Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

My cross I bear is this: I remember sermons.

No, not just the alliteration, funny stories and heartwarming illustrations. And not just the pithy quotes that preachers once found in books but now find through internet memes. I actually remember the points of the sermon.

There is one sermon I remember well. I’ve heard it more than once. I don’t remember the Bible text— no doubt punched down, pulled stretched, rolled out and shaped to say exactly what the preacher was trying to say. But I  remember the thesis:

Jesus didn’t come to make you happy. He came to give you joy. 

The preacher would say this and pause, as though he just revealed some deep insight before moving on to articulate the technical, lexical distinction between happiness and joy:

Happiness is circumstantial and fleeting. It is a feeling based on whatever good may be happening at that moment. It is entirely external. Joy is much deeper, sustaining us through seasons of grief and suffering. It is our comfort even through anxious seasons. Joy, unlike happiness, is not based on external circumstance, but is an inner contement experienced by those who have the Grace of God, a byproduct of life lived in Him. 

That is quite the distinction and boy, does that preach! There were some good things in that sermon. We do need a thick experience of joy to sustain us in the hurley burley of life. But on the alleged distinction between happiness and joy, I call balderdash! Hogwash! Malarkey, even! When the preacher preaches the dictionary, may the congregation beware!

In reality, joy, and happiness are not all that different. In everyday speech, we use the two terms interchangeably. And while there are shallow ways to experience happiness and joy there are a great many people reaching thicker versions of both.  For example, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project chronicled her year-long exploration on how to live a happy, more fulfilling life. And of course, people are exploring what on earth makes Denmark happier than the rest of the world when they are most famous for marzipan pigs, and that cranky philosopher whose name you always misspell. The Danes refer to happiness as hygge (pronounced something like Hoo-gah) denoting some like total well-being and living a fulfilled life. However you get there, you need lots of candles and cozy nooks.

The biblical authors also use happiness and joy interchangeably. The Psalmist exhorts us to “shout for joy,” a happy acclamation of ejaculatory praise (Psalm 95:1; 98:4). Happy is used to describe those who avoid wickedness, sin, and mocking, but delight in the Lord’s law both day and night (Psalm 1). Happy were those whose lifestyles marked by godly obedience to Torah (Psalm 119:1-2). That isn’t all that different than Jesus’ promise that our obedience to Him would bring us the fullness of joy (John 15:10-11).

So Joy and happiness are near synonyms. Why it matters is this:

Jesus came to make you happy.

Jesus first Advent was not about an inner state of serene joy. It was a real-world, circumstantial, happening. It changed the world, If you were there and sensed what God was doing, a smile would spread across your face. The way we know Mary who really did know, smiled happily as she sang her song.

When Jesus comes again and all sorrow and terror cease, it will be a real-world, circumstantial ‘happening.’ When suffering reaches its end and only Shalom, wholeness and life remain, we will be happy.  The Christian joy (or happiness) we experience in this moment, exists between these two happenings. The incarnation opened up a new way for us. And we now live in happy anticipation of New Heavens and New Earth.

And yes there is grief and pain and there is real evil in the world still. There are times we are heartbroken and hurt. We lose loved ones and feel like we’ve lost our sense of self. We feel discouraged and worried, and full of doubt. Happily, this too, shall pass. All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

 

 

 

The Spirit and ‘the Letter’ of Prayer: a book review

About a week-and-a-half ago, I received a copy of Letters to Jacob: Mostly on Contemplative Prayer in the mail. It was a short book, only ninety pages(more booklet than book). I thought I would breeze through the book, but that isn’t what happened. I’ve been busy and this short book beckoned me to slow down. I read several of these letters through several times. I mulled over them and their implications. The author, Father John-Julian, is a hermit of the Order of Julian of Norwich (OJN). He shares his insights into prayer, contemplation and ascetical theology.

letters-to-jacob-mostly-about-contemplative-prayer-epub-version-4The title riffs off C.S. Lewis’s classic work Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on  Prayer.  The book began as a set of thirteen letters to a young seminarian who was new to ascetical theology and interested in the practice of contemplative prayer (89). The letters went through several revisions and were passed around to other seminarians and even used as a textbook for ascetical theology. This is first time these letters have been formally published and the number of letters has swelled from thirteen to twenty-two. I am uncertain if the letters’ original recipient was named Jacob or if the name alludes the biblical patriarch famous for his wrestling with God.

