By Gary Ashbeck
“A people which seriously calls God alone its ruler must become a true people, a community where all members are ruled by honesty without compulsion, kindness without hypocrisy, and the kinship of those who are passionately devoted to their divine leader. When social inequity, distinction between the free and unfree, splits the community and creates chasms between its members, there can be no true people, there can be no ‘God’s people.’”
Gates of Prayer Meditation and Reading #40, gender-neutral language added
We are now in the third week of advent. The theme for the week is joy. The readings for this week are going to be more upbeat. In the first reading from Zephaniah, we are not disappointed. “Shout for joy; sing joyfully.” We get one week of singing and dancing in the course of our Advent work, to reflect and then set out to practice the work we are called to do.
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on Ernest Shackleton lately. He was a British explorer who led three expeditions in Antarctica. His expeditions were known as heroic failures. He managed to successfully get his expedition team out of many tough situations, like being adrift on an ice floe for a year, but ultimately wouldn’t be able to achieve his goal of reaching the Pole. One thing he did to keep morale up was for his crew to celebrate everything they possibly could. Every birthday, every anniversary, any reason to have a party would be celebrated. It’s one of the things I remember about my time living at Jonah House. We always had reasons to celebrate. Just gathering together was sometimes all the reason we needed to be joyous. This week is our excuse to celebrate, be joyful, because the messianic promise will soon arrive.
Today in the Gospel reading we have John the Baptist giving a sermon. Again, the subject matter is what we have been talking about, the lessons of Advent: forgiveness, justice. John preached of a societal change. He also gets us in the mood to be joyful. His good news gives the people an idea that maybe he is the one, but he says he is nothing compared to what is coming. He gives the people hope that soon their wait will be over.
Henri Nouwen taught that while happiness is dependent on external conditions, “joy is the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that away.”
This joy, as I keep reading in different sources, is one of knowing we are created and loved. In this idea of joy coming from unconditional love there are a couple of different elements. Unconditional love requires forgiveness because we all are going to miss the mark at some point. If God gives us unconditional love, then to follow God’s example, we must give unconditional love. Forgiveness is what we are called to as Christians.
Anthony DeMello writes that what pleases God is not that we worship God, but that we allow ourselves to be transformed by God. God would be more pleased by your loving than by your adoration.
Forgiveness is letting go. You must let go of your feelings of hurt and anger so that you are not consumed by it. Grudges interfere with joy. Letting go is difficult in forgiveness. This doesn’t necessarily mean let violators go unpunished, but that is where truth and reconciliation come in. That is another big topic that I won’t cover. A murderer should be forgiven but also face consequences that hopefully can help create right relationship again.
There is also just letting go from this world. The world does not revolve around death and taxes. The real world is our web of relationships. There are so many arrows in our world that will distract us from God. We must let go. It seems like much of the world is an intentional distraction. We are perpetually bombarded by advertisements to try to persuade you to want things your really don’t need. We are focused on social media that research has shown actually causes people to feel more depressed and detached rather than give them the community they tell us it will bring. I believe that here you will find letting go is freedom.
In letting go you can also pause to be able to hear your own body and maybe hear God. Remember the story of Elijah waiting for God, and after thunder and earthquakes God comes as a little whisper of a breeze. That is where quiet prayer and meditation come in.
And there is still another letting go. Read the newspaper or watch the news. It’s hard to experience joy when faced with what is happening to God’s people around the world. They are also just as blessed by God. This is where another joy can come. If you go back to what Henri Nouwen said, joy is also freedom. Nothing to lose. There are a few times in my life that I can describe as joyful. Some of these experiences have been in deep community experiences where the people I have been with have shown absolute unconditional love and understanding. The other experiences are when I allowed myself to completely let go and take a risk out of love. These would be direct actions. Some of the most profoundly joyful experiences I have had were when I had fully thrown myself, full body, into spreading God’s message.
Now, this can be a dangerous statement. There are people who take it too far, fanatics (and some would label me one), but I think it’s obvious that despite what they say, they are following more of their own ego in ministry rather than presenting God’s message, and are therefore damaging to God’s people and to creation. I think there is a litmus test and I’ll give an example to explain how I feel where those litmus tests may lie.
My trial for my SOA action was two months after the action. It was very difficult for me because I was one of three who had refused bail, but I was separated from the others in jail and for trial. I was physically in bad shape from the jailing. The marshals were messing with me pretty badly and I had spent one of the days in a 40-degree carport in a t-shirt with them telling the jail they were on their way to pick me up and never did. When I finally presented my case in front of a judge, I knew he was going to convict me and give me a maximum sentence, so I felt the freedom to present my case as to why I trespassed, and really exposed my most vulnerable self to the court. I was convicted and hauled back to the jail. I returned to my bunk in what I can only describe as ecstatic joy. What made me the most joyful was that I regretted nothing I said, and felt it was delivered in the most loving, respectful, compassionate way that I possibly could. I felt it was devoid of ego and done really as a prayer. I felt that my witness was strong and possibly transforming to those watching. It may have affected the judge in some fashion because he had not fined me, but only sentenced me to prison. I also felt the freest I ever had. It was almost like I was flying. I have had other experiences where I felt I had gotten pulled into an ego battle with a judge or regretted a statement I may have made, but on this occasion, I really felt I was only a medium channeling a message of love. It is also a very dark place to be experiencing such elation.
This is where I believe the litmus test is. Acting out of a love and compassion that is respectful and without injuring another party, and without focusing on your own personal suffering as the end-all be-all of the witness. This is where the “I love the sinner but I think they should be jailed, killed or marginalized in some way” type of Christianity fails the test. This is where the abortion clinic bombers will fail. I think deep down we know it too. I once was on trial for attending a silent vigil and the police decided to arrest us because they didn’t want us there. In trial the police concocted a story about us screaming and yelling at people because a silent vigil is never going to give the impression of a threat to anyone’s public safety. It was necessary to prove that our conduct was disorderly, which was the charge. After it came out that it was a silent vigil and there had been no reason to arrest us, the judge acquitted us.
It seems that the idea of joy in this third week is a natural progression of transforming ourselves for the messianic promise. Joy is letting go of ourselves and the world, transforming ourselves, and participating in the promise. This is where I want to leave it for us to discuss.
What is joy?
Is joy freedom?
How do we or could we let go?
How do we experience joy in our lives?
How do we let go and be transformed by God?
How do we build stronger, more joyful communities?