joy


 

The recent pop song “Stand by You” by Rachel Platten includes the following lyrics:

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’m gonna stand by you
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.

It’s an uplifting anthem even though, if you really think about it, if you’re actually walking through hell, having someone beside you would probably only marginally improve the experience. Presumably the language is figurative, and the message is “I’ll be with you even through the hard times.”

The video for the song doesn’t contain any walking-through-hell scenes, either literal or figurative–not that I could tell, anyway. Instead, it shows Rachel singing and people showing warmth and caring to others. At one point, what looks like a church choir joins Rachel, clapping and dancing enthusiastically. Maybe no one is finding heaven, but they certainly seem optimistic in their pursuit of it.

All this reminds me of my church. I wrote last September that we had dwindled to just a few members and were considering disbanding. That prospect troubled me, since those who remained had invested so much in the church, serving and supporting one another. Though the situation looked grim in one sense, in another way I thought we were exactly what a church should be. I wrote about our conversations with each other then:

“It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.”

We decided then to continue as a congregation, and worshiped together every week for almost five months. We had a few more people who were once peripheral members attend more often, but for the most part it was the same dozen people who continued praying for each other, singing together, studying the Bible, and sharing our joys and sorrows with each other.

Recently we had another meeting. The pastor said that, though we weren’t in financial difficulty yet, we couldn’t afford to pay his salary for an extended period of time. He was feeling pulled to be in a larger, more conventional church. A few other people expressed the same desire, and some of the rest acknowledged that, as much as it pained them, the best decision would probably be to disband. We all said that we want to maintain our relationships, and we made plans to meet regularly with one another once our Sunday morning services stopped. Our last worship service as an organized church was yesterday.

I am said about this. I’m consoled, though, by the thought that, during our time together, we truly constituted the church of Christ, and did so more purely and maturely than I had ever seen before.

What does all this have to do with finding heaven? A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to something Jonathan Edwards said about the church and heaven. Edwards asked, how is the church like heaven? He decided that what made the church on earth like heaven wasn’t the signing or the Bible reading or the sermons. It wasn’t the meetings and activities that members attended or the charismata, the gifts they possessed. It was love. D.A. Carson, who summarized what Edwards said about the church, added:

“The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.” (In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14)

So, having been part of a church where everyone loves everyone else–and lives out that love by listening, encouraging, reaching out, and helping–is to have found heaven. My church no longer meets, but still it lives on, as long as that love endures (and the Apostle Paul promises that it endures forever–see I Corinthians 13:13). Sure I’m sad, but mostly I’m grateful. Why did God bless me by letting me experience heaven while still on earth? I may never know. But, having found heaven (or, rather, being found by it), I look forward to the next time I’m there, regardless of which side of the grave that happens.

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This past Wednesday my church had the sort of meeting no church ever wants to have. We met to decide whether to continue as a church or disband. When I joined the church shortly after moving to the area three years ago, I never thought things would come to this. It was always a small church, but it was vibrant, with lots of college students and young professionals. Church services were (and still are) joyful but also a time for deep, quiet reflection; sermons were rich and encouraging. The church wasn’t really growing, but that was largely because so many of those who left had been inspired to go to seminary or enter church work of some kind. The future seemed bright.

There were a few problems. We were a small church, and there weren’t many people to do the work that was entailed in keeping everything going. Some members started complaining about the workload. About a year ago, a few members left; so as not to burden the remaining members, the steering team cut back on some things we were doing. That affected programs, and some people became dissatisfied that the church didn’t have the programs they wanted. More people left. In about the past three months the loss of members cascaded, and, finally, there was a church service in the middle of August that nobody attended (that’s not quite true; the pastor and five people were there). So, the natural question became, should we continue or just disband? And if we continue, how can we become a sustainable church again? Thus the meeting.

