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More issues ...
of the characteristics of the life of faith is the experience of counterintuitive
joy. Just when the logical response to external circumstances would seem
to be anger, or frustration, or despair, the person of faith may experience
a strong, deep sense of confidence and gladness. In the midst of suffering
and disappointment, laughter wells up from the depths of a person's heart.
In times of terrible losses and setbacks, a person nevertheless discovers
a song in her heart.
I'm not talking about the way hard times help us appreciate the easier
times, or the way losing something of great value, like health or a
relationship or a good job, can help us appreciate what we still have. I'm
not talking about a Pollyannish insistence on looking at the bright side.
Instead, I'm talking about a joy that bubbles up in and through us
precisely at the hardest times, and that doesn't externally seem to make
any sense at all. I'm talking about a joy that is God's gift to us at some
of the most painful moments in our lives. I'm not talking about escaping
from sorrow or denying grief. I'm talking about the discovery of a deep,
resonating note of hope and purpose that incorporates suffering into a
profound and beautiful harmony.
I'm talking about something I experienced during my church trial December
1st and 2nd. It was weird: all through that hard experience, with all that
was overwhelming and sad and unreal and new and absurd about it, I felt for
the most part really pretty good. I felt deep-down, in-my-bones good. I
felt hopeful. I felt intensely present to the moment. I felt strong. I felt
peaceful. I experienced much that humbled me and filled me with gratitude.
And jokes and little ironies struck me funnier than usual. At moments
waiting with my family for word from the trial court, sharing a moment of
strategy and hope with my legal team, or talking with Chris on our way up
and down the hill I actually laughed harder than I think I have in years.
Over and over, the Bible bears witness to this experience of joy that can't
be explained by external circumstances. The Scripture readings today
describe that joy as the people of God experienced it on two occasions.
Isaiah expresses the joy of the Israelites in exile in Babylon, longing for
their own country and rejoicing in a vision of the desert in bloom as the
Lord's ransomed people stream homeward. The Israelite's captors must have
thought they were crazy to sing out joyful words like these:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert and shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
The burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
The ransomed of the Lord will return,
and come to Zion with singing;
Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1-16)
In the Gospel reading, Luke gives us the words of Mary's joyful song as
she, an unwed mother-to-be subject to shame and stigma and the
misunderstanding of others, celebrates God's very life being born in her.
Anyone who knew Mary, anyone who had some inkling of the suffering she
would experience, especially if they didn't know or believe what was
happening inside her, must have been incredulous to hear her sing:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
These readings today are just two examples of the counterintuitive joy that
makes its appearance again and again in the Scriptures. Just when the
prophets of Israel ought to be giving up on the mixed-up people who can
never get their priorities straight, they utter hopeful words about Gods
promised future of justice, peace, and redemption. The Psalms echo with
extravagant, joyous praise of God back-to-back with expressions of sorrow
and despair. And Jesus himself commands his followers to rejoice when they
are persecuted and hurting:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is
the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all
kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same
way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)
This joy that people of faith can experience in painful times is a gift
from God. It is as if God has opened a window into the alternate reality
She has planned for us, and invited us to look through. We look through
that window and see, as clearly as if we could touch it, the future in
which the poor and lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed, the blind see,
the deaf hear, the ransomed return home and even the desert bursts into
bloom. We recognize that this future isn't imaginary; it's as real as the
suffering we experience now, if not in fact more real.
In the past two weeks, I've had profound moments of looking through that
window into God's future. I'd like to share a few of them with you.
During a break on the first day of the trial, a man I didn't recognize came
up to me. He was very emotional, on the verge of tears. He said, "I just
want to talk to you for a second. He said, I'm as confused as hell about
this issue of homosexuality. I am just as confused as hell. I wish the
Almighty would write the answer in the sky and we would all know. I really
don't know what the answer is. But I want you to know that I've learned a
lot from you today. I wish I could say something better or more helpful.
But if you're ever in my area and you'd like to talk, would you give me a
call. I'm just as confused as hell." And he said his name, and that's when I
realized he was the pastor of a large evangelical church in our conference,
a pastor I had been told was very conservative. That moment made me feel
that perhaps the trial had opened up some sacred space for real listening
and growth. Perhaps the eyes of the blind would be opened.
