Joy – A Ramp to God

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When 17 missionaries arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1820, Hiram Bingham volunteered to preach the first sermon. His text was the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields: “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10). It was not Christmas, and it was not a Christmas sermon, but it was a message that the Hawaiian people needed. Trapped in superstition and fear, with nothing in their beliefs that enabled them to know God and have spiritual security, the message of a Savior who is Lord of all was, indeed, “glad tidings of great joy!”

Someone asked Mother Teresa what the job description was for anyone who wished to work with her in the grimy streets of Calcutta. She said two things: the desire to work hard and a joyful attitude. Is there any attribute more appealing than joy?

Speaking of joy, David Brooks, the influential New York Times opinion writer, has been attending a Bible study and reading theology. Jewish by background, he has become enamored with Jesus Christ. He is especially inspired by the authentic Christian joy of what he calls “incandescent souls.” While Brooks has not yet submitted his life to Jesus Christ, he has spoken about the power of Christian witness. In a speech to Christian philanthropists, Brooks was critical of Christians who erect “walls” to separate themselves from the secular world, but he applauded authentic Christian joy which he said could build a “ramp” to the secular world (Mark Stricherz, Aleteia.org, 4/19/15). The sustained joy of true believers has deeply impacted David Brooks and he believes it could impact others as well.

When writing his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis said that he was “surprised by joy” when he came to know God. He titled the book Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and in it he likened joy to a signpost, pointing the way to God.

“But what, in conclusion, of Joy? To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian….It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the point naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter….But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy).

Lewis’s point is that knowing God and walking with Him is what he valued and what was most important to him. The experience of joy served as a signpost that he had found God and His path. Once he knew God, he was no longer interested in the subject of joy, for to know God is to have joy. In another paragraph, Lewis describes his salvation experience in this way:

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Isn’t that a great description of the experience of coming to know God? To know God is to awaken from a deep sleep, with the result that we step into joy. Lewis further describes joy as a “technical term” which must be “sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Because joy is “never in our power,” but is experienced in our relationship with God, it is foreign to those who do not know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, to experience joy is a “surprise.” This is why David Brooks believes that joy could be the “ramp to the secular world.” Interestingly, Brooks doesn’t claim to have joy, but he does recognize it in some believers.

Joy is the unique experience of the Christian, but it can be observed in us, at least in part, by the unbeliever. But to see it they must know us. And they must know us quite well. They must know us in our walk with God. True joy is not easily seen from a distance. An exception to this might be extreme incidents of persecution, during which believers suffer uniquely. But joy is most often seen up close, in relationship, as we walk with God.

Are you one of those “incandescent souls” of which Brooks writes? Are you, and is your church, building ramps of joy to the unbelieving world? I used to remind the church leaders where I served as pastor that two things ought always be expressed and experienced when people gather for worship – joy and gratitude. I wanted all in the congregation, and especially guests in our church services, to observe a people who were grateful to God and who had His joy. If we expressed gratitude and joy, we wouldn’t go far wrong. Indeed, we might even be a ramp to God for some joyless soul to cross, much to his surprise.

Love … In These Troubled Times

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Love … In these Troubled Times

How do we fully love God and love our neighbor at this time in history? That is the big question. It is always the big question. We could clarify that question with the reminder that to fully love our neighbor requires that we share the gospel with them and live the gospel before them. But the Great Commission is husband to the Great Commandment.

The phrase “at this time in history” recognizes that the issues people wrestle with change with time and circumstance. This question posed to believers in Damascus, Syria or Kabul, Afghanistan would produce a different response and application than the same question posed in La Grande, OR or Ellensburg, WA. Likewise, believers in Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th Century would apply the love command differently than middle-class American in 2014.

This morning I read a message that helped me think of this question more deeply. In the fall of 1939, with Hitler ranting and war raging, C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, titled Learning in War-Time. He began by asking the question, “What is the use of beginning a task [that of a liberal arts course of study] which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we – indeed how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” Lewis’ answered his own question brilliantly. Here is a part of his answer:

“I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

Lewis ends his message by addressing three enemies which war raises up against us: the enemies of excitement, frustration and fear. Regarding excitement, he says that “the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one.” Life always contains an element of warring and you must not let this keep you from life and love and living the faith. “Favorable conditions never come,” says Lewis. Because of that, I would say, “Don’t delay the command to love until your enemy is no longer your enemy. Love you neighbor, even if she is your enemy.”

Regarding the enemy of frustration, Lewis says that this is the “feeling that we shall not have time to finish,” and this is a feeling that we must shun, and, instead, leave “futurity in God’s hands…. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’”

Concerning the enemy of fear, it is true that war threatens us with death and pain. But war does not make death more frequent. Neither does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God. Indeed, war makes a man prepare for death. War forces us to remember death. A war-ripped world makes clear that heaven cannot be built on earth. The present world is a place of pilgrimage, not a permanent city satisfying man’s soul. War makes this clear, and thus we not allow fear to paralyze us.

Lewis’s message on learning in war-time reminded me that every generation must find ways to live the faith, and love God and others, while wrestling with the principalities and powers and dark spiritual forces in the heavens. And when I consider my own efforts to love God and love my neighbor, the conflict that gives me the most trouble isn’t in the Middle East, or Washington D.C., or Ferguson, or even in my own house. It’s not the trouble I experience or observe in “the times in which we live.” It’s the trouble brewing in my heart that imprisons me. It’s the battle in my mind that is the problem. As Lewis said, it’s the enemies of excitement, frustration and fear, that must be overcome, and these are in me, not in “the world.”

So, how are you loving God and loving your neighbor at this time in the history of your life, which is, by the way, the only life you’ll ever have?