Joy's Companions: Peace and Hope
Israeli Philosopher, Martin Buber (below left), said: “The beating heart of the universe is holy joy.” And versatile American author Frederick Buechner (below right) wrote, “We have God’s joy in our blood.” Joy may be more deeply rooted in healthful human experience than many of us realized.
During the month of September here at Silverside, we are focusing on joy. Once we experience joy--whether we had to seek it out or it found us and took us by surprise--experiencing other upbeat emotions is rather natural. Brighter emotions appear to connect us rather naturally to other bright emotions. Joy begets enthusiasm; enthusiasm begets optimism; and so on.
There are darker emotions we should feel when life events call for it. Brighter emotions aren’t supposed to supplant healthy darker emotions, but they certainly should help us not be overtaken, incapacitated by the darker emotions. For example, many of you were present yesterday when we held the funeral service to remember the rich life of our friend, Marion Symonds. We celebrated her life and the chapters we were able to share with her; but the rays of joy shining through as we recalled her smile or a sample of her very dry and understated humor, while perfectly in order, were not supposed to have smothered the pangs of grief we felt/feel in having lost her to this world.
By the same token, grief as painful and pervasive as it can be should not keep us from feeling and expressing the joy we felt before the bad news hit us. Some of the saddest funerals I’ve ever attended still had moments in them when the profound sadness we felt at having lost a dear one to some God-awful tragedy did not keep those of us gathered to remember, from smiling or even chuckling here and there through our tears. Death is punctiliar; life is linear.
No person in possession of her or his mental and emotional faculties wants to be remembered as she or he died to this world, and neither do those of us having to say our earthly goodbyes want to remember our loved one or friend in a casket; we most of us would want to remember those we love, and will love beyond death, at their best, at their happiest, at their strongest.
There is, to my way of thinking, an unfortunate practice down in the hills of Tennessee and north Georgia and probably many other places unknown to me; we didn’t do it in Halls Crossroads, but the REAL HICKS out in Clinton and Maynardville did it all the time. I suppose the practice isn’t too different from the practice in various ancient cultures of making death masks of prominent persons at death. Those rednecks (takes one to know one--I know, I know...) would take pictures of their loved ones in their caskets and then display those photographs on the walls of their living rooms and family rooms and dining rooms. I was mortified as a little boy when my family would visit in one of those areas, and there I’d see death pictures scattered throughout someone’s home.
I had a newish church member in my Baltimore parish who called for an appointment one day, back when people used to do that sort of thing, and when she arrived she said she wanted me to know that her favorite uncle, like a father to her, had died, and she’d just returned from Georgia and wanted me to pray for her and her family in their time of grief. Of course, I promised to do that.
She chatted on a while about her uncle and the happy moments she had had with him; then, she handed me a little photo album of her recent trip to Georgia. It was a gift for me, she said. I thanked her as I began to flip through the pictures. Flipping through pictures in a photo album also dates me doesn’t it? Nowadays, someone would have either messaged me copies of pictures or handed me her or his cell phone so that I could have a look at a digital album. Oh well. Anyway, every picture in that little album was a picture of her dearly departed uncle…in his casket. Front view. Head view. Feet view. OVERview—omg, I don’t know how they took that one, and I didn’t want to find out. Is that really how Uncle Hershel wanted to be remembered? I am hard pressed to believe that he would have.
I feel that it’s diminishing if not disrespectful to remember President Kennedy, for example, only as the young man being shot by the assassin's bullets (or assassins’s bullets) rather than as a person fully engaged in life, leading his beloved nation through times more perilous than most Americans knew until after the fact. Similarly, President Reagan deserves to be remembered as a passionate patriot and not as a patient so overtaken with dementia that he knew nothing at all in the last months of his life--not even who the great love of his life, Nancy, was--and slipped as far as he realized into anonymity when life in this world was over.
Their ends did not define them, and the sad circumstances of their partings did not keep those closest to them from moments of joy even amid the sadness. Wives remembered first kisses; children remembered best ever birthday parties and special bedtime rituals. Unless we give negative emotions the upper hand along with permission to run roughshod over our positive emotions, there are rare moments in life when joy won’t at least wink through the shadows if we will allow it.
There are those in the worldwide Christian family who define Christianity with a singular focus on Jesus’ death, and with that perspective there is the tendency to read back into everything he said or did, according to tradition, with death darkening the picture. For these interpreters of Jesus, he was, as a hymnwriter once pictured him, the “man of sorrows.”
Man of sorrow, what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim
Hallelujah! [Yes, they love it!]
What a Savior!
I was telling Robin Bryson yesterday about the funeral home in Metairie, Louisiana, while I was down there, that was always, it seemed, booked and overbooked. If you didn't die on time, chances of getting your earthly sendoff by this place were slim to none. Since most funerals in New Orleans were for Roman Catholics, the decor in the funeral parlors and chapels was typically set to Catholic sensibilities. Case in point: the crosses all around the rooms had Jesus on the cross; they were cricifixes. My Protestant parishioners didn’t want Jesus on the cross if they were participating in a funeral there so it fell to me, usually in tight situations of time because of the booking patterns, to fan out as many of the incense fumes as possible and, more importantly, to get Jesus resurrected and off those crosses--of which there were many, I say again--before the Protestants entered the room.
