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Give Up Your Worries, Give in to Joy

For Sunday October 9, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 32:1–14 or Isaiah 25:1–9

Psalm 106:1–6, 19–23 or Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1–9

Matthew 22:1–14

           "Be anxious for nothing," writes Paul in this week's epistle, "rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"

           Paul's words echo those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where five times (!) he tells his followers, "Don't worry about your life." Don't worry about food. Don't worry about clothes. Don't worry about money or the morrow. Don't worry about anything at all, for God knows what you need.

           Who doesn't long to live like that — free of anxiety and full of joy? It's easier said than done, but possible nonetheless. We all know people who radiate genuine and not merely superficial joy. My friend Paul comes immediately to mind.

           This week I attended a reading by the nature poet Mary Oliver with a group from our church. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, the last several weeks I've enjoyed her two collections of poems "Thirst" (2006) and "Swan" (2010). With thirty books of poetry and prose, a Pulitzer Prize, and a National Book Award, the New York Times described Oliver in 2007 as "far and away, this country's [America's] best-selling poet."

           What surprised some of Oliver's readers is that after the death of Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005), her partner of forty years, much of her poetry became what one critic called "overtly Christian." In her book "Thirst," for example, there are poems about Gethsemane, the Eucharist, prayer, the donkey who bore Jesus into Jerusalem, "the strange, difficult, beautiful church," and "Six Recognitions of the Lord." Oliver's love of creation has led to worship of the Creator: "You cannot cross one hummock or furrow but it is His holy ground."

           As a person who inherited a worry gene, and in light of this week's epistle about joy and anxiety, I've especially appreciated the candor of Oliver's poem "I Worried," from her book "Swan." Like all great poets, she's able to describe what we ourselves experience.

I worried a lot. Will the gardens grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

           Some of our anxieties stem from an exaggerated sense of responsibility for things over which we have no control, like redirecting a river or instructing the sun. We also worry about the past we can't change, about things done and undone. Some of Oliver's other worries are more concrete, like deteriorating eyesight from staring at the printed page for fifty years.

           In other poems Oliver laments unrequited love, brokenness, darkness, and "the dull, brutish ways of mankind." Loving another person is fraught with complications, she observes, and sometimes she gives in to "my sudden, sullen, dark moods." In "Six Recognitions of the Lord" she confesses: "When I first found you I was / filled with light, now the darkness grows / and it is filled with crooked things, bitter / and weak, each one bearing my name." So, our sluggish spiritual progress can cause worry. Then there are what Oliver calls "all the imponderables for which we have no answers."

           We all have our own worries, some imagined and some very real. Will my son get a job? Why was my daughter struck with a depression so dark that she quit school? The purest and most powerful form of fear, says the Australian poet Les Murray in his book "Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression," is what he calls "intransitive" fear — fear that has no direct object. The deep dis-ease of "I fear" is far worse than the episodic "I'm afraid of X."

           The presence of joy does not require the absence of fears. The apostle Paul admitted to his "conflicts without and fears within" (2 Corinthians 7:5). And the desert father St. Makarios of Egypt (5th century) had wise advice: "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety… Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety."

           Nor does joy require favorable circumstances — a bigger house, a better car. We all know rich people who are miserable and poor people who radiate equanimity, dignity, and joy. This counter intuitive reality, which is so evident when you travel in the two-thirds world, is one of the many gifts that the rich can receive from the poor. Why are these people, in such abysmal circumstances, so joyful? And why am I, so privileged, agitated and empty?

           Joy is not an emotion that I manufacture by willing myself into a good mood. It's a gift from God when we "cast all our anxiety on him because he cares for us" (1 Peter 5:7). Paul calls it a fruit of the Spirit. Joy is "never in our power," said CS Lewis. He described it 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." Pleasure, in his view, is the counterfeit of joy.

           Genuine joy, says Oliver, is irrepressible. Joy intrudes upon us at unlikely times and in the darkest of places. We shouldn't resist it. In her prose poem "Don't Hesitate" from her book "Swan," she writes:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don't hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that's often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don't be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

           So give up your worries. Give in to joy.

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