Posted by: Dan | October 20, 2005

Gratitude and Joy: The Playful Ethics of a Delight-Full People

It is possible that in playing we can anticipate our liberation and with laughing rid ourselves of the bonds which alienate us from real life.
~ Jurgen Moltmann

I have recently been revisiting many of my thoughts about suffering, lamenting, and journeying with those in exile. Having been put off by the dominant self-indulgent and trite approaches that Christians (and the rest of society) tend to take toward suffering I fear that I have been missing a crucial part of journeying with the godforsaken. I have focused on genuinely empathising with such people, sharing in their cry, their pain, and their abandonment. And I still continue to do that… but that's only one part of the picture. The other bit, the bit that I've been missing, is how we go about doing this. If we are the Shekinah that goes forth to be with exiled people then we really do transform tears into laughter, isolation into solidarity, and death into new life.

This means — and this is the key of what I'm getting at — that even as we journey with those in exile, we will be known as delight-full people. This is so for two reasons. The first is because we remember. We remember the goodness of what God has done for us, especially in Christ. Therefore, the corollary of remembrance is gratitude. And this is what I've been missing. I had realised that God's goodness towards me required that I exhibit this goodness towards “the needy” but I was missing the fact that this action is performed fundamentally as an expression of gratitude. It was Christopher Wright's comments in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God that blew this door open in my mind. In my focus on lament I had focused on reminding God of the plight of the abandoned — lest he forget his covenant (yes, there is prophetic precedence for this). But what I was missing was the fact that my lack of gratitude revealed that it was I who had forgotten what God had already done. And, as C. Wright goes on to argue, without gratitude we lose the ethical implications of our own history and end up undergoing a moral decline that leads to outright disobedience.

The second reason why we are a delight-full people is because of our expectation. Not only do we remember what God has done, but we remember God's promises, and what God will do. Therefore (especially since we have already received the first-fruits of this in the coming of the Holy Spirit), we live as a people filled with joy. It is my recent research on the Lord's Supper that really has me thinking about this. Because we are assured that God is making all things new we can operate joyfully even in the midst of brokenness. The anticipatory and eucharistic aspects of the Lord's Supper make joy an unavoidable part of Christian living. This is not because we are cold-hearted or refuse to enter in the pain of others. We will still mourn with those who mourn for as long as they mourn, but sorrow will not have the last word. It is the root of joy that we have in the assurance of our hope that enables us to stay in those broken places. And it is the joy that we exhibit even in mourning that makes our mourning transformative.

Therefore, this allows us to operate with a much more playful ethic. Here Moltmann's comments in The Church in the Power of the Spirit become significant — especially in light of my own personal biases. Moltmann argues that a Western focus upon Jesus' Lordship has caused our ethic to be one that follows the structure of command and obedience. However, when one comes to appreciate the aesthetic side of Jesus' reign (that is to say, Jesus is the Lord of the cosmos but also the Lord of glory) our response can be much more festive. Having encountered the Father who runs out on the road to meet his prodigal children how can we not overflow with joy? As Moltmann also says in Theology and Joy, “Only the innocent, namely children, or those liberated from guilt, namely the beloved, are able to play.” It's as though we move into the margins and join the songs of lament only to discover that somehow along the way those songs have gained new strains and turned into songs of wonder and of praise. It's as though we join those dancing because their hearts are broken and somehow the dance transitions into a dance performed by overflowing hearts. And soon everybody is dancing, and laughing, and we realise that right here, right now, we are participating in the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

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