Surprised By Joy


Yesterday in Fuller Hall, we were doing some training in non-violence here at the church. And as I was watching that space change hour-by-hour from a place of instruction, to a place where everyone was eating, then back to place of instruction, I was reminded of a day in the second grade in our “cafetorium.”
Cafetorium is a drab and unimaginative word that describes an equally drab and unimaginative space that was…well…our cafeteria and auditorium. And on this day in the cafetorium, up on stage there were some of the older children. And with them were musical instruments. The plan for that day was to show the younger kids some of the instruments. Then we could see what they did and we could hear how they sounded. And then we could make a decision about which instruments we’d like to study that year in music.
There might have been other instruments on that stage, and I might have even heard them, too. But all I remember from that day…were the drums. And not just any drums. A group of the older kids played “Wipeout”—a wonderful instrumental piece from a sadly waning genre of surf rock. Naturally these third, fourth, and fifth graders were playing an elementary brass arrangement of the iconic song…but…then came the drum solo.
The breath in the instant when the solo began seemed to leave my body and I could not catch it again. I was giddy with a feeling in my belly that I had never felt before. The perfect measures of rhythm echoed inside of me and I almost squealed with delight. That feeling stayed with me the rest of the day. All the way on the bus at the end of the day, until I burst through the door and my mother heard what every parent of a seven-year-old dreams one day of hearing: “Mom, I want to play the drums!”
It was only much later in my life that I came to understand what it was that overtook me that day—the quality of breathlessness, of incomprehensible awe at something that was acting on me in a way I cannot predict or have any way even to expect. In different shades and variations, but always with the same surprise, joy manages to sneak up on me from time to time like this. Even now.
This fine, vital quality of surprise that is part of joy is captured in these words by Frederick Buechner: “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”
Of course, the implication from Buechner’s writing is that there is a “one” or a consciousness of some form who bequeaths joy, and that there is no easy way to know how the bequeathing process works. I had to learn this, as usual, the hard way. Because as it turns out, there’s only one way to learn the drums: the hard way. See, I eventually convinced my parents that having a drum set of my very own was what would really bring me joy. And nothing, no matter how hard I tried with those drums, could ever help me recapture that first, fleeting way that joy suffused in me to change the way I saw music forever. I confess it might have helped if I’d practiced.
I took the message I received about the effect that joy had on me, and I wanted to turn that into something greater, something more. I wanted there to be a 1:1 relationship between what I felt that day and what I might get out of learning the drums. In this problem, we see the distinction Buechner makes between happiness and joy. It’s an important one. Happiness comes from the places we expect. Joy is different.
Other writers are even more precise about the difference between joy and feelings we often mistake for joy. In his work on the subject, C.S. Lewis describes a sensation much like those the fine drum solo brought on. Lewis’s words: “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again….I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”
Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
Come with me now to the joyful season, Christmas time, many years ago. I was hosting my parents in my small apartment in New York City. That particular Christmas morning fell on a Monday, and I had a commitment at church that I had to attend to, so I snuck out really, really early that morning. After spending the morning at church, I was able to get back home before the sun had really come up yet and I suspected my parents might not have even realized I was gone. But when I returned, I was shocked to see my father sitting up in bed looking out the window. Wide awake. His mouth was actually gaping open a little bit.
I guessed something was going on, so instead of what might have been a more customary, “Merry Christmas,” I said, “What’s up?” He turned to me to answer, and just as he prepared to speak, I heard it. Boom boom boom boom!!! Because my five-year-old neighbor, it was painfully apparent, had gotten drums for Christmas that morning! And that five-year-old was filled with Christmas joy!
I don’t know what it says about me that I still get such joy out of reliving that story. I don’t know how many of you got a little joy out of it yourselves. What we can be certain of is that it wasn’t my father’s favorite morning. But part of what we are all sensing together is the surprise, and unexpected, the unasked for way that joy comes into our lives.
This evening, many in the motion picture industry will experience a kind of joy as recognition of outstanding achievements are announced. Undoubtedly, those watching the telecast will hear speeches of all kinds, but we will also see some of the most joyful celebrations that industry has all year. And with each joyful celebration, many, many more will be nursing disappointment of different kinds over the outcomes. And really, this is the nature, the shadow of joy, disappointment and pain.
Later this week, the members of our human family who identify as Christian will enter the Lenten season. This is a time when followers of the Christian faith consider letting go of things that are holding them back spiritually. Of course this takes many forms for people. Many will be “giving up chocolate” or “giving up swearing” for the weeks of the Lenten season. Others will keep with other traditions of changing their diet on Fridays.
And on Wednesday, we will see that annual sight of people who wear a cross, the symbol of their faith on their forehead, rendered in black ash. It is this period of inward, self-reflection that will begin the journey to the highest of holy days for Christians, Easter. But this Christian tradition is really only carrying on a long history in the Jewish tradition of sprinkling ashes on one’s forehead as part of repenting and being one again with God. Though we as humans don’t have power over when we get to experience joy, some of the deepest traditions within the earth’s oldest faiths still depend on a period of reflection and introspection as part of a way to prepare the way for experiencing the joy of renewal and rebirth. But really, we need to go even farther back, don’t we?
We need to go back to the cosmic dance that lingers and surges in each of our own DNA. When those ashes are imposed, what is customarily said is something like this: “From dust you come; to dust you will return.” This is a reminder of what Forrest Church, the late, one-time minister of my home congregation in New York liked to call “the most beautiful of all etymologies.” In his famous 2009 interview with Bill Moyers, Church said “human, humane, humility, humble, humus. It’s dust to dust, ashes to ashes. That brings us humility, but also the awe for being able to even comprehend that or to embrace it.”
When we comprehend our own mortality, it is the only way we can truly start to understand the gift of our own life. It’s easy to dance a bit with the interlocking nature of joy and pain, but the heart of what we are talking about is really life and death. This reality at the heart of all things is the dance that we are in on a daily basis. Some believe that when we feel joy, we are remembering with our non-conscious mind, in a very deep, ancient way, the many lives of all of our ancestors that have reached through time to bring us to this very moment.