Twelve people attended, plus one via Skype. There was a couple in their fifties and their daughter, a couple in their forties, two couples somewhere around 30 (I’m bad at estimating ages so this sentence may be mostly inaccurate), the pastor, and his wife. I was the oldest person there. A teenager, daughter of the second couple, joined us after work. Our only remaining college student had a class and couldn’t make it.

The pastor and the head of the steering team had drawn up a list of four options, three of which were to go on in some fashion and the fourth of which was to disband. We each talked about how we saw the church and what we thought would be the best course of action. Several people mentioned being discouraged by the work that it would take to rebuild the congregation. A couple with young children said they thought it might be best for their kids to go to a church with more programs. Someone asked our pastor whether it would be a relief if he no longer had to lead a struggling church. He didn’t think so, but said he was shaken when only five people came to a service and thought he didn’t have the energy to cope with that happening many more times. His wife broke down when she talked about how hard it is to set up for a service not knowing if anyone will come.

At the same time, about half of us were leaning toward continuing. Even those who were leaning the other way talked about not wanting to give up the community we have together. We are, indeed, a family to each other. We have gotten to know each other incredibly well and care deeply for each other. One person who is thinking of leaving asked, “But couldn’t we still meet together to talk about faith?” Isn’t that kind of what church is? The teenager said she loved her church and that all the adults treated her like a person, not just a kid. Everyone was open; everyone got support even if they expressed views different from the rest of the group. We couldn’t find resolution, though. Toward the end of the meeting I didn’t want the church to disband but I had a sense of dread that we might have to do so. I think I wasn’t alone in that dread.

We decided to wait one week before making a decision. I hardly slept at all that night; I was in misery since I couldn’t see a way forward. Early the next morning, as I reflected (or maybe obsessed) on the meeting, it dawned on me that something remarkable had occurred there. These twelve people (I won’t include myself because I was the last of those present to join) had invested themselves in the church without holding back. Everyone had picked up the slack for someone else who either wouldn’t sign up to help or signed up and didn’t follow through. I suspect everyone felt abandoned by members who seemed committed or even led the church (did I mention that all but one member of the steering team left this summer?), then disappeared. If anyone had a right to throw up their hands and walk away, to rail at those who left, to blame the pastor or leadership or God or anybody else that came to mind, to say “I told you so” about suggestions not taken and warnings not heeded, to remind us all of how much they had done, it was these people.

Yet none of them did. No one said they wanted to walk away in disgust, no one vented, no one blamed.  Every person there was open, often to the point of rawness, about their feelings, and none of these feelings were toxic. Everyone listened, everyone empathized, everyone encouraged the others. More than anything else, everyone loved each other. I believe that God’s Spirit was present, ministering to each of us through everyone else. Thinking back over my sixty-plus years of participating in various churches, I could recall only one other meeting in which I sensed the Spirit was present to this degree.

I shared these thoughts with a friend who has been a pastor’s wife for over thirty years. Her take was that God must have been working for years to get us to that point, stripping away the illusions and false hopes so just love remained. She and her husband had a similar experience once early in their ministry. The church they were then serving went through a tremendous struggle and were left with just a faithful few. They considered closing, but didn’t, and now are serving their community in wonderful ways. She said something like this: “God doesn’t accomplish his purposes by building big churches with lots of programs. Christ works through small groups who have been purified for his purpose. You’re one of those groups.”

Maybe we are. I was still left wondering what it would mean for us to be a successful church. We’ve been thinking that we need to build our numbers up. It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.

And what about all the programs and activities that other churches have but we don’t? Some of those seem appealing to me as well. But aren’t those programs and activities for the purpose of spiritual formation–to change our hearts and minds so we become more like Christ? If that is happening to us in such a powerful way already, how many more programs do we really need? How much sense would it make to disband and go to other churches so that we can get into programs to teach us how to get what we already have?

