Owed To Joy
the Rev. Edmund Robinson
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
July 22, 2018
My friends, have you got the joy joy joy joy down in your hearts? What does it feel like? How can you keep it?
Nathaniel Hawthorne said “Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Some of you know the Rev. Bill Clark of our Marthas Vineyard church; I once heard Bill give a sermon on joy, and he opened with this story.
In the eighties and early nineties, Bill was engaged in an AIDS ministry in Provincetown, and as you might imagine there were some low moments, since a lot of people were dying of the epidemic at that time. On one particularly low moment, Bill had to get away and he went for a long walk on the beach in P-town. As he was walking, he was wondering to himself how he was going to have the strength to go on. At some point, Bill realized he wasn’t alone. There was a woman on the beach, and she was shouting something. As Bill moved closer to her, he could hear that she was shouting “Joy!” At first he thought she was just nuts, shouting “Joy!” into thin air, but then he realized that the fates were giving him the answer to his despair. He would counter these feelings of hopelessness by finding joy. So Bill began walking towards the woman, and he began shouting “Joy!” too. And just saying it brought this incredible feeling of elation. So here is Bill walking towards this woman shouting “Joy!” and she was moving towards him shouting “Joy!” He came close enough to speak, and was just about to tell her how her shouting had given him inspiration, had changed his whole outlook on life, when a big golden retriever came barreling out of the dunes, and the woman said “Joy, where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”
Now we laugh but this story is not just funny; it has many elements of insight. Like Bill in the story, our lives are clouded over for long periods and we forget all about joy. We are so overwhelmed with the problems in our lives that joy seems just irrelevant. So we need reminding that there is such a thing as joy in the world. Bill was reminded by hearing another woman shouting “joy” out on the dunes.
And the woman and Bill were in a sense in the same fix, because she couldn’t find joy either. But she was actively looking for joy. Sometimes you look for joy in all the wrong places, for hours, days or years on end.
And then when you have almost given up the search for joy, joy shows up on his own. Joy comes bounding out of the dunes, a bundle of energy proclaiming “here I am, I’m back.”
Some religion is joyless. Some religion is based on fear and self-loathing. Some religion will take your shortcomings and call them sins and say that they will count against you in some ultimate judgment as to whether you’re going to spend the afterlife floating around heaven with a harp, or sweating in hell with an accordion or banjo.
Calvinism is one such gloomy religion, which is why our spiritual forebears the Unitarians and the Universalists revolted against it. Both had the underlying message that God was love and love, and life, was to be enjoyed. Universalists, in particular, held that God created the world so as to “happify” human beings. Don’t you just love that word?
Now I have no idea whether UUs are happier than people who go to other churches. I have been to enough interfaith services to know that some Christian clergy in orthodox denominations spend a lot more service time on sin than we do. Perhaps this settles the conscience so that one is not beset by feelings of guilt.
Guilt, envy, alienation, shame, hatred, prejudice, grief, loneliness – there are a lot of negative emotions that all of us experience. That’s part of the business of being human. But joy is also part of that business.
We may think that joy is opposed to all the negatives of life, but a truer view would see that joy is a part of those negatives, is interwoven with it. William Blake wrote
“Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine
Underneath each grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.”
Joy and woe are tightly interlaced in the fabric of our lives.
In 2016, a remarkable book was written by two of the world’s foremost religious leaders, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Called The Book of Joy, it records a remarkable conversation between the venerable Buddhist and the venerable Anglican on how joy can coexist with all the suffering and all that is wrong in the world. It even gives practical suggestions for how we individuals can get more joy in our lives.
We don’t get joy by ignoring the bad stuff. We have to go through the bad stuff. That is why a religious quest for joy is not like a drug user’s chasing after a high. The user may enjoy the feeling of being high, but that high does not open him or her up to the rest of the world. Joy is not a narcotic.
What have been your moments of joy?
