Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
Isaiah’s prophesy delivered in a time of exile and national devastation and a sense that God had abandoned them. It’s difficult to overstate the way in which Israel felt that God had cut them loose. And they interpreted that abandonment as a consequence of their failure to be faithful caretakers of God’s promise.
But this passage breaks into that situation and affirms a resonant, basic message to trust that God will intervene and bring things around right. After a time of grief, hearts that have been opened to call upon God in trouble will receive joy.
Jesus quotes from this passage in his inaugural sermon.
“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,”
Do not be afraid! Anticipate joy! More joy!
But joy can only come as we release ourselves into the fullness of experience. The fullness of experience.
Ironically, but truthfully, we cannot open ourselves to joy unless we are also willing to open ourselves to suffering and grief. The heart cannot be open to just one side of it. It has to be open to the whole of experience, the whole of reality, the whole of God and all of the angels.
To explore how we might be open to joy or not we need to pay attention to a fundamental distinction that I’ve talked about before.
Are we living as fundamentally as consumers? Or are we living fundamentally as children of God?
This is a basic distinction.
To the extent that we live as consumers, we devote our lives to get simply what we and our loved ones want. And at the same time, we live as persons who are on guard against loss. As consumers, we live with an orientation toward maximizing our satisfaction and minimizing our disappointment.
Consumers go between satisfaction and disappointment. That is the metric of evaluation of success or failure.
We can contrast that with what we might call living as children of God. That means living responsively in relationship with God: asking, thanking, doing, always in relationship with God – inquiring, seeking, responding and engaging deeply.
Children of God move between joy and grief. However, this is not a metric of evaluating experience. Rather, each wing is a mode of connection and relationship that seasons us, tempers us, strengthens us to engage the depths of love and truth and justice.
Joy and grief are the two wings that lead us into the company of angels.
Children of God live with an open heart. Responsive to love, risking making a connection in love, risking plumbing the depths of reality, knowing that we are all the while in the embrace of that God who created us and longs for our healing and wholeness.
Now, yes, in this life we must also function as consumers. We participate in the economy of buying and selling and using. The economy of both making and taking. Of course, living in the world requires that, and many good things arise from that economy.
But to the extent that we understand ourselves to be children of God, all that buying, selling, and using, all that making and taking, has its place within the more fundamental story/meaning of our being children of God.
Focusing on our relationship with God is not one more dimension of our being consumers – seeking satisfaction and avoiding disappointment in our spiritual lives – but rather it is our connection to God which sets the stage for all the other aspects of our lives.
To live all tied up in the world of consumer/producer is to live in a closed world. If that world is to flourish it must be open to the visitation of angels who fly into the world with joy as well as grief.
As I was thinking about a closed world of production/consumption I was reminded of an attempt at a closed world that was experimented with in Arizona a while back. It was called Biosphere 2.
You might remember it. I went back and read some about it to refresh my memory.
The idea was that an enclosed environment would be created in the desert in Arizona. It was designed so as to be completely self-sufficient and separated off from the rest of the world. Various types of earthly habitats were contained within it: savannah, ocean, rain forest, and so on.
Actually, there were two so-called missions in the elaborate structure. The first attempt had problems maintaining adequate oxygen levels in the air. It turned out that oxygen and carbon dioxide was bonding with the concrete in the structure itself. There were also significant problems with animal life, in part caused by the air quality. This is from Wikipedia:
most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died. Insect pests, like cockroaches, boomed. By the second year an ant species, local to the area, which had been unintentionally sealed in, had come to dominate.
Among the problems and miscalculations encountered in the first mission were overstocked fish dying and clogging filtration systems, unanticipated condensation making the “desert” too wet, population explosions of greenhouse ants and cockroaches, and morning glories overgrowing the “rainforest”, blocking out other plants.
The second try did better at recreating a sustainable natural environment, but human beings managed to not get along very well. Again, from Wikipedia:
The second mission began on March 6, 1994, with an announced run of ten months. …The second crew did achieve complete sufficiency in food production.
But a few weeks into the mission a severe dispute within the management team led to the ousting of the on-site management by federal marshals serving a restraining order, and the project financier hired Stephen Bannon, to run the project. Some Biosphere-ites were concerned about Bannon, who had previously investigated cost overruns at the site. Soon, two former Biosphere 2 crew members flew back to Arizona to protest the hire and broke into the compound to warn current crew members that Bannon and the new management would jeopardize their safety.
