Consider It Pure Joy

Last week as our Call to Worship I read something William Penn wrote in 1693, and that passage has really stuck with me this week, popping into my head, first thing in the morning, and reminding me to choose moments of peace in the middle of my day. I tried following his simple instructions and really enjoyed how it made me feel. At moments, I did have a sense that everything arose from God and returned to God—my thoughts, my activities, my interactions. Even my mistakes and blind spots occurred in the bigger context of God’s unfolding grace.

In case you don’t remember it, here’s the passage Penn wrote:

I will begin here also with the beginning of time, the morning. So as you wake, retire your mind into a pure silence, from all thoughts and worldly things, and in that frame wait upon God, to feel his good presence, to lift up your hearts to him; and commit your whole self into his blessed care and protection. Then rise, if well, immediately. Being dressed, read a chapter or more in the Scriptures, and afterward dispose yourselves of the business of the day, ever remembering that God is present, the overseer of all your thoughts, words and actions… And if you have intervals from your lawful occasions, delight to step home—within yourselves, I mean—and commune with your own hearts and be still. This will bear you up against all temptations, and carry you sweetly and evenly through your day’s business, supporting you under disappointments and moderating your satisfaction in success and prosperity. The evening come, read again the Holy Scripture, and have your times of retirement before you close your eyes, as in the morning. So the Lord may be the Alpha and Omega of your lives. 

For Scripture, I chose the book of James, because it’s one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s a very clear, very honest, very practical. A kind of handbook for staying close to God, living true to our beliefs; acting with integrity; love, and mercy in our relationships with others; and doing our best to bring God’s presence, God’s goodness to our world.

Theologians and scholars believe that the book of James was written by James the brother of Jesus, although there were four other men named James in Jesus’ orbit during his lifetime. But the authority of the author of the book, and the fact that he doesn’t go to great lengths to let readers know who he is, suggests that before he wrote this book, he was already well-known in the early Christian world. His writings also indicate that he was deeply rooted in Jewish tradition as he wrote to the new Christian congregations and his examples build on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Whether James was the brother of Jesus or not, we can hear that he was a man with a clear and thoughtful mind, offering simple, practical ways for those who heard or read his words to understand and incorporate his ideas in their daily lives.

In the opening of the first chapter, James writes,

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

But in real life, that’s pretty hard to do, isn’t it? Most of us, when we encounter obstacles, aren’t happy about it. There’s something we want or want to do, and when something—or someone—comes along and gets in the way of our plans, we’re not pleased. Whatever that obstacle may be—illness, a circumstance, a person—we want it to get out of the way. It’s interfering with our joy.

In his book The Obstacle Is the Way, author Ryan Holiday tells an old Zen story about a king who is concerned that his people are becoming complacent and entitled. So he decides to present the people with a problem to see how they will solve it. He hopes it will teach them a lesson, too. So he has his guards bring their strongest horses and they drag a huge boulder right into the middle of the common road everyone uses to go to town. Then the king waits in a secluded spot off the road but within clear view so he can see what they will do. Will they work together to solve the problem? Or will they get discouraged and give up? First a few and then many villagers come. They walk up to the huge boulder, arms crossed, frowns on their faces. A few of them push on it to see if it will move. It won’t. Another few try edging around the sides, but there is not enough room to get past. Still others try to climb over it but fall off quickly—there is no place for a foothold. Finally, in dismay, they give up—a few at first and then them all—and they go back the way they came, discouraged and upset and some of them cursing the king or the providence that put that boulder there.

After some time, a peasant comes along and sees the boulder in his way. He studies it for a long time. He pushes on it with all his might. And then he seems to have an idea and heads off the road into the nearby forest. He comes back dragging a huge limb, which he fashions into the shape of a lever. Because of his perseverance—and the idea that occurred to him as a result—he was able to move the boulder all by himself and clear the road. Beneath the stone, the king had put a purse of gold coins and a note that said,

The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

So many of us, when we meet an obstacle on our path, we see only the boulder. The thing in our way gets all our attention—and energy and ire. We may, like the townspeople, curse the one we think is to blame or maybe blame providence that we have to deal with it at all. We do all we can to make it move, to get it out of the picture, so we can get on with our plan. But when we look at the obstacle that way, normal though it is, as something that’s blocking our happiness, we miss the opportunity it may be offering us. When God is in the mix, everything—every single thing—is somehow there for our blessing, whether that seems possible at first or not. And God will help us find it if we remember to look God’s way.

