"Joy In Mudville"
UUMH Chatham – December 5, 2021 – “Joy in Mudville” – Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham – December 5, 2021 – “Joy in Mudville” – Rev. Tracy Johnson
It arrived in July of 2017, wrapped in tissue paper inside a manilla envelope, angled into the mailbox with the rest of the delivery. The postmark was Scarborough and so I knew that it was from Joan. I tore open the wrapper and unfolded the crinkled tissue with great anticipation. Inside, to my absolute delight was “The Book of Joy” penned by Douglas Abrams, the words and thoughts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Joanie’s M-O is joy, abundant and free. I am forever inspired by her ability to put this spin on things – even the most difficult of things. It is not a candy-coating, but something that comes from a much deeper place, and I admire it greatly. This was an important book, she had said, and so she had apparently purchased several, sending them off with glee, I am sure – I can just see her putting her bundles together and turning them over to the postal worker with satisfied laughter – mailing them off to those she loved the most in her life!
These two powerful, self-effacing men had met on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday in 2015 at his home in India. Abrams brought the questions to prompt them, as if they would need that! Over the course of eight days the rich banter flowed between them. Both had suffered greatly in their long lives, the Dalai Lama in exile for over 50 years now and the archbishop serving in the midst of the violence and oppression of apartheid, and yet they each manage to maintain a spirit of joy. Together they explored the nature of joy, its obstacles, and a foundation of eight pillars to consider.
Some time in our journey here, yours and mine, I shared on the topic of joy, and I recall asking in advance for things that brought you joy. I recall, too, that I only received one response, although when put on the spot that Sunday morning, you managed to come through. I had thought perhaps there was no joy in Mudville, as the saying goes, but found out you were just shy about expressing it. Turns out this isn’t uncommon as was pointed out the other day by Brene Brown in an interview about her new book on emotions because true joy requires a fair amount of vulnerability and once you release it you need then to prepare to return to the mundane or worse and this is a risk many of us don’t want to take. We hold it tightly instead, never realizing the power of it in our lives and that of others once unleashed.
The poet David Whyte offers a two-sided definition of joy suggesting that we experience it as a response to the “intoxicating beauty of the world we inhabit.” It is a conversation with that which inspires its eruption into laughter or singing or the give and take of affection or presence. But it is also something intentional, he claims as we let go of whatever may hold us back and lean into its expression. There is a moment when we let down our guard and make space for joy. I hear him saying that on some level it is a choice. We must be open to it first.
Our joyful pair in India cite the work of Paul Ekman, an emotions researcher, who says that joy is associated with feelings ranging from sensual pleasure to quiet contentment to wonder or exultation or gratitude, even the unhealthy jubilation associated with someone else’s suffering. Buddhist scholar and scientist Matthieu Ricard adds rejoicing, delight, and spiritual radiance to the mix. For the Dalai Lama it seems to be rooted in the fact of suffering, in ancient teachings that say we needn’t be dejected about things we can change, and that those we can’t effect, we must accept rather than allowing them to control us. It is about a widened perspective that focuses less inwardly on one’s own suffering and instead looks outward toward others with compassion. There is always suffering. What we do with it appears to be the key. The archbishop believes that nothing beautiful comes without some amount of pain and frustration – even childbirth which is a wonderful metaphor. And he says that we do not become joyful without practice. Like becoming a good cook, you need to work at it to achieve the results you are after.
This idea of perspective is actually the first pillar of joy, along with humility, humor, acceptance, which we have covered in some degree, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Whyte, too, shares that joy needs to be practiced as much as it is often perceived in moments of grace. It is an act of ‘giving ourselves away’ without being asked, a practice of generosity. This is what I experience in Joanie’s presence – a vulnerability – a willingness to live life to the fullest possible expression – a practice that at once bestows joy on those around her and is reciprocated by those she touches whose own joy is enticed by her infectious outpouring.
