This pond image looks fuzzy with TV static. But the white dots are a sunshower of Rimed Graupel, raindrops cooled down to round soft snow puffs. As precipitation types go (and from what I saw of Kansas weather, some are pretty scary) a minute of graupel shower is benign and cute, like standing under confetti when you’ve won a spelling bee.
Among today’s duck flock there were a matched pair with large pompadour crests, one in gray and one in black and white. Their showy look inspired me to search the internet for “ducks with black and white heads.” The remarkable “All About Birds” website at CornellLabs showed just the right portrait to match this endearing bird, calling it a male Hooded Merganser. To respect the copyright and the hard work of the photographer, here is a link instead of a picture.
In other news, on Sunday nights at church there is a series of sermons about the spirit of Christmas — to be exact, the role of the Holy Spirit as the creative power behind the many incidents and connections which culminated in the Christmas story. Now those Gospel accounts have been familiar over a lifetime of repetition and fond cultural associations, and that can lead to a default habit of imagining ahead to the finale of the story. But this month, when popular culture is flinging holiday-themed distractions at us, the church up the street is a welcome sensible oasis to ponder the holy day at the heart of it all. Pastor takes this very familiar story, walks us through the verses, and then thin-slices the moments and discusses the details for a fresh deeper look.
One point involved First Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice evermore.” The idea is that joy is not the same as being happy about every life condition. Instead, joy is something that we can affirm in every circumstance. (Famous Christian example: Corrie and Betsy ten Boom in The Hiding Place were not happy about the blanket of fleas in their bunk in the labor camp. But they thanked God in the circumstance of even those fleas. Later they discovered that they were able to pray, preach, and sing hymns in peace with their fellow prisoners without punishment, only because the prison guards refused to enter the cell block because of the fleas.)
Anyway, Pastor made the point that “Rejoice evermore” sheds light on the point three verses after in 5:19, “Quench not the Spirit.” So one way to align our lives with the Holy Spirit, at Christmas and every day, is by rejoicing. Joy is after all one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. It would stand to reason that we can work more closely with the Spirit by affirming joy.
Christianity has a custom of describing spiritual experiences using the vocabulary of worldly experiences. That’s a fine start, but it assumes that listeners have had the worldly experiences to begin with, and are bringing that to the table. Describing God as an unconditionally loving Father may not help a person with no background experience of love from a human father. What does Psalm 23 mean to people who have no idea what it is to see and feel the calming effect of a green pasture and running water, or natural beauty at all? What did “Peace be with you!” mean to my college roommate’s devout father? He was afflicted with hysterically violent outbursts of temper until the family appealed to his doctor. The care team conducted a thorough physical with lab tests, and then the doctor (as a reluctant ethically controversial last resort) prescribed “blood pressure” pills that were really an anti-depressant. After a few weeks on medication, Dad woke up in tears, exclaiming “Peace!! I’m finally at peace! I’ve never felt it before in my life. Now I know what people are talking about.” He healed his relationship with his family, and might well have found more comfort in his King James Bible, where “Peace” is used 420 times (thank you Google search).
The idea of rejoicing in the Spirit was in mind all week. In fact, day and night, it wouldn’t go away. Focusing on joy over happiness, and centering that joy on God, is a good solid idea. The only issue is that I don’t know how joy feels to begin with. I simply don’t know what people are talking about. Unable to puzzle out the sermon from last week, I grew so discouraged that I didn’t even try going to church for Sunday evening service.
Part of the issue is that popular culture seems to kick these words around without much agreement or deep thought about what they mean. In the news today, a sincere reverent reader responded to an online article with the comment, “It is only through suffering that we can know what the opposite, true joy, really is.” (So “joy” equals the absence of suffering? Here I thought joy was a lot more rugged and deep somehow.) One error is to label “joy” to what is really just natural (or artificially induced) elation, implied in, say, ads on our city buses showing paid models screaming over their good times at some casino. Yesterday’s winter reading at the library was a Marie Kondo picture book with gorgeously arranged photographs of her home, advising on how to choose objects and arrangements which spark our inner joy. For example, she described her daily uplifting ritual of wiping and polishing her entryway to her home, and also cleaning the soles of her shoes before arranging them neatly, each in its place all ready for use. Ms. Kondo’s focus and dedication have given me some practical tips and enjoyable images. Inanimate household items matter; I’m grateful for kimchi rice, a nap in soft bedding, my new Water-Pik flosser, and the new toilet seat from building management that doesn’t wobble and threaten to tip me onto the floor. But an inanimate belonging doesn’t spark anything joyward unless it’s a symbol of a personal relationship.
