Ode to Joy
Did you know the hymnal has three hymns that one sings to the well-known Hymn to Joy tune? Maybe that’s because joy is a many varied thing. Come to worship and let’s sing all three hymns and explore joy’s many dimensions.
“Ode to Joy and Then Some”
A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester on June 4, 2017
by Rev. Tricia Brennan
Last year I hiked Mount Washington with my good friend Phyllis. We learned something about each other as we hiked along. Every time I said something like “we’re so lucky to have such nice weather today”, or “Jeez, we’re making good time”, or anything optimistic, she’s go “Psst!” She explained to me this was a Jewish custom of sorts to ward against retribution from god for being so bold as to claim all is well. This led to all sorts of interesting conversation about the nature of God, optimism, pessimism, testing fate and the imprint of our families of origin. The contrast between us became both pronounced and humorous, and we kind of got into our roles- I, the foolishly cheerful one, she the guardian against doom and gloom. It made for good laughs, good conversation, good stories- the sort of stuff that keeps you moving up a big mountain.
And thus my notion of myself as one who is cheerful and optimistic was reinforced. Until this week, when I began to ponder joy and remember something else.
My daughter Nora, now 21 years old, is doing well these days. She has been living in Tuscon, Arizona, spending a college semester in a program called Border Studies- learning about immigration in academic and experiential ways. She loves the southwest, made new friends, loves the food, had a great family that she lived with, is healthy and happy. Basically, it’s been every parent’s dream- your kid is going doing great.
Why do I tell this? It’s because when people have asked me lately- how’s Nora? I say- she’s great. She not just happy, she’s ecstatic! And then I say -“ but it won’t last”. Every time someone asked me how my kid is, I thrill to tell them how happy she is, and then inevitably I feel compelled to say- “but it won’t last.” It’s kind of like my own version of “Psst!”
I noticed I was doing that, and it made wonder why. Why I couldn’t leave it- my kid’s doing great.
Of course, it won’t last. I know that, she probably knows that, all human being grasp the impermanence of life. The sun shines one day, and the next day its rains, it rains and then the sun comes out, babies are born, people die, nothing stays the same, unchanged. So sure, it won’t last, this period of joy for my daughter, sure.
But why wasn’t I able to simply say- my kid is doing great?
There’s something in me, and something in my friend Phyllis, and maybe something in many of us, that causes us to hold back joy.
And here’s what Brene Brown, the contemporary sociologist that I seem to quote fairly often has to say about joy.
She says of all the emotions it is the one we fear the most. We fear it because right alongside joy is our vulnerability. We do know in our heads that joy won’t last, we know that that which makes us joyful- which is often people we love deeply- can be lost to us, sometimes in a flash of an instant.
So according to Brown what we often do is either play it safe- don’t allow ourselves to really feel joy or love or excitement because then if something doesn’t work out we won’t be devastated, or if something does, we’ll be pleasantly surprised. We stay in sort of a neutral zone, a not too risky place. Or we experience joy deeply- and right on its heels we think “something bad is going to happen”. Everything’s going well right now, like my job, like my spouse, the Red Sox are winning, but let’s not get too excited cause something’s bound to happen to change all that. We move out of the joy of the moment and into a sense of foreboding. We dress-rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch, say Brown.
She has a suggestion about all that mental maneuvering we do to ward against loss. It’s what we did in the Time for All Ages. It’s to lean into gratitude when we are happy or joyful- go there, rather than into foreboding. Stop and say, I am so grateful for what is good right now, so grateful for the joy I feel this moment. The more we do that, the more we practice that, the greater our capacity to be at peace with our vulnerability, to be at ease with the unpredictable nature of our life.
Now Brene Brown is social work researcher who dwells in feelings. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, writer and editor who certainly respects feelings, and whose central focus is faith. He is also a very funny fellow. One of his books is called “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of Spiritual Life.” He says that when to comes to humor and laughter, both the secular and spiritual understandings of these things are similar. “When it comes to joy, however, the secular mind sees it as, more or less, an intense form of happiness or delight. The religious or spiritual mind sees it as intimately connected with belief in God, grounded in faith even in tough times, and nourished by the relationship with the divine.” Joy then, is happiness in God.
