I’ve always had an aversion to my own birthday parties accompanied by the candles, singing, presents, and celebration. I would rather sit in a quiet corner and engage in singular conversation with someone or perhaps read a book by myself.
To borrow Philip Yancey’s term, I’m a recovering legalist, someone who loves structure but can’t sustain it with my own will. Celebrations seem so…unstructured. But I’m working on my character deficiency.
I am currently helping teach a Bible class on the spiritual disciplines. I told my class about my disdain for birthdays, how I hated the attention growing up, and that I am a recovering stoic, learning that celebration is not a vice, but rather a natural progression in life.
So I’ve thrown out the idea that spiritual discipline means praying while lying on a bed of nails. The ultimate destination of our journey is joy in which we, “discard the idea that discipline is an onerous duty and to move toward a liberating and simpler idea of discipline, whose defining character…is joy. Michael Joseph Gross, in a review of Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline
Like many Christians, I’ve often divorced myself from celebration like an ascetic monk. And so I am now more alert to the Spirit within, always on the lookout for ways to make myself uncomfortable in the pursuit of a better way.
I was looking for a way to do this recently on a stay in Malibu, California. It was New Year’s Eve and I found my noble excuse, a reason to practice the spiritual discipline of celebration…2017. Karen and our friends-in-law, Bob and Sheila, were more focused, simply looking for celebrities. So, with these trivial and noble goals in mind, we reserved a table at The Sunset Beach New Year’s dinner celebration in Malibu.
There were not only rumors of celebrities, but also of party hats and noise-makers. Noise is, after all, how children express joy. And while stiff and aching from walking Pepperdine University’s hills and steps, we were determined to immerse ourselves in simple childlike joy within the context of Malibu’s jet set, despite our fish out of water discomfort. We needed the practice. Besides, how can we grow in celebratory joy without this spirit of elective stress?
So we decided to challenge ourselves. Each of us would meet one person.
Our first challenge was Gary Busey, a marginally famous actor, accompanied by an obviously younger woman and a boy, perhaps 6 years old, who wore a shirt with the word fart on the front.
Bob wished Gary Happy New Year while extending his right hand in greeting. Gary said, “Huh!” Bob repeated, “Happy New Year!” Mr. Busey said, “Oh, Happy New Year,” while shutting out Bob on the handshake.
Bob is Mr. Congeniality, nobody refuses Bob’s hand in greeting. I could see that it had gotten under Bob’s skin just a little. We were all taken aback by the handshake refusal and awaited a moment of superficial social justice.
That moment arrived a little later as Mr. Busey posed for a picture with the woman and the boy and Karen said to Sheila, “Photobomb them!” Without thought of consequence nor fear of humiliation, Sheila lunged across the room and dove into the family history of Gary Busey and his flatulence.
There was also a good-looking guy we couldn’t place in tv or film so we called him The Hawaiian, and a local woman originally from Hawaii named Malaya, who danced over to me and asked, “What’s your name?” I flashed my wedding ring and not wanting to severely lie, I said, “I’m Bengt,” the name of a guy from Norway I had just met.
Bengt lives in Malibu with his French wife whom he met in Paris. Bengt thought it funny that my name was almost the same as his. Bob and I talked with Bengt about surfing and snow skiing and about our shared initial B.
We met a couple from St. Louis, freshly de-nested, their children living in Portland and Seattle. And we met Sam, a short academic-looking but pleasant Jewish anesthesiologist who grew up in the Bronx and attended college in upstate New York.
At 11:30, we went to look at the surf. I started running along the firm sand at the water’s edge, like Forest Gump. It felt good to sprint. I rarely do it anymore without an astonished hamstring waving a white flag, but tonight I ran on the beach like I was 18 all over again. And I thought about a foreigner we had met inside, Fabio, from Austria. He was visiting his sister in Malibu, but tonight he was alone.
He came alone to a New Year’s party in a foreign country.
Somehow, I thought it was we who were brave. But it was Fabio, awkward, slightly out of rhythm, just a bit geeky, a stranger in a strange land, a little bit like us, only more so.
Nobody will really understand our venture into Lala land. But we won’t soon forget the night we realized that people are just people, the movie stars, the homeless, the famous, the spat upon, and the kid with a bodily function lettered across his front shirt, whom I bumped into as they were leaving. I looked down at him and he looked up at me and I said, “I’m sorry.” The kid said, “It’s OK.” Thanks kid, I hope you are going to be OK too, and I hope you find a new shirt someday.
I learned a little bit about the basic human longing for celebration tonight, and it was fun, way outside of my comfortable easy chair of smug stoicism.
I blew a kazoo and then I kissed my wife softly like you kiss someone with whom you share a lovely secret. Because these are good times, and better times await.
But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31