I learned today that happiness in America is at an all-time low. A recent survey from the University of Chicago found that happiness among Americans has fallen lowere than it has been in five decades. What has caused the public’s happiness to plummet is fairly simple—living in the midst of the coronavirus. And that’s the current status of happiness in America.
But happiness is not joy. We can be happy when we find success, or a have a new relationship, or a win a sweepstakes, or watch our children graduate. Yet, even in a state of happiness, we can be without joy. Happiness is an emotion that brings bursts of intense pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction, while joy is a enduring state of being that results infeelings of inner peace and contentment. Joy does not depend on our good luck or our happy circumstances. Joy lives in our hearts, in the deep recesses of our souls. Happiness comes and goes; joy is abiding and eternal.
Still, joy can seem elusive in troubled times. No one escapes trouble. It is an inevitable part of life and, at times, all of us encounter pain, grief, hardship, sorrow, loneliness. Life brings us joy-destroying circumstances. Even Advent Joy cannot change that. We can light the pink candle in our Advent wreaths over and over again, but the pink joy candle cannot bring us joy. The hope, peace, joy and love that Advent might bring to us does not always reach us.
I ask myself: What is it in me that prevents joy from filling my heart? Why does melancholy replace joy in me so often? How do I find joy?
Often, children teach us by their words and actions. Most of them exude joy. I remember hearing children sing, ”I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” The song is actually good theology for children. It is also good theology for adults, especially adults that have lost their joy. I don’t have to search for joy after all. It is ”down in my heart” or maybe down deeply in my soul.
Advent joy is not something you have to work for. Instead, it is something that you hold in your soul that stays with you always. Consider this wise thought:
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. ― Rumi
Or maybe this thought:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.i
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Some of us feel compelled to rescue the world, and we try to do it in so many ways. The ways we rescue may be simple or complex, close to home or global. We try to repair them all, from multiple interventions when our kids get in trouble at school to advocating for an end to the climate change that’s currently burning down the beautiful Greek island of Evia.
For me, it’s a given that I should rescue things and people. After all, I am a minister. Isn’t that what we do? I really do want to save the whole world from whatever ailments or tragedies are inflicted upon it — the earth itself and the people in it. The thought that writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes about this makes so much sense to me: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” I suppose that my desire to change, rescue and fix could very well be my undoing, because the stark reality is that I — one person — can do very little that would make much of a difference.
That’s the overwhelming part. How can we watch the world’s great need and not answer our inner compulsion to repair it? When asking myself this kind of question, I always think of tikkun olam, which is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world.
The phrase tikkun olam is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage. In modern Jewish circles, tikkun olam has become synonymous with the notion of social action and the pursuit of social justice.
To those who, like me, have this inner desire to change things and fix things, I can not offer any easy answers, because I do not have any. There simply aren’t any. I’m fond, though, of this idea: do the next right thing. When faced with big needs and small ones, sometimes that’s all we know to do, the next right thing.
I think that’s okay. The “next right thing” is like following the light we have or following God into the pressing needs the Spirit shows us. One thing I have learned is that before any act of repairing or helping, there must be a time of waiting, a time when the soul finds a sacred pause and waits there for holy direction. Then, just maybe we will have discovered what we need to “save the whole world.”
I love the way that poet and author Martha Postlethwaite describes a way forward for us fixers. I also love the way she invites us to find “the song that is our life” and to open our hands to receive it. Her thoughts come through so powerfully in her beautiful poem, “The Clearing.”
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue. Creating a clearing.
“The Clearing” by Martha Postlethwaite
We probably can all agree with the song John Mayer sings that we’re “waiting on the world to change.” We need changes big and small for bees, elephants, giraffes, oceans, blue whales, sea turtles, polar bears, monarch butterflies and all things nature. And then we need to clearly see the humans who probably need help most of all. So many humans live lives of deep need through no fault of their own, suffering because they’re facing incredible hardships and personal tragedies.
Martha Postlethwaite would suggest that we clear away the forest of our life and wait patiently in the clearing until what she calls, “the song that is our life,” becomes crystal clear. With that song, we will find the place of the world’s great need that is calling out to us for help.
So be present and mindful in the clearing. May God help each of us open our hands to receive our song, and then go out into the needy world singing. Amen.
