This year in the Christian liturgical calendar December 11th marks the third Sunday of Advent when the candle of “joy” is lit. In these anxious times, how might we make a place for joy in our lives?
Sometimes a sermon idea comes to me months in advance, often triggered by something I read or heard, and I quickly scribble down a few notes to remind me about the topic for a later date. At other times, there are watershed moments that I cannot ignore, and a sermon topic is thrust upon me – a terrible human tragedy, for example, or the recent election, or an historic milestone like the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. But then there are times when the inspiration is more subtle, when an idea slowly wells up from the subconscious, emerging from thoughts my mind has been gnawing on in the background, sometimes without me even realizing it at first. My sermon today falls mostly into this last category, but I have to admit that my concerns about the election were clearly a catalyst, and those concerns are still very much in the front of my mind. I keep wondering, despite all that is going on, where can I make a place for joy?
It is hard to ignore the latest news about those who will be formulating policies that will impact our lives come January, or the predictable cascade of emails and Facebook responses that follow. Lots of folks are worried these days. Ministers are encouraged to cultivate a “non-anxious presence” for most of the work we do, to be calm and fully present for those whom we serve, but I believe there are times when the anxious presence of a minister becomes its own kind of witness. In uncertain times, when there is a need to fight for justice, and to defend the most vulnerable in society, to deny feelings of fear and anxiety would be insincere. It is hard to become what Rev. William Barber calls the “moral defibrillators of our time,” to shock the heart of America back into a healthy rhythm, unless you first acknowledge that America’s heart is in trouble.
Like many of you, I suspect, my uncertainty about America’s future has tempered the joy I typically feel during the holidays. Usually, the rituals and festivities around Christmas and the Winter Solstice make this one of my favorite times of the year, but I find I have to work a bit harder this year to celebrate. In the grand scheme of things, this year is not unique of course. All of us are likely to face a holiday season in our lives when we are forced to confront more anxiety or grief than we would prefer. Perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, being apart from family and friends, a broken relationship, or the loss of a job. Life can be very difficult, and rarely do our difficulties arise when it is convenient for us. Many churches hold so-called “Blue Christmas” services that are quieter and more contemplative, to acknowledge our need to process the sorrow we might be experiencing during this time when, all around us, there is an expectation of happiness and joy. Acknowledging the pain can be a way to begin the healing. It may help us begin to make a place for joy in our lives, but we may have to cross an ocean of despair before we can get to that place.
I think back to how I felt four years ago this week when we heard the shocking news from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, when, in an instant joy turned to despair. I did not know anyone personally who suffered a loss that day. I could only empathize with their pain and heartache, and join in their sorrow. I think about how somber that time was, and how I prayed that out of that tragedy our country might finally do something to reduce gun violence, and how hopeless I felt when we did nothing once again. I remember how I hoped that the families of the slain could find some comfort in their faith or from wherever it might come, and my visceral anger whenever I heard someone suggest it was simply “God’s will” or that there was no way we could have prevented the tragedy.
But, I also remember the outpouring of love and shared grief from around the world that so often follows these tragic events. Even in the darkest moments, when our faith in humanity is shattered, there is the possibility of finding a kind of spiritual joy. To find it, we must be attuned to recognizing the joy that is accessible in the daily living of our lives – a small gesture of compassion, the innocent words of a child, people reaching out and seeing the holy in one another. In this time when those of us who care deeply about environmental justice have particular cause for concern, it brings me joy to see the determined resilience of organizations and individuals who are heeding the call to action. It brings me joy to see the people coming together at Standing Rock in support of the Water Protectors, and their recent success, even if it turns out to be a temporary victory, and the fight continues. There is light in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
We simply must make a place for joy in our lives. It is important to our wellbeing. A recent study conducted at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow suggests that there are really only four fundamental human emotions, three of which are so-called negative emotions: fear, anger, and sadness. The only positive emotion is joy or happiness. Outnumbered three to one, these negative emotions can seem to overwhelm our capacity for joy and take up all of the oxygen in the room. As one author says, “There is no room for joy when we are full of anger, cynicism, or despair. There is no room for joy when we are worrying about the future or complaining about past events.” (Colantuono)
Others studies are confirming that our ability to experience joy is a combination of how our brains are hardwired, and how we condition ourselves to respond. They are finding that the three most important factors for our happiness are: “our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.” Psychology is reaffirming the spiritual wisdom that permeates all of our readings this morning – that joy comes from cultivating mindfulness of what is good, and acting from a place of compassion and service to others, realizing that ultimately, all we really need is love and a sense of connection to one another.
For my friend and mentor, Carl Scovel who is a Christian UU minister, finding “deep, abiding, uncompromised joy” comes from exploring the “purposeful goodness” that lies at the heart of creation, “to know it without reserve or hesitation,” in other words, to be mindful of the underlying goodness that pervades the world and invites us into a life of joy. What he calls the “Great Surmise” does not promise that life will be easy and free of suffering, but it reassures us that there is a wellspring of goodness from which we can draw strength and find joy when we risk being open to life. It echoes Archbishop Tutu’s idea that, “God … wants you to flourish … to be filled with joy and excitement … to find what is beautiful in God’s creation.” There is goodness and joy waiting for us in every moment of existence, but we must search for it with intention. Although both Scovel and Tutu share a Christian religious perspective, that perceives the goodness of God at the heart of creation, I think this idea of a purposeful goodness, that sustains the creativity of the universe, transcends conventional religious boundaries. It is part of a worldview that is consistent with the ability to reframe our situation more positively and maintain a deep sense of gratitude, two of the important factors in our ability to find joy.
