Some years ago up in Maine, on a rare Monday when Pam and I had a day off together, we decided to go exploring. We drove down to Port Clyde and got some wonderful pictures at Marshall Point. Then we worked our way back up the coast in no particular hurry. We planned to have lunch at the lobster pound, which is tucked away on Harrington Cove, but it was closed for the season. So, after a side trip to Rackliff Island, we meandered into South Thomaston, grabbed some sandwiches and had a picnic in the sun and a walk along the beach at Birch Point. If you don’t know any of these places, let me suggest you plan a trip up the coast of Maine. There’s some truly beautiful country up there.
At some point in our drive, we passed by a home with a lovely wooded front yard. As we were passing, all at once I realized that someone had turned it into a fairyland. There were little paths with bridges over little streams. There were tiny houses and yards, and the whole scene was filled with little ceramic garden gnomes tucked in everywhere. It flashed by pretty quickly, and we were both hungry and not in a mood to stop, but even in that brief moment I experienced a sense of delight that has really stayed with me.
Right about that same time, the movie “Amelie” came out. I don’t know if you remember Amelie, but I’m sure you could find it on one of the streaming sites. It’s a real treat, assuming you can stand subtitles. I think it’s truly one of the most delightful movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it, but I can share one piece of it with you. Amelie’s mother dies tragically, leaving her father a listless and lonely old man. He laments that the two of them had always wanted to travel, but now that his wife was gone, he no longer felt like it. One day, on a visit home, Amelie finds her father cleaning up and painting a ceramic garden gnome. “A new friend?” she asks. “I’ve had him for years,” he says. “Your mother hated him, so he lived in the tool shed.” The gnome, it turns out, was a retirement gift from his old regiment, and now that his wife was gone he had decided to place it in the yard near the little memorial he built for his wife, hoping that the two of them could at last be reconciled.
Amelie, wanting to do something to bring her father out of his depression, comes up with a brilliant idea. Late one night, she steals the gnome and gives it to a friend of hers who works as a flight attendant. Shortly after that, her father begins receiving letters from his gnome, with pictures of him visiting all the great capitals of the world: the gnome in Moscow, in Greece, in New York. Before long, Amailie’s father has a small collection of “wish you were here” postcards from his garden gnome. Then, one day when Amelie’s father is working in the yard, he hears the front gate squeak. When he turns to investigate, he finds his world-traveling gnome has returned, and is once again keeping watch over his wife’s resting place. As the movie ends, we see the father carrying two suitcases, locking the gate of his yard behind him and climbing into a cab to the airport. Following in his gnome’s footsteps, he is finally off to see the world.
Now, depending on your bent of mind, I’m sure some of you would find all this just a bit silly. I think though, that a case can be made for times when a little silliness is exactly what we need. Life is so serious, so tragic, so problematic, so much of the time. It is easy to begin to think that taking life with anything less than the utmost seriousness is simply not appropriate. Now, most of us would say, “Well, when you put it that way, of course we should make some room in our lives for the lighter side, a little humor, maybe even a little playfulness.” But, like Amelie’s father, it is so easy to become wrapped up in our own personal tragedies and begin living as thought life itself is a chore.
Unfortunately, our usual notions of Jesus play right into that. In the history of the church, we have focused so much on the tragic side of his life. We talk about him being “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” We learn at an early age that the shortest verse in the bible is “Jesus wept.” We picture in graphic detail the horrors and agonies of his crucifixion. And even when he is not suffering, his images tend to be intense, serious and unearthly. All of which is why I am deeply grateful for gospel passages like this morning’s. “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”
I have no doubt that Jesus was acquainted with sorrow and suffering, and there are certainly times when it’s important to focus on the more difficult side of his life. What I do doubt, however, is that Jesus was quite as serious as his biographers have led us to believe. It makes sense that if you are going to tell a serious story, you would focus on the serious aspects of that story. That’s what we do. Read any newspaper and you will find that the serious stuff far outweighs the “human interest” pieces. Yet we would be wrong to take the front page of the Wall Street Journal and jump to the conclusion that life in general is as dire as the headlines. And we would be equally wrong to make that assumption about the gospels.
“Jesus rejoiced!” Of course he did. How could he have been human otherwise? Rejoicing is part of the other part of life. The part that for some reason we don’t pay much attention to. But we’d be better off if we did. Jesus rejoiced. He rejoiced when people began to catch the spirit of abundant life that he came to bring us. He rejoiced at the kingdom of God that he saw among them and within them. And he rejoiced that in God’s great wisdom and humor, God had seen fit to make “these things” completely obvious to children and all but incomprehensible for adults. What is it that little children get that adults have such trouble with? I believe that at least part of the answer is “delight.” Children are delight-full, at least in their better moments. And in our better moments, we are delight-full too. Of course there is tragedy in the world, but for those who believe, the world is not, cannot be ultimately tragic. For those who believe, the deepest truth is not tragedy. The deepest truth is grace; and grace is filled with delight.
If we’re going to talk about delight and children, one of the best ways is to get in touch with the things of childhood. In that spirit, I’d like to read a poem to you that you probably haven’t heard in a while. It comes from a book called Now We Are Six! By A.A. Milne. It’s called, Halfway Down.
Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where I sit.
there isn’t any
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
I always stop.
Halfway up the stairs
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
Can you imagine being delighted over a particular stair? But that’s exactly the point. Children don’t make the fine distinctions that adults do, over what is and what is not likely to be delightful. They simply recognize the delight that is there to be seen, for those who have eyes to see it.
I’ve always loved A.A. Milne; the world of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin. Talk about delightful. So I was very interested when I came across a book written by Christopher Matthew, who apparently decided to offer some updated versions of Milne’s poems. Matthew’s title caught my eye right away. He called his book, “Now We Are Sixty.”I particularly like his poem “Faith,” which is a reworked version of “Halfway Down.” Before I read it to you, let me explain that “C of E” is “Church of England,” and I believe “trad” is short for “traditional.” See what you think.
Just along from Harrods
Is a place
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
It’s not Roman Catholic,
Or quite C of E;
It’s more happy-clappy
The church where I go
And isn’t trad.
It makes me feel much better,
It makes me really glad
I’m not like other people
Who haven’t found God . . .
It’s difficult to
Share it with
Well folks, if you didn’t know already, that’s the kind of church I like too. A little “happy-clappy,” a little huggy, a little rejoicing, a little graceful, a little willing to risk the possibility that tragedy isn’t going to have the last word, a little faith in the future God has in mind for us. Delight is so important, and it’s theologically respectable too. Delight is Jesus pulling children into his lap and saying, “become like one of these.” Not only will you be closer to the kingdom of heaven, you’ll probably have a lot more fun in the process.
Let me close this morning with one last story. It’s called “God’s Wrath.” A woman wrote, “I was listening to my five-year-old son, Matthew, as he worked on his Speak-and-Spell computer. (This is an old story.) Matthew was concentrating intensely, typing words for the computer to say back to him. Matthew punched in the word God.To his surprise, the computer said, “Word not found.” He tried again, and got the same reply, “Word not found.” With great disgust, Matthew stared at the computer and told it in no uncertain terms, “Jesus is not going to like this!”
Whatever you may find yourself doing for this celebration of Mother’s Day, I hope we can all take a lesson from our children. Find a way to cherish and nurture your sense of delight. Life is not all about tragedy and survival. The deepest truth is grace; and grace is delight-full.