How about the kids? We do have a worship time for them during the sermon, but they are missing out on the rich array of educational activities that many churches have. We probably can do better. Still, there are lots of kids who grow up in other congregations going to those activities and end up disliking the church and keeping their distance from all things religious. Are they really better off than our kids, all of whom seem to love our church as much as the teenager in the meeting does?

None of this means that we aren’t in a difficult position. We aren’t in financial straits yet, but will be eventually if something doesn’t change. At this point, I don’t know if we’ll decide to continue on. Still, since the meeting, my thoughts about what makes for a successful church have changed totally.

A couple days ago, I sent an email to those at the meeting, suggesting that maybe God’s intention all along was to bring us to this point where we love each other the way we do. I added that our church has become the most successful church I’ve ever been a part of. Just so they wouldn’t think I’m nuts, I carefully specified that I was using as my criterion of success that we become Christ-like. They know me  well, though, and probably knew before the email that I can be kind of nuts. That’s OK. They love me anyway.

So, we’ll meet again on Wednesday September 16. I ask for your prayers for us. And while you’re at it, pray for yourself, too, that, if it hasn’t happened up until this point in your life, you will someday be part of a community that loves God and each other the way we did on Wednesday. As I know all too well, being in that sort of church can be painful, but the joy far outweighs the pain.

jesus-christ-statue

UPDATE: When we met on Wednesday, we decided to continue meeting for at least a year. We’ll focus first of all on getting closer to each other and finding a way of worshiping that those wary of God or church might find easier to participate in. We started that process with our worship service today (9-12-15). I’m excited about what God is doing among us!

A week ago, Harold Knight, who blogs at “Me, Senescent,” wrote a post titled “A Subject I Know Next to Nothing About.”  He was writing about joy, and his title alludes to his history of depression and the consequent paucity of joy through much of his life.  He wasn’t complaining, and he emphatically states that he doesn’t despair, making the insightful observation that to despair is to have more certainty about life’s awfulness than any of us can truly claim to have.

His post got me thinking about the presence or absence of joy in my life.  I wrote a couple years ago about joy, especially about how the Romantics thought of it.  Drawing on their conceptualization, here’s how I differentiated joy from happiness:

“Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.”

I am less happy with my life right now than I have been for years—it’s been hard to adjust to partial retirement, serve as a caregiver for my parents, and travel back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina every month.  Experiences of joy happen about as frequently as ever, though.  Here are some things that have brought joy in the past month or so:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • My dog greeting me when I arrive home.
  • Finding a beautiful woodblock print to buy.
  • Seeing the first tiny tomatoes growing in my garden.
  • Being outdoors on a brisk summer morning after several hot and humid mornings.
  • Driving through mountains in West Virginia.
  • My 21-month-old granddaughter giggling as I imitate her hand movements.
  • Participating in worship.

In each case both the experience and the joy it produced was unexpected.  I don’t mean that in every instance I had no hint that the event itself would occur—after all, tomato plants tend to produce tomatoes, and I’m aware when I enter West Virginia that I’ll be seeing some mountains.  I didn’t expect that I would experience the presence of tomatoes or the massive solemnity of the mountains in the way I did, though.   I had the sense that something unbidden but blessed had happened.  A transcendent element was present, and I felt that in some way God had given me a gift.

Let me expand a little more on the last item, joy from participating in worship.  I can sit through entire worship services without a hint of joy, even if the liturgy is meaningful, the music enjoyable, and the sermon well-crafted.  From time to time, though, something takes place that resonates deep within.  As often as not, it is something that connects with me in a deeply personal way—it reminds me of something about myself or my life.  That personal quality causes me to feel that the event is meant for me, that I in particular am being blessed (though I recognize that others may be blessed by the same event to an equal or greater degree than I am).

