14 May 2004 02:16 PM

The Path to Joy

Remarks given by Sue Mosher 9 May 2004 at the bridging ceremony for recent graduates

Twice during my sojourn as a member of this church, I have had the opportunity to spend some time together with Dave Skidmore and Dennis Desmond -- and earlier, with Jim Blair and others -- in study and discussion of one of the most influential books on spirituality of our time – Richard Foster’s “A Celebration of Discipline,” which aims to help the reader rediscover the classic Christian spiritual disciplines, many of whose practices are lost or, at best, foreign to our modern era. Despite the appearance of that dour word “discipline” in the title, this is a “happily robust” book that can “help us to seek the kingdom of God in a more joyous and less moralistic way,” in the words of the author Madeleine L’Engle.

The final chapter turns the title on its head to speak of the discipline of celebration itself. Foster finds in celebration a central, “joyful spirit of festivity” without which prayer and fasting and service and all the other disciplines become “dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees.” Yet celebration, for all its joy, doesn’t seem to come naturally to us.

It ranks as a discipline because we have to work at it. Anyone who has had to face Mother’s Day or Father’s Day after the recent loss of a parent knows the strain involved in smiling over the breakfast that the children have cheerfully cooked, a gift steeped in melancholy as the smell of the coffee and waffles triggers a memory of the one no longer present. Or, how many times do you say, “Oh, I just don’t feel like celebrating,” when a birthday or anniversary or other occasion comes around on the calendar and turn back to the TV or the computer keyboard or whatever else is filling up the time?

Foster suggests that the secret to being able to immerse ourselves in celebration is trust and transformation: First, the trust that God will nurture us and meet our needs and, as Julian of Norwich wrote in our first reading today, fulfill all our true desires. And, second, the transformation of our daily lives. This, too, is the scary stuff of discipline, for we worry about what we might lose if we spend our time less in the world and more in the Spirit. We worry about what changes God might call on us to make, or what we might have to leave behind.

But what is there to be afraid of? Aren’t we always in a state of transformation? You start a new job anxious and uncertain that you’ll have the skills to do well and, six months later, you’re the expert writing the key proposal and showing the new employee around. You meet someone, fall in love, and find that as you spend the years together, you change in unpredictable ways, transforming under each other’s influence. Or like these young people whose bridging we celebrate here today, you make a definite break with the past with an eagerness – and maybe just a touch of anxiety – that puts transformation at the center of your life.

With an act of disciplined will, we can, therefore, embrace the offer of transforming love, found not just in God’s promises but also in the faces of our fellow travelers, for, in the words of Jesus that we heard earlier, the love we have for one another marks us as followers of a higher path. The key is to set our minds on finer things – whatever things are noble, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report. Richard Foster writes, “When we determine to dwell on the good and excellent things in life, we will be so full of those things that they will tend to swallow our problems.”

The simple lives of our not-too-distant neighbors up in Pennsylvania, the Amish, hold little appeal for most of us. We rather like electricity and our 21st century comforts. But the value and honor that they place on everyday activities gives us a clue as to how to live in joy and recognize that good and excellent things abound. An Amish carpenter quoted in Sue Bender’s book, “Plain and Simple” explains what he finds satisfying in life:

“It is the enjoyment of every step in the process of doing; everything, not only the isolated piece we label art. If accomplishing is the only goal, all that it takes to reach that goal is too slow, too fatiguing – an obstacle to what you want to achieve. If you want to rush to the accomplishment, it is an inevitable disappointment. Then you rush to something else. The disappointment is reaped over and over again. But if every step is pleasant, then the accomplishment becomes even more, because it is nourished by what is going on.”

So celebrate whenever and wherever you can – in your work, with friends and family, and when you are alone, with God. Relish the simple things, the everyday things. Sing when you are sad. Dance when you feel depressed. Find your path to joy in celebration, for, in Foster’s words, “Joy will make you strong.”

Readings:

Philippians 4:4-8
“God is our Mother” from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
John 13-31-35

Benediction:

Be anxious for nothing.
Rejoice always.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and minds forever more.

Building Bridges -- remarks by James Estes on the same occasion


Posted by Sue Mosher at May 14, 2004 02:16 PM
Posted to Sermons