I want to dive a little deeper into this idea of a practice this morning. We could talk about joy and what it is comprised of or share more of what initiates a feeling of joy in us, but I want to talk about the intentionality of a practice that uses joy in real time. If I am going to be honest here, this has been a tough week to bring forward the concept of joy! There is so much going on in our world that is not the least bit joy inspiring. In part I want to acknowledge this because it seems disrespectful to quickly move beyond the pain of another or to gloss over when it is just too hard to bear witness. I find myself on the one hand wanting to feel all of the feelings and on the other to move on to happier thoughts. The fact there will always be suffering doesn’t mean that we don’t honor it for what it is, give it its due attention. But this is precisely where the practice enters in if we let it - if we open to it.
I have been reading this week about “alternate rebellion.” I will admit to being a rebellious one for most of my life and we could talk about why that is the case another time, but the thought of rebellion always sparks my curiosity! Permission to be rebellious in a healthy way is right up my alley! And aren’t we all a bit rebellious, we self-proclaimed heretics in the religious realm, casting off notions of divinity and trinity at our outset, rebelling against teachings that didn’t set quite right with us? Alternate rebellion is a self-help tactic associated with behavior change, in particular around our emotions and how they affect behavior. It is about choosing nondestructive ways to rebel, to be the contrarian without being harmful. It is about creativity as opposed to reactivity.
In our reading this morning, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, in their opening chapter entitled, “An Invitation to Joy,” state, “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.” This is the power we wield! To re-create our own personal lives, but to effect change in the quality of life more broadly perceived in our world.
Writer, activist, and Black feminist, adrienne maree brown, in her 2019 book, “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good,” talks about pleasure as a form of rebellion. As a Black woman in our culture, she knows the sting of pleasure derived from centuries long use of women’s bodies in ways that deny them any sense of the pleasure they rightly own apart from the oppressive desires of racist constructs. She writes that,
“Pleasure reminds us to enjoy being alive and on purpose... Pleasure—embodied, connected pleasure—is one of the ways we know when we are free. . .. That we always have the power to co-create the world. Pleasure helps us move through the times that are unfair, through grief and loneliness, through the terror of genocide, or days when the demands are just overwhelming. Pleasure heals the places where our hearts and spirit get wounded. Pleasure is a medicine for the suffering that is absolutely promised in life… Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.”
There it is again. It is the choice of joy in the bleakest of circumstances, the wielding of a power innate within us, a rebelling in a manner that heals instead of wounds the spirit. It is a taking back of what is rightly ours. We are living in the midst of times that seem to offer us one blow after another. We know that much of it could have been prevented, even, if humanity had chosen another path, made better choices, was more farsighted in its decision making. We are compelled to anger at least once most days if we are paying attention and I wonder sometimes if that isn’t just where the powers that be want us, seemingly without control over our lives or our destiny, left to fuming and resentment. We can choose to go down that road, but the toll it takes on us emotionally and spiritually can be devastating in the long term if we allow a steady diet of it, returning anger for anger. Or we can open to the possibility of joy, wielding its power in the face of all odds. In so doing we set ourselves free from the grip of politics as usual.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaims that ‘we are meant to live in joy.’ We accept what is as a part of the journey we are on. Accepting reality is the starting place of change. From there we begin to turn toward joy, acknowledging that today’s reality is not tomorrow’s inevitability. We can choose to engage with life on the terms presented as opposed to railing against it. Herein we set ourselves free from the entanglements of anger and hatred. We break the cycle by inserting an alternative response.
This is what our faith offers us, the guiding principles by which we strive to live our lives, the tools of an alternate rebellion. To see dignity where it has been denied. To dwell in right relationship creating a more just world, filled with compassion as opposed to indifference for humanity and our earth home. To know our interconnectedness with all that is. As we insert these opposites into the trajectory of our days, we are leaning into a practice that wields joy rather than despair.
Famed author and researcher, Frances Moore Lappe, has been quoted as saying that, “Every choice we make can be a celebration of the world we want.” In this season where the joy of one’s family or one’s faith or of the turning of the wheel of the year is intended to be lifted up and celebrated, this is an invitation to live into all of it with joy in our hearts and on our lips. It is an invitation to not being sucked into the machine that pits us one against another and sets us on a downward spiral. It is an invitation into a joyful rebellion that holds the power to change our world.
May we choose joy! Blessed be and Amen.