Joy. Joy is our subject today. I want to say from the start that joy is a surprisingly hard one for me. To be honest, I don't tend to feel joy often. I feel content. I feel happy. I feel blessed. But joyful - that state of happiness bubbling up and nearly exploding from you - that is not something I have had much experience with.
I don't dance. I think that's a major symptom of failing to experience joy. A joyful person can let themselves go and dance like no one is watching. I don't mean constrained and timid dancing but the full on letting it all hang out kind of dancing. I'm not willing to let loose even when I'm alone.
Today's message then, is very much an exploration for me and an approach to a place I don't know all that much about from personal experience.
Of course, the angle we're going to take today is to look at joy and how it relates to religion and spirituality.
When I first arrived here, I was told in no uncertain terms that we don't want any of that "happy clappy" stuff here. I had never even heard the expression before, but the disgust with which it was said made it very clear that it was abhorrent at best.
I came to learn, of course, that "happy clappy" refers to evangelical Christians who are joyous and energetic in their worship services. They enthusiastically and even ecstatically praise God and thank God and express their love for God.
Evangelical worship is characterised by joy and gratitude and love. I know that this can be simplistic, but let's not ignore it entirely. They have upbeat and usually contemporary music. They are openly emotional. They have relatively simple messages in their worship with a lot more feeling and expressing than thinking and analyzing.
Our style, historically, has tended to be a more thoughtful but somewhat less joyful kind of religiosity. We focus more on thought and understanding than on joy and ecstasy.
I am certainly not going to make a case for switching over to "happy clappy" here. I don't believe that in this world our response should be exclusively joy. Yes, there is much to be grateful for but there is also cruelty and appalling suffering in life. This world is not nearly the perfect place we might expect if a loving God had the power and desire to make it so.
We might think of "happy clappy" as an unusual exception to the rule that religion should be serious, earnest, fare. You might have in mind the notion that religion is here to make us feel at least a bit guilty and to avoid anything that actually looks or feels like fun. You might remember original sin.
As the American preacher Jonathan Edwards put it in 1741:
"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours."
Consider this excerpt from the Jerusalem Talmud:
"Rabbi Baruqa of Huza often went to the marketplace at Lapet. One day, the prophet Elijah appeared to him there, and Rabbi Baruqa asked him, "Is there anyone among all these people who will have a share in the World to Come?" Elijah answered, "There is none." Later, two men came to the marketplace, and Elijah said to Rabbi Baruqa, "Those two will have a share in the World to Come!" Rabbi Baruqa asked the newcomers, "What is your occupation?" They replied, "We are clowns. When we see someone who is sad, we cheer him up." Among all the people in the market, only the clowns are said to find great favour with God.
Think about our earlier reading from Hafiz and the kind of love and joy and intimacy there.
Sufism goes on endlessly about the ecstasy of uniting with the divine. They speak of being drunk with God and they dance and whirl themselves into ecstatic states. Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism speak of attaining great bliss. Some of the early Hasidic Jews actually did somersaults during worship as an expression of their joy. And in this world - why do we not rejoice in praise and in gladness? Yes - our time is finite and yes, there are hard times along with the good - but what a gift we have been giving to be alive, to have these
bodies, to have these minds, to have each other...
So why not experience more joy?
There was of a woman who went to the shop to buy a new kettle. She found one she liked and bought it. She took it home and boiled water for tea - it worked brilliantly. She loved the way it looked and she loved the taste of the tea.
The very next day she happened to see the same kettle advertised for five pounds less! Only £15 instead of £20. She was crestfallen. "I've wasted £5!" Now, every time she walked into the kitchen, she saw that lovely new kettle and - instead of joy - she felt sad and angry.
A few days later, a friend came to visit for tea. The friend admired the new kettle and the tea that was made from the water. The woman recounted the whole story for her friend. The friend replied "Are you sure about the price you have set for your joy?" The woman was confused. "Joy is priceless" she said.
Well, then, said her friend, why have you sold yours for only £5?
