Oct. 22, 2017
1 Thes. 1:1-10
I have a friend who has made an important decision. He’s decided to stop watching the news. It’s not because he no longer cares about the world. Rather, it’s because he cares about his soul, and he knows what the news is doing to it.
I’ve made a decision too. I’m going to read more poetry. That may sound apropos of nothing, but I do love the idea of poetry (even if I don’t understand it) and I was once reminded at the Festival of Homiletics that preachers and poets have something in common: they are among the very few who believe in the great capacity and power of a word to change the world.
Anyway, I once doused a former congregation with quotes week after week from Christian Wiman, who is a poet, and an editor, a cancer survivor, a teacher and a Christian, among other things. His book, My Bright Abyss, was the most honest and inspiring work of faith I had read in years.
On Wednesday, before my friend David Bartlett’s funeral, I heard Christian Wiman lecture about “Joy,” of all things. It was a strange mix of themes as so many of us were mourning David’s loss, but completely appropriate if you think about it. Wiman quotes Dostoyevski who writes, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness (our joy) in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” In other words, if we are going to have joy in this life we must accept it knowing that life’s end is death. We have to claim the joy we’re given, and in so doing we’re actually bucking the tide of history and doing something that’s counter to our culture.
I’m reminded of the sermon David preached at our wedding. He told us unapologetically that nothing was more important in all the world than what we were doing then and there. That, of course, seemed like an outlandish claim. But, it wasn’t because Angela and I were more important than everybody else in the world; it was because despite the world’s brokenness, its division, its bloodshed, its injustices, its hunger, and its pain, we were standing up and committing our lives to love, love’s author, and the hope of love’s victory within and beyond all the mess. To commit to love in a ruthless world is an act worth celebrating. Joy works the same way.
But, what is joy? One suggestion Wiman finds from the poets is this: joy is the moment that enables us to see our own happiness. Or, “Joy is that flash of eternity that illuminates time.” Or, joy is that force that blasts “you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached.” Wiman quotes the poet Richard Wilbur:
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
In other words, Joy is this life-giving glimpse into the Truth of things, which like all glimpses doesn’t last and therefore leaves behind it a kind of loss and pain. The thing is, it is a special kind of loss and pain because even as you long for that joy that was, it has already changed you.
Joy is “that something in the soul that makes one able to claim again the word, ‘soul.’”
But, just like soul there’s a mystery to joy. It’s as if it has its own wise and independent will. It can’t be generated, cajoled, or conjured. But, you can ready yourself for it. You can know its out there; you can know it comes; you can live with its expectation, and you can be the kind of person who grasps it when it surfaces.
Wiman says you can be like Lucille Clifton, who let out a yawp of delight over the phone – the only one ever to do so – when receiving one of poetry’s top awards. Clifton writes,
is what I ask myself
maybe it is the afrikan in me
still trying to get home
after all these years
but when I wake to the heat of the morning
galloping down the highway of my life
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and I lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride i ride
I love that!
Wiman, in his introduction, shared how as the editor of Poetry Magazine he came to know this one particularly bright and passionate intern. I don’t know his name but the intern came to his office as often as possible to chat about anything and everything. Once he shared how he didn’t know a single person of faith. All of his friends, everyone he knew, thought of faith, thought of religion, as a silly thing of the past. No one of serious thought took it seriously. To which Wiman responded, “I’m a Christian.” He shared how those three words led to that intern making his way to Divinity school, somehow eventually catching the ear of someone who eventually was responsible for bringing Wiman onto the faculty. Talk about the power of a word!
I didn’t ask him, but I wish I had, if he might substitute “God” for the word “Joy.” That Wilber poem about joy leaving us with an ache that nothing can satisfy reminds me of Augustine’s famous prayer: “Our hearts, O God, are restless until they find rest in you.” And we might say that God (in place of Joy) is that “flash of eternity that illuminates time.” Or, God is that force “that blasts you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached.” God cannot be generated, cajoled, conjured, or controlled. But, we can ready ourselves for this God, for this joy. We can ready ourselves to ride.
Though I haven’t mentioned our scriptures once thus far, all of these reflections are rooted in my thinking about them.
Paul says to this young church in Thessalonica, “We know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction… and in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, and you turned from idols to serve a living and true God, and your faith became known.”
It sounds to me like they ride! They’ve lobbed their thighs high over that rump and they are now bounding along with a joy that’s clung to their persecutions so that whatever happens they have their souls, and if at any moment they see it or not, their glimpse of the truth of Things has left them changed and ready to be changed some more.
The “how” of all of this is rooted in the question that Jesus leaves us with, and in the answer that we give. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He makes us ask: What exactly is God’s? What exactly is God asking us to give?
We have an answer to that question. We say the answer every week. Every week it is the same, and we give it again and again because it’s hard to do, and it’s also the most important thing we can ever do. It will come around in just a little while. We call it the prayer of Thanksgiving. Let’s hear it anew together. Let’s say it anew together. Let’s ready ourselves for this joy, this God.
 Joy: 100 Poems, xx.
 Ibid, xxxvii.
 Ibid, xxxvii.