Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Joy is a tricky word in a culture obsessed with happiness.  “Are you happy?” we ask each other.  “Do you have a happy marriage?”  “Does your work make you happy?”  Extroverts are generally happier people, we think.  Introverts, not as happy.  An introverted Santa Claus would be problematic.

A distinguished social psychology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a bestseller “proving” that people who flourish in life are those who’ve reached the tipping point of the “3 to 1 positivity/negativity ratio.”  But you don’t need tenure to sell the promise of happiness.  Joel Osteen was even more successful with his book, Everyday a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week.  I’m betting 3 to 1 odds that Good Friday was not the book’s central theme.

Where scientists and celebrities offer us commodified happiness—happiness analyzed, inspected, measured, multiplied, and for sale—Isaiah testifies to something different…joy.  Despite living in a time of great unhappiness, Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” (61:10).  His joy is immeasurable, abundant, inexhaustible.  We cannot capture it.  It is empirically unverifiable.  How exactly does one calculate Isaiah’s rejoicing in spite of “the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (v. 4)?

Even more, Isaiah says, “My whole being shall exult in my God.”  The phrase, “my whole being,” is from the Hebrew word, nephesh, which is usually translated “soul.”  That is, your soul is not an ethereal wisp that evacuates your body at death.  Your body is part of your soul, as are your desires and your dreams, your present and your past.  Most specifically for Isaiah in this verse, the soul is the seat of emotion and passion.  Standing in the smoldering ruins of Israel’s life, Isaiah describes an all-consuming joy—an unending joy grounded in the certainty that God will make good on God’s promises.

That’s the difference between happiness and joy.  We pursue happiness, but joy pursues us.  We consume happiness.  Joy consumes us.  Happiness comes and goes.  It’s fleeting.  It attaches itself to the present moment, then absconds again.  It may last for a season, or for a second.  Joy is different.  Joy endures.  Joy has an eternal quality, so that even the anticipation for that which makes us joyful can also be called joy.  Such patient waiting enables us to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16), with all our heart and mind, with all our present and our past.

What Isaiah and Paul know, and what Advent reveals to us, is that joy is not a feeling we conjure up.  It’s not dependent on our fickle human nature.  Our joy is rooted in the God who “restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3).  We should even say joy is a person, that our joy is Jesus Christ, that Jesus is joy.  The good news is that “great joy for all people” (Lk. 2:11) is coming to us.  We will find him in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

A Post-Election Invocation

Yesterday in worship, I preached on a new heaven and a new earth, and how God might remember and honor the depth of human suffering, even though “the former things will pass away” (Is. 65:17).  I chose to let the text take me where the text would lead.  Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the stirrings of my people’s hearts and mine will continue to direct my sermon content.

Yet, I also devoted a great deal of care to the crafting of the following invocation, in light of the events of the past week.  I am reprinting it here, in order for people to see my hopes for the church, as we navigate the turbulent waters of our time, and do so as disciples of the one who has gone ahead of us, to prepare a place for us… (Jn. 14:3):

Almighty God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, gather us to yourself in this hour, alight on us with your holy and life-giving Spirit, and move our hearts and the hearts of our nation to embrace a common life together.  In the wake of our national election, wherever hatred persists or bitterness endures, bring peace.  Wherever divisions occur, bring healing.  Whenever walls arise between us, bring them crashing down. Guide our officials and representatives to faithfulness and wisdom, that the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes.  But make of us a people, humble in heart, peaceable, and gentle.  Make of your church a sparkling city on a hill, where the light of truth and justice shines, and darkness cannot overcome it.  In these years to come, strengthen the members of First Baptist Church of Asheville to be courageous disciples, bearers of the fruits of your Spirit, ambassadors of reconciliation, peacemakers in this city and beyond, that we may be repairers of the breach… Amen.

The Rulers of the Gentiles

“I’m worried for our nation,” a senior church member recently told me.  Knowing her to be a quiet person, I was concerned to see her upset.  “I’ve never seen our country like this, and I just think we need to be committing ourselves to prayer.”  Then she paused, and said, “I just don’t know what to do.”

I confess I also don’t know “what to do.”  I have mixed emotions on the eve of what is unarguably the most pathetic national election in our nation’s history.  I have no easy answers.  My heart stirs with a strange blend of sadness and hope.

Proverbs 29:2 says, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”  I am one of those who groans with sadness today.  I’m sad for our country’s collective refusal to confront our long history of racism, militarism, and greed.  I’m sad that we cannot seem to work together to promote the common good.  I’m sad that the benefits of the only bipartisan agreements our representatives ever reach never seem to reach most people.  I’m sad that we continue to indulge so many robber barons, while nearly half the country lives in or close to the poverty line.  I’m sad that we are all finding out the hard way that even in a democracy we are nevertheless frighteningly susceptible to fascism and totalitarianism.  I am sad that a country full of so much beauty, energy, and passion to do the right thing continues to wallow in political dysfunction.  And I am sad because I, too, am part of the dysfunction.

But my heart also stirs with hope.  I am hopeful when I remember that Jesus upbraided his disciples for getting too caught up in elections and appointing cabinet members.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there’s a version of a story in which certain disciples argue over who’s the greatest among them. And in each of these Gospels, this incident is followed by Jesus warning his disciples.  In Luke, he says, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those exercising authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you…” (Lk. 22:25-26a).  It is this not so with you that sustains me with hope today.

To be sure, we’ve all been inundated by propaganda from political parties making promises of benefaction.  We’ve now been enduring this election cycle for two-and-a-half years. We’ve given our nation’s electoral politics free rent in our head for too long.  We can’t turn on a television, radio, or smartphone, drive down a neighborhood street, or even stand beside a water cooler without our attention being diverted to electoral politics.

