took in a short and happy breath. Oh thank goodness, I thought, it looks like a place to be happy.
I know from my friend Caroline Starr Rose, that Montgomery won’t find happiness even in this place that looks just made for it. But the feeling was there just the same. It looked like a house that could have been in her stories. And her stories came from her unrelenting belief that happiness was possible even here, no matter how often it eluded her.
If you’d like a theological foundation for the pursuit of happiness, try a search for “gratitude” or “thanksgiving” instead. Those are definitely in there. If you just want to know that you are not alone in the feeling that life is crazy short and sometimes troubling and you just want it to feel more hopeful than hopeless and more joyful than mundane, come find me. I’m right there with you in the pursuit.
Photo courtesy of Shannon at giraffeedays.com