Father John-Julian’s focus is on contemplative prayer, or what he calls ‘still prayer.’ He writes:

[T]he still prayer I have called mediation is in its simplest form an attempt to make oneself accessible to God—willing to hear what God may convey, or act as God might direct. In other words, meditation really means waiting upon God—open, vulnerable, focused, susceptible, listening and ready. In meditation one tries to be passive and willing to be communicated with. It is the great pinnacle of spiritual life and devout experience (82-83).

Father John-Julian favors the contemplative tradition; however he also describes the proper orientation to prayer in general. Prayer is not about getting God to do what you want (for yourself or someone else) but an orientation toward relationship with the Divine (7-8).  Fr. John-Julian warns against praying for particular outcomes and instead advises  us to pray that we may recognize the will of God (11). Without prescribing a ‘prayer method.’ John-Julian orients us towards communion with the God that is beyond our comprehension.

Along the way, John Julian identifies the various ‘veils’ which impede the development of still prayer. These include:our emotions, boredom, our frenetic activity, expectations, obscurity which sees God as ‘extrinsic to us,’ methodology, ignorance, consciousness of sin, romance, the mistaken notion of spiritual privacy, projection, an over-literalness,  and a desire for practicality. John-Julian draws heavily on Julian of Norwich (for which his order is named), and the English Mystical tradition (i.e. The Cloud of Unknowing) He is gently critical of charismatic, and evangelical traditions that are overly pragmatic and individualistic.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book and certainly Fr. John-Julian names the heart of true prayer—unity with God. I found this book challenging and underlined a number of passages. As an admittedly low-church evangelical, I am implicated in many of his critiques. There are certainly times where I have been more “results-driven” in prayer than I have been trying to commune with God. I also am some one who is inspired by the contemplative tradition but find it temperamentally difficult (I’m a hyper-extrovert). However in both cases I find myself challenged and drawn into the greater depth of true prayer through these letters.

I recommend this book for those who desire to grow in their prayer life (if there is no desire, you probably aren’t ready for this). Father John-Julian is a wise guide, and I find this short book one of the best contemporary summaries of contemplative prayer. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

 

A biography of Julian of Norwich (a book review)

Julian of Norwich-Amy Frykholm As anyone who has delved into Julian will probably tell you, there is very little about her life that we can know for certain. We know she was a fourteenth century anchorite and that her Showings(or revelations) are universally praised for their beauty and depth. Rowan Williams has said that “Julian’s Revelations may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English Language.” Yet when we try to untangle the details of her personal life, we have scant documentary evidence about who this Julian of Norwich really is.

In Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm does the impossible and presents us a sensitive and sympathetic vision of the beloved anchorite. Through eleven ‘windows’ she draws on various passages from Julian’s revelations and sketches a portrait of her, placing in her in her historical context. She is able to show, convincingly, the backdrop of the plague, the culture of Norwich and Julian’s religious education, and devotion to the life of prayer. At times Frykholm gives a carefully reasoned account, at other times this book is an imagined retelling, but in either case her picture of Julian is thoroughly realistic and judicious.

I found the picture that Julian that emerges here thoroughly compelling and it makes me want to return again to Julian’s Revelations so that I can read it with fresh eyes. Julian’s devotional and prayer life is compelling and makes me want to approach prayer with the same attention and expectancy. And so I heartedly recommend this book to three sorts of readers:

  • Those who love Julian will appreciate Frykholm’s prose for the ways she lovingly, imaginatively and sensitively handles Julian and giving us a glimpse of her character. It is a beautiful book.
  • Those who have attempted to read Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love and have found her too difficult and ethereal. This is not a commentary on the Revelations, but it does draw on material of Julian’s and contextualizes it. I love Julian and found that reading this book helps me see aspects of Julian with fresh eyes.
  • Lastly, I would recommend this to those who would love to read Julian but are looking for a short simple introduction of her first. This book would serve you well.

In case you missed it, I am recommending this book to anyone who has even a remote interest in Julian because it is readable, well-researched, imaginative and sympathetic to Julian.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. I know this review sounds overly positive, but they didn’t tell me to say nice things. The book is just that good.