Thursday, May 22, 2014

When Pollyanna Cried

Nothing Like Pollyanna
I rubbed my temples, her continuous, vicious grumbling ringing through my head. "Can't you just find something positive to think about?"

She whirled on me. "You want me to be happy and not care about the terrible things that are happening? You just want me to say everything's fine all the time, even when it's not? Who do you think I am, Pollyanna?" Her voice rang shrilly with mockery. She crossed her arms and glared at me. No one could ever accuse her of being a Pollyanna. Never at all--but was that really a good thing?

Pollyanna is always remembered for her sunny disposition. She is attributed a rather milk-toasty, saccharine sort of character. Just another in a line of docile, primly-dressed, kid-gloved, white-cheeked girls seated mouse-like at home till a dashing young gentleman who saw her passing in the street decides she is just the "virtuous woman" he wants to bear his children.
Compared with that other "paragon of Christianity for little girls", Elsie Dinsmore--I rather think Pollyanna's the one with her head on straight, not floating in the clouds.

"Once, when father felt 'specially bad, he counted 'em. There were eight hundred of 'em... He said that if God bothered to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it--some!"

That "some" is important to understand the lesson of Pollyanna: rejoicing in difficulty doesn't mean we're ignoring the presence of the difficulty; it means we are lifting our eyes to God, who is far above the mess.
Whenever Pollyanna was playing the "Glad Game," she didn't once pretend that things were any different than they were--but with every storm cloud comes a little vivid color. We're not smiling to hide the hurt and wear a mask; we're smiling because "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble." (Psalm 46:1) 
When it seems that Satan's minions have unleashed hell on earth, when it feels like nothing good is happening, when we see our circumstances crumbling around us, we can smile, because a child of God should know that "My help comes from the Lord, who made the Heavens and the Earth." (Psalm 121:2)
Who in the Bible had most cause for complaint? Some beleaguered soul might proclaim the Psalms as their anthem, because of the many times David railed at God--not against Him, but to Him--and the despondent texts. The dude was shunned by his brothers, stood alone against a giant while every other trained warrior in the nation cowered in fear, was chased all over said country by a crazed king who alternately swore never to harm him only to turn around and break that oath; he was betrayed countless times by people he trusted; his own son plotted to overthrow him; he knew he was God's anointed king, even as he broke nine of the Ten Commandments in the matter of Bathsheba--If anybody had cause to bemoan their lot in life--in both circumstances within their control, and ones of their own making--it was David.

But look again.

I haven't sat down with the book of Psalms to verify this, but I am willing to contend that for every time David had something to "vent", the Holy Spirit would come and give him something to rejoice in for every circumstance. The second fruit of the Spirit is "JOY." We don't rejoice to the exclusion of suffering; positivity has its moments of solemnity and of mourning. That's why the command is not, "Laugh always!" or even "Smile always!" but "REJOICE always!" Sometimes, we will experience circumstances that do not warrant smiling; indeed, it might be physically or psychologically impossible to smile. Yet we can still REJOICE in our hearts.

Happiness is the absence of suffering; rejoicing is the presence of hope through the suffering.

Pollyanna cried. Pollyanna forgot herself and let her feelings loose. Pollyanna's "scrapes" consisted of wanton moments of the brash desire to be the vessel for providing for other people's needs. But what Pollyanna didn't do was pretend something wasn't happening. She didn't turn a blind eye to hardships in a desperate attempt to make like everything was sunshine and roses. A chapter in the sequel, Pollyanna Grows Up even describes a day when she intentionally took a dare from her crotchety Aunt Polly and purposefully didn't play the game.

The scene was an interesting one. Every time Aunt Polly complained, Pollyanna agreed with her; every time Aunt Polly pointed out that something was going wrong, Pollyanna dolefully predicted a further downhill slump for the unfortunate circumstance. What is more, Pollyanna kept it up the whole day long. She was no stranger to misery when she saw it; she knew what it was like to have not even a change of clothes to her name, and out of a barrel of stuff that she and other penniless people like her could claim, all that was left to her was a pair of crutches--not even anything useful.

But in that moment, her father invented the Glad Game, turning what would potentially be the worst moment of her life into the one that made her life better than it ever could have been.

"Playing The Game" doesn't come at the expense of being realistic; Pollyanna's descriptions of things are very down-to-earth and practical... not painted in a purple romantic haze like some of the flights of Anne Shirley's fancy. "Playing The Game" doesn't make the difficult circumstances go away; having a positive outlook is only fixing your eyes on the lighthouse in the middle of a storm--it doesn't make the storm any less, but you become stronger because of the hope it gives you.

We are creatures of comfort; we might understand that "suffering is a part of life"... but inside, we want the hard things to just go away. We want to "retire" from the struggle that is the Christian life. Yet we know that there is going to be no time when God will say, "All right, I've gotten all I want out of you; go ahead and live the rest of your life on this earth however you please, and I'll keep all the tough stuff out of your way."

Some people, when they acknowledge it, might be tempted to swing to the other extreme: "The Christian life isn't hard," they'll say, "it's impossible! There is no way someone can successfully live the Christian life, so just keep beating your head against the wall, or just dig your heels in where you're at and focus on maintaining what you have then and there, and that's good enough. The best we can hope for is the maintenance of mediocrity in the name of excelling."

Since when was Christianity free to idle in "maintenance mode"? Where is the hope in that? Where is the grace? For maintenance needs no grace. You've heard the saying, "Do what you've always done, and you'll get what you've always gotten"? If I'm going through the religious motions of a Christian life of maintenance, the practice will make those motions more automatic, more "self-driven"....

They'll be easier.

I won't need grace, because I know what I have to do to get what I've always gotten. I can do it. I control the outcome. I regulate the incoming influences. I predict the interpretations. Maintenance mode at it's highest efficiency is a life entirely dependent and centered on ME.

Is that really the Gospel message we want to share? Is this message truly the Gospel of Jesus Christ at all?

When Pollyanna Cried
In one of the last chapters of the book Pollyanna, the poor young girl has lost the will to play the game. It was all well and good to be able to tell people how to play the Glad Game, but it was quite another to be in a situation where she is forced to do it.

Isn't that true of the Christian life? It is one thing to roll your eyes piously heavenward and speak of "counting your blessings" and "depending on God for grace in every day"... but when the chips fall, are you actually doing these things or not?

Word gets around that Pollyanna needs someone to help her play The Game... and what happens? Do people frown and sneer at her, gloating over the fact that the "goody-two-shoes" has finally joined the "normal people" in their humdrum, hopeless lives? Do they immediately forgo any attempt at "playing The Game" themselves because clearly it didn't work for the little girl who invented it?

I would contend that, out of all the books with their benign little rich girls who sew samplers while murmuring Bible verses like platitudes and weeping over the "trials" like not getting their way or the fact that, yes, they bore unjust punishment without crying, but it wasn't enough because their "thoughts were naughty"....

Out of all those girls, Pollyanna is the best and clearest example of sharing the truth and light of the Gospel by LIVING IT.  

True, there aren't copious amounts of King James verses, but I would hold Pollyanna not as a "Christ-like role model" (as poor Miss Dinsmore is so unfortunately flaunted) but as a fairly balanced example of a disciple of Christ. She's not just reading her Bible and praying and desperately fighting to be the best and most Jesus-like she can possibly be; she takes what God says to do, and she does her best to follow His instructions.

The Gospel isn't just a MESSAGE we SHARE or a PROGRAM we PRACTICE. It's the HOPE we DEPEND ON for everyday life--and it's available to everyone who recognizes their need.