Toorak Uniting Church

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Joy is for Everyone

Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Advent 3
15 December 2013

When you do things from your soul,
you feel a river moving in you, a joy."~Rumi

Some years ago I applied for a position that knew I was well qualified for. After the interview for the job I was talking with a good friend about how the interview went and the various questions they asked and the answers I gave. I recall saying to my friend, "Well it’s a good job and if they offer it to me I will take it." My friend listened and nodded his head in agreement and then he said, "There doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy in you as you talk about this position. Is it really just a good job that you want?

His words struck me. I suppose I wasn’t thinking that I should be joyful with this position. But something he said struck at the core of my life and my work. Yes, I did want to do something that gave me joy, but I really wasn’t sure what joy was, or more importantly how to discover it and cultivate it in my life.

Joy can be very elusive and hard to find and particularly difficult to hold on to. I think that we all know that there is a relationship between happiness and joy and that joy is something that is more substantive and perhaps even foundational to happiness. I used the quote from Rumi on the front of the Order of Service to illustrate this:

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. ~Rumi

Perhaps that’s the starting point for joy: that it is a soulful thing that can sustain us when we don’t feel that happy. It is as Rumi poetically suggests a river flowing through us and maybe even beyond our control. Joy comes where we surrender to that ever-flowing river. Or as the Irish poet John O’ Donohue writes:

I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

That seems to be the essence of the words of Mary read in the story this morning:

And Mary said, my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Most often, but not always, the announcement of the conception of a child is an experience of joy by the parents and those around. It can remind us of the great mystery of life and even its remarkable unpredictability. But this narrative places the birth into a cosmic context. The child will achieve greatness not in the traditional way of wealth, political power or fame, but as one who will show a mastery over his own life and will become an example for life fully lived within himself and toward others.

Perhaps that is the difference between happiness and joy or joyfulness:

J.D. Salinger, the author of the novel Catcher in the Rye, once said "The fact is…the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid."

Now believe me, I am a big fan of happiness. If I had a choice between being happy and sad I would take happiness anytime. But I know that that’s an illusion: it is what our consumerist culture tries to sell us. The deeper truth is that joy can be present even when I am sad. I know what the opposite of happiness is, it is unhappiness. But what is the opposite of joy, is it unjoy? It’s not sadness, or disappointment or even sorrow. These are all real experiences of life. I suspect it is more likely to be despondency or meaninglessness.

In this way joy is the sister of hope. Joy and hope sustain our spirits in the living of each day. And it is each day that is so important. I am a strong advocate for "everyday religion." For me that means that what we call the presence of God, or the sacred, the divine, the holy, is encountered and mediated through the living of one’s daily life. Everything is holy and related to this story of the pregnancy of Mary and the birth of Jesus. The ordinary becomes the receptacle of the extraordinary. The author Elizabeth Berg writes:

There are random moments - tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children's rooms - when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful joy for a life I feel privileged to lead.

And to put it into a grander theological landscape, the renowned priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God in everyday life."

So if joy can be a natural experience of daily life and if it is something richer and deeper than happiness, how do we cultivate it in our lives?

Well, let me start by quoting the 8th-century Hindu text the Vedanta, which suggests that there are only two indications that one is enlightened. The first is that you have the capacity to stop worrying. Things don't bother you as they once did. You can hold things more lightly and light-heartedly.

The second is that you encounter more and more meaningful coincidences in your life, more and more synchronicities. And this is the point where you experience joy and a sense of the miracle of life. (Adapted from Carol Lynn Pearson in Consider the Butterfly) (See also Deepak Chopra, Synchrodestiny: Harnessing the Infinite Power of Coincidence to Create Miracles)

That was what happened in the life of this young woman Mary. In a seemingly miraculous way things came together in her life, and even the shock of pregnancy was overshadowed by the joy of being a part of a great plan, a great mystery of life itself.

I suppose it has been said by preachers before me and it is a lesson I must learn every day and it is so simply put by the composer Richard Wagner, "Joy is not in things; it is in us." Joy is more a vibration that we tune into. Or to use the metaphor I used before: it is a river that we step into and are carried by its current. And yet our thoughts and thinking need to be in alignment with the source of life and love in the Universe; that river that flows; that tune we hear. We become more joyful by perceiving ourselves and our world when we are connected to that loving source.

I think the words of the Apostle Paul take us in this direction: Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice. Joy is not something we obtain; it is something that is revealed in us. The truth is that joy already exists within us and we seek ways to express it.

Finally, no matter where you are, joy is in fact all around you. But it can only be found by stilling the thoughts in our minds for a while and then noticing the present moment.

Joy, like all spiritual qualities, is now; peace is now; love is now; beauty is now; hope is now. All the qualities of spirit are located in the now. Start to notice within yourself, within those around you and in the world of which we are a part, that there is a fountain of joyfulness that can bring us life in all its fullness.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.