Rethinking happy and joy...

In Eugene Peterson's little book, The Contemplative Pastor, he writes that one of the subversive truths pastors must teach and remind their congregations over and over again is the difference between being happy and living in Christ's joy. Not that there is anything wrong with being happy - Jesus was a party animal and enjoyed feasting and friendship and the beauty of creation as much as any of us - but the blessings of happiness are different from living in God's joy.

... my job is not to solve people's problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives. It's hard to do, because our whole culture is going in the other direction, saying that if you are smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems. The truth is, there aren't very many happy people in the Bible.

But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace and the meaning of Christ's suffering in their lives. So the work of spirituality is to recognize where we are - the particular circumstances in our lives - to recognize grace and say: "Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or my kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and this suffering?"

(Not, of course, that the only way we learn is by pain and suffering (although that seems to be how I learn the best.) Nor is this to say that God caused your pain and suffering to make you change or learn something: that is just too cruel. But, rather, to embrace the paschal mystery and search for where the grace in even the worst experience might be so that you can find the good in any situation.) Peterson then nails it... I think that all I really do as a pastor is speak the word "God" in a situation in which it hasn't been said before, where people haven't recognised God's presence.

Joy, you see, is the capacity to hear the name of the Lord and to recognize that God is here... and that is enough at the moment.

He is searching for - and pointing towards - the incarnational truth of God's presence in even the crap and agony of real life!

Our vision of God's sacred presence is often way too small because we don't search for and find the Lord in the shit. Or it is too sanitized - put up on a pedestal - so we can't find the sacred in those rough, ugly truths of everyday living. Blind Faith got it so right back in 1969 when they sang, "Come down off your throne and leave your body alone..."

Time has come for these words to become FLESH... so maybe this poem by Maxine Kumin can help.

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.
We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today's last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.

Yeats put it a little more delicately in "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" - the last line of which Alice Walker brings into The Color Purple - but the essence is the same wisdom, yes?

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'


Black Pete said…
It isn't precisely the same thing, but perhaps a useful parallel from our Taoist brothers and sisters: the yin and yang symbol (the graceful black and white circle so well known (
-/-/-/yinYang.gif)) has a brilliantly simple yet profound lesson for us.

The yin (black) and yang (white) have a part of the other at their core. In other words, each is tainted/blessed by its opposite.

I have noticed, too, how beauty seems to emerge from horror, light from darkness, and so on, and think that this somehow tells us of the way of the universe.

There is a difference between being happy and being in (Christ's) joy, and you have articulated it very well, James.

Hmm, another ping: the novels of Fred Buechner, especially the Book of Bebb collection, have this paradoxical truth throughout.
RJ said…
Yes, Peter, yes! Another helpful connection for my thinking; they are both together, distinctive but related; and never apart. That is one of the challenges I continue to wrestle with as I leave a childish understanding of the sacred behind. I guess it will always be a part of me, but I don't want it to be the dominant one, you know? And there is an odd beauty that does emerge from horror: I will never forget visiting Ground Zero in NYC one mounth after the September 11th attacks and thinking that the wreckage even looks like a cathedral of tragedy. Thanks for you always insightful words.

Popular Posts