This is intentional on the part of the powers and principalities, a systematic form of bullying on a grand scale, and a means of diverting our attention away from the indispensable political work of church and community building.  In these ways our rulers do “lord it over us, calling themselves benefactors.”  Perhaps John Prine was right all along to sing,

Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper.  Go to the country, build you a home.  Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches.  Try an’ find Jesus on your own.

To be sure, as Christians, we’re called to “pay respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7), which Paul says in the context of governing authorities.  We may respect and honor our representatives by giving them our vote, inasmuch as voting enables a peaceful transfer of power between governing officials.  But we should only engage whatever political system we’re part of as Christians, which means seeking the peace of the city, and participating in Jesus’ mission to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the naked, and those in prison.

What really gives me hope is the truth that Christians have more important things to do than engage in the pathological frenzy of any political system.  As followers of Jesus, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9).  The kingdom we’re inheriting is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).

So, though I will engage in the politics of voting tomorrow, Nov. 8, I will do so only light of the politics of the Lord’s Supper I shared with my congregation on All Saints Day, Nov. 6.  This is my hope for every Christian:  that our passion for the Body of Christ, the epicenter of God’s politics, supersedes and overrides the world’s passion for statecraft.  The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over us.  But at the Lord’s Table, we are consumed, not by political propaganda, but by Christ’s own flesh and blood.  There we learn anew what it means to be one with God and neighbor, what it means to celebrate God’s abundance, what it means to love our enemies, and what it means for broken bodies to be made whole again.

Ellen Davis’s Prayer

A Pastoral Prayer
Installation of Mack Dennis as Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Asheville
October 2, 2016

We pray to you, Lord Christ, For the holy church of God throughout the world,
that it may be filled with truth and love,
that the Gospel may be taught and preached to the ends of the earth,
and that the church in every place may be found to be faithful at the day of your coming;

We pray for all members of your church in their vocation and ministry,
that each may serve you through a true and godly life.

We pray for those who do not yet believe, for those who have lost their faith, and for those many who struggle bravely with doubt,
that the light of Christ may shine into their hearts.

We pray for the poor, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, victims of abuse, and all who are in danger,
that wherever they may be, they may find relief and protection,
and that Christians may reach out to them in compassion and friendship.

We pray for this city of Asheville, for our nation, and for all the peoples of the earth,
that a spirit of mutual respect and forbearance may grow in every community and nation,
and that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We pray for First Baptist Church, Asheville, its staff and its members,
that this household of God may be a sign of love in our broken world,
that it may model unity strong enough to overcome fragmentation,
justice and gentleness strong enough to heal estrangement,
joy and hope powerful enough to conquer despair.

Especially this evening we pray for Austin McIver Dennis, chosen to serve as Pastor in your church,
that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit he may be sustained and encouraged to persevere to the end in selfless service of Christ;

that through faithful teaching, preaching, and leadership in the community, he may build up your church in this generation, and glorify your Name in this community;

that through prayer and study of your Word, he may offer wise counsel in times of perplexity, leadership both courageous and compassionate through whatever trials may lie ahead;

that his family—Erin, Liam, and Ozzie—may share fully with him in the joy of Christ and in mutual affection for one another, and thus be strengthened to reach out in love to others;

O Lord, behold this your servant Mack. Make him modest and humble, strong and supple, constant to observe the discipline of Christ. Let his life, his words and actions, so reflect your commandments, that through him many will come to know, love, and follow you. As your Son came not to be served but to serve, may Mack have a full share in the service of your kingdom, giving himself to the end that this congregation may do its part in giving glory to Christ, who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.

With a Grateful Heart…

Just as soon as we began unloading the truck, there came a downpour. A raucous, blustery thunderstorm had seized our side of the mountain. The movers huddled in their truck, as I took cover under the front door’s awning. After several minutes, the storm passed, and there, in plain view from the front yard of our new house, rose the most beautiful rainbow. It’s been years since I’ve seen a rainbow so brilliant and full (and that one was in Maui). There were no faded sections, no missing colors.  From beginning to end, it was sterling and marvelous, a lovely and fitting welcome to Asheville.

Though the rainbow followed a fleeting storm–not a 40-day flood–the first thoughts that came to mind were those of promise and fulfillment. I couldn’t help but remember God’s promise, not only to Noah and his family, but to all flesh–the promise of an everlasting, unbreakable covenant. “When the bow is in the clouds,” God tells Noah, “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:16).

In that moment, I was also filled with gratitude and thanksgiving for the First Baptist Church of Asheville. As I paused to appreciate the view in the midst of an exhausting day, I was strengthened by the memories of the past several months, and especially of our time together in early June. What an extraordinarily warm welcome you gave my family and me. I have since come to regard that time with you as a sign of great promise and fulfillment.  It was fulfilling in the sense that our introduction and your ensuing congregational vote brought to a joyful end an anxious chapter of searching and discernment for all of us. It was filled with promise because of the joy I saw in you, and sensed in my own heart, as I accepted the call to be your new pastor.

In the hallway of Duke Divinity School, over the stairwell that leads down to Goodson Chapel, there is inscribed in the stone archway (a bow, of sorts) the following quote from John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us.”

Now I know I should quote an old Baptist in my first blog post, but you’ll hear enough from me about them in due time. What I want to tell you now is simply this:  whenever you lift up your eyes to see a rainbow spread across these beautiful hills, regard it as a sign that God is with us, and that this Almighty and Everlasting God will never leave us.

I suppose, as many rainbows as one sees around here, this good news will be impossible to forget.

-MD