I think I may have lost my music, and I’m not sure exactly when I lost it, or how. I can probably get away with blaming it on the coronavirus. After all, choirs cannot really sing right now, at least not safely.
The coronavirus has stolen so many things from us all — important things and things that are not so important. For me, one of the stolen things that affects me deeply in my soul is music.
When I hear music, the melodies and rhythms often reach into my soul. Music is my muse. Losing my music is one of my most troubling losses. I know, of course, that I can listen to Pandora or Spotify. Or I can listen to quality music on National Public Radio and find hundreds of concerts on YouTube.
What I am missing most is being inside my church sanctuary listening to the music of the pipe organ and anthems from our choir. Part of it may well be that I’m missing the people who offer their gift of music every week. Part of it is probably nostalgia when I contemplate the decades I spent singing with choirs and other groups. Part of it is missing my many years as a soloist. Part of it is missing my last ministry position as minister of worship at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Part of it is having to leave my piano when we moved in 2015. Part of it, I am certain, is that I can’t really sing anymore, at least much of the time. After my illness in 2014 and its very long recovery, I lost my voice. This was such a profound loss for my soul.
For some reason, all of this was on my mind this morning when I had a serendipity moment. I received an email with a brief thought for the day. I receive it every day, but today it happened to include a passage of Scripture closely related to my present thoughts. This is what it said:
But now, get me a player of music, and it will come about that while the man is playing, the hand of God will come on me and I will give you the word of God: and they got a player of music, and while the man was playing, the hand of the God was upon him.
— 2 Kings 3:15
Haven’t we all heard someone singing and playing music when we were touched and changed? All creativity and beauty in this life are but a small reflection of the master musician, our Creator. Listen with your heart and be glad.
— John Gaudreau
Music can be our soul’s joy or our heart’s expression. Music can lift us from sorrow’s depths and raise us to higher planes of grace. Music can be our most lavish praise to God. Music can open our spirits and create in us expressions of gladness, even in times of trouble. May God make it so. Amen.
Let me end without any more words, just music. “Listen with your heart and be glad” and hear this beautiful anthem, “Through Love to Light” with text written by Richard Watson Gilder, 1844-1909.
Through love to light! O wonderful the way That leads from darkness to the perfect day; From darkness and from sorrow of the night To morning that comes singing o’er the sea! Through love to light! through light, O God, to Thee, Who art the Love of love, th’ eternal Light of light! Amen.
All the beauty of the world,
the beauty that calls our admiration, our gratitude,
our worthship at the earthly level,
is meant as a set of hints, of conspiratorial whispers,
of clues and suggestions and flickers of light,
all nudging us into believing that behind the beautiful world
is not random chance but the loving God.
— N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth
These days I give over many of my thoughts to the millions of devastated lives that have been besieged by the coronavirus. I cannot stop the tears at times when I hear people tell their stories on news reports or when I see the ugliness of images around the world — people suffering, people in hunger, people grieving and languishing as the lives they once knew are snatched away from them. My one solace is a gift from a friend who is a lover of nature. She graces me every time we communicate with the many ways she has learned to find peace in the beauty of the world.
This morning, a cool wind was blowing as the sun warmed my face. I was warmed not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. All was quiet, except the wind, the flutter of hummingbird wings, the gentle tinkling of the wind chimes and the birdsong that I could hear all around me. I looked up into my favorite tree with its background of a perfect, cloudless bright blue sky. I could not help but notice the leaves in the tree, moving in the wind and presenting a shimmering display showing off hundreds of shades of green.
It carried me away, even if just for a few minutes, and I found myself embracing the beauty of the earth and the God who created it. I found a smidgen of comfort, peace and the kind of inner joy that is beyond any sorrow I might feel. Instead of being swallowed by the ugliness of the television news, I was blessed by delighting in the freshness and the beauty of the world around me.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. — Genesis 1:28-31
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. — Collosians 1:16
In this present moment in time, I cannot help but see the finger of God in all of creation. I cannot help but offer praise to God through the words of the hymn we often sing, For the Beauty of the Earth.
For beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.
