Can There Be Joy?

by Sandy Johnson

"We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us."

II Corinthians 4:7

I am a woman who was raised in a Covenant church and educated in a Covenant college. I feel a warmness toward pietism. I spent my early years singing the pietist and devotional hymns, listening to the church elders' testimonies and prayers, and trying to imitate what sounded the best to me.

My favorite prayer line, I remember, was: "Lord, help us to walk more by faith and less by sight." I think I even convinced myself that I had thought it up. My favorite scripture verse to quote for Sunday evening service was Hebrews 4:12: "For the word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two edged spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." It was my favorite because it was longer than any the adults could quote.

My mother's parents were Swedish immigrants. My grandfather, August Pederson, worked in the granite quarries in Quincy, Massachusetts, where there was a large enough enclave of Swedish immigrants to form the Quincy Swedish Covenant Congregational Church. When I was still quite young my grandfather died of stonecutter's lung disease. My grandmother had preceded him in death. I remember crying a lot at his funeral, especially when the soloist from church sang "Beyond the Sunset" and I pictured going to see him and my grandmother must be. Death was something I didn't understand except that everybody cried a lot.

I was proud of the fact that I could sing along in Swedish on some of the old Swedish hymns. Even though I didn't understand any of it, there was a feeling there for me that was special.

From an early age I remember wanting to participate in the life of the church. Someone asked me in my early teen years what I wanted to do when I grew up. I answered, "I want to marry a minister." The inquirer's response was a hearty chuckle and a further question about what if I didn't fall in love with a minister? I replied that I was certain I would!

Perhaps, had I been born a generation or so later, my answer to that person's question might have been, " I want to be a minister." There have been times when I have looked back on that part of my life disparagingly, putting myself down for my naivete and considering myself a victim who was taught to be the passive vessel. I was discounting myself as a vessel that was only clay, not good enough for any treasure, and certainly not a vessel with any power to act.

Many times I sang, "Have Thine own way, Lord, have Thine own way; Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will,while I am waiting yielded and still." The problem here for me has been the emphasis on being passive waiting, yielded and still. Certainly, not everyone hears the same message in that hymn, but for me it was, and still is, a negative and static image.

There are some other hymns I can recall that fostered that same image, but this one in particular has been on my mind as I've been thinking about the text, II Corinthians 4:7-"We have this treasure in earthen vessels...." I ask myself: What is my treasure, if this is so? About eight years ago I decided to go to seminary and chose an ecumenical place-United Theological Seminary, just down the street from here. I began to get a sense of this treasure at United, since it was easier for me to see what was distinct about myself in the midst of many different traditions. I also discovered that these other traditions had their treasures — that God has provided many treasures in many different earthen vessels.

I have come to see that it is important to own my own history, to choose it, but not in a way that excludes others. It is my heritage, my treasure, and I would like to even suggest that this pietism we are talking about this weekend ~ the treasure in the earthen vessel of the Covenant.

I think of some of the old Swedish hymns. We have listened to and sung many of them at this meeting. They talk about sorrow and joy , pleasure and pain. Lina Sandell, Nils Frykman, A.L. Skoog and others have given us something to dance to that tells the truth about the humanness of life. These are part of the treasure, our heritage, that we bring to the rest of the world.

What I once wanted to discount in myself, I now see as a treasure to share. Yes, life can be difficult and serious, but it doesn't have to be sour.

I don't know if Emily Dickinson would have considered herself a pietist, but I can certainly identify with her capacity for feeling when she says:

I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it, -
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip-drunken.

Can I stand the joy? Can I share it? Can we?

Sandy Johnson, copy-editor emeritus of Pietisten, earned her PhD in Organization and Development at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis where she attends Bethlehem Covenant Church.

See all articles by Sandy Johnson