I was young and energetic, and the funeral home staff once honored me by naming me, informally of course, the fastest de-Catholicizer in the parish. I didn’t come up with the idea, though I wish I had. But at some point in my five year stay there, I no longer had to take the crosses with Jesus nailed to them down and replace them with empty crosses. Some brilliant person created an item that had Jesus on the cross on one side, but off the cross on the other. So, all I had to do thereafter was a quick flip of the wrist at each cross. It was an amazing invention!
Respect for differences in theology notwithstanding I don’t want to remember Jesus on the cross. I want to remember him preaching and teaching and healing and giving the Pharisees a hard time. Jesus was a happy guy; Jesus was a joyful person despite the fact that more than a few in Christendom believe Jesus never cracked a smile, and neither should his followers. To associate Jesus with joy is, for those who will never leave the cross or the tomb, sacrilegious at best.
Be that as it may, Jesus laughed and partied and poked fun at people who were so puffed up that life was always and only about them. Jesus had a grand time, frequently, giving the arrogant and self-serving a really hard way to go, and he often did so with comments that were tinted with humor.
Pope Francis has literally changed the face of Roman Catholicism--yeah, world Christianity--in his brief tenure, and he continues to do so. Despite his abiding concerns for the suffering and downtrodden people of the world and the somberness such awareness requires, he is a happy man; his joy shines through in his face as he releases person after person from the theological shackles with which they have been bound. People of faith or not, we should all be thankful for this great leader.
Think with me for a few minutes about what brings you joy. As for me, lots of things bring me joy. Time with my young adult sons and other family members. Time with good friends. A great Broadway production. A good treasurer’s report from our church treasurer, Jon Heggan. News that one of you is getting better after you’ve been sick or sidelined.
Completely unexpected good news also brings me joy. Did you know, for example, that between mid-November and mid-January just ahead of us, we will be enrolling three babies on our cradle role? I can’t wait to share this joy with the families involved and become a grand-pastor three more times. In a church our size, it’s not the fastest way to grow our kids’ program, but it’s definitely a tried and true way!
These prenatal stories remind me of a hugely joyous scene in Hebrew scripture. Sarah is 90 years old, and she’d never been able to conceive. In her culture, that made her feel pretty much like a wasted pile of humanity. When she hears the news that post-menopausal she is going to be able to conceive a child with her beloved husband, Abraham, all she can do at first is to laugh. It’s a wonderful story, and when we hear it we’re supposed to laugh too.
Everything goes according to plan, and Sarah gets pregnant with Abraham’s involvement; he KNEW her, we should say with our biblical manners at work. And her pregnancy was filled with joy and laughter. There was so much joyous laughter in fact that when their son was born only one name suited him: “Isaac,” which means laughter.
Some of you ladies who have long thought your childbearing years were over should, for the sake of the church you love, consider Sarah’s story and help our kids’ department keep growing Sarah’s way. Just saying…
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This was Paul’s benediction, his pastoral blessing, for the Christians in Rome that he offered as he began to wind up his letter to the Church in Rome.
This likely was his very own formulation--intertwining joy with two other bright emotions, hope and inner peace. If we have hope that good will come or will triumph, it’s much easier to claim inner peace. Similarly, if hope defines our general outlook, there’s a much greater chance that we will let joy in than if pessimism punctuates our existence.
Let’s take a little grammatical stroll here for a second. The New Revised Standard translation of the Second Testament has Paul’s benediction presented as I read it for you just now and as Bill read it for you earlier in the Gathering. It seems straightforward enough, but that part of the verse at its very beginning catches my eye as something worth a little more thought. “May the God of hope fill you…” In the Greek text it reads literally word for word: “The God of the hope will fill you…”
That particular pattern is how possessives are formed in Greek. There was no apostrophe so “Mary’s little lamb” would have read “a little lamb of Mary.” “Jesus’ teachings” would have read “teachings of Jesus” and so on. We can take Paul’s benediction here as referring to the hope we can have because of God (hope of God = hope that God instills), but it’s also a perfectly acceptable translation to have it as “God’s hope.”
May God’s hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We discussed God at Bible study on Friday. (Pat us on the back! Huh?) And we touched on the problem of anthropomorphizing God—that is, giving God human physical and emotional traits. God is spirit and has no hands or eyes or voice. Neither does God emote the way humans emote; God doesn’t get angry or get God’s feelings hurt the way humans do. But as long as we recognize these attempts to understand God as metaphors, we are in good shape.
So God doesn’t hope the way you and I hope, but what if in God’s way God does indeed hope?Paul’s benediction would mean something like this: Because God Godself hopes for a better world and a non-fractured humanity, we can also hope, which will bring us joy and inner peace like no other source.