Tag Archives: joy

The Star Stopped – Part Two

Joy: Our Chief and Highest End

When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10

Once there was a man who played with Jesus a kind of peek-a-boo and hide and seek, asking to see him while he walked.  I go now where the man prayed and Jesus is everywhere, sitting in the trees, hanging upside down from the hawk’s nest, swinging his arms up ahead along the cow path, turning in wide circles in the heavens, glinting under the silver wings of geese.

“Jesus, get out of here,” I say.  “I have work to do, prayers to pray, fears to nurture, pain to bear, miles to go before I sleep.”

He just grins, riding down the back of the willow leaf. You bet,” he says, “who do you think is in charge here anyway? I came that you might have life abundant.”

“Yes, but there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world. I have survivor’s guilt.”

“Deal with it, sweetheart, joy is your burden to bear.”  Then quoting scripture, “‘Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, who must be curbed with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.’  (Psalm 32:9)  Daughter, you are forgiven for being happier than some of the others.  In your joy is my joy made complete.”

____________

What is the chief and highest end of humankind?” asks the Larger Catechism.
Humankind’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and to fully enjoy God.

A friend of mine died after a long debilitating illness. Before he died he told me, “Life is funny. You know, I used to say life is messy. Now I say life is funny. God must be laughing his head off at us, saying, ‘Don’t they get it?’ I have no complaints. Life has been very good to me. I just try to enjoy.”

To enjoy:  to put into a state of or to be in joy – to indwell rejoicing. Joy is the emotion provoked by well-being, success, or possessing what one desires.

How strange that little teaching in the church has to do with helping us to be faithful to our highest end. We know how to read and interpret scripture. We understand the dynamics of church growth. We can conduct things decently and in order. We can do mission. We are even beginning to understand our spiritual life and prayer. But how many of us can state precisely how it is that we glorify and enjoy God as individuals and as a community of faith? When many of us start to enjoy we feel guilty. To claim that anything I might do actually glorifies God may sound arrogant. To seek enjoyment of God seems hedonistic and wrong.


It takes courage to risk joy. The older we get, the more we know of the ravages of life and sin, and the woeful limitations of the flesh. My dying friend, weak and suffering, says, “I just try to enjoy.” Perhaps that is when joy is born the truest, when we are firmly fixed in the limits of humanity, held by the teeth of our extremity with no illusions. Maybe you won’t get better. Maybe your friend will die. Maybe your heart will be broken. Maybe the divorce will be final. Maybe the worse that can happen will happen.

Now here, just when you thought it was all over

here

stop

where the star has stopped and let joy in.

It will take a mile if you give it an inch. Watch how it eases a hand and foot through the crack – pushing in a shoulder and hip, and flinging the door wide open on bliss.

What did you think would make the star stop, if not the sad song of mortal need?

A lot depends on the way the yellow willow leaf swims like a slim minnow downstream to rest in the musty shallows of earth.

Now it turns, spins in circles, now it dips and glides, now stops, still in the air, then drops like a sigh.

A lot depends on such surrender, but even more depends on someone noticing.

Jesus, help us to love you
more than the search for you.
Give us hearts of merriment and gratitude.
Teach us to tolerate goodness, to stable delight.

And Merciful Savior of loss and defeat,
bestow upon us the wit to trust
and to consent to contentment
that your joy and our joy be made complete.

Mirable Dictu (Wonderful to Behold) Harvey Bonner


Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.

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The Star Stopped – Part One

Joy: Our Chief and Highest End

The Magi Journeying

When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10

The star stopped.

Did they slam into one another like dominoes – camels, gifts, magi all in a scrambled pile before the manger?

They had been seeking joy for so long; and they knew more about traveling than arriving, more about need, than about fulfillment.

The star stopped.

The momentum of the journey, the habit of search, sent us lurching forward even as we beheld the prize. Like ones on a long auto trip riding over the flat stretch of prairie, we lie still at night in our beds feeling ourselves hurtling along phantom highways, our flesh imprinted to motion.

So we arrive at our destination, yet act as if we are still on the way. We shuffle on unsteady legs to the doorway where the light glows, the breath of cattle steams, and something makes a low choking coo. We are overwhelmed with joy, a sublime apprehension of the beauty and perfection of what lies before us under the stars and that we need travel no longer.