Jacqueline and I were talking about moments of joy in our lives, and she remembered one from last year. As her father was in hospice dying, his three children and grandson and in-laws gathered in his room to keep watch and to say good-bye. This was a moment suffused with grief, of course, but also with joy; the joy was that we were all together in Charlie’s last moments. There was a lot of love in that room.
Joy, in other words, doesn’t have to take center stage in your life. Joy can be experienced along with sorrow. Woven fine, Blake says.
The Dalai Lama had his country taken away from him by the Chinese in 1950, and has had to endure government in exile for the last 68 years. Yet he remains joyful. “Many people think of suffering as a problem. Actually it is an opportunity destiny has given you. In spite of difficulties and suffering, you can retain your composure.”
Of course, the Dalai Lama is a practitioner of meditation. Meditation is part of mindfulness, and there is evidence that mindfulness does make a difference in happiness which can be scientifically measured. Let me explain.
A neuroscientist named Richard Davidson, who is a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, has set out to study what in our brains makes for happiness.
There are two structures in the Prefrontal cortex of the brain called the left and right middle frontal gyruses (MFG). Let’s just call them the left area and the right area. When a subject has a high degree of electrical activity in the left area, they typically report feeling happy, enthusiastic, alert. They not only more regularly experienced these positive emotions, but they were better able to handle the negative ones. They were active participants in creating a happy life.
What seems to be a constant for an individual is the ratio of the right area activity to the left area.
“Davidson uses [this] ratio of left to right activity ... as a kind of brain signature for happiness. He found that this ratio tends to be fairly stable for any person. While life circumstances can change fairly dramatically, events affect [that] ratio only slightly, and it returns to baseline levels fairly quickly. Davidson's research appeared to show that people have a happiness set point, which seemed consistent with scientific findings that happiness is at least 50% genetically determined.”
A happiness set point for each individual. That is quite an idea, but it begs the question: what do you do if your set point is low?
So this neuroscience suggests that the joy we find in life is very bound up with how our brains process information and feelings, more than what actually happens to us. This may seem unremarkable here sitting in this Meeting House, but think about our entire economic system, fueled by advertising. Advertising is based on the premise that you can buy happiness, that if you just have the right car and wear the right clothes and use the right toothpaste, you can have joy eternal. It’s not true. It has never been true.
Mary Oliver has a poem called “Morning Poem,”
which is in our hymnbook and echoes this theme of naturally happy and naturally unhappy people.
Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange sticks of the sun the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
And fasten themselves to the high branches-and the ponds appear like black cloth on which are painted islands of summer lilies.
If it is your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft trails for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead- if it's all you can do to keep on trudging-
There is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted-
Each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning,
Whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
The poet poses two ways of being in the world, one has a happy nature and the other carries the thorn that is heavier than lead, and yet both personality types in her telling can praise the earth for being exactly what we wanted.
But what do you do if you are the personality type which carries that thorn? Have you no prospects for joy?
Professor Davidson wanted to know the answer to that question, for his scheme had given him two types of brain formation in the left and right area. So he asked his friend the Dalai Lama to help him recruit Buddhist monks who were experienced meditators to examine their brains and find out what was what. Each monk submitted to an MRI while meditating. What Davidson found was that the area ratios were far outside the range which had been found in the lay subjects earlier. That suggests that the ratio may be far more responsive to inner states than to outer circumstances. It also suggests that if you’re an Eeyore, a perpetual sad sack, there might be something you can do about it.
Actually, there are a bunch of things. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu lay out suggestions for spiritual practice to maximize the chances of experiencing joy. Their eight pillars of joy are: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. Of course, all of these factors are goals in themselves that any spiritual teacher might recommend, regardless of whether joy is the ultimate goal or not.
A few days ago, I had sent out a request for members of the congregation to send me your moments of joy or your reflections on it.