In their recent book, The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama write together about this relationship we are in with all that went before us. They share that they believe it is part of the essence of joy. The book provides some instructions, some practical ways to try to build more joy into the lives of people. One of the essential elements they identify, like Forrest Church does, is to get in touch with our own humanity and to gain from that a sense of our own humility.Here is one of the meditations they wrote together: “Reflect on all the people who are responsible for your life. Think of your parents, who gave you life, your teachers who taught you, the people who grew your food and who made your clothes, the countless others who are responsible for your having the life that you have each and every day. Now think of all those who discovered and created all of the things we take for granted, the housing, the crops, and the medicines that keep you alive. Think of all the ancestors who had to live, and survive, so that you could be born, who braved enormous hardship so that you could have the life that you do. Now think of the family and friends who give your life meaning and purpose. Allow your heart to open and experience love and appreciation for all of these people. Experience the enormous joy and appreciation that comes from being in touch with all that has been given to you, in realizing how dependent we are on others, how weak in our separateness and yet how strong in our togetherness.”
What comes from this meditation is the sense that we are not only doing the work of building a Beloved Community, but that we are doing the work of waking up to realize how deep, how powerful, how awe-inspiringly real that Beloved Community already is in our lives and in this world we share with every piece of creation. This is not to say that there are not challenges we are facing every single day. Part of the work we do as a community is to hold up those among us here and those who are part of our wider community when they need support. But approaching these challenges with a new sense that contributing joy to the lives of others and not only drawing from the well of opposition and agitation, is part of the way we can have meaningful, sustainable responses in these times.
On Friday, when social justice leaders of this church responded by showing up at a press conference with our partners in faith to denounce the barbaric militarization of arbitrary actions against those trying to live their lives in peace in this country, that was the right thing to do, to resist.
But it was the joy being there united and stronger together that made the day the success that it was.
And yesterday, when hundreds of people came though these doors to learn to respond in practical ways of resisting policies that are harmful to our shared Beloved Community, the feeling throughout the day was not one of anger or defeat.
It was a joyful expression of caring and mutual support in the work we do together to build that community. One attendee came up to me, and said simply, “This is how we used to do it in the sixties—real caring, real love.”
And if anyone thinks, for one second, that the systematic humiliation and bullying of transgender members of our family will go without a response unchallenged, they have got another thing coming.
Yes, we will write letters. In fact, if you’ve got something you’d like to say to any lawmakers, you can do just that right after this service with our Board Member Evie Zaic over in Buchan reception. Yes, we will make calls and yes we will take to the streets when it’s time.
But we will also be right here, in this space, and in Unitarian Universalist spaces all over this country, joyfully welcoming ALL people to worship, to learn, and simply to be themselves in this safe and welcoming place. A place, I should add for those who join our community online, where our bathroom doors all read “…and those who identify.” Because the inherent worth and dignity of all people is our joy to celebrate together. It is a cornerstone of how we see the world and the people in it.
We are each the product of so much living.
We are each made for so much loving.
We are each composed of the very elements of joy.
We heard the words of Leonard Cohen today:
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

It’s hard not to image that the crack in everything is speaking about its impermanence, the acknowledgement that all of this is fleeting, even in us. And that’s how the light gets in, my friends. That’s how the joy gets in.
When we embrace that we have only this time to do the work we have to do in the world, the joy that can emanate from the work we do can shine like the sun on places in this world that have only known darkness, have never seen the light, that’s how the joy gets in.
When we honor those millions and millions of lives that led to each of our own precious lives by caring for others, by laboring for justice, and by welcoming those yearning to be free, that’s how the joy gets in.
And when we march to the beat of our own drum, breathless with the joy of new rhythms, the joy doesn’t only get in. That’s how joy gets out.
So ring the bells, crash the cymbals, beat your drum till you wake up the world.
Let them hear from you.
Let them hear joy from you.
Let them hear joy from us.
And may it be ever so.


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