Chesterton and Joy

Chesterton and Joy
Pentecost 19A
Rev. Doug Floyd

(Here are a Chesterton resources at this link.)

G. K. Chesterton has a collection of odd stories, one of which is about a man who lives on a gray farm. One morning he wakes up and he tells his wife and children sitting around the table, “Ma’am, thank you for your hospitality, but I’ve been here long enough. I must be heading home.” She protests, “What are you saying? What do you mean?” He says, “I’m sorry ma’am I’ve stayed here way too long. I must return home.” He proceeds to put on his coat, puts on his hat, he walks out the door.

He crosses the farm. Then he walks through the woods. Then he crosses through the next town. He keeps walking. Eventually, he ends up at a port, and he gets on a boat. He takes the boat across the ocean. He ends up halfway around the world. He walks from town to town, eating different foods, meeting different people from town to town to town. A year passes. Finally, one day he sees the old familiar forest, crosses the forest, and there’s the gray farm. He crosses the farm, enters the door, and says, “I’m home. After all these years I’m home.”

That’s the story. He’s talking about something in the mystery of rediscovering home, the joy of rediscovering the very place in which I stand. When I read today’s passage in Philippians and I saw that Paul was speaking of joy and rejoicing, I thought of G. K. Chesterton, for there is no man that taught me more about the joy of the Lord than the odd strange writing of G. K. Chesterton.

When I hear the word “joy,” I think of how Chesterton’s ebullience rippled a joy-filled faith into the lives of C.S. Lewis, Eugen Rosenstock Huessy, TS Eliot, Frederick Buechner, Dorothy Sayers, and Philip Yancey to name a few. During this autumn season, I’ve been intentionally trying to remember stories of the people of God from across the ages. This morning as I consider, Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice in the Lord,” I’ll also consider the joy that exudes from the poetry and prose of Chesterton.

The letter to the Philippians overflows with joy. Paul actually commands us to rejoice. In the opening words of the letter, Paul talks about remembering the community in Philippi and experiencing joy as he prays for them. As we continue reading, we discover that he is writing this letter from prison. This epistle of joy is mostly likely penned while Paul is waiting to hear whether he will live or die at the hands of Rome. Several times in the letter, he will indicate being torn between this life and the next. In the midst of this potentially disheartening situation, Paul exclaims his own joy while calling his friends who suffer in Philippi to also enter this joy.

His joy is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and particularly in the proclamation of that gospel. Situation does not dictate his emotional state. Relationship does. His joy grows out of the love he knows in Christ Jesus and in the communion he shares with fellow believers.

In fact, he speaks of joy that he shares with Philippi even as they both share in suffering. He writes,

17 Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me. (Php 2:17–18)

Epaphroditus risked his life in coming from Philippi to see Paul. He serves as a physical, personal link between Paul and the community. He is cause for joy in Paul and among the Philippians, and it is interesting to me that right after Paul talks about the sacrifice of Epaphroditus, he exhorts the people in Philippi to lay down their lives for one another, following the model of Jesus Christ. This incarnate expression of love revealed in Jesus Christ, becomes the model for all Christian community, and I might suggest that resurrection joy is the experience of God’s people who live into the reality of this love.

In this context, Paul calls upon the people of God to rejoice in the Lord always. We are reminded of the Lord’s absolute protection and provision for his people in need. He meets their inner needs of peace that surpasses understanding and their outer needs in hunger and suffering. As Paul concludes,

And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Php 4:19.

The people of God rest in the faithfulness of God, pour out their lives for one another on the basis of God’s faithful love, and rest in the peace of God in the midst of trying situations. This is a cause for joy in all seasons. In fact, joy becomes one of the key characteristics of God’s people who live and walk in the reality of His kingdom.

In the midst of these exhortations, Paul encourages us “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Php 4:8).

We are called to ponder, to reflect, to think about, to let our minds dwell upon those things edify and build up our faith, our trust in God’s absolute faithfulness. One man who has helped me to set my mind upon the goodness of God all around is Gilbert Keith Chesterton. His writing is brimming with delight in God’s creation.

Here is a man who looks at his boots and is overcome by the mystery of Being. He writes,

Once I looked at my bootlaces
Who gave me my bootlaces?
The bookmaker? Bah!
Who gave the bootmaker himself?
What did I ever do that I should be
given bootlaces?[1]

Another time, he sees a daisy with a ring of red and is overcome by the grace of this sight.

In scudding cloud on high steep meadows shed,
In blaze and thunder, in desire and fear
I learned a secret: hearken in your ears—
“Behold the daisy has a ring of red.”

Then waxed I like the wind because of this
And ran, like gospel and apocalypse
From door to door with new anarchic lips
Crying the very blasphemy of bliss.

I snap the spear and break the guarded gate
For death and I fear not the face of Kings
I left behind the wild swan’s failing wings
Whipped by a whirling love more wild than hate.