Nancy Chase reported this moment: “Happily I have had many but one was really special. My oldest son was awarded a special prize from Trinity College in Hartford, CT for earning 10 varsity letters. There had been only 16 athletic prizes of his type in the history of the college and it was unusual for the athlete to play three very different sports such as soccer, hockey and lacrosse rather than track all 3 seasons. My son often was having 2 different practices a day! He had worked hard for that award.”
Isn’t that great? 10 varsity letters! One of the greatest pleasures in life is to share the joy of the achievements of children and grandchildren. I want to encourage us to do more of that at Joys and Concerns in this service. Don’t hide the light of your offspring under a bushel! If they’ve done something fine, share it!
And then I got this reflection from Joan Konopka:
“Joy is like a ray of sunlight… it is always there …..no one turns it on and no one can turn it off…it lies behind every action, thought & deed. When it shines through it takes your breathe away and removes all doubt... It says YES.. there to reassure us that Life is indeed worthwhile.”
Just sit with that a moment. Doesn’t it just shine?
Does this inspire any of you to share something right now? [congregational input]
Let me tell you a little moment of joy that happened to me recently.
This past week was David Roth’s Full Moon Open Mike at the Brewster Ladies’ Library. As many of you know, David is an excellent singer and songwriter with a national reputation who lives in Orleans. David’s Open Mics are always worth coming out for, and this past Wednesday saw a particularly talented crop of performers, mostly poets reading their own work. One highlight was David’s own dog, a tiny Mexican hairless named Chulu, who sang. Yes, that’s right; David’s wife Tricia held Chulu in her arms up to the microphone and prompted her with a video of a prior performance on her smartphone, and the dog started singing what must have been a complicated aria because it went on for a few minutes.
Well five minutes later, they reached my name on the list, and I had several silly songs in mind, but in light of the moving poetry we had just heard, I decided to do the short but intense song which I’ve did here a couple of weeks ago in my service on forgiveness, the song about President Obama singing Amazing Grace after the shootings in Charleston. It’s a dramatic song; I sang it a capella, and you could have heard a pin drop. It felt like people were hardly breathing. The audience felt very connected to each other.
The song is about the President singing Amazing Grace, and one way to end it is to invite the audience to sing one chorus of that well-known hymn. Which I did, and they came on very strong and in rich harmony. It was a very moving moment – until three lines into the chorus, I head this OWOOOO. It was Chulu deciding to add her obligato. When everyone realized that Chulu had joined the chorus, the room erupted in hysterics.
What had been a solemn moment turned into a very funny one. Chulu gave us all a humorous gift.
I called this sermon Owed to Joy as an obvious play on Friedrich Schiller’s famous poem, which was picked up by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, and which we will sing in a few minutes. Yes it’s a cheap joke, but it’s more than that because I think we owe a lot to joy. Joy is what makes the suffering of this life worthwhile. We need to remind ourselves of that all the time.
The deliciousness of Chulu joining my song was that it was completely unexpected, and that’s the way joy works a lot of the time. You may pursue joy, you may look for joy all over, but joy will come in joy’s time.
You may be walking on the beach weighed down by your cares when all of a sudden joy comes crashing out of the dunes and bounces up to you and you say, “Joy, where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”
What shall I give to you , my friend,
To express my love and goodwill:
Shall it not be a part of myself?
Then let it be the very best part,
which is the secret of all my gladness.
The rarest treasure I possess
is the conviction that life is good:
that it had abundant compensation for every trouble that may come;
that it has possibilities beyond all you have ever dreamed; that among even
the very least are capacities beyond
the greatest yet expressed
within our ken; that great surges
of power and joy are eager to course
through us and reveal a life transcendent.
Tears of joy often fill my eyes, a wonderful feeling at my throat,
thrills that almost pain my bosom,
and my heart sings to the stars.
If I could make you feel that way
and hold it through all the years,
that would be my gift to you.
Waldo Pondray Warren 1922
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
(for Harry Clifton)
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.