This happened most recently when I was in St. Louis from July 11 to 15 to help my son and his family move into the house they bought there.  We worshiped Sunday morning in a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination in which I was raised.  Nothing about the service was remarkable until the song that followed the sermon.  The pastor said most members of the congregation wouldn’t know it “Because it’s from the red 1956 Psalter.”  It’s titled “The Seasons are Fixed by Wisdom Divine,” and it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 104.  Here’s the first verse:

The seasons are fixed by wisdom divine,
The slow-changing moon shows forth God’s design;
The sun in his circuit his Maker obeys,
And running his journey hastes not nor delays.

I hadn’t heard or thought about the song in perhaps 40 years, but I’m sure I sang it multiple times as a child and adolescent.  I love everything about it—the grandeur of the language, the series of descending notes in the first line, the verse describing lions creeping out at night to share God’s bounty—quite a remarkable image, I think.  I sang heartily, and felt I had somehow returned briefly to the rather less complicated and more incredulous faith of my youth.  An inner storehouse of memory had been opened to reveal a treasure.  I felt joy.

Image from Hymnary.org

Image from Hymnary.org

The feeling dissipated fairly soon, as it usually does, but some echo of it is present as I remember the experience.  Thanks be for joy, the unexpected visitor arriving on otherworldly wings.

I’ve posted recently about joy, so, when I ran across this quote from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, I wanted to add his voice to what I said:

“I have committed myself to joy. I have come to realize that those who make space for joy, those who prefer nothing to joy, those who desire the utter reality, will most assuredly have it. We must not be afraid to announce it to refugees, slum dwellers, saddened prisoners, angry prophets. Now and then we must even announce it to ourselves. In this prison of now, in this cynical and sophisticated age, someone must believe in joy.”

What a marvelous vocation: Announcer of Joy.

soloist2

I haven’t written anything for the blog lately.  I’m on summer break from teaching, and will be devoting myself to other things.  I’ll try to post occasionally, though. 

In my most recent post I wrote about the movie “The Soloist.”  One of the main protagonists, Nathaniel Ayers, is a classically trained musician who is also homeless and schizophrenic.  I wrote this about him:

“It’s not surprising that Nathaniel’s guiding spirit is Beethoven; what other composer would be so likely to bless enduring a life of misery in order to achieve occasional moments of transcendent joy from music?  The “soloist” of the title can be taken as a reference to Nathaniel’s isolation; I take it to be a reference to his singular devotion.”

I want to follow up on that comment by talking a little about the Romantic notion of joy.  My main source for this is Darrin McMahon’s excellent Happiness: A History, which I’ve referred to a couple times previously. 

To the Romantic, joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Abstracting the concept from Coleridge’s poem “Dejection: An Ode,” McMahon characterizes joy as follows: “Joy is light ,joy is glory, joy is reserved for the pure of heart.  An when its sweet music wafts through the soul, it transforms us, as it transforms the world, making a new heaven and a new earth, wedding Nature to the self.” (p. 285)  Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.

This transforming force seems to be what Nathaniel is after.  He surrounds himself with the sounds of the street, as if they were the voice of some organismic force of nature.  The sounds flow through him, and, inspired, his hands move, so that the sounds of the street and the sounds of the cello join seamlessly in music.  His surrender to an indwelling spirit is his joy.

And what of Nathaniel’s schizophrenia?  He rejects the diagnosis, though it seems that he does recognize that he is atypical in some way.  Though most of us view hallucinations, delusions, and loose associations as undesirable, it’s not clear that Nathaniel does.  I recently read an article in Newsweek about Icarus, a group that advocates viewing psychiatric conditions as gifts rather than impairments.  The author of the article describes the organization this way:   “The group, which now has a membership of 8,000 people across the U.S., argues that mental-health conditions can be made into ‘something beautiful.’ They mean that one can transform what are often considered simply horrible diseases into an ecstatic, creative, productive or broadly ‘spiritual’ condition.”   Perhaps the real-life Nathaniel Ayers holds to the oddities of his mental functioning as necessary for him to be possessed by the spirit of music.  And who is to say that isn’t so?