In the last wreck of Nature: dark and dread
Shall in eclipse’s hideous hieroglyph
One will form reel on the last rocking cliff
And shout “The daisy has a ring of red.”[2]

Born into a culture of agnosticism, Chesterton was blessed with parents who were devout Christians. Across the street from the church where he was baptized, sat a large Waterworks Tower. But he says,

I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.[3]

He exhibited a talent for art as a young man and was sent away to art school. There he encounter a culture of nihilism. Nothing meant anything. The only answer was pure hedonism or heroic suicide. Eventually, he experienced an inner crisis of darkness and contemplated ending his life rather than living in the dread of emptiness. In his darkest moment when all was stripped away, Chesterton made a fascinating discovery. He realized that he was both delighted and surprised by life.

Chesterton writes, “At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for the submerged sunrise of wonder, so that a man sitting in his chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive and be happy.”[4]

While art would always be in the background of Chesterton’s mind, he ended up spending his life as a writer. He wrote essays for a weekly column, but he also wrote literary criticism, poetry, plays, stories, economic theory, biographies, and apologetics. His most famous defense of faith is Orthodoxy. Almost twenty years later, he followed up with The Everlasting Man. CS Lewis read The Everlasting Man while still an atheist and would later write that an atheist should not read The Everlasting Man if he wants to remain an atheist.

As I revisited Chesterton this week, I realized that I would not be able to do justice to his reflections on joy this morning. I can only point to a few ideas that may help us as we consider Paul’s admonition to “think on these things.” Chesterton gives us many praiseworthy images to think upon.

The heart of Chesterton’s joy and wonder is the mystery of being alive: the mystery of contingency. We didn’t have to exist. The world didn’t have to exist. God was not required to create the world. God did not have to redeem us. But He did create us, and He did redeem us. Life is sheer gift.

Chesterton writes, “Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.”[5]

Every day I should awake with amazing that I have hands and feet and ears and a nose. When the pressures of life feel overwhelming, I might want pause, take a breath, and remember that I am alive and it is sheer grace. We might speak of this wonder as the discovery of being alive. The discovery of the sun, moon, and stars.

This wonder of creation is a step toward faith, toward hope, toward the mystery of being alive but this is not enough. What begins in wonder could end in idolatry. He writes,

A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty.[6]

We cannot worship creation. The world like his bootlaces is pointing me beyond myself to the creator. Chesterton begins his poem The Fish with a celebration of an odd sea creature:

Dark the sea was but I saw him,
One great head with goggle eyes,
Like a diabolic cherub
Flying in those fallen skies…

His delight in the sea creature becomes delight in God by the end of the poem:

For I saw a finny goblin
Hidden in the abyss untrod;
and I knew there can be laughter
on the secret face of God.

This little poem reminds me that Chesterton sees joy in the cross. He suggests that it is hidden and yet, it’s there. For as the writer of Hebrews explains,

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Heb 12:2.

John 17 tells us that Jesus in moving toward glory in the cross and Hebrews tells us of the joy beyond death in the resurrection of all things in Christ.

He also sees our limitations as a cause for celebration. Living and creating within our human limitations and the limitations imposed by God’s commands is the very place of our glory. He writes,

“God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits.”

Rather than thinking of the Ten Commandments as inhibiting us, he sees them as freeing us from the greater prisons we might impose on ourselves. For once we break the big commands, we begin creating lots of little laws to control our behaviors. He calls this the fairy-tale rule:

It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open someone else’s safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown.

We are giving this life and this world to live. We are given commands that teach us how to love and here is a key for Chesterton. Loving is what makes a thing lovable. Then he develops the idea of being adorable or lovable.

“The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.” A person is adorable because they are adored. “For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.”

For Chesterton, this life of joy begins in the simple wonder of being alive, but it ends in loving God and loving neighbor. Along the way, he will write poems and essays about the joy of inconveniences, the joy of a fireplace, the joy of discovering and rediscovering home and much more. I brought a couple essays this morning for those who might enjoy reading his celebration of running after one’s hat or his celebration of the universal stick. I will also post a few more delights online.

I would hope that his exuberance might provoke us afresh to live into the reality of Paul’s exhortation to joy in the Lord. Maybe this week, we ourselves might follow Chesterton on a scavenger hunt, looking for the clues to God’s joyful love that are all around us.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, GK Chesterton Collected Works, Volume X, Collected Poetry Volume 1, Ignatius Press: 1994, p. 197.
[2] ibid, pp.215-216.
[3] G. K. Chesterton. Autobiography by G. K. Chesterton (Illustrated) (Delphi Parts Edition (G. K. Chesterton)) (Kindle Locations 112-116). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.
[4]  G.K. Chesterton. “The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton.” Sheed & Ward: New York, 1936, pp. 90-91.
[5] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 82–83.
[6]  Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 139–140.

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