Instead of church, I went over to Angelina’s to hear her ideas about joy. She was just finishing a batch of chicken cacciatore and fresh pizzelle anise waffle Christmas cookies hot from the pizzelle press. She shared with me a lot of good examples of the joyful moments in her life, including the company of her wonderful children, play with her dogs, and the privilege of cooking and sharing delicious foods. (Then again, is that kind of uplift and harmony what we would call “happiness”? See, I wouldn’t even know.) After our visit, Angelina packed up goodies for me to take home. “Why don’t you think of some step that will bring you closer to what looks like joy. Then we can go out in my car and explore that together.” That sounded like a generous and sensible idea from a caring warm-hearted person.
People have suggested that maybe I’m expecting “Joy” to be something very dramatic? But my problem seems to be that I simply don’t have an emotion set, to match what other people mean. (I don’t have an emotion set for a whole range of other feelings either. The idea of “insatiable lust” or “avarice” or “relentless athletic competitiveness to the point of physical self-damage” are far over my head too.) A friend of mine is red-green color blind. People have dangled really really bright reds and greens at him saying “You must be able to see that. It’s really bright!” Like, maybe you were expecting red and green to be dramatic, but in fact they are in the little everyday details around us and you’re just not paying attention or appreciating them.
Talking with Angelina I looked far back over the years to think of times in life when I felt joy. For me, the closest approximation must be warm human connections. That’s why I take walks in the cemetery; the engravings are a reminder, carved in stone, that people love one another. That’s why the Russian TV show Zhdi meniá (Wait for Me) is a favorite Friday tradition for my mirror neurons; the show tracks down and matches up long-lost relatives and friends, and brings them together in the studio to share life stories and hugs and kisses and expressions of clearly recognizable joy. “Maybe the closest thing,” I told Angelina, “was times in life when things were difficult or impossible for people that I love, but then there was an opportunity to do what God would want, or that person had a truly remarkable change of heart, and that created an even better connection.” Closer connection with God and other people — to me that looks like spiritual consolation and grace, something which sustains and guides and inspires us through any circumstance, like the many wonderful stories of Corrie ten Boom. For now, that is my best definition of joy.
Just today, Angelina took us on our first adventure: to the doctor for a followup check for me, through rain with warnings of a winter storm front. Rushing to meet Angelina, waiting downstairs with the car, I hopped around in one snow boot, tugged and struggled with the sliding doors of my dark closet, rummaged wildly through footwear for my other snow boot, and exclaimed “This NEVER happens to Marie Kondo!” The medical checkup all turned out just fine, and Angelina’s good company and humor and skill at navigating in very cold rain turning to snow fills me with gratitude. Afterwards we brainstormed ideas for future adventures: Kashmir? Machu Picchu? Then it was off to rest in thankfulness with the great privilege of some kimchi rice and soft bedding.
In conclusion, a picture of ornate lacelike pizzelle belongs here. But on Sunday night I ate them all in the 5 minute walk home.
“Maybe the closest thing,” I told Angelina, “was times in life when things were difficult or impossible for people that I love, but then there was an opportunity to do what God would want, and then an even better connection came from that.”
Angelina packed up the goodies for me to take home, and meanwhile came up with a wonderful idea. “Why don’t you think of some step that will bring you closer to joy. Then we can go out in my car and explore that together.”
I love this piece of writing! It so resonates with me and supplies for me another piece of healing information for me as I continue to stay (struggle to stay) on my spiritual path. The kindness and compassion for self and other…thank you for sharing this.
Namaste and blessings,