Joy comes with the Morning
by Paul A. Bretz
In addition to providing leadership at Centus, I also serve part-time as a Behavioral Health Surveyor for TJC. That role takes me to behavioral health organizations across the country. Last week I was in rural Alabama in line at the local Wendy’s for lunch. A man exiting the restaurant spoke loudly saying, “Jesus loves all y’all, and I hope you get right with him, because judgement day is coming. Have a great day!”
On the one hand I found this incident humorous, and a not-so-subtle reminder that I was deep in the Bible Belt. I was also reminded of my Southern Baptist upbringing. For in this individual’s mindset, and in mine as a child growing up in fundamentalist Christianity, was the view that people were either in or out of the one and only “truth,” and the message was essentially, “turn or burn.”
Now on the 4th of July weekend, it was tempting to focus directly on our nation and the divisions that are all to painfully clear to all of us. It is hard to think of a more polarized and painful time in our nation, at least during my lifetime.
However, reflecting on our text I was led to think about what leads people to different levels of ability to see more than one perspective. Also, how do we find our way through times of pain and struggle to a renewed sense of hope and joy?
A school of therapeutic thought that in which I trained several years ago is Imago Relationship Therapy. It is an approach to relationships that encourages the development of empathy. It suggests that relationships in which people are heard, understood, and affirmed are a primary source of hope, healing, and joy in our lives.
Imago theory suggests that authentic relationships develop when we listen and “cross the bridge” into another person’s world to understand what they are thinking and feeling. This theory also raises the issue that you do not have to agree with the other person to understand and empathize with them.
Imago also utilizes brain research and points out that the use of different components of our brain lead to very different responses to the people, relationships, and experiences in our lives.
Research teaches that the least developed part of our brain is the brain stem.
- It is the part of our brain that looks after a variety of automatic functions, such as breathing.
- In relational terms it is a nonverbal part of our brain that pays attention to facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact and body posture.
The middle part of our brain encompasses the Limbic System, that includes the Amygdala and the Hippocampus. In Imago thought it is also considered the reactive or childhood brain.
- It is the part of our brain that detects danger and responds with fight, flight, or freeze.
- It doesn’t have a sense of time so events and the feelings we had earlier in our life can get triggered and feel like they are happening right now.
- Nurturing relationships allow the limbic brain to feel safe.
The most developed part of our brain is the Frontal Cortex, the seat of executive functioning and creative problem solving. This part of the brain isn’t fully developed until our mid 20’s.
- It includes the left hemisphere that is responsible for rational thought, logic, and cooperation,
- along with the right hemisphere that is responsible for creativity, intuition, and emotional connection. This part of our brain allows us to do complex thinking and to be self-aware.
- The right hemisphere allows us to think before we act, and can override our less mature defensive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The goal of dialogue in Imago Therapy is to activate the frontal lobe to allow for deep listening, understanding, and empathy. I would suggest that this is the path least often being chosen in our polarized nation.
So, what does all this brain research have to do with our scripture text or finding a spiritual path out of painful circumstances to renewed hope and joy?
You might ask, how does anyone get started on a path toward delight and joy?
One author suggested that “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” (Lin Yutang)
In contemplating spiritual truths, I appreciate views of multiple faith traditions. One source of wisdom comes from Hasidism, a Jewish mystical tradition that emerged in the 18th century in what is now Ukraine.
Jewish scholar Arthur Green writes, “In this movement of spiritual renewal a key component was an emphasis on the inner life of prayer or what we might call contemplative prayer today.”
In this movement the emphasis included that God was not only the creator of the earth and heaven, but also the One who created delight and joy.
Father Richard Rohr is a modern practitioner of contemplative spiritual paths in the Christian tradition.
He wrote, “The trouble with much of civic religion and cultural Christianity is the lack of religious experience. People who haven’t had a loving or intimate experience with God tend to get extremely rigid, dogmatic, and controlling about religion. They think that if they pray the right words, read the Bible daily, and go to church often enough, it will happen. But God loves us before we do rituals… The great commandment is not, “Thou shalt be right,” the great commandment is to “be in love.”
Another contemporary spiritual writer put it this way, “Joy is our birthright. Each and every one of us, especially those of us who have been conditioned to feel unworthy of it.” (Rachel Ricketts)
You might ask, how does anyone get started on a path toward delight and joy?
If an inner life of prayer is at the heart of that path, doesn’t it feel for most of us that choosing this path is beyond our capacity to even begin, much less maintain?
One spiritual writer noted, “A father or mother has a young child whom they greatly love. Even though the child has hardly learned to speak, the parent takes pleasure in listening to the child’s words.”
My friends, can you identify with the Psalmist this morning.
- Have you been or are you in a place of feeling like your foes (internal or external) are rejoicing over you?
- Do you feel like your life, the life of our nation, and even our world is “in the pit”?
If you feel that way today or have ever felt that way. The Psalmist points to a path, the one Hasidic Jews experience, and Father Rohr points toward as well.
The path is: “Look up, cry for help, pray for healing for yourself, a loved one, our nation, our world and don’t forget to give thanks for God’s faithfulness!”
Psychologist and Researcher, Dr. Lisa Miller in her book The Spiritual Child presents brain research that points out that if children and adolescents experience a sense of connection to the transcendent at key developmental stages that they are far less likely to develop mental health conditions or an addiction disorder.
She shared a powerful example of a Native American Young Woman who was raised by her grandmother… A tree might be a good spiritual touchstone for us too!
Dr. Miller also shared a more personal story about her son, who was adopted from Russia. One day on the playground kids were making fun of him for being adopted…
If we consider the full view of the Psalmist on our current state, we encounter a God who has the emotional range to feel angry.
- Angry about the current war in Ukraine.
- Angry about the bitter divisions in our nation
- Angry about injustice toward individuals or whole groups of people.
- Angry about our lack of depth of empathic, nurturing relationships.
Perhaps we can join the Psalmist in more fully appreciating a God who gets angry. A God with a range of emotions that also includes the source of joy and delight.
A God whose favor lasts throughout our lifetime and guides us time and time again to our birthright, pure joy!
If you remember nothing else from this sermon today, hold on to the profound spiritual truth, the human experience and the spiritual journey includes the incredibly good news, that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning!”
May morning dawn for you, your loved ones, our nation, and our world!