Toorak Uniting Church

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Joy in this World’s Fierce Furnace

Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 – 30
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 4
6 July 2014

We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world
(Jack Gilbert from his Poem A Brief for the Defense.)


I was pulled up this week by some words that I read in Roger Housden’s book with the provocative title Keeping the Faith without Religion. He wrote, "Joy is what we are here for, if only we can be trusting enough to give it the room it deserves…" The words surprise me because I doubt that I have ever really thought that my place here in this world was to have joy or to be joyful. I’ve been told that I am here to serve God, or to love my neighbour. Also that I must do justice, show mercy and love kindness; but that my purpose in life, my raison d’etre, my reason for being, was to be joyous, came as a new thought.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to some of our ancient writings. "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice," writes St Paul. And later in his letter to the church at Galatia, Paul reiterates that what is most important in your life is the presence of "the Spirit of love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and joy." Or the psalmist wisely states: "Sorrow may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning."

The Persian writer Rumi makes an important connection between sorrow and joy when he writes:

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.

Sorrow and Joy

Perhaps it is this later connection between sorrow and joy that keeps us from the truth that Roger Housden, whom I quoted earlier, suggests and that is that we are here for joy. We are created for joy, but sadness and sorrow, pain and despair both rob us and prepare us for this "natural" state of being. First, I think that we don’t believe that we should be joyful in a world where there is such suffering. And secondly, I suspect we don’t really believe we deserve to be joyful in our own lives.

Now I have to be careful here, because I may be projecting my own experience of life on to others. I can be a rather miserable person at times. And I am sure that many could name moments and experiences of joy – certainly I can recall events in my life that I would call joyful. But I want to challenge us today to reflect on whether or not we accept the truth that we are all made for joy and to be joyful.

An author who will remain anonymous once wrote: "God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the joys that life could have brought you and that you denied yourself." Strangely, I suspect that we are more likely to feel guilty and judged for our moral failures, rather than for our failure to embrace those experiences and moments of joy.

The sage who penned the ancient Proverbs stated: "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." And this is the truth about living a full and wholehearted life. Joy is not about being happy all the time. Please God save us from those who seek to be eternally happy. Big smiles in the midst of disappointment; wide grins when distress comes knocking. No! there remain in the healthy, fully alive person times of deep sadness, moments of grief, nights of sorrow and, might I say, an ocean of tears. If we need to differentiate between happiness and joy then I suspect it is me who seeks happiness and it is joy that seeks me. Again to quote Roger Housden:

Joy, like love, doesn’t come on command. A wholehearted love is one without conditions…. Joy, like love, seizes us for its own, regardless of our life conditions, it fills us with an elation, a sense of life and meaning beyond and larger than our ordinary lives. Joy unites us to the full flood of life and to the deepest reaches of who we are.

There still remains the struggle within us as to how we can embrace joy in our lives when there is such pain and suffering within us, among our loved ones and in the fierce furnace of the world around us. The American poet Jack Gilbert gives us a hint here. In his best known poem A Brief for the Defense he wrestles with this very issue. He writes:

A Brief for the Defense
By Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.
If babies are not starving someplace,
they are starving somewhere else…

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.

The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, and resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not without delight. Not without enjoyment.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness
in the ruthless furnace of this world.

To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that our end had such magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

[We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.]

We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world….
To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

And that is true in our own lives as it is in the life of this world. To abandon ourselves to failure, unfairness, injustice, inhumanity is to give praise to the Devil! Better to open ourselves to the present moment in whatever form it comes. And, friends, I am not minimising the pain or the suffering many experience. However, if we are made for joy; if joy is our natural state, then the fierce furnace of this world will not have its way with us.

Instead, we still ourselves. We quieten our minds and hearts and we breathe in the joyous experience of being alive. We let go of the need to carry the weight of life’s anguish and sorrow. We listen to the words of Jesus:

"…come to me, all you who are weary from carrying such heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

We open the gates of our lives wide to allow joy to enter every pore of our being. We cannot make joy come to us, for if it comes into our lives it comes unbidden, but we can prepare ourselves for its arrival and then savour the wonder of life fully alive.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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