Speaking from the tradition of “engaged” Buddhism, it is no surprise that the Dalai Lama emphasizes the role of being compassionate and acting in the world out of genuine love and kindness in our quest for joy. He says, “in order to become a happy person, we need to live more from the compassionate part of our nature and to have a sense of responsibility toward others and the world we live in.” It is an eloquent restatement of the third important factor in finding joy: choosing to be kind and generous. And though he did not specifically mention it, it would be hard to imagine “living more from the compassionate part of our nature” without cultivating gratitude.
Mindfulness and service go hand in hand. It is no wonder that about half of the items on the list of “ideas for anxious times” I read in our opening words are acts of service to others, or that the other half pointed inward to greater self-awareness and self-nurture: act as you wish the world to become / believe, defend those who are in danger / experience nature, organize for change / name the good, and so on. We need both mindfulness and service to find that deep, abiding joy.
But, even as we strive to make a greater place for joy in our lives, you cannot be human without experiencing a lifetime of negative emotions. Learning to forgive ourselves for having these emotions takes time, especially the darkest feelings that well up from the depths of our fears and anger. We feel ashamed and even betrayed by such emotions. Even the Dalai Lama, the living embodiment of compassion and serenity, admits that he gets frustrated and angry at times. As Desmond Tutu says, “we shouldn’t think we are superwomen and supermen. To hold down emotions … is not wise.” Sometimes the road to joy even begins with sadness. Sadness can lead to empathy, and this can grow into compassion and the recognition that we need one another. Such a realization can be a tremendous source of joy.
Then there are times when this journey can seem impossible. The good news is that there are spiritual practices we can learn to help us handle the negative emotions better. There are ways to build up a kind of “immunity” in your emotional self that makes it easier to handle the negative feelings when they arise, and create more space for joy.
I am admittedly a relative novice when it comes to such spiritual practices, and the Dalai Lama will tell you it is a lifetime effort, but I have found that even a simple practice like beginning each day with a prayer of gratitude can make a big difference. I tend to agree with the German mystic Meister Eckhart, who said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
I like to give thanks for the day and the gift of life, for the love of family and friends, the companionship of plants and animals, and the gift of self-awareness in this amazing, unfolding journey of the universe. I then turn to general thoughts and concerns, or perhaps a more specific situation, or a concern for someone I know personally. As often as I can, I pray outdoors, and I try to notice the sounds and smells of nature and the changing seasons. It seems more sacred in some way. I am reminded of a Hasidic story about a young girl who would only pray in the woods among the trees and animals. Her father asked, “Why do you only pray out in the forest, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere? “ She replied, “Yes, I know God is the same everywhere, but I am not. “
If you want to find practices to bring more joy into your life, there are lots of resources available, including The Book of Joy, which I highly recommend. But don’t forget about the small things you are already doing. Maybe you can just do them more often, or with greater intention. Remember that joy is one of the fundamental emotions we are built to experience. There is no magic spiritual formula necessary for us to recognize a moment of joy in the birth of a child or the kindness of a stranger.
Our faith calls us to be open to the fullness of life and trust that there is goodness and worth in every human being. We celebrate the interdependent web of all existence, the deep connections we share with all of life. We may weep for the great suffering in the world, and we should, but let us also make a place for joy, no matter how troubling the times. Let us act out of love and compassion to make this a better world – a more joyful world.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (New York,: Avery, 2016).
- Rev. Carl Scovel, “Beyond Spirituality,” the 1994 UUMA Berry Street Essay
- Susan L. Colantuono, “Make Room for Joy,” Soulful Living web site,
- “What Can I Do? An Alphabet of Ideas for Anxious Times” by Rev. Martha Peck (UCC):
Act as you wish the world to become
Defend those who are in danger
Give of yourself
Hope, then help it happen
Join with others
Know your strengths
Listen, Learn, Love
Name the good
Organize for change
Quiet your mind
Use less of the earth’s resources
Voice your vision
X Cross out cruelty
Yield your privilege
ZZZ… Sleep well, because God is awake.
- An excerpt from the 1994 Berry Street Essay by Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus at the historic King’s Chapel in Boston.
“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return. And this is the supreme reality of our lives.
This goodness is ultimate—not fate nor freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. And with everything else we know in life, the strategies and schedules, the technology and tasks, with all we must know of freedom, fate and finitude, of energy and order and mystery, we must know this, first of all, the love from which we were born, which bears us now, and which will receive us at the end.
Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness, to know it without reserve or hesitation. ‘Too much of a good thing,’ said Mae West ‘is wonderful.’ Sound doctrine.
Do you see how the Great Surmise stands all our logic and morality on its ear? Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict—not even survival—is the aim of life, but joy. Deep abiding, uncompromised joy.”
- Closing thoughts from The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama
“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing. And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this – hey, presto – you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
“You see, in order to become a happy person, we need to live more from the compassionate part of our nature and to have a sense of responsibility toward others and the world we live in. In this century if we make an attempt with realistic effort and clear vision, perhaps in the later part of the century, we can really have a happier world. A more peaceful world. A kinder and more compassionate world.
… from various quarters, with a common effort, and a vision that thinks about humanity, we can achieve unity and harmony with a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, with the oneness of
humanity. And all these small problems here and there, I think, ultimately, we will solve, but we must also address the bigger problems. When the larger systematic problems are addressed, then the smaller problems will also be solved quite easily. So all of us, spiritual brothers and sisters, have a special role to make clear the ultimate source of a meaningful life is within ourselves. If you live in this way, until your last breath comes you will be a happy, happy person. That is the goal of human life – to live with joy and purpose.”