Joy in Joyless Times

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (2 Kings 19:11-12)

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. (John 16:20)

One thing in this life that brings me much joy is something called the “Friends of the Library Book Sale” that comes around once a year in my neck of the woods. It’s when I get to go into a large auditorium and immerse myself in the smell and feel of used books being sold to raise money for the local library.

There I can fondle and ogle the fabric and sometimes leather bound covers with impunity and not one ounce of shame – since every other bibliophile in the place is doing the same thing. I can flip through their beautiful pages, check out their edition status and lovingly run my hands over their supple binders and … well, I think I’ve said enough. I love books.

The library sale each year is a treasure trove. I head straight for the religion section and never lift my head until I’ve had my way with each title on the table. These sales are a boon to my theological library. One author I enjoy collecting is Harry Emerson Fosdick, a 20th century Baptist minister who lobbed the first volley against fundamentalists with his 1922 sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

The last book sale was boon – two new Fosdicks added to the collection. The one that really stood out is called A Great Time to Be Alive: Sermons on Christianity in Wartime written in 1944 during World War II. The book is a collection of sermons by Fosdick arguing that the joyless time of war is truly a great time to be alive because it forces monumental change – if only we can see the possibilities of the time.

“But from Moses in the desert at the burning bush, seeing in an enslaved Israel in Egypt the hope of the future, to our own founding fathers, seeing in thirteen disunited colonies the possibility of a great venture in free living, men with eyes to see possibilities in times of travail and change have created the most hopeful advances in man’s history. That is what we need to pray for now – eyes to see – for if we have them this will be for us a great time for great living.” (p. 6)

War, neither the war Fosdick writes about, nor the one our country is currently embroiled in, will bring about what it was intended to produce – no wars do. Instead, those who do not despair, and are willing to work to create momentous change in the face of overwhelming circumstances will find many opportunities to improve the world during horrible times.

It is easy, however, to lose hope – to become as joyless as the times. When we survey the world, all we see is horror. We see the horror of families who have lost sons, daughters, husbands, wives, partners, brothers and sisters to the senseless violence over something called a “War on Terror.” We see the horror of genocides as tribe sets upon tribe in places like Darfur, not to mention the ethnic cleansing taking place in the civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. We see the horror of the modern day middle class, spending more time on the job and taking home less in their paycheck while corporations increase their profit margins. We see the horror of the income gap widening as the top 1 percent of Americans garner more than 20 percent of the overall wealth in the country. We see the horror of laws passed against groups of people simply because of who they are and who they love. We see the horror of an inadequate health system, a crippled education system and a crumbling infrastructure in what is supposedly the world’s richest nation. We see the horror of politicians bent on world domination and personal enrichment sending other people’s children into war. We see other politicians apparently helpless to stop them or to understand and follow the will of the people tired of war, poverty and joylessness.

In these times of great, raging evil, we have to stop and wonder where God is in all of this. We wonder why God allows things like war, genocide and corporate greed to run roughshod over the less powerful and disenfranchised of the world. Where is God when governments turn away from the suffering of others? Where is God when governments are the cause of the suffering of many more? Fosdick in the sermon, “Why is God Silent While Evil Rages?” noted that its as if God is in heaven doing nothing.

We may attribute God’s will to the war, violence and greed going on in our world – but Fosdick reminds us that God does not move in our world in noisy and show ways. God is not in the noise of war, violence and greed. God is not in the midst of these worldly powers. God is not given to ostentatious displays of power – instead God is the still, small voice – the voice that usually goes unnoticed in our world. Fosdick acknowledges this is not the answer we want to hear.

“We hear, as though it were a lovely truth, that amid earthquake, wind and fire ravaging the world, God moves like a still, small voice, but far from being a lovely truth, that is what troubles us. Why, in a world of turbulent evil, can God the Almighty do no better than be a still, small, voice? Why does he not speak up, and make a noise in the interest of righteousness?” (p. 163)

Indeed. Why can’t God make Her presence known in some real and tangible way? Why can’t God step in, intervene on our behalf – end the evils of war, violence and greed in one fell swoop? Why can’t God just stop all this madness and bring about that peace that passes all understanding right here on earth, right now?

Certainly, God could. But, we should be careful what we ask for. If God swoops in like Superman, setting the world right in the twinkle of an eye, where would that leave us as human beings? Fosdick answers that: “we would be utterly overborne, helpless automatons with no freedom to make our doing of his will a voluntary choice.” (p. 170) A God that rescues us with the noise and power we expect to see in the world is not a God who gives us free will. If God micromanaged the world there would be no reason for faith, no reason for grace, no reason for joy.