I had a humbling lesson in this just this week in fact. As many of you know, I’ve been quite concerned about our CICU nurses at the hospital. COVID has been so bad and our CICU is full, there have been many deaths, and our hospital has no more room—we were on diversion, meaning we couldn’t accept any more patients, several times last week. I’ve been trying to help support the nurses, who are exhausted, and grieving, and often overwrought. This is such a heartbreaking and difficult time to work in healthcare. A new idea had occurred to me as a way to support staff this week and I was just about to try it for the first time, when my plan was interrupted by someone who had other ideas. I tried to be attentive and listen and go gracefully along with the change, but inwardly I was stressed and irritated about it.

Later that night I had a conversation with a friend, who is a lovely and wise nun with the Sisters of St. Francis. This situation was still very much on my mind and I told her about it. She laughed lightly and asked me whether I’d ever heard of Mecthilde of Magdeburg, a Christian mystic from the 12th century. I said I didn’t think so, and she read me this quote that she said she had just re-discovered that very afternoon after years of not knowing where it was. The quote said,

“…in sweet bliss, I saw a stone that was like a well-shaped mountain and that had grown out of itself and had taken on the beauty of all kinds of colors and gave off the strong fragrance of precious heavenly spices. I asked the very delightful stone who it was, and it spoke thus: ‘I am Jesus.’

“That person who interrupted your plans,” she said. “I hate to tell you this, but that was Jesus.” We laughed and then talked about this amazing idea. I had been irritated because I thought this person who was taking up my time was keeping me from being with the people I felt needed support. But God must have thought that person, the boulder in my pathway, was the one who needed my time the most of all just then. It hadn’t even occurred to me. What had felt like an obstacle to me was really an opportunity—an opportunity to find God at work in every one of my experiences, whether I name them good or bad. to let God unfold things in the way they should be. I hadn’t even thought to ask that delightful stone who it was. If I’d been able to drop my judgments, to set aside my own plan for just a moment, instead of getting irritated, I might have recognized God’s invitation to be present and open and simply Love.

James tells us to consider everything a joy—even the things that hurt or confuse us, the people who annoy us, the circumstances that make us mad. Count it all joy. The first step is to stay curious about our experiences—to hold open the possibility that everything, every single thing, that occurs in our day is a gift from God. Nothing that ever happens to us happens outside of God’s presence. Keeping that idea in our minds helps us to see what we meet with new eyes and an open heart. And we can also feel comforted and reassured—even when difficult events occur—by remembering that everything in our lives is an invitation to deepen and live out our faith with more maturity and wisdom. God is growing us up. God is drawing us close. Gradually we recognize our blind spots. We see our judgments and prejudices. God opens our hearts more and more, bit by bit by bit. As we are willing. As we let ourselves be led.

The Old Testament passage we heard from the book of Isaiah comes from Chapter 55, which in my Life Application Bible is titled, An Invitation to Abundant Life. This chapter paints a beautiful picture of what life looks like when we are reconciled with God and live in touch with all the good God has planned for us. The imagery throughout the chapter is about joy—goodness, plenty, safety, and security. There are promises of delight, celebration, peace and prosperity. Verse 12 gives a lovely description of the joy of living, realized:

“For you shall go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall break forth into singing,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

It brings to mind Mechtilde’s mountain of many colors and fragrant, heavenly spices doesn’t it? Everything alive with joy in God’s created realm. Clapping and singing and celebrating the goodness of life. And that’s possible because now we know the name of our experiences, who it is who really visits us, who becomes the stone, who is always the teacher. It is the Light of Christ, come to teach us himself– beauty, love, and wisdom personified. Whether he is the mountain or person in the way, or another unwanted circumstance we didn’t anticipate, we can count it all joy, trusting that it is unfolding for our good in God.

Mary Oliver wrote a wonderful and honest poem about joy I’d like to share with you:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.
Give in to it.
There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise, and not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way of fighting back,
that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world.
It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty.
Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Joy is not made to be a crumb. In fact, when we seek God’s presence throughout our day, like William Penn suggested, we find that we live and move and have our being right in the middle of a constant well-spring of God’s joy. It requires that we see all the temptations around us for what they are—invitations to forget God for a while. But we gradually learn how to come back to the sweetness, the goodness, the gift of God’s presence. Come what may, we truly can count it all joy, when we live our moments in contact with God, trusting that God’s plan for us—and our families, our meeting, and the future of our world—is to share Life’s deep joy and goodness with us all. What a promise. What a blessing. What a joy.

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