“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” Karl Barth
“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Lord deliver us from gloomy saints” Teresa of Avila
Today is the last Friday in Lent and one to reflect on something often forgotten as we get lost in the “necessity” to give up things or do more in our spiritual life. As one who never enjoyed the Lenten season because I got lost in the legalism of it. I would become more focused on setting up things to do or to abstain from that were unreasonable and bound to fail no matter how hard I worked to make them work. Often these were practices that I gleaned from medieval spirituality which focused on the penitential and ascetic aspects of the Christian life which in retrospect only made me more miserable during Lent. Since I already know that I am a screw up and not very good at many spiritual practices the added “disciplines” were a continual reminder of how screwed up I really am. This got worse after Iraq dealing with PTSD and all kinds of other issues to the point that last year I did an “un-Lent Lent” avoiding those things but not being very successful in doing better spiritually.
This Lent has been about recovering Joy. Yes Lent is a penitential season and yes I do examine my conscious and seek to ensure that I go to confession or penitential service. In fact the acuity of my awareness has gotten better making this less painful than it used to be. Knowing that I have been able, even when knocked on my ass by a nasty Kidney stone for almost a month have been able to gain something from my Lenten journey, something very spiritual which drew me closer to God and others without a lot of additional religious activity. For the first time in my life I can say that I have enjoyed Lent.
Part of recovering joy in life is regaining the ability to laugh again and not just with cynical and sarcastic wit. Instead I have been able to laugh about life, the good and the bad. As Karl Barth said “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
Laughter and joy have again become central in my life and I wonder how I lived during the darkest parts of the last two years when I despaired of life itself and wondered if God even existed. Even with all the turmoil in the country and world, which I do take seriously if you are a regular reader, I have been able to live life, do theology, provide pastoral care and write and study history while living in the moment appreciating the grace and forgiveness of God and looking to the future with hope. I know for some this may sound a bit daft, but I know that things are not great but I also know that somehow God and humanity continue to move forward in relationship to each other.
When I survey some to the pastors, teachers, and “theologians” in print and on the internet I wonder if they have forgotten the essence of life with God. As the first question in the Westminster Catechism asks “what is the chief end of man?” The proper answer to this question is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Even the disciples of John “I don’t know how to have fun” Calvin got this one right.
Karl Barth hits the nail on the head in dealing with joyless theologians and pastors. When I was in seminary and since I have ordained I am amazed at the number of joyless people in ministry. I know that some people get treated like crap by their churches but to remain in ministry while hating it and loathing people strikes me as just sort of self destructive. Likewise the “theologian” who loathes the work that he has been called to do and the people that he is called to serve. Barth notes:
“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk—taedium [loathing]—in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 656.
To have joy in life and rediscover it in a season where even some of the most devout Christians what become immersed in tasks that are meant to bring them closer to God in fact serve to drive them away or become legalistic and unhappy seemingly incapable of knowing joy. In “giving things up” they also give away the joy and peace of the Lord and the fellowship of his people. Joy should actually serve to remind us of, call us to and awaken us to desire. C.S. Lewis talked a lot about joy and even wrote a book about it. He noted in a letter that “All joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”
Lent should not be a season where we take the fact that there are no “alleluias” and that many of the symbols of faith in our churches are covered as being a season of sorrow. If we allow it to become that we miss the point entirely. The joy that should we experience in life with God and the people that he loves, even in the most mundane and supposedly “unspiritual” undertakings of life is something to be savored. Joy is part and parcel part of the Christian hope, and merely the hope of the Christian but the hope of humanity in the midst of a world dominated by politicians, pundits, preachers and a media machine that do nothing to inspire but rather play on people’s fears and seek to drive wedges between people who depend upon one another. The Christian faith is about a future grounded in hope and lived in fullness bathed in joy because of what God has done in Christ, instead of dwelling on death it is fixated on life. As Jürgen Moltmann said “the origin of hope is birth, not death. The birth of a new life is an occasion for hope. The rebirth of lived life is an occasion for even greater hope. And when the dead are raised, they enter into the fulfilled hope of life. The setting for learning hope in life, therefore, is the possibility of starting anew and a new beginning, the true freedom.”
I have entered into a period where I am again experiencing joy in the simplicity and complexity of life lived with people that I have come to love and with whom I hope to share a great future. With real joy a part of my life I can look to a great future as I turn 50.