Even in joyless times like our own, we must find ways to tune in to that still, small voice – to use our God-granted freedom to connect with God and work diligently to discern God’s will for our lives and the world. It is in that intimate connection with God that we will find true joy. It is in that silence, where we hear God speak and feel God move within us, where we know the peace that passes understanding.

When we look around our violent and greedy world, we have to remember that God is not in the noise, but silently at work, redeeming all the man-made evil going on around us. Fosdick reminds us that history bears this out. Ancient Greece is gone but the truth of that time, enshrined in the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Dialogues of Plato remain. Ancient Israel is gone, but the faith that sustained the people then flourishes even today. The “quiet spiritual forces,” the “truths that hardly lift their voices go on and on.” (p. 167)

It’s a hard truth to wrap our heads around – that God’s still, small voice is hard at work on behalf of all humankind when all we see is death, destruction and despair. It’s easy to put our faith in the powers of this world – in governments, in armies, in corporations. We can see them at work. We feel the impact of their work, for good or ill. We believe that if we simply resist and work against them, we can redeem them. Instead of noisy protest, however, we need to deepen our silence. We need to spend more time away from the noise and protest and listen intently for that still small voice.

When we are deeply connected with God, when we can recognize that still small voice, even in the din of everyday noise, then we are most effective as activists. Only when we understand that we are deeply connected, not just with God, but with everyone – even those who perpetrate the evil in the world – then we can truly see God silently performing the work of redemption. Then, and only then, will our work in the world have behind it the power that brings redemption.

Instead of raging against the evil in our world, Thich Nhat Hahn, in Cultivating the Mind of Love, counsels us to look deeply into the world around us. Instead of condemning those we see responsible for creating the evil in the world, like our president, we must understand our connection and our responsibility for the shape the world is in today.

“We see that the president of our country is composed of non-president elements, including economics, politics, hatred, violence, love, and so on. Looking deeply into the person who is the president, we see the reality of our country and the world. Everything concerning our civilization can be found in him – our capacity to love, to hate, everything. One thing contains every other thing in it. We deserve our government and our president, because they reflect the reality of the country – the way we think and feel, and the way we live our daily lives. When we know that ‘A’ is not ‘A,’ when we know that our president is not our president, that he is us, we will no longer reproach or blame him. Knowing that he is made only of non-president elements, we know where to apply our energies to improve our government and our president. We have to take care of the non-president and non-government elements within us and all around us. It is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of practice.”

Our country has forgotten where true power lies. We think it lies in money, armies, oil and land. Because we believe this we elect leaders who believe this. Despite what the polls show, our collective consciousness in this country still believes might makes right and that governments and corporations are the best vehicles for making our lives secure. We are desperate for security. We will sacrifice our freedoms for it. We will sacrifice our money and our lives just as long as we can remain in relative ease and comfort. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we have elected a government that has given us what we want. We have supported an economic system that robs the poor in favor of the rich and provides no easy means out of poverty.

Only when we, individually and collectively, realize that true power lies in the deep silence of God, will we ever hope to redeem our world. Only when we turn to the source of true power in the world will we find the peace we say we are seeking – not just an absence of war and conflict – but a peace that has no concept of war or conflict. Until we can tear our attention away from the noise of the world and put our full selves into listening for God’s still small voice, we will always be at the mercy of leaders who perpetrate strife and evil. This is the great possibility of our time. This is the opportunity we must seize to make monumental change in our world.

It is imperative for us to begin serious practices of prayer and meditation. See this practice as the opportunity we’re being given in these times to bring about earthshaking change to world. Until we embrace a consistent practice of deep prayer and meditation, our own personal inner strife, and the evil around us, will continue to rage. We can only start where we are, by turning every day to silent time with our Creator and Sustainer. As we grow accustom to God’s still small voice we will notice the noise of our world becoming dimmer as more and more people begin to understand that only the profound silence of God will save us. Only silence will soothe our souls. As Fosdick says, “Only when (God) leads us in green pastures and beside still waters can he restore our souls.” (p. 171)

The season of Advent is a time of waiting – a time to experience the deep joy of the anticipations of the coming Christ. Make a vow now to spend this season in silent anticipation of the powerful, redemptive, still small voice that brings true joy in joyless times.