It doesn’t get any better than this:

the glad dog bounding gleefully after the yellow cat in the sun

the clutter in the child’s room – a still swirl of hair brushes, dirty socks, ribbons, Tootsie Rolls, and crayons

you and your friend laughing over lunch in the cozy diner

your own wrinkled hand and all it has grasped and caressed, pushed, smoothed and manipulated


You think you need to get busy. Accomplish something today. Wild-eyed John in his camel’s hair is out in the pasture yelling to get with it. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance, you brood of vipers,” he shouts. There is so much to do, so far to go. You think this or that thing has to be done. You think joy is up ahead, when you have reached some goal, satisfied that hunger.

We ought not to pray for things, as to pray to live as though we had the things we pray for. We ought to discover just what it is we think these things will give us, to consider carefully what is the sub text of our desire.

The star stopped.


Did they pile into each other like keystone cops? Was a screeching cosmic brake applied? Or was it so silent as was hardly noticed in the din of rising galaxies and earth teeming with the shrill frenzy of life and death? Perhaps it was a gentle slowing pressure in the heart, an impulse to do something unfamiliar, maybe a sudden press upon the shoulders to bend the knees and halt midway down the stairs absorbed in Joy.


The star stopped and cast its radiance like a neon arrow:

Exit now. Food. Gas. Lodging.

Here this is it. You need go no further.

The star stopped and they were overwhelmed with joy, writes Matthew.Well, how long did that last? How long before they began to fret, to glance anxiously at their watches and their bank balances, and worry about the future, recalling Herod and their disturbing dreams. There would be the trip back home by another road, and how they would explain the dishes still undone, the laundry piled upon the floor, the unpaid bills.How long before they would begin to doubt their own eyes – that they had seen what they had seen? “Perhaps I was mistaken, it all seems so unreal. It was long ago. I was ill, or grieving, young and foolish. We’d better keep on looking, just in case.”


O immaculate tenderness, O sweet hay in the wind, ground of our beseeching, joy of our desiring, we meet and greet you, kneel to adore and leave our gifts, then what? You are too much for us – you in your completeness, sufficiency. We, overwhelmed with joy, cannot bear the light and back out of the radiant stable to return to the familiar world of anxious fear and endless seeking.


The tension of incompletion fuels our lives and impels our action. Consummation is hard for us to take. People shouldn’t be so happy. “I’m sorry mom, but I just can’t keep my smiles down,” confides the eight year old apologetically on her eagerly awaited trip to the ice skating rink.


If we get too satisfied, won’t there be no striving, no invention, no creativity, no urge to improve, discover, move on? Won’t it be boring? Won’t it be dull?


Our capacity for satisfaction is much less than our capacity for hunger.

Who dares to take a vow of stability?
Who dares declare that this is it
this broken down stable of a life
this very life in shambles shelters Joy?

What most characterizes American culture, poet Richard Wilbur has said, “…is not unity, but rather a disjunction and incoherence aggravated by an intolerable rate of change.”

I gaze in bewildered nostalgia at old photographs of myself and loved ones. Motion is an essential property of things. Everything at one level of its being or another is in motion and change.

Is there anything in the universe that is absolutely still? The earth heaves, crumbles, splits, powders. The flesh pulses, sighs, and dies in the slow dance of decay. Electrons careen around nuclei. Five-flavored quarks flash in kinetic quick-step.

A lot depends on the way the willow leaf turns in the wind and curls to a dry crisp under the bird feeder, but even more depends on someone stopping to notice.


Our awareness gives birth to Christ. Seeing that the star has stopped and climbing down from the camel to kneel before the holy child dwelling in the heart of matter with innocence and salvation is what opens the door for God’s entry into our world.

The child yearns to be noticed. The child waits in the crib of creation for us to stop and pick it up and deliver it to the world by virtue of our own seeing.

Christ is born by our consent.
It all depends on someone saying, “Let it be to me according to thy word.”

Then a still small soul magnifies the holy one, and, like a mirrored prism, bends light into multicolored beams of joy.

~ to be continued in next post

Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.

The Dance of Suffering and Joy

The leaves of the pear tree are glossy and thick on the branches. The pears, a bit larger than walnuts, blush rose near their stems. On my window frame hangs the icon of a skinny naked Jesus. It is the crucifix of San Damiano from which St. Francis heard Jesus tell him to repair His church. This Jesus will not meet my gaze, but looks down some hellish tunnel of sorrow that hallows the space between us. His face is grey, mouth turned down. He is wearing a sheer loin cloth that looks like it came from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I am embarrassed for him in his poverty, his utter abasement. Cheer up Jesus!  You look terrible. The pear tree is laden with fruit this year!