I knew better how to have joy when I was a child. Then, everything was more intense. My sorrow was sadder and I would weep uncontrollably. My joy was more exuberant and explosive and I could experience it fully. And then, I learned how to worry. I learned how to be intensely conscious of myself. I learned to try to fit in - to be careful not to be too emotional or forthright.
There's a story of a woman who - at the age of four years - decided to put aside a few minutes for the future. At that young age she put 30 minutes into a box, had her father label it, and she wrapped it up tight. She continued to do this throughout her childhood so that when she became an adult she had a cupboard full of boxes with labels like "15 minutes, age 6", "25 minutes, age 8."
At the age of 55, having grown serious, she took down one box on a dark, rainy day. "20 minutes, age 7." She opened it and immediately began giggling. She threw off her shoes and ran outside. For the next 20 minutes, she splashed through puddles and danced in the warm rain - thoroughly ruining her clothes without a care.
When she returned, her 55 year old body was tired and chilled, but she was happy. Throughout the rest of her life, she took down one of the boxes of saved time every once in a while and her joy returned to her. When the woman died and her family went through to clean up her home, they came across one box: "30 minutes, age 4." As her son held the light, seemingly empty box, he began to giggle. He handed it, puzzled, to his sister, who at age 60 ran off to play.
It is, of course, not always the time to play and splash joyfully in puddles, but it is not always the time to fret, to worry, and to be so darned serious.
Joy comes, I believe, from letting go of thoughts about ourselves. "Am I good enough?" "Am I funny enough?" "What will they think of me!?" Joy comes when we let loose - when we allow ourselves to look foolish and clownish and ridiculous and we just don't care. I have learned two joy hacks from religion. They are, first, sympathetic appreciation, and second, adoration.
The first comes from the Buddhist tradition. In Buddhism, there is a strong understanding that our feelings and reactions depend on our own thoughts.
Author Richard Rudd describes our usual way of responding nicely:
"We need to attach a reason to our emotional states. At the high end of the emotional spectrum, we believe that true joy is an effect rather than a cause. Because of this deep-seated belief, we spend most of our lives chasing whatever we think causes the effect of joy -- it may be a perfect relationship, lots of money, fame, the perfect place to live, even our
God. At the low end of the emotional spectrum, the game we play is blame. We blame anything from the food we have just eaten to our partners to the government for the reason that we feel bad."
Buddhism teaches the opposite of this usual response and meditation on muditā - as we did earlier - is a practice designed to help us cultivate muditā for all beings.
And finally, we come to what may be the hardest for us - adoration. Yes - we're returning to "happy clappy" and to every variety of faith that puts an emphasis on loving and praising the divine. Listen to Psalm 100 from the Bible and hear the joy and love that is written there:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord is God!
It is he that made us, and we are his;we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him, bless his name!
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Why does adoration connect with joy? First, there is the comfort of feeling we are being looked out for, loved and held. Second, it focuses our minds on what we have, rather than what we lack - on what is good rather than what is painful. Gratitude lists are a key tool for increasing happiness for just this reason.
And third - it gets us out of ourselves - focused on something wonderful beyond measure. It is not unlike being in love - or the point of love before we start to see the flaws. It's not unlike cheering for a sports team that never lets us down in the end or going to see our idolized popular musicians and to find their concert includes nothing but our most favourite songs - nothing from their less exceptional new work!
And this adoration thing is hard for me. I don't easily believe in a supernatural comforter or easily get out of myself.
But, I - and we - can find ways to adapt this practice in our own way. For myself, it involves saying to myself (or out loud) "how wonderful" or "awesome" or even "halleluhah" when I experience anything at all that is even remotely positive.
"Hallelujah" for that flower!
"Hallelujah" for the town hall!
"Hallelujah" for buses!
"Hallelujah" for bodies!
"Hallelujah" for that birds!
Look for anything good and celebrate it as part of a universe that gives and creates for us. Each small wonder is part of a greater wonder to which it can connect us.
For me, it takes work, and although it is joyful it is actually tiring. Like any exercise, it takes a lot of practice.
We can do this. We can cultivate joy in our own lives.
Please don't hold me to it, but when I get really good at it, I might even dance.