The weekend after the trial, I got a call at home from a member of the
trial court. He said, "I just want you to know that I never want to go
through anything like that again. I really felt trapped by the church law.
But I want to do everything I can to see that you get your ordination back
someday. I want to help change this law. I'm totally committed to it now in
a way I wasn't before. If you can think of anything I can do, just let me
know. Perhaps the trial did something to take away the complacency of
moderates in the church, so that we all might see the pain and harm of an
unjust law and work harder to change it."
Early last week, I got an e-mail from a member of this congregation who had
gone to the mall on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas shopping with his
daughter. They were both wearing their "Beth is my pastor" badges. A young
couple at the mall recognized the badges from TV and angrily took issue
with the view they represented: that Christianity has room for gay and
lesbian families. Now, this is a person who has a temper. I've been on the
receiving end once or twice. But on this occasion, as he felt his anger
rising, he did the Christian thing and walked away, not even responding
when the couple called out after them, shouting a very un-Christian antigay
epithet. When I read his email, I was amazed at how this heterosexual mans
simple expression of solidarity with his lesbian pastor had become so much
more, as he literally made himself vulnerable to the same suffering gay and
lesbian people experience and fear every day. Perhaps the trial helped
members of this congregation enter into a deeper solidarity with one
another, truly sharing one another's hurts as the church is called to do.
Here's what I think makes me appreciate Gods sense of humor the most:
Listening to members of this church talk about
their experiences over the past two weeks, I realize that if Fred and
Melody and I had worked for six months to come up with a plan to force you
to talk about your faith and your congregation in your schools and
workplaces, we couldn't have done any better. This experience of the trial
has made evangelists out of all of you, and you don't even like the word
evangelism. How funny is that?
I could give you more examples, but these will give you some idea of the
window God opened for me in the middle of this trial, and the
counterintuitive joy God gave me. I can see Gods future as clearly as if it
had already happened, even though it is clearly still very much under
construction. I see a United Methodist Church that could be a meeting
ground for people with different experiences and theologies, rather than a
battleground. I see sacred space for real, deep, true, compassionate
listening to one another, which can lead to conversion and transformation.
I see the possibility of the kind of growth and vision that we experienced
when FUMCOG became a
Reconciling Congregation, only on a much larger
scale, through which some of the very people who have the most questions
might become the staunchest advocates of a fully inclusive church. I can
see the day when people will recognize that God blesses all loving
families. It might not come today or tomorrow, but it will come.
Four years ago, when Chris and I had our commitment ceremony, Patricia
Pearce, the pastor of Chris's church, reminded us
that Jesus commanded us to rejoice. She told us:
You see, people for the most part don't care much for alternate realities.
They like what they're comfortable with, and because of your relationship
you will challenge some people's comfort level and elicit their disapproval
or even hostility. There is only one thing you are commanded to do when
that happens. Go out dancing. Or partying. Or gather together in the company
of friends to share a meal and laugh together. Celebrate your relationship.
Rejoicing in the face of persecution is the ultimate subversive act, because
it is the way you reclaim the truth that you are blessed and that you
are not alone. (The
full text of Patricia's charge to Beth and Chris)
After the trial, we did that. We obeyed Jesus' commandment to rejoice. The
night of the verdict and the penalty vote, my family and I went out to
dinner with a few of the people who had given literally days and weeks and
months of pro bono work to craft my defense. It was an evening of eating
great food, telling family stories, and laughing together as we shared our
various experiences of the trial. Fred was with us, and as we gathered
there was such a spirit of joy and optimism in the room he said, If this is
losing, what does winning feel like?
I won't say I haven't felt sad, or frustrated, or disappointed, or angry. But
through it all God has also given me a sense of counterintuitive joy. My
prayer is that you can experience that joy as well, and this joy will be a
source of strength and hope and perseverance for all of us.
© 2004 Irene Elizabeth Stroud
Copyright © by the author
All Rights Reserved
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