He doesn’t seem to notice the fruit, though he must see it – his eyes are wide open. Pinned like a specimen to the cross where under his arms are gathered stately mourners, he bleeds in tiny spurts from hands and feet. Angels hover over his head in neat rows. One appears to be performing a liturgical dance. No – that’s no angel. It must be Christ on his way to heaven, ascending in a crimson mandala.

The crucified Jesus just hangs there. Has he no shame? It is I who squirm, not he.  For his eyes pin me at the intersection of poverty and abundance where I hang ripening in the Kansas sun in mid September. O Jesus, how long must you hang there suspended in misery, wearing us out with that sorrowful stare?

With an introit of barking dogs, the squirrels soon will come to pluck the half-ripe pears with their agile paws, taking one bite from each, and then carelessly tossing them to the ground to rot. Pray God to preserve us from squirrels that raid at dawn, chattering and chasing up and down the branches, tempting us into thinking that we have been made to be consumed by squirrels. Pray God that we may be left hanging, suspended by the heart’s stem, hidden in the leaves until we’ve ripened properly. And then, at the sharp insistent teeth of need open our flesh sweet and tender to one another.

Then maybe that sad Jesus will get off that rugged cross and come eat the fruit of summer with us.

____________________

We went to Koger’s Variety Store for back to school specials the other day and painstakingly put names on new back packs, glue bottles, scissors, and Big Chief Tablets.  We watched Dad’s jaw drop as he wrote the check for new clothes at the mall.  Then last evening we noted it was getting dark so early.

The air is uneasy, a mix of the eager hope of a brand new lunch box and the painful regret that summer is over and we never got around to making those doll clothes or camping out in the back yard to watch the stars all night.

Jeremiah laments with us, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.”(8:20)  And we find ourselves at the  intersection of poverty and abundance where the kingdom of God is conceived. Christians seem to perpetually stand on the threshold of a new school year clutching our shiny lunch boxes in one hand and the forsaken dreams of summer in the other. Holy ground is the paradoxical place where we simultaneously live in the Pentecost fullness of the gifts of the Spirit and the power of the Risen One; and in the crucifixion emptiness and cry for redemption of the Suffering One.

Jesus tells us that of God’s own will we have been brought forth to be a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.  Like the firstborn child or the firstborn of livestock, the first fruits to come ripe in a season were sacred to God.  “When the grain is ripe, ready to be given up, at once the farmer puts in the sickle because the harvest has come,”(Mark 4:29) says Jesus. When one is ready to die, then harvest is come. How odd to be ripening for death, to be growing in Christ only to be handed over.


Just as the cross is the joining of two opposite directions, we live in the creative tension of the union of poverty and abundance.  The tension is great, and it is hard for us to stay in the center of the cross for very long. We want resolution. We are tempted to heave ourselves down one polarity or the other.  But if we can hold both the pear tree laden with fruit and our ongoing need to be nourished, if we can accommodate both the Risen Christ and the Crucified Savior, then we may discover, out of the union of these opposites, new fruit conceived in us which will heal and sustain the earth.

The barrage of demands and the voracious appetite of a culture that seeks to devour, rather than savor its sustenance undermine a quiet patient trust in God’s seasons of growth and harvest.  What is it that finally brings us to fruition? Is it not the sharp insistent teeth of need, our own poverty and the poverty of one another, that finally allows us to fall sweet and tender into each other’s embrace?

At Toys R Us — Oh my, toys are us! In Proverbs Wisdom tells us, “At the beginning I was playing beside him like a little child and I was daily his delight.”(8:29),  I listened to a tinkling recording of “It’s a Small World, Isn’t It?” while watching a lion and a lamb, a giraffe, a hopping kangaroo, and a waving bear shimmer across a plastic screen. Nearby Cicelia plinked a xylophone in plunking delight.

Then in the department store she asked, “Are shoes alive?”

Her elder sister exclaimed, “No!”

But she persisted, “I saw one talking on TV.”

“Let’s see,” I said, and leaning over a cordovan Bass loafer inquired, “Are you alive?”

“Oh mom,” Diana sighed.

We tried on grown-up perfume. When the saleslady offered to help, we told her we were searching for a fragrance that was really “us.” A spray, and Cicelia, pressing her hands to her cheeks, giggled, “Oh mom, I know this one is me!”