They allegedly vandalized the project from outside, opening one double-airlock door and three single door emergency exits, leaving them open for approximately fifteen minutes. Five panes of glass were also broken. One of them later told the Chicago Tribune that she “considered the Biosphere to be in an emergency state… In no way were our actions sabotage.”
As you might imagine, a lawsuit ensued.
Interestingly, perhaps, in 1996, Columbia University acquired the Arizona property and changed the virtually airtight, materially closed structure designed for closed system research, to a “flow-through” system, and halted closed system research. They manipulated carbon dioxide levels for global warming research, and injected desired amounts of carbon dioxide, venting as needed.
When we are cut off into closed systems, life goes out of balance. The angels invite us to open up and open out to allow our hearts to experience the deeper realities of God. Do not be afraid. Open! Open to receive more hope, more peace, more joy!
It is this capacity to live open-heartedly, the capacity to live responsively, to live so that we are open to experiencing both joy and grief, that is the hallmark of living as a child of God. To cultivate an open heart is to allow for both joy and grief. You may have noticed the relationship between the two because both joy and grief can bring us to tears.
Tears flow at weddings and funerals. These experiences are, perhaps surprisingly, not so very far apart. Both these ceremonies are invitations and opportunities to pay attention and appreciate. They are openings to connect with and experience together the depth of the love and commitment and trust that surface in both marrying and dying. Both are invitations to open our hearts to the mysteries and power of God’s activity among us, drawing us together – sometimes in laughter and sometimes in tears.
When we live as children of God open to joy, we trustingly give ourselves over, so that we can be fully engaged, appreciative, and receive the blessing of the experience with gratitude.
When we live as consumers we are not living at that level of vulnerability or openness. We live in what I like to call “practical atheism”. That is, living in the illusion that we are in charge and in control and can take care of ourselves. And, you know, sometimes it seems like we actually can do that, but eventually the mysterious depths of joy or grief will overwhelm our sense of self-sufficiency. There are times when our hearts are opened, sometimes even in spite of ourselves.
God has created with joy in mind.
Brian McLaren, in his book, Naked Spirituality writes this:
God takes pleasure in us as we take pleasure in God. God joins us in joy, and we join in God’s joy. In jubilation, we strengthen the vital connection.
Yes, there are problems to be faced… But before we go there, don’t you agree we are wise to establish this baseline of spirituality as simple, pure, deep happiness in a life with God – a spirituality as a joyful awakening to the God who is here, near with us, the one in whose presence we live and in whose attention and care we are held?
An earlier writer, Meister Eckhardt, who lived in the 13th Century wrote this:
Now I shall tell you something that I have never spoken of before.
God enjoys himself.
In the same enjoyment in which God enjoys himself,
God enjoys all creatures.
God finds joy and rapture in us.
Sometimes this participation of God in joy escapes us, but I believe that for many of us Christmas is a time when we make that connection. For many of us Christmas is a time of an open heart and we can be vulnerable to deep, refreshing joy.
It can happen as we participate in holiday traditions, as we gather with folks we haven’t seen in a while, in the tenderness of giving and receiving gifts, preparation of treasured heirloom recipes. In a Christmas Eve candlelight service. In hearing the ancient words or singing the familiar carol.
And of course, conversely, our hearts can be opened as we mourn the fact that someone we love is no longer present with us. That some beloved tradition or holiday practice is no more. Or that we are no longer able to participate in the celebration as we used to.
To live these joys or these griefs in the presence of God is a prayer whether there are any words or not.
In Jesus, God’s glory was coming to earth as a beacon of the goodness that is within and stands behind and connects all things to goodness, for whatever opens our heart in the presence of God must be good. That entrance quickened the angels in its midst.
At Christmas, we remember and celebrate God entering into the world, entering into history to renew the relationship, to draw us in with the example, the life-pattern of this child of God, who exhibited a life of open-hearted responsiveness to God and invited us into that family of deep connectedness with this mother/father God and all the sisters and brothers who share this life with us. Living this life quickens the angels in our midst.
We are not a part of a closed-off, closed-up, isolated environment, left to its own devices. Our lives are embraced by a joyful cosmos of love and grace.
In this season let us live with open hearts, trusting that God’s goodness will visit us in joy. Living as attentive, joyful children of our loving God.