I agree with Jim Martin, though not completely. I certainly know how joy that arises from my relationship with the divine lifts me from the smallness of things, i into a wider, deeper understanding of life. That taste of joy, which I aspire to have take up permanent residence in my heart- helps me be more forgiving, less anxious, freer.
Yet perhaps because I am preaching to a congregation that is filled with people who believe in god, who don’t believe in god, who call themselves spiritual, who call themselves secular, who sometimes mix it up and change places any day of the week, I want to hold the place for transforming joy without a belief in God. The sort of joy that does sustain through hard times.
I do think, though, that for joy to be something more than an intense experience of happiness or delight, (the secular definition), it does require faith in something. It may not be something divine, but it is something good that we place our trust in. That could be the capacity for human beings to love unselfishly- and we cast our minds wide to remember all those who do. It could be a faith in the gloriousness of music- and what singing does for us- what singing three versions of a hymn to joy, sung with gusto, can open us to. It could be our faith in our love for our beloved, or for our planet, our faith in a strong deep love. It could be a belief in basic ethical practices- day in and day out- to the best of a person’s ability- that that will, in fact, make us better people and know joy in that.
I’ve shared what Brene Brown says about joy, and what James Martin says. Let me tell you three things I say about joy.
Joy is a gift. It comes to us unbidden at times, surprising us in ordinary quiet moments more often than the big stupendous times. It is something we don’t earn. It is a grace we receive for being simply being alive. Like any gift it is best received with a grateful heart.
Joy is our birthright. This follows from the first. To be human is to know joy, and I think we should claim it, unapologetically, as something that is ours to have and enjoy. It is an experience, perhaps even a way of living, that in claiming it makes us better people. Joy doesn’t deny sorrow or loss, it exists alongside it and opens our hearts so we can bear all that life is. It opens our hearts so we want to know what others are feeling too. A joyful person cares for others, wants others to be joyful, happy, free from pain. For those for whom “god” is a reality, God is the original Joy. God wants God’s creation- field and forest, vale and mountain, blossoming meadow, flashing sea- and all of us, victors in the midst of strife- to rejoice.
Joy is a decision. Like any gift, we can say no. No, I’d rather not go there, rather not open myself up to great joy because then I might know great loss. But we are mistaken if we think that playing it safe means we actually are protecting ourselves from loss. For there is no way to guarantee we won’t know loss and pain in this lifetime. I for one would rather have a raft of joyful memories stored in my heart, mind and bones when sorrow comes. They’ll be there to remind me of what I’ve known, and give me strength.
Joyful living is full-on engagement with life, and that is a brave thing to do. We cannot ensure good fortune in our lives, and we may be no stranger to depression or pain. If joy is not what you are feeling right now, that doesn’t mean you have said “no” to joy. In fact, being open to all “the feels” is one pathway to joy, I think. Deciding to live with joy sometimes means saying I will welcome joy when it comes into my life. I will wait for it, and trust it will come. And when it comes, I will say “yes, hello, welcome.”
You remember that reading I read a bit ago, the one about the little girl in her fabulous outfit? Well there’s actually another paragraph that follows what I read. It goes like this:
A woman (or man) dies and goes to heaven. There St. Peter takes her around and gives her a tour. She sees all sorts of faith traditions, temples, groves, you name it – Buddhist, Hindus, Christians - every tradition under the sun. Seeing her amazement, St. Peter says, “Oh yes, God loves everyone - so everyone is here.” She spots a group of people sitting in a circle drinking coffee and arguing with one another. She asks, “Who are those people over there?” “Oh those?” St. Peter replies. Those are the Unitarian Universalists.” “What are they doing,” she asks. “Ah,” St. Peter replies, “They're still trying to decide if they are here or not.”
To poke fun at oneself, to laugh at oneself, is a good thing. Not taking ourselves too seriously is a great antidote to arrogance. There are a lot of UU jokes and many get us to laugh at our seriousness. I don’t think Victoria Safford was suggesting that UUs argue the existence of heaven, or hell, for that matter. I think she is poking us for our tendency to argue away the heaven, the joy, we might have right now. Perhaps we are more susceptible than most to this affliction, I’m not sure. But let’s not do that. At least in our own lives, at least in this hilltop church, let us be people of joy. When new folks walk in the door, let’s show them we are glad they are here, and just as much, let us show them how glad we are here.
© Tricia Brennan, 2017