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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship and Joy
distributed 3/29/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes has been exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

What foolishness! Christians find joy on Good Friday. We celebrate on a day of brutal death. Yes, foolishness. "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1 Cor. 1:25)

The Good Friday question comes around every year: How can we hold together joy and death on this day? There is a similar question that is new for our generation: How can we worship God with joy while also being honest about the devastation of God's creation?

Worship is an act of joy, and yet we are witness to -- and we are participants in -- climate chaos, widespread extinction, the depletion of water and soil, oceans turning so acidic that life falters. We see cancers and deformities caused by toxic chemicals, starvation in the midst of drought, devastation by monster storms, warfare stirred by conflict over scarce resources. How can we see this world, and still worship with joy?

Part of the answer is to remember that there is a vast difference between joy and happiness. In an Advent meditation several years ago, I said: "Joy is more reflective, more profound, more deep-seated, and more persistent than the fleeting experience of happiness. ... Joy is a response to good news which recognizes our life in community, and which celebrates the promise which is extended to others, even to all of creation."

I don't know how we can be honest and relevant about the trauma of the world if we expect worship to make us happy all the time. An insistence that the celebration of good news always has to make us feel good cuts out several of the worship themes that I've highlighted this Lent, especially lament and confession. Those are not fun experiences. Lament calls forth unspeakable sadness and hurt. Genuine confession is supposed to be hard and painful.

Seeking happiness may require us to live in a state of denial about the trauma of creation. But, as I said a few weeks ago, "denial and avoidance are not the way to worship God."

Joy, on the other hand, can nurture and sustain us even as we deal with realities that are painful. Through joy, we may choose to place ourselves in the presence of hurt and suffering, and even find that we could do nothing else. When worship is filled with joy, then we can acknowledge and celebrate the full range of life -- joyous awe and burning grief, confession and commitment, hope and loss.

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I have heard about people who decided never to enter into a committed relationship because it would be too hard for them when the other died. These folk have turned away from committing to a spouse or partner, or to a pet. They know that there would be happiness in the relationship, but the prospect of death at the end is more than these people can bear.

On the other hand, several of my good friends have made the choice to marry someone with a late-stage terminal illness. When they considered their beloved's stages of dying, and thought about all of the caretaking and emotional turmoil of those months or years, they could not imagine how they could possibly turn away. My friends speak of difficult times and occasions of wonderful delight, of both tears and laughter, while they journeyed with their spouse to the end of life. Hard? Yes, of course, but also joyous because they can travel that path together. The joy of living fully in love and relationship makes all of those difficulties meaningful. Their joy has been found, not in avoiding suffering, but in being present through it.

There is an enormous difference between joy and happiness. Joy allows us to sit in the presence of pain and death, to be emotionally and spiritually vulnerable in the presence of grief and suffering. We can be there, we can choose to be there, because that is where God is. That is where God calls us to be, too.

The joy of living fully in relationship with God -- which is the joy that inspires our deepest worship -- allows us to open ourselves to the horrors happening around us. Precisely because we love God, because we have aligned ourselves with God's purposes of shalom, because we cherish the intricate beauty of the fragile web of life, we choose to make ourselves aware of the death at work all around us. Because our joy is rooted in God, we open ourselves to both the beauty and the painful truth about God's creation, and we commit ourselves to be agent's of God's justice and reconciliation in a broken world.

When God's creation is being mangled and exploited, our love of God calls us to place ourselves in the presence of the pain. 2,000 years ago, as Jesus was crucified, the women gathered at the foot of the cross. In a similar way, love compels us to be present with the suffering of creation, even finding joy when we do not turn away.

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The Empire wants us to seek happiness. Those who use up and exploit creation are able to increase their profit and power when we think of ourselves as "consumers". They can continue to manipulate us when we focus on our own desires and pleasure, when we seek our own entertainment and status, when we think that acquiring more stuff will make us happy.

The governments and corporations and power-brokers who are the face of Empire today work hard to hide creation's suffering. They use all the tricks they can muster to make us believe that there's nothing wrong, that this is the way it is supposed to be, that it is inevitable. They will not reveal their flood of toxic chemicals and the spread of unnatural genes and the abuse of creatures. They try to convince us that the purpose of life is to be happy, to feel good, to look out for ourselves.

When we accept those lies of the Empire, we may think that worship is one more piece of consumer culture. We'll want to shop around for a church where we can be happy, meet our own needs, and never have to face anything unpleasant. If we accept the "human wisdom" of consumer culture, then a church should never, ever mention the devastation of God's creation that is happening all around us.

Good Friday is a reminder that the church of the Empire is not the Christian church. The church that follows Jesus, that lives in the prophetic heritage, that continues the New Testament path of resistance to the false gods of Empire -- that "foolish" church has its birth on a cross. Our church begins with nails and blood and agony and death, and then has the chutzpah to call it "good". We know that our calling is not to be happy.

On our best and most faithful days, the church enters knowingly and willingly into all of the places where God's beloved creation is suffering. And we count it as joy to be able to be present, even in the midst of pain and grief and death.

Christian worship, when it is faithful and relevant, will be so filled with joy in the presence of God that we will insist on being present and active in midst of both great beauty and profound sorrow. Our worship, filled and empowered by joy, will encompass the whole range of God's creation, even in this time of creation's suffering.

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Through Lent, I have tried to explore some qualities of Christian worship that is richly ecological and transformational. It should be clear, by now, that I have not been giving tips for how to do a once-a-year "environmental" service.

We are living in an unprecedented time. Earth's natural systems are being ruined. The web of life is being pulled apart. The planet is being depleted and poisoned and overheated. Humanity has never seen such a disruption of global life systems.

This is a time that calls the church to rethink and reclaim our central and most important act. If we are to be faithful, we must be drawn into a far deeper and more encompassing life of worship. The way we nurture genuine worship will often reach far beyond Sunday morning liturgy. The church today must help connect us with awe, engage us in listening to a wide range of witnesses, free us to lament deeply, bring us to confession and open us to forgiveness, stimulate bold prophetic imagination , move us to strong commitment, and fill us with joy.

That is the worship that is honest for both Good Friday and Easter. That is the worship that is relevant for a planet in crisis.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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