“Candles of Joy Despite all the Sadness”
Matthew 6: 25-33; Philippians 4:6-7
By Rev. Don Ludwig, November 29, 2020

All Is Not For the Best

Do you remember reading the satirical book Candide by Voltaire? I doubt when I first read it back in high school that I knew it was satire. The refrain that Professor Pangloss repeats is “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” – this was what I thought I was supposed to believe as a Christian.  But for me, to do so, was to live in a fantasy world.  It was like putting a blanket over a beat up couch.  When I began to understand satire, I realized that Professor Pangloss was really saying, “All is not for the best”. The world is a mess, the reality of which we know to be true – the horrors of war, the prevalence of poverty and unemployment, the maliciousness of humans, the violence and cost of white privilege, the hypocrisy of the politicians and the list goes on – all is not for the best.

But I have also come to understand that knowing that our world is a mess does not mean we can’t have joy.  The Gospel writer John tells us that Jesus came that we might have an abundant life. Jesus offered us a spirituality that accepts reality for what it is but rises above it.  It is a spirituality that gives us a deep inner spirit of joy which can be found in love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, a sense of faith in something more than ourselves. For Jesus, this joy – this light within us – is not a metaphor, it’s an embodied spirituality.

Worry is Self-Protection

Jesus tells us that worry is just about the opposite of joy. “Don’t worry! Be happy”, Bob Marley tells us.  Such advice, similar to the counsel of Job’s friends in the Old Testament and what we have heard our friends tell us so many times, is not really all that helpful, is it?  It’s not helpful because we are actually programmed as human beings for worry as a means of self-protection. Worry is not a character flaw, it is part of our in-born survival mechanism. Today, we have lots to worry about – a lot to protect ourselves from.  

What do you find yourselves worried about these days?

I am reminded of a joke called “Why Worry?”

  • In life, there are really only two things to worry about. Either you are well, or you are sick. If you are well, there’s nothing to worry about.  If you are sick, there are two things to worry about. Either you get better, or you die.
  • If you get better, there’s nothing to worry about.  If you die, there are two things to worry about. Going to Heaven, or going to Hell.
  • If you go to Heaven, there’s nothing to worry about.  If you go to Hell, you’ll be so busy shaking hands with all your friends that you won’t have time to worry…so why worry?

At the end of Candide, our protagonist, beaten down by circumstance, proclaims  the only recourse left is: “we must cultivate our own garden.”  Tending our own garden, in a way, is a good thing.  But remember, Candide is a satire, so when he says “we must cultivate our own garden,” he is suggesting the opposite from closing ourselves off from the wider world, from claiming responsibility for ourselves alone.

Take Notice: All Shall be Well

When Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air… consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus is not saying that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And he’s not saying to only tend our own garden. He is saying something much more profoundly basic. He is saying, “TAKE NOTICE OF ALL THAT IS AROUND YOU.” He’s asking us to put down our worry long enough to notice how vast and beautiful our garden is. Look at the birds. Consider the flowers. Strive first for the full kin-dom of God and we will find our rightful place within it.

Julian of Norwich, was a 12th century English anchoress and an important Christian mystic and theologian. The most familiar saying from Julian that has come down to us is “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Many of you remember, our former pastor Peg Phab began many of our meetings with this chant.  Does this sound a bit like Professor Pangloss? It should. But even though the words sound familiar, the difference between the two is significant. For rather than layering a feel good message on top of an experience – throwing a blanket over an old couch, Julian was speaking from inside of her experience.

Look Beyond your own Garden

A clue to this difference comes from an even more controversial saying attributed to Julian: “We are not simply made by God, we are made of God”. This is the deepest sort of noticing, of paying attention – knowing that God is in us – knowing the joy that wells up from the inside, not layered on top like a blanket. When this happens, Julian’s words, “All is well and all manner of things shall be well” becomes our living truth, not just our hope and prayer.

Oh, the joy that comes when we notice all that is around us. This is what Jesus is telling us. Look beyond your own garden until you can see that the entire world is your garden. Joy will bring you to the place that is far beyond a superficial happiness to a deep sense of joy, no matter our current circumstance.

A Candle of Joy Despite all of the Sadness

In Philippians, Paul instructs the believers to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”  He goes on to say, “Do not be anxious about anything”.  Friends, as we walk the path of faith, we realize that we are not at the center of the universe, but a humble learner in it.  We see that God can indeed speak to us through the lilies and the birds, and even through the sadness which is all around.  

Howard Thurman once wrote, “There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy.  Wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others.  To be touched by them is to be blessed by God.”

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  

A-men.