Toorak Uniting Church

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Can Life Overflow with Joy?

Psalm 30 and Mark 1: 40 – 45
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
12 February 2012

Dag Hammarskjöld was the secretary General of the United Nations when in 1961 his plane crashed in the Congo while he was on a peace mission for the UN. Hammarskjöld’s father had been the prime minister of Sweden and Hammarskjöld himself had been the minister for Foreign Affirms in the Swedish government in the 1940s. He also received the Nobel Peace prize. These are remarkable achievements and he was also named by John F Kennedy as the greatest statesman of the 20th Century.

But interestingly he is perhaps even better known for something else. After his death, an unpublished manuscript was found among his possessions. It was later published as a book with the title Markings. The manuscript and later the book showed the inner life of a very public man. These diary entries over 40 years of his life revealed a man who was influenced by Christian theology, the world of both contemplation and action and a deep love for the Christian mystic tradition. Not the usual rumination for an international administrator.

But this morning I what to focus on just one small quote that comes from that book, Markings. It has often been used because of its simplicity and its elegance. And because it is true to life and I think it contains the seeds of how we can live lives that are joyful. The quote is this: "For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!"

From Laments to Dancing
If we accept Hammarskjöld’s injunction that there is little in life that is more important than accepting what is, than perhaps we begin to build the base for a joyful life or at least a life with times of joy. Life comes to us as it is and our role is to respond to it in the affirmative…Yes! Of course that does not mean that we acquiesce to everything that happens. There must be a creative and intelligent response to what comes into our lives. But the Yes to Life is a commitment to live into the experiences that come our way and find in them the beauty and joy we all seek.

But life deals some very tough experiences. Things come into our lives that threaten to crush us. That may be the result of our own actions and behaviours or the actions for those around us. And while there is truth in the oft quoted aphorism by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that, "what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger," the pain of life’s experience can feel like the process of dying.

Perhaps the first part of living a life toward joy is to recognize that anguish and lament comes before dancing. The Palmist gives a very real picture of the struggles within the human condition. I think at times we bring a kind of "nice" Christian layer to the Psalms because they offend our sensibility. The desire in many Psalms for one’s enemies to be crushed and annihilated is difficult for us to integrate into our modern lives. But the Palmist is expressing true human emotions. Anger, the desire for revenge, retaliation and fear should never be disowned; because it is what we can feel in desperate situations.

Joy is not an escape from suffering. In fact, the great writers of Christian and religious traditions have expressed the remarkable insight that joy can be present even in the midst of great sorrow. It has been said that, "Sorrow enlarges the capacity of the heart for Joy." Like all great truths that must be handle with care. In the midst of pain, sorrow and suffering no one wants platitudes telling us to buck up and just get on with life. Before the dancing comes the lament; before the joy comes the sackcloth and ashes and before rejoicing in the morning comes the night of tears. (Psalm 30:6)

But the psalmist is also convinced that sorrow is for a season. It need not name us. What names us is joy, and hope. So what is Joy, or joyfulness? We know that it is more than happiness. Although in some traditions they are the same thing. I think joy is a "depthing" of life. The Bible abounds with references to joy and joyfulness.

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 15:11.

Paul’s word to the Philippians, "Rejoice and again I will say, Rejoice,"

So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:20-22.

He who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

Psalm 126.

And a myriad of other passages of scripture admonishing us to a joyful life and so often sorrow and joy are link together almost as if one cannot exist without the other. But what is also obvious is that sorrow is the sense of be disconnected for life, or from others, or God and joy is the experience of being connected to life, to others and to God. When I say I "feel" joyful, it is a combination of knowing that I am grateful and thankful and that I am connect to the source of life and that I can embrace the God of life and am embraced by the God of life.

That’s of course what the palmist saying in the Psalm read earlier. That joy comes when we are connected or in a relationship with the loving presence of God and that sorrow as real and as necessary as it is, is when the relationship is distant or strained.

You have turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

The Healing of the Diseased Man
I do think that Hammarskjöld has it right when he suggests that what is most important in life is gratitude, saying thank you, and living a life that says yes to life. The first, takes thoughtfulness, we have to be aware of life and our life. We have to be able to recognize that sorrow and suffering are mingled together with joy and happiness. And then we can begin to see the blessings that have come to us. But the second, saying yes, takes some courage we need to be adventurous and not close down the stream of life and grace that is flowing toward us. I’ve always loved the brief unfinished poem by the Irish poet John O’Donohue it contains the lines, "I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding." It is a frighting to say yes to life, to say yes to the river, when you don’t know what is around the next corner.

The story of the healing of the man with leprosy picks up this idea of both gratitude and affirmation of life. The diseased man approaches the healer Jesus with some trepidation. "Will you heal me?" he asks Jesus. Rather irritated Jesus responds "Yes of course!" It is obvious that this man was in a wretched condition. Was his wholeness, his potential healing, preconditioned on his ability to say yes to life? It is true that life had deal him an awful hand. Nevertheless, even in is diminished state there remained the capacity for him to say yes to life; to say yes to Jesus and be embrace not only by the life givingness of Jesus, but also to be re-embraced by his community.

Go and show yourself to the religious authorities and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing and that will certify that you are clean.

Strangely to us, Jesus forbids him from telling anyone about what had happened to him, which was like trying to hold back the tide or stopping the flowing river. The man was filled with….. JOY. He had been re-connected with everything that was good in his life. Perhaps he sung the words of the Psalmist:

You have turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

Unlike the one leper who returned to thank Jesus, this man just told everyone what had happened to him.

Can life overflow with joy?
I never like sermon titles with a question mark because everyone expects an answer; which I suppose is fair enough. Can life overflow with joy? So the simple answer is yes, but the complicated answer is that it isn’t that simple. And I think that this is why it is not so simple and so easy. It is because to truly experience a sense of joy in our lives, we must do something very difficult, and that is to embrace the sorrow of life.

The theologian Paul Tillich said this about joy and sorrow:

Sorrow is the feeling that we are deprived of our central fulfilment… We may be deprived of relatives and friends nearest to us, of a creative work and a supporting community which gave us a meaning of life, deprived of our home, of honour, of love, of bodily or mental health, of the unity of our person…. All this brings sorrow in manifold forms, the sorrow of sadness, the sorrow of loneliness, the sorrow of depression, the sorrow of self-accusation. But it is precisely this kind of situation in which Jesus tells his disciples that his joy shall be with them and that their joy shall be full. For, as Paul calls it, sorrow can be the "sorrow of the world" which ends in the death of final despair, or it can be Divine sorrow which leads to transformation and joy. For joy has something within itself which is beyond joy and sorrow. This something is called blessedness.

To be blessed. To live in such a way that joyfulness is our default position; but also importantly, living without trying to make sadness and sorrow disappear or to deny its real presence in our lives.

One of the people quoted in the book by Dag Hammarskjöld was the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart who said, "Suffering is the swiftest steed that brings us to wholeness." From my personality and being in the world, I don’t want to hear that. I back away from the idea that sorrow is a necessary part of life. But isn’t there a deep truth in that saying, even though we/I may NOT want it to be so? Isn’t it real life? Isn’t it what Tillich refers to as the blessed life?

Or as I have quoted once before:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is "thank you," it will be enough.

~Meister Eckhart

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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