Bruegel’s images of village life in sixteenth- century Holland may seem quaint, antique, and remote, but they speak eloquently of what it means to live well and flourish in a vulnerable, uncertain world. “The Wedding Dance” depicts a crowded village street where, it seems, a whole community has gathered to celebrate.
Weddings change things for everyone: Families are reorganized, property is redistributed, and the geography of old intimacies and friendships is remapped as the community makes space for a new household. Though wedding celebrations are among the most festive in our shared life, explicit moments of hope and happiness, they are also shadowed with losses remembered and impending, with awareness of fleeting time and mortality, and with sharpened loneliness for the solitary. Bruegel recognizes this ambiguous character of human celebration in figures like that of the orange-shirted watcher who stands to the right of the dancers, hands clasped behind him, gazing at a kissing couple, or the observer in black who stands in the left foreground watching from the shadows half-turned away.
We are born with open space, with the hunger to be in relationship with God. Right from the womb we search the eyes around us for connection. We cry to be held. We reach out to know that we are loved. And we are, right from the beginning. Even the fact that we came to be is proof enough that God desires for us to know him, to be loved and cared for by him. Children have a natural openness to God; Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Children arrive slippery and screaming and ready for relationship. Their interior space has not been filled with disappointment, pain, habitual sin, or any of the other junk that clogs up our ability to seek God with a pure heart. They are seeking and connecting. The toddler who sings in her bed before she goes to sleep and as soon as she wakes up is echoing the song sung to her. The boy who gently caresses the hurt family pet is echoing the gentle caresses of God. C. S. Lewis said we know God exists because we know that there is good in the world.
For the early Christians the Wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs, was the launching point for their consideration of human flourishing. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV) is the persistent theme of Proverbs. This wisdom is necessary for the practical realization of human flourishing, that is, a life lived well. Furthermore, it is a wisdom that originates in God and makes God known to us. The following selections illustrate early Christian reflections on wisdom.
Jerome (c. 347–420), the fourth-century Bible scholar best known as the translator of the Latin Vulgate, writes:
It is about 2 a.m. when my feet hit the soft grass under the bedroom window of my ranch style home. I walk down the silent street of the small Wisconsin village, walking “crosslots” through empty backyards, under the goalposts of the high school football field until I arrive at the door of a church. On Sundays I come here in my “good clothes,” but tonight I am a thirteen-year-old barefoot supplicant in cutoff s and a T-shirt. I find in the moonlit darkness of the sanctuary what I long for—a transcendent Presence that I somehow misplaced during the daylight hours of home and high school, and even church. I don’t stay long, but for a few blessed moments I feel the peace that passes understanding holding my mind and heart; I sense a love that is deeper than my knowing. I feel fully alive in those moments. Then I leave, retrace my steps, and noiselessly climb through the window and back into my own bed.
Years ago, I sat in a staff meeting at a church I was serving; the purpose of the meeting was to talk about how we could attract more people to join the church. At one point someone counted the requirements for church membership that were already in place and made the startling discovery that somewhere between five and nine time commitments per week were required of those who wanted to become church members! Outwardly, I tried to be supportive of the purpose for the meeting, but on the inside I was screaming, Who would want to sign up for this? I was already becoming aware of CFS (Christian fatigue syndrome) in my own life and couldn’t imagine willingly inflicting it on someone else.
I type these words with a mixture of sadness and joy. This Front Page contribution for Issue 12.2 will end my formal editorial involvement with Conversations, and I will join my friends David G. Benner and Larry Crabb in “retirement” to the masthead as a founding editor of this publication.
I love the design phase of new start-up projects much more than the administrative grind that follows. For me, the cycle for actually working with an idea, once it has been hatched, has typically been about three to five years. But engagement with Conversations has been so much fun over the years that I broke that mold. I wanted to stay involved—long after my attention had been diverted to other new ideas. But now that I’ve passed two perfectly good biblical numbers as possible stepping-away points, I need to call it quits with Issue 12—or else I’d have to wait for Issue 40 to roll around. It seems appropriate on many levels that this issue is built around the theme flourishing . It is a term that comes to us from the relatively new fi eld of positive psychology and implies living in an optimal range of human functioning that includes goodness, happiness, love, creativity, and growth. A flourishing plant is well rooted, vibrantly alive, growing, and fulfilling its life mission. It is the same with human beings.
I remember sitting around a table in a restaurant of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, just over fourteen years ago. Larry Crabb and David Benner were my tablemates, and we were lamenting that psychotherapy was much more focused on remediation than flourishing. Of course, we were not using that particular word at the time, as it was still years away from notoriety in the field.
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