Text: Folliott Sandford Pierpoint; Music: William Chatterton Dix (1864)
I invite you to listen to the video below. For just a few moments, pay attention to this lovely hymn of praise, perhaps as part of your meditation time.
She described herself as an unruly woman of God — Mechthild of Magdeburg. “I want also to circle higher still,” she wrote in one of her mystical poems. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve. As a young woman, she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She was an ascetic, a writer and a mystic who viewed God’s will in unorthodox ways. Her criticism of church dignitaries for religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. Her words seemed to have kept her in deep trouble!
Her story reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” a book that set me on a pilgrimage in 1996 that changed my life. This was a book that screamed out to me, “Find your own soul! Nourish it! Protect it! Bind it closer to God’s soul and, for the first time, live out God’s call to you!”
Sue Monk Kidd said this as she reflected on writing the book’s first edition:
“The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” sparked heated, sometimes scathing reactions, including public accusations of heresy, boycotts of my lectures, and a plethora of derisive letters in my mailbox. One of the more memorable began: Dear Whore of Babylon. It was the “Dear” part that made is so indelible.
This statement rings true when I contemplate the life of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Before we get back to her, though, let’s look for a moment at The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that left me with these nuggets of wisdom I will always hold close.
How many times have I denied my innermost wisdom and silenced this voice? How many times can a woman betray her soul before it gives up and ceases calling to her at all?
We must wake up, journey, name, challenge, shed, reclaim, ground, and heal.
When someone tries to put you back into a box from which you’ve already escaped, you might recall a line from the Indian poet Mirabai. She said, “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!}
As women we have a right to ask the hard questions. The only way I have ever understood, broken free, emerged, healed, forgiven, flourished, and grown powerful is by asking the hardest questions and then living into the answers through opening up to my own terror and transmuting it into creativity. I have gotten nowhere by retreating into hand-me-down sureties or resisting the tensions that truth ignited.
The main thing is to stop struggling and nourish yourself. When you nourish yourself, your creative energy is renewed. You are able to pick up your lyre again and sing.
— Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
Yes! Sing, and even dance your dissident dance! Your song may sound to all those around you like a revolutionary song, discordant to their ears. Your dancing may scandalize your observers. Still — Sing! Dance! — to the stirrings of Spirit within you!
That’s exactly what Mechthild of Magdeburg did and the religious world labeled her unruly. In her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), she described her visions of God. She could not read and write in Latin, but she is known for being the first mystic to write in German. Her confessor, Heinrich von Halle, finally persuaded her in 1250 to write down her visions and spiritual experiences. She did this in her own hand, in the conviction that it was God’s will.
By 1270, six of the seven books of the “Flowing Light” were brought to parchment, collected and given chapter titles by Heinrich. Mechthild saw her book as a message to both believers and clergy, for she feared the church was in danger of being hollowed out from within; she called the powerful church officials, who often enjoyed worldly luxury, “stinking billy-goats.”
Thus, Mechthild was known as a very unruly woman of God — a defiant, dissident and radical rebel! “Stinking billy-goats!” No wonder she became known for her “rebelliousness and unorthodox ways.” The community she was a part of, the Beguine order, was known for the same kind of unorthodox rebelliousness.
The Beguine order was a Christian religious movement active in Northern Europe during the 13th-16th centuries. The Beguines were women who lived as nuns in semi-monastic communities. Through their intense devotion to God and their somewhat ascetic lifestyle, they came to be known for their acts of rebellion and their unorthodox ways.
Mechthild of Magdeburg definitely danced to her own music!
With her order, she was part of a great spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was falling into disfavor. The Beguines sought to imitate the life Christ through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.
With advancing age, Mechthild was blind. She was alone, still the object of much criticism. With singing silenced and dancing impossible, she was left to sing songs in her heart and dance the dances of her imagination, always seeking Spirit promptings.
Some scholars have speculated that, due to increased persecution and failing health, Mechthild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne, Mechthild of Hackeborne, and Gertrude the Great. Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechthild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, Helfta had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.
Still, Mechthild portrayed herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director “my dear schoolmaster,” who taught her, “simple and stupid as I am, to write this book.” About the urging of God she said, “I cannot nor do I wish to write “unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit.” At one point, Mechthild wondered why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that “unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit.”
