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The Blast of the Ram's Horn:
Subversive Acts of Christian Joy

For Sunday May 21, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 10:44–48
           Psalm 98
           1 John 5:1–6
           John 15:9–17

Calcutta woman by Partha Pal.
Calcutta woman by Partha Pal.

           Morris Berman is at it again. In a sequel to his book The Twilight of American Culture (2000), the cultural historian has just published Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006). The two titles speak for themselves. According to Berman, government corruption and incompetence, corporate greed, moral malaise, and the politics of fear all indicate that a malignant cancer is ravaging our culture. Experts might nuance or qualify Berman's jeremiad, but when I watch the mindlessness, vulgarity, and violence on television, when I read in Time magazine that a third of our children do not graduate from high school, or when I contemplate a world where half of the population lives on $2 a day or less, I find it hard to disagree with him. Since he offers no cure for the disease but only a diagnosis of the symptoms, Berman's conclusions lend themselves to a mindset of pessimism.

           As the Bible so often does, Psalm 98 for this week offers a counter-intuitive piece of advice: don't go there. However accurate Berman's cultural diagnosis might be, however low the sociological trends and opinion polls sink, do not yield to the spirit of despair. Instead, choose the most radical of all political options today—the subversive act of genuine joy.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
   and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
   and his faithfulness to the house of Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
   the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
   burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
   with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets, and the blast of the ram's horn—
   shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and all that is in it,
   the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
   let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
   for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
   and the peoples with equity. (NIV)

The sicknesses of our world might provoke fear and insecurity, but the psalmist encourages us to resist those temptations. He invites each person, every nation, and "all the ends of the earth" to know the joy of being known and loved by Israel's God.

Malick Sidibé, Look at Me! (1962), Balako, Mali.
Malick Sidibé, Look at Me! (1962), Balako, Mali.

           Joy can be an ambiguous term. Many people link it with happiness, health, success, fame, wealth, pleasure, fun, or good fortune. In that sense of the word joy is derivative, attached to and dependent upon some external source. Joy of that sort can exude a sense of smugness, entitlement, narcissism, and even self-pity in the absence of desired objects. Such joy seldom lasts for long or is genuinely fulfilling, for it creates its own set of needs that are rarely satisfied. We all know privileged people who enjoy the most fortunate of personal circumstances but who are never content and always unhappy, and, conversely, people who possess little but nevertheless radiate equanimity and gladness. And which is sadder, that one could be so easily fulfilled by so very little—a new car, a bigger house, a better job; or that you readily miss so much—the blast of the ram's horn or the shout from the rooftop? "What an upside-down state of affairs," wrote the philosopher Boethius (480–525), "when a person who is divine by his gift of reason thinks his excellence depends on the possession of lifeless bric-a-brac!"

           Joy, then, is more elusive, more subtle and more nuanced than happiness, pleasure or good fortune. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy CS Lewis describes joy as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . 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." Whereas we can manipulate circumstances to our own advantage to obtain what we think will bring happiness, or expend great efforts in pleasure-seeking, joy is entirely gratuitous. You cannot earn it, buy it, or deserve it. It is a divine gift to receive rather than a selfish goal to pursue.

           The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety. Jesus encouraged his followers, "do not worry about your life. . . Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Consider the joy of the birds in their morning songs, or the flowers in their spring time glory, he said. If the Lord of the universe clothes creation with such extravagance, then we can rejoice in his love regardless of our circumstances. In the Gospel for this week Jesus says that we rest in his love "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11).

          In his poem The Revival the Welsh poet and physician Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) challenges us to open our "drowsy eyes" to experience "the drops and dews of future bliss."

Unfold! Unfold! Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.

Hark! How His winds have chang’d their note!
And with warm whispers call thee out;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle’s voice;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear!

Joy of Life by Lawrence Finney.
Joy of Life by Lawrence Finney.

Living joyfully because of God's lavish love, in fact, is the greatest honor that we can give Almighty God, said the mystic Juliana of Norwich (14th century). No matter how bleak the forecasts of cultural historians like Morris Berman, with joy we can expect his love to appear even in the dust and dirt of our lives.

For further reflection:

* When have you been not merely happy but joyful, and why?
* What are some common substitutes for joy?
* How might we prepare ourselves to receive joy?
* Is it possible to be joyful even in times of difficulty and sadness?
* See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, and The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

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