Before boarding the escalator we tried on hats. Cicelia, in a large brimmed red felt with ribbons, and Diana, in a small black veiled cloche, gazed at their images in the narrow mirror on the best day of my life.

We took six dresses from a rack for Diana to choose. Cicelia was her handmaiden, letting it be according to sister’s word, carrying, doing buttons and zippers, and holding up the blue satin fabric like a swatch of heaven against each dress.

Jesus, I thought you were suffering, but I saw streams of light pouring from your head like a fountain, spraying colors – blue, azure, hues of red, green, yellow – shimmering rainbows irradiating in spurts and gushes and rivers from a still small body sagging on a tree. All day I played plinking magic while you spun streams of green leaves, jungles, hay fields in spring, purple hyacinths, beets, cerulean seas, dolphins, berries, mountain mist, and a single red rose flame out of the chaste and tender aureole of your pain.

There in the dance of creation and dissolution, there where our need is met with the abundance of another and our abundance fills another’s lack,

there where it is a small world after all,

there is our joy made complete.


This post is excerpted from the author’s book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are

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A Goodly Theme

My heart overflows with a goodly theme
as I sing my ode to the King. Psalms 45:1


“The kingdom of God will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.” Her words stopped me in my tracks and resonated within me like a struck gong. Little seemed blissful in my life at the time. It was 1973. I was living alone in an apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working at a job I hated, depressed, and hurting deeply. These words of artist M.C. Richards penetrated my defenses, self pity, and sense of worthlessness like a swift shining sword. For the first time in a season of sadness I felt hope.
This notion that the rule of God, the peaceable kingdom, the promise of wholeness for all people is a function, not of ridding the earth of evil, not of righting all injustice, not in overcoming human sin and limitation, but rather our willingness to receive goodness and mercy into our being  has animated my life ever sense.
“Put down your sword!” Jesus tells Peter in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter, in a desire to protect his master, had taken a sword to the ear of one of the Roman soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus. However, Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. It is a kingdom already here, present wherever one finds the Son of the King. It is within you and everywhere like a seed, common and transforming as leaven. The winsome, disarming Jesus manifested that kingdom wherever he went and invited his followers to do the same.
Two disarming black labs, my Elijah and Jean Luc, who arrived with some house guests, have been teaching me about bliss. The dogs met for the first time a week ago with that deep hearted delight of Adam, when God introduced to him the woman he had made of Adam’s rib.
“Ah, at last a fit companion! Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” Adam exults. Though not recorded in the scripture, I figure Adam then wiggled all over just like my dog, Elijah.
The best-friends-forever have been inseparable – wrestling, play fighting, swimming, fetching, and sprawling, here and there, exhausted and snoring. Holding back nothing, these fellows have allowed bliss to penetrate and animate every cell of their bodies. Bliss surrounds, follows them, spills out of their eyes, and rolls off their shoulders. Even the cat has a spring in her step and an amused quality to her feline reserve.
So, friends, on this July day in Kansas I believe the great challenge of our time and all mortal time is holding our hearts open to the rain of grace, the reign of delight that ceaselessly offers itself to the whole creation.
But, you say, what about the lives and shores devastated by the oil spill? What about your own personal crisis and impasse, your unemployment, your grief, your illness? What about the suffering ones in Haiti?
Could you, will you, permit a tiny possibility of joy to penetrate your darkness, to kiss you on the face, to pounce upon you from behind? Maybe, before you know it, it will jump up into your lap and go to sleep in your arms.
To notice, delight in, and allow ourselves to be penetrated by the goodness of God, does not mean we ignore the places where that goodness is obscured or sorrow and pain exist. Rather, receiving bliss is what allows God to transform that vortex of darkness, greed, and hate through us. What evil and sin target and destroy is joy, because joy is a unfalliable sign of the presence and power of God.
The world does not need our disgust, outrage, anger, and rage. It needs the Kingdom of God with its unfailing hope, faith, and love. The world, sucked into the whirlpool of suffering, will not enter the Kingdom of God through our anger, retaliation, and swords, but through our bliss, the utter delight and lab-licious joy of being children of the Father of Goodness and the Mother of Mercy.
Let no one and no circumstance rob you of such a splendid birthright.
Read more about prayer at www.fromholyground.org Tracking Holiness – Newsletter
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