Live with Joy
First Baptist Church Laurens
July 13, 2014
When I think about our text for today, I am reminded of a story from Rosita Forbes who was a travel writer for many years back in early part of the last century. Ms. Forbes once wrote about a trip she made to China. One evening while there, she ended up spending the night in a small out of the way village. Because there was no hotel room available in the community and no family for her to spend the night with, Ms. Forbes made a bed for herself and slept in the village temple.
During the night, she woke up to a full moon cascading its light through the windows and into the building. Interestingly, the light landed just right on the various images of Chinese gods that decorated the temple. As she looked at the images it appeared that the gods were looking back at her. In Ms. Forbes writings about the event, she admitted that it felt like every face of every god was looking at her with a snarl or an angry face. She said it was as if they all hated her and all other human beings like her for that matter.
Our Proverb for today also makes me think of a scene from the cartoonist Randy Glasbergen of two little boys talking. One of them says to the other, “I don’t remember all of the Ten Commandments. In fact, I only remember three. You need to settle down. You need to take that out to your mouth. And, you need to act your age!”
Whether its Rosita Forbes’ angry deities in the Chinese temple or Randy Glasbergen’s cartoon of two little boys and the Ten Commandments, both illustrate a very common and age old theme related to the life of faith — often times both those inside and those outside the church fail to see or to embrace the connection between belief in God and joy.
As a matter of fact, I would argue that more times than not, those of us of inside the church, as well as those outside the church, often equate belief in God with a life that is devoid of joy. Rather than seeing Christ as coming to give us life and to give it abundantly, often times we see faith as that which robs us of life’s joys and pleasures.
So, the question arises — why is this? Particularly when the Bible is very clear that the life of faith is the key to the good life and a joyous life, why do we often feel just the opposite? I don’t want to oversimplify these questions this morning but I do want to offer a couple of thoughts. These thoughts, at least from my perspective, are part of the answer to these questions and they also provide a framework for each of us as we think about our own attempts to live with joy and to help others to do the same.
On the one hand, part of the problem is that people of faith and their interpretation of God’s word, rather than God’s word itself, have led us to see faith as devoid of joy and happiness. What I mean by this is that if we are honest, most of us have grown up with and been surrounded by lots of people of faith who were not very happy or joyous. Likewise, confessionally, some of us may need to admit that we are not very happy or joyous much of the time either.
These living examples shape us and our beliefs about faith. In turn, rather than clearly embracing the Bible’s statements over and over again about the connection between faith and joy and happiness, our life experiences are littered with devout Christians who seemed to live life with a scowl on their faces who seemed to always want to simply tell us what not to do. As a result right, wrong or indifferent, these living examples have sometimes had a more profound effect on us that even the words of scripture that suggest just the opposite.
Sometimes the ministers that have influenced us and our understanding of faith have also led us down this road. With bad hairdos and ugly suits, they yelled at us to the point that we felt worse about ourselves when we left church than when we came. It reminds me of an entry in the famous author Robert Louis Stephenson’s diary when he said “that he had been to church that morning” and remarkably, “he was not depressed”.
At other times, it is simply the average every day believers that we have interacted with that lead us to this conclusion. I remember very vividly growing up in a wonderful First Baptist Church with a thriving Youth Ministry. It really was one of the best things you could do and places to be as a teenager in our town. One of the reasons was that it was a fantastically fun group to be with. On a regular basis, we got together just to have a good time, to laugh and to enjoy being in a safe environment. One night, we were playing a game at the church which was a favorite of many of those in the group including myself. It was during the summer and it was a weeknight when nothing else was happening at the church. Our youth minister was with us and we had a number of other adults there participating. So, we were well supervised. What I still remember is that one of our deacons, who was not known for smiling very often, happened to come by to pick something up at the church. When he heard all of the laughter, noise and other sounds of 50 or 60 teenagers having a good time, he was not amused. I remember that he gave our senior minister a strong talking to the next day and that we were never allowed to play that game again. After 20 years in ministry and 8 years of higher education in the study of the Christian faith, I can honestly tell you that I am still not very sure what the problem was other than that he didn’t think one should have a good time at church. One thing I do know however was that our church, as a place of joy and happiness, provided a needed and added reprieve for a lot of hurting teenagers whose homes were less than joyful places. We in turn were introducing others to Jesus and they found Jesus appealing because in faith in him they found joy.
Here is my point — the scriptures are very clear I think. The life of faith should be the most joyous life of all. You can’t debate what the scriptures say on this point. And that is not a way of saying that there are not times to be serious, reverent and straightforward. No, there is a place and a time for both.
But, unfortunately the lives of believers rather than the verses of our Bible have often become the northstar and the guide for us and for our world as to what the life of faith is all about. In turn, our witness should make it clear to the world that in Christ is joy and life abundant. One could argue that if we could simply make this point to the world with our lives, we could not keep out all of those who would want to invest themselves in this place.
On the other hand, I also think that one of the issues at work here is that we equate joy and happiness. We think that being joyful means having an easy going, carefree and rosy attitude even when our lives are falling apart. In our minds, behaving in this way is like pretending to be something we are not. It’s about playing a game by trying to convince ourselves and others that we feel one way when in truth the real pain inside of us is overwhelming.
Yet, joy and happiness are far from the same thing. Most of us know this but it’s worth repeating. Happiness describes our feelings in the moment that are directly connected to what is happening in our lives right now. Joy, however, relates an inner sense of peace that doesn’t change based on the moment but that is related to what we know to be true and changeless even in the midst of the changing circumstances of everyday life.
Without question, there is room for both happiness and joy in the church just as has already been mentioned. Yet, what we are ultimately after as people of faith and what I think is the ultimate goal of even our Proverb for today is our finding a way to cultivate this type of inner peace which is the basic ingredients of a life of joy.
It makes me think of the story behind one of the most beautiful hymns of our faith — “It is Well With My Soul.” A man by the name of Horatio Spafford wrote the lyrics that became this wonderful hymn back in 1873. Spafford, however, had lived through one disappointment after another in the early 1870s. In 1871, his son died of Scarlett Fever. In 1872, he lost most of his fortune when his real estate investments were lost in the great Chicago Fire. And, in 1873, all four of his daughters died while crossing the Atlantic when the ship they were aboard sank. That moment led to Spafford’s wife, who was accompanying their four daughters, to send him a haunting telegram that simply read, “saved alone…”.
When his daughters died, Spafford boarded a separate ship to go and meet his wife. That ship, while in route, sailed past the very spot where Spafford’s four girls had died. According to the story, it was during that experience that Horatio Spafford sat down and penned the lines to the hymn. Listen to the first line in particular now in light of his experience…
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” (Wikipedia entry for “It is Well With My Soul”)
Without question, Horatio Spafford’s statement was not about being happy, making light of what he had experienced or dismissing reality. No, what he was trying to communicate was the deep reality that even in this midst of this awful and tragic occasion, he could be at peace and still maintain joy because of his relationship with Christ and because of the realization that no matter what life brought his way, he would not face it alone.
This is the epitome of the joyous Christian life that never fades away. Whatever life brings our way — we can still be joyful. Why? Because, we will not face such moments alone — God will be with us. And, we will be with each other. In turn, an inner peace can be ours that allows us to maintain an interior joy no matter what comes our way.
Without question, this is a medicine that is far greater than anything else that life can offer us. Believe it or not, this can be ours and thanks be to God, this can be our great gift to share with the world. Amen.