Another beautiful day. I was with a group of new clergy colleagues whom I am slowly coming to know. The sun spackled trees and lawn revealed birds and flowers, soaking up every little bit of warmth they could.
When spring first arrived, and the trees were filled with their floral bouquets, I hoped for a pleasant summer of just enough sun and warmth.
Not like last summer, when the relentless heat and rainless days burned through the crops in my little garden. The early spring hinted of this possibility. It was a long, lingering spring for this region, over a month the trees and flowers held their blossoms. Then, they submitted to a late season frost, three nights in a row, followed by days and days of heavy rain.
Summer has now arrived, the solstice less than a week ago. And with summer, a sudden thrust of intense heat and humidity. With this heat come a string of heavy rain storms, popping up unexpectedly, the risk of tornadoes is a constant threat.
But on that day, the weather was perfect. We gathered at a colleagues home in the country of SE Michigan for a final lunch, ending our year of meetings. We sat in the sun and breathed the fresh air, we watched birds as they roamed from branch to branch in search of the perfect place for a noonday respite.
One colleague mentioned a study on poverty, the depressing reality that poverty no longer looks like it did. Poverty is everywhere. In my small town of beautiful homes, not big or ostentatious, but homes that reveal a people who clearly love beauty, some 60% of the people live below the poverty line. Something like 75% of the kids in the public school system qualify for the free lunch program.
For the first time in my two years with these colleagues I spoke up and shared a little of the hardship I endured following the end of a call, a parish church job gone awry. The details of what led to this horrible time are not particularly relevant, some say every clergy person encounters this at least once in their vocational lives – the unhealthy, conflict ridden church. For me, like many others, the only healthy thing to do was to leave. Tragically I moved my family across the country for this call, and now was stuck in a barren land.
Leaving that job came with heavy consequences. Finding a new call could take years. I applied for and interviewed for many positions. My husband and I moved ourselves across the county again, back to our home base where we had family and friends. We lived on one small, part-time income, about $250.00 a week. We lived in the tiny empty parts of a church rectory, sharing space with the office personnel who used a couple of rooms on the first floor for church business. We used all of our savings. We applied for and received public aide. We qualified for food stamps, $200 a month, for the first couple of months, until our son turned 18, then we were cut off. Imagine, a family of three trying to survive on $250 a week. True, we were lucky enough to live rent free and had no utilities to pay for, thanks to this shared rectory house. But we still had to pay our bills and pay for gas and food. We lived a very frugal life. I saved every bit of leftover food and turned it into another meal. Finally, eighteen months after I left that job I was hired for a new one. Life has been very, very good ever since.
In the time I was unemployed I struggled deeply. I struggled with grief and guilt over a job gone wrong and the chaos I had caused my family by taking that job in the first place. I struggled with despair and fear that I would never find another job. I am highly educated, but apparently not employable in positions outside the church. I wondered about the value of my life and sometimes thought my family would be better off without me. Even that thought proved wrong when we had to cancel our life insurance policies and I realized that even in death I had nothing to offer the ones I loved. This was a profoundly bleak time.
The Uses of Sorrow (Mary Oliver, Thirst)
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
And yet I worked hard to make the most of it. I found ways to make a tiny income now and then doing church supply work. I also worked on a project for the Church Center in New York and found a way to be employed as a consultant, earning a small stipend and the opportunity for some travel. I prayed a lot. And somehow I also felt peace and joy, a grace that could only come from God. As if God were reminding me that God was with me and somehow all would be okay. In fact all is now better than okay, all is really good!
This summer I am taking part in a retreat led by Jane Redmont focusing on the life and writings of Dorothee Soelle. Soelle was born in Germany in 1929, lived through the holocaust and World War 2. She became a theologian and poet, a writer of spiritual books on God and suffering. She was a political activist for peace. She was a woman of faith. She was a woman who, despite the suffering in her life, and the suffering she witnessed, wrote passionately about joy.
Soelle implies in her essay, “A Spirituality of Creation,” [i] that we need to be educated for joy.
A person without the capacity to find joy is person has been socialized in a culture that threatens all the capacities of human beings to take in creation in wonder and awe, in self-renewal, and in appreciation of beauty, in joy and in expressions of gratefulness and praise. We are born for joy, something we come to feel and have an awareness of, paradoxically, when we struggle through life’s challenges. This is most profound when we struggle together, in community for then our connectedness enhances our capacity for joy.
Religionless cultures fail to provide any education on joy (according to Soelle). Religion, not so much the structure of institutional religion with dogma and doctrine, but rather nurturing a faith life centered on creation and the mysteries of God in creation, enables people to embrace a deep reasonless joy. This is in large part because we embrace the notion that there is a Creator who loves all of creation. A Creator who journeys with us through all of life, including being present in our suffering. Not causing the suffering but being with us in it, with us to sustain us and tend to us, until new life is found. Without the opportunity to nurture our faith our capacity to enjoy life is diminished for we have no language, no understanding of the mystery of life, and instead think that all of life is a human construct, that there is no Creator. If all of life is a human construct then in the midst of my deepest sorrow, when I am helpless, then I have no hope. But trusting that God cares for me and journeys with me, gives me hope. And hope leads to joy.
“Joy is not derived from special events or the presents we receive; it involves the mere delight in being alive and gratefulness for the gift of life. … It takes time to learn how to praise the beauty of creation. On the way, we rekindle our gratitude and shed the self who took creation for granted. We recover the sense of awe before life; we recover the lost reverence and passion for the living.(p . 89)
In our retreat, Jane asks:
“What, for Soelle, characterizes people ‘who have never learned to wonder, to be amazed, to renew themselves, and to rejoice”?
Soelle describes such people as being broken, unable to relate to other people, unable to engage in relationships with others, unable to express feelings, their perception of the world is reduced, the person’s actions do not make use of capacities, they have
no trust in creation and no trust in one’s own createdness, and no possibility for empowerment. There is a tendency for people in this state of being to trivialize and live with a “dryness of heart”… “understanding the gift of life does not make sense because the “giver” is not known…” thus life is just an accident of nature, a casual event, an unforeseen occurrence…not a gift.[ii]
Like Soelle, I believe that our ability to move through our broken states into a new place begins with wonder. Wondering leads to delight, delight leads to amazement, amazement leads to joy, joy helps us recognize that life is forever being made new again. The capacity to wonder is most fruitful when one has invested one’s life in learning about faith and the mysteries of the Creator. In her book To Work and To Love, Soelle displaces a God who commands and replaces that one with a God who calls us to collaborate with God. Relatedness, communion, connectedness are not only what characterize the divine but what God (in Soelle’s view) wants from us humans. Growing a relationship with the Divine Creator enables us to deepen our relationships with all creation, becoming partners with God in the ongoing re-creation of the world.
Soelle believed that artists and children have the greatest capacity for engaging in the on-going creation and recreation of the world, and of opening others to this possibility. I like to think that people of faith are artists too, that we have the capacity to open others to the potential for new life through the practices of faith – through prayer and song and a gathered community worshiping together. This is perhaps most true when the community is truly focused on embracing the joy of life rather than emphasizing rules determining who belongs, who is good enough. We all belong, we are all good enough, we are all made in the imagination of a creative God who loves abundant diversity as a creative expression of God’s self.
Again, Mary Oliver says it well:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Oliver, Dianne L. “Dorothee Soelle Essential Writings:” Orbis Books; Maryknoll, New York, 2006
Ibid pages 86-92, A Spirituality of Creation