In spite of the fact that Mechthild was unable to read and write in Latin, these are some powerful quotes by the graceful mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), where she describes her visions of God.
The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help them both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God that causes the devils much distress.
From suffering I have learned this: that whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embraces the very same love which wounded her.
A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul. Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things, and recognized God’s unspeakable glory — that incomprehensible wonder — the tender caress between God and the soul . . . the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity as it now is and evermore shall be.
I cannot dance, Lord,
unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment
beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain,
yet want also to circle higher still.
— Mechthild of Magdeburg
Like her, I want to “circle higher still.” I want to escape from chains that shackle the highest expression of my spirit. I want to sing the songs God placed in my heart! I want to dance to the Spirit’s rhythm hidden in my spirit!
Without fear! Without fear . . .
taking the journey set before me to follow Christ into places of poverty, fear, sickness, desperation. Breaking the rules if I must. Taking criticism if I must. Being persecuted if that is in the cards for me. I want to move forward into my calling with the Spirit of God upon me . . .
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
Peace, joy and freedom. All three are needed things, soul things that make us content. They are not easily gained, however, as the daily routine we call life attacks them on a regular basis.
How troubling it is to lose one’s sense of peace. A number of life situations can result in a loss of soul-peace — worry about illness, financial concerns, difficulty with children, caring for aging parents, moving to another home. It would be impossible to complete the list of things that can steal our sense of peace.
Perhaps we should go one step further, though, and acknowledge that our loss is not merely the loss of peace, it is the loss of peacefulness. That loss can be disconcerting at best and devastating at worse. All of us long for a deep and abiding sense of peacefulness. We sometimes cry out “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)
Joy! At times, it can be hard for us to feel joy. I think it is because we’re not at all sure what joy hidden inside the soul feels like. For joy is not simply happiness over something that has come to us — a new house or car, a life milestone like graduation or a wedding, a celebration of the birth of a child. Such things seem to bring joy, but our actual response to such events is a brief burst of happiness. Genuine joy — soul joy — happens when something inside of us deeply responds to joy and we tuck it away safely in our hearts. And that kind of joy is not a brief response to a happy event, it is an abiding, spiritual state of being that comes with a grace-filled assurance that Christ came to make sure we live our lives ‘more abundantly.” The message from Jesus comes to us using various words:
I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.
(John 10:10, paraphrased)
I came to give life with joy and abundance.
(The VOICE translation)
I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.
(The Good News Bible)
Living “Life in all its fullness” seems to be the end result of abiding joy, in the soul and in the heart. Even when we listened to the song our children learned to sing, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” we somehow knew that true joy was internal not external. That joy resided in our hearts and in our souls.
Finally freedom — the kind of freedom we have when peace and joy is hidden in the deepest recesses of our being. Freedom does not leave those who practice gratefulness, prayer, meditation and confession. It is at the altar of confession that God offers us assurance of pardon. It’s the opposite of the soul’s bondage. I cannot help but recall the words of the Apostle Paul about the nature of Christian freedom that so boldly introduce the 5th chapter of Galatians:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)
Frederick Buechner added a new dimension to our longing for peace, joy and freedom with this powerful thought:
Unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you,
there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.
Therein lies the crux of living the Christian life: an interconnectedness among those who follow Christ, a community of faith in which each one supports the other. It is an interconnectedness that transcends differences of opinion, different ways of practicing faith, disagreements about which hymns are more appropriate in worship or, even more trivial, what kind of light bulbs should we use in the sanctuary.
Our interconnectedness ensures that each of us will have the will and the faithfulness to enjoy the kind of peace, joy and freedom that abides in us when we “do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together and when we exhort and encourage one another. The Message translation by Eugene Peterson calls it “spurring each other on.” (Hebrews 10:25)
Perhaps caring for one another — exhorting, encouraging and “spurring each other on” — is the message of this beloved hymn that so often informs our worship and our community when we sing it together:
Brother, sister, let me serve you;
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey;
We are family on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the miles and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping;
When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joys and sorrows
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
When we sing to God in Heaven
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.
— THE SERVANT SONG, Words and music by Richard Gillard
In our deepest time of prayer and contemplation and in the sacred refuge of our community of faith, our souls find peace, joy and freedom — for all of us, for each of us.