IS JOY TOO MUCH TO ASK?
Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to [warn] the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
(I Thessalonians 5:13b-24, NRSV)
When I was growing up in Tennessee, one of the first songs I learned in church was “I’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart…” I sang it so many times, I can still sing all the verses by heart. I haven’t sung that one in a while, but I have sung one of my favorite hymns to this day which is “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” to the tune of “Ode to Joy” from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Colleen and I love the hymn so much that we included it in our wedding back in 1990.
Joy is a common church teaching. So if we’re not feeling joyful, are we doing it all wrong? My first instinct is to answer that joy is a lot to expect in a world where bad things happen. In a world where my friend was treated unfairly. In a world where my parents get sick. In a world where my children can make bad decisions. And these are just the personal struggles I face before listening to the morning news. I’m sure it’s the same with you.
In a world overflowing with strife and conflict, hungry and homeless people, out of control fires and viruses, is joy too much to expect, too much to even hope for?
Today’s scripture lesson, written by the Apostle Paul, says it’s not. He writes, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I don’t want to be a kill-joy, but sometimes Paul seems over the top. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all things. It sounds so Pollyanna.
When life is going our way it is easy to rejoice. When life turns on us, that’s another matter altogether. Today’s text from Thessalonians is one of Paul’s early letters. What did he really know about suffering at that point? How many times had he been thrown in jail or beaten for preaching about Jesus? Not so many times, so his attitude isn’t strange. However, the kicker is that Paul was saying the same thing years later when he was being held for a likely execution.
Some way, somehow Paul wrote from a Roman jail saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I admit I find Paul’s constant call to rejoice annoying, because it seems unattainable. How could anyone do such a thing? And yet, by the time he wrote to the Philippians he had endured numerous beatings, had been stoned by angry crowds, had been shipwrecked and left for dead more than once…and he still rejoiced.
Two universally loved and respected spiritual leaders, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Tibet, weigh in on the subject, saying that joy is our birthright. Our birthright.
Around the time of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, the two leaders met for several days to discuss the topic of joy. They were joined by Douglas Abrams, a close friend of Desmond Tutu who has co-written books with the Archbishop. Abrams shepherded the idea from the very beginning all the way through to the publication of The Book of Joy in 2016. The Book of Joy not only includes discussions between the two leaders, but also describes their loving, sometimes playful, interactions with one another. It also contains wonderful pictures. My favorite is on the back cover where the two Nobel Peace Laureates are dancing together. Their joy is all the more remarkable, given the difficulties they have faced.
The current (14th) Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to a poor farming family in northeastern Tibet. When he was 2-years-old, he was recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1951, China took control of Tibet’s autonomous region. The Tibetans fought back most notably during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, where some 87,000 Tibetans were killed. With his life in danger, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he still considers himself a refugee. He has been living in exile for over 60 years.[i] In that time he has traveled the world promoting kindness and compassion, interfaith understanding, respect for the environment, and, above all, non-violence and world peace. The spiritual leader of the Tibetan People and of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, describes himself as a simple Buddhist monk, just one person in a world of 8 million (The Book of Joy).
Born in 1931, Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Southern Africa, is well known for his work against apartheid and for human rights. He has been a prominent leader in the crusade for justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa. In 1994, Tutu was appointed chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Nelson Mandela, where he pioneered a new way for countries to move forward after experiencing civil conflict and oppression. He cares deeply about the needs of people around the world. Throughout his life he has taught love and compassion for all (The Book of Joy).
Dr. Constance Scharff, a mental health expert, summarizes the book’s approach when she writes….What is joy? Joy is not…that sappy, sweet feeling that comes from surprise parties or an unexpected compliment. Rather, it is the steadfast inner calm that allows a person to maintain their equilibrium through [almost] anything. “Joy subsumes happiness,” the authors tell us. Joy, in its greatest sense, is the investigation and experience of those things that make life “satisfying.”
Scharf continues, “How can we live joyfully? One way is by living with humility. A theme throughout the book is that neither the Dalai Lama nor Archbishop Tutu sees himself as a standout individual. They are men who lead simple lives largely devoted to prayer and meditation. Although each wields immense influence, they are men who recognize their humanity and the humanity of all others. When we live our lives with true humility, without trying to out-do the Joneses, we are one step closer to living joyfully. Of course, death, illness, and the unfair experiences of life take up a great deal of space in the book. These are issues we will all suffer in one way or another, and these are problems that can be faced with integrity and grace.
Scharf emphasizes that The same is true for gratitude. Tutu has [had a third recurrence of] cancer, a disease that will sooner rather than later end his life. Yet he does not despair. What he expresses instead is incredible gratitude for the life he has been able to lead and the days he has now with his beloved family and closest friends. He chooses to look back on a life well lived. There are regrets, but he does not dwell on them. It seems a challenge to follow in his footsteps, but Tutu’s joy comes from the choices he makes about the thoughts he chooses to dwell on and those he pushes away. Joy is about perspective.[ii]
Another helpful perspective can be found in Jack Gilbert’s poem entitled, “A Brief For The Defense.” It reads in part:
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well.
We must risk delight...
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world…
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
I appreciate the honesty of Gilbert’s poem. He had traveled around the world and seen the struggle of the poor and hungry. He does not deny these things, and yet he still calls us to gladness. Not the easy gladness of one who goes through life wearing blinders, but a gladness and delight rooted in God’s presence. Near the beginning of the poem he says that “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.”
Does God want joy for us? Of course. We should not feel guilty about the joy we find in life. Instead we should feel guilty if we fail to recognize the reds, oranges, and yellows of the sunset, if we fail to hear the sparrow’s song, if we fail to make a friend and be a friend.
I love the line that says, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” It is not a call to seek gladness in spite of the ruthless furnace of this world. No, it is a call to gladness right smack in the middle of the world’s furnace.
I think Paul means the same thing when he calls his readers to rejoice in good times and bad times too. To rejoice in times of suffering, or at the least to avoid despair, we must remember who we are and whose we are. We are human beings created in God’s image and God will never forsake us. We belong to God when we’ve made mistakes. We belong to God when we’re sick. We belong to God when people are unfair. We belong to God when we’re fearful or distraught. Of course bad things happen, but as Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” May we abide in that stubborn gladness in the face of it all. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
February 9, 2020
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, you call us to love and serve you with body, mind, and spirit through loving your creation and our sisters and brothers. Open our hearts in compassion and challenge us to meet the needs of your world. Fill us with grace and restore us, that we may walk in your way, seeking justice and doing what is right.
Through Christ our Brother and Friend. AMEN.
(This prayer was adapted from http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt. edu/prayers.php?id=272.)