An angel appears to shepherds in a field and declares, “I bring you tidings of great joy!” A woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and he forgives her for all her past sins. A widow appears before an unjust judge every day, faithfully believing that he will give her justice. And Jesus himself climbs mountains, enters gardens, boards boats and disappears into the wilderness again and again to pray.
In the Gospel of Luke, Christian spirituality centers on joy, conversion and repentance, faithfulness, and prayer. And we will read the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together as a diocese from this coming Advent until Pentecost, because the work of reconciliation and love that we’re undertaking as we work towards Becoming the Beloved Community requires a spiritual revolution within ourselves, a process of profound conversion that will help us set aside the fear and joylessness that keeps us from entering into loving fellowship with each other.
I was recently part of a youth service trip, and every evening the counselors would ask the kids where they had experienced joy that day. Many of the kids told stories about falling off of ladders or getting accidentally locked in vans – stories that were either funny or embarrassing, but maybe not truly joyful. It left me wondering whether we have much of an understanding of joy.
In evangelical circles, the point has been stressed and stressed again that joy is not happiness. Some current evangelical thinkers push back against that, and I agree with them, because I think that joy can certainly include happiness. But it’s also more than happiness. As we read, we should try to come to some sense of what joy is, even if we can never create a concrete definition of something so powerful and ephemeral. As we practice a spirituality of joy together as a diocese, we’ll have more and more stories to tell of what joy feels like, and the way that it loosens us up and allows us to experience the blessing of relationship from everyone we meet.
Conversion and repentance seem easier to define. Die to the old life and be born to the new. But there is rarely a very strict division between the old and the new. Does Luke’s Gospel require one? Sometimes it feels like it does, and sometimes it feels more lenient.
When we get glimpses of God at work in the world, it seems natural that one response would be to try to increase our capacity for sight by cultivating practices of mindfulness and awareness. But there are days when we won’t be able to, when we just want to put our blinders on and return to a life that felt comfortable, even if it was somewhat gray and lacking in breathtaking glimpses of the divine. It’s on those days, particularly, when we need our communities to challenge and awaken us, and this capacity for challenge is part of what makes a community beloved.
Cultivating awareness will lead us to see things that we haven’t wanted to see – injustices and cruelties that we’ve participated in without realizing it. Teresa of Avila talks about the “wound of compassion,” and this is what she means. As we see more, and feel our compassion grow with our conversion, we will be wounded by it. Beloved Community will help us salve the wounds and tend our spiritual bodies so that we’re not afraid to remain in the hurtful mess of the world while striving to change it.
Persevering in a joyful awareness of God, and in the wounds of compassion that are inflicted by that awareness, might be the very nature of faith. When we say we believe something, we are really saying that we give our hearts to it, that we love it as much as our families, our lifestyles and ourselves, if not more. It seems simple and natural, but we all know that it isn’t. Our capacity for distraction is pretty high, as is our capacity for anxiety, worry and fear. Faith is an active practice, a decision to constantly remind ourselves to look and rejoice.
Finally, prayer is the preeminent way of looking. We hope to see the world through God’s eyes, to love each other and ourselves with God’s compassion, and to welcome each other with God’s hospitality. To follow Jesus’ example in prayer is to align ourselves with the divine.
These, then, are the spiritual practices that are taught by Luke/Acts. Cultivate joy and awareness. When we fail, ask for forgiveness and try again. Remain faithful in our efforts and give ourselves wholly to this new way of being. Pray ceaselessly, with our hearts and minds always open to the divine in the world around us. As we read together, we will find many instances of these practices, and, like the people whom we’re reading about, they will shape and change us. The end goal of these books, and of our study of them, is Beloved Community. May we be blessed in our efforts as we seek to find our place within it.