(The following meditation was shared at Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri, December 14, 2014)
We have a Christmas tree ornament on our tree that is glorified pipe cleaner art; the fiber is twisted in the form of that word, JOY, and then covered with some kind of glitter. And that’s it, the word joy. This week as I stared at the tree it winked at me and insisted that I spend some time thinking about it: Joy.
We talk a lot about joy this time of year. Bunches of carols include the word. Angels do flip flops insisting that it’s coming our way. The writers of the Bible insist that joy is more than an emotion; it is a holy substance, like a pear. It actually exists in the universe and you can pick it off the tree.
So I gave joy more than a passing thought this week. I asked myself about what it is and the ways it appears. It seems in short supply for so many people. I don’t know, maybe for most people.
I was at lunch with my daughter and started the inquiry there. So, I asked, what is the difference between happiness, on the one hand, and joy on the other?
She thought one might be short-term and the other long-term. Hmmm. Then she said that maybe not, because you could have either of them for short or long times, depending. So how are they different?
I answered that I thought happiness was grounded in external circumstance, like I’m really glad they had the right tree on sale and we bought it and put it up in the same day. I am happy because I finally got out of debt. I am happy because all the kids that are going to go to college have and I’m done with that phase. I am happy because my child is happy at Christmas. I am happy because somebody dropped by some delectable holiday cookies to my house. I’m happy because it was a tasty meal and a nice show. I’m happy because we grilled out at the lake and it was enjoyable. All these things fill me with happiness, a sense of pleasure in the way things are.
But happiness is often grounded in some external circumstance or happening. For that reason it can be fleeting. Once the particular experience has passed by so may go the sense of happiness. And I begin to put the wheels in motion to rack up something else I think will make me happy.
What’s more, I can be happy with the way the stars have lined up in my life at the moment but a gnawing sense that I still don’t have a deep down joy. What is that joy?
This is what it means to me: The deep down joy is a sense of belonging to everything, being connected to everything, and in a spiritual sense to be in the flow of God’s presence. I believe that’s a natural God-given natural state if we receive it, like the tranquility of Adam and Eve in the garden before things blew up. So why is it so very elusive for most people?
Here are some things I realized as I looked at the pipe cleaner ornament that spells joy:
I think that joy, this inward sense of being in the flow of the spirit, gets blocked, gets cut off. Sometimes this blocking is temporary, but for some people it seems to be life-long:
I think that feelings like sadness, guilt, anger or fear block natural joy from surfacing. These feelings also hang on our tree like pipe cleaner ornaments.
Unless we take them off the tree one-by-one, examine and then dismiss them, they continue to hold sway over is. Until we take them off the tree, the joy ornament can’t get through the depression or rage or remorse or worry; the thick curtain of those emotions prevents the singing of Joy to the World, and singing like you really believe it is true. Some people live their whole life with a tree decorated by those words and in the end it becomes their reality, they become those words on their tree.
One starting point to recapture joy is to undecorate our tree by taking down the sadness, guilt, anger and fear. That takes time and patience but we have powerful spiritual resources at our disposal to do it.
We have resources like forgiveness, humility, love and faith. The practice of these virtues almost always neutralizes sadness, guilt, anger and fear.
When it comes to taking down some ornaments and leaving other ones up we need to let loose our faith power. Here is a question: Do you really believe that God wants you to live indefinitely with sadness, guilt, anger and fear? As a life sentence?
Or do you take the angel song according to its word, that “I bring you tidings of great joy?” It has to be one way or the other because joy won’t tolerate all the others and the others won’t permit joy to rise.
So here is my suggestion. If it is long overdue for you, take down the pipe cleaner ornaments of sadness, guilt, anger and fear. Take each one off the tree, one at a time, and bid it farewell. Tell them that the tidings of great joy don’t have any room for them anymore. Then wrap them up in tissue paper, tape them in a box, tie a weight on them and sink them to the bottom of the ocean.
So you see, as much as we put things up during Advent it’s really important to take some down. In fact, the whole of Advent is exchanging some ornaments for others. If you will, if you will remove the ones that need to go, then you will make room for joy. If you put away sadness, guilt, anger and fear then joy may abound. You won’t need the substitutes that masquerade for joy. You can have the real thing.
I know it sounds overly simple but the question still bears asking: Do you choose joy? Will you actually give yourself permission to receive it?
So often we have told ourselves or others have told us that we can’t have it or we don’t deserve it or it doesn’t exist. What I have to say this morning is that those imposed barriers are all untrue. The promise of faith dismantles those assumed beliefs that keep us sad, guilty, angry and afraid. It offers joy instead.
One of the things I dearly love about the Biblical story from Isaiah 35 is its raucous imagery.
In place of the desert, sand and wasteland appear growing things like flowers. Nature itself is rising up in applause, clapping its hands and making a joyful noise. Such a joyful thing, to have new birth springing out of the wilderness places, like a flower springing out of a crack in the rock.
And this is the other side of joy we can’t miss. The desert doesn’t have to disappear before joy shows up. Like my earlier conversation with my daughter at lunch, there is a difference between happiness in external things and deep joy. The flowers of joy can bloom even in the unhappiness of the desert.
And that, of course, is the angel’s proclamation, that joy pours over the plains and the hills, that ultimately God reigns, the world is full of the presence of the Spirit, and that very same spirit is in us. Joy sometimes breaks forth because it is impossible to extinguish. It comes in its own way and in its own terms, unexpected and delightful. And the very best thing is when surprises us, like a crocus in the desert; it was never really gone, just hiding.
When I sat in front of my tree and gazed at the pipe cleaner ornament, JOY, it chose me as much as I chose it. And once it captured my attention and I gave it all there was, as far as I was concerned, there was no other ornament on the tree. The only thing I saw was this word, JOY, hanging against the background of green. And that’s how it is with joy itself. Joy often comes to us in the midst of desert and even despair. It arises when we had given up on having a share for ourselves. And then, at just the right moment, under the cover of night, it appears. When it does there is nothing else that is needed. Regardless of how happy you may or may not feel, regardless of competing ornaments that have needed to come down for the longest time, it comes anyway.
When it does simply receive it for it is an unearned gift of God. Go for a swim in it, bask in it, and let it wash over you. And you will know something of the flower within you that never has been gone, but only waiting for the right time to bloom.