Earlier this year the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus collapsed their big top for the final time; ending a run of 146 years of spectacular feats of bravery and skill, crazy clowns and the iconic march of the majestic elephants. While the circus may have officially closed, in reality, it simply moved out of the red and white tents and into everyday life.
Sociologist and spiritual mentor Susan Phillips likens the world you and I wake up in each morning to a circus similar to the one we imagine from our childhood. She describes daily life as a three-ringed event in which you circulate from passive observer in the stands to mastered performer in the middle of the ring. A life that is fragmented and yet in constant motion. Like the circus of old, we are bombarded with lights, sounds and constant action; finding no space to rest, to contemplate, to be removed from distraction, to deal with our struggles of faith. This constant tempo creates in us an anxious disorientation around our identity and future. Promoting a shallowness to our humanity: emotionally, physically, relationally.
Depth and richness are not exactly the mark of a good circus after all. Catered services, remarkable flashes, and one breathless moment after another are great for an evening of amusement but hardly describe our actual experience of life. While the circus may portray life as it feels, it gives us a picture that is unsuited for sustained flourishing. So, how do we flourish when exhausted by entertainment and entertaining?
Our faith family has answered this question by crying out. Yes, you read that correctly. Crying out is our initial, but often overlooked, response to the anxious disorientation fostered by circus living. Hear the words of Psalm 13 afresh with the emotions and experiences of one who is caught in the daily routine of a circus life:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Don’t miss this. It is the act of crying out (over and over again), confessing that we feel the effects of a malnourished environment that we are moved into something deeper, something nurturing: a relational, non-circumstantial trust in the person and work of God going on all around us.
The honest cry “How long, O Lord?” first acknowledges that something is missing, painful, confusing and dissatisfying about life in the circus; while also holding that there actually exists a fully satisfying way of life. Why else cry out if there is no real tension to cry about nor any better picture to live for? And, most importantly, that both the exhaustion and satisfaction are experienced and brought into paradoxical alignment only in relationship to God (“Oh Lord…my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”).
The psalmist knows something deeply. He has experienced the tension of living in a world unsuited for flourishing, and rather than distracting himself or trying to solve the issue, he has cried…to God. And in his cry, he has received a presence, an awakening to the reality of abundance that is his amidst the oppression of amusement. He, like you and I, has been given a new picture of life today of bountiful flourishing in the circus. Not dismissing doubt and disappointment, but being overcome by wholeness, holiness.
Image via Harpal Singh