Life Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Filled with Joy
“What does joy look like now?,” Rev. Joanne asks as we approach the end of the challenging year 2020. Many Unity churches have an annual tradition this time of year known as The White Stone ceremony. It is used to provide a reminder throughout the upcoming year of what idea or affirmation we choose to hold in our consciousness. She tells us that the word she chose to write on her white stone in 2019 was “joy.” She was full of optimism and looking forward to a relaxing, and much deserved three month sabbatical. Her joy was, at least in part, a function of external factors. Then came Covid restrictions in March 2020. Her sabbatical was postponed and optimism became more difficult.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we all have in common the conditions of current global health issues and the challenge of finding joy during difficult times. While the situation in 2020 is in many ways unique in human history, it is but one in series of collective challenges humans have experience over the millennia. She again tells us the story of the people of Israel and Judah as recounted in the Book of Isaiah and their struggles against the Assyrians. Chapter 34 is about difficulty, and God’s anger –
Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Isaiah 34:1-2
It gets even less cheery for the people as the rest of the chapter unfolds, with descriptions of all of the hardships that will befall the people because of God’s righteous anger. But God has not forsaken His people. In Chapter 35 comes a message of hope and joy:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Isaiah 35:1-2
It is a message that no nightmare lasts forever. If we hold true to our God, our God will hold true to us.
Moving forward to the time of Jesus, this week we examine the the Gospel of Luke. It is from Luke that we have many of our familiar images of Christmas. In Chapter 1 we read about the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were childless and elderly, well beyond the time of childbearing. Yet an angel visited Zechariah to tell him his wife would bear a son, who would be called John. Zechariah quaked in fear, but the angel told him “do not be afraid.” We also read that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy God sent the angel Gabriel to visit a virgin named Mary, who was pledged to marry a man named Joseph. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:30-33
The messages from the prophet Isaiah and the angels were all of hope and to not be afraid. This common theme, Rev. Joanne tells us, is important because what Israel, Judah, Zechariah, and Mary were all being told is that when we release fear from our hearts it frees up space for joy.
One thing that is certain about humans is that we are a resilient bunch. Famine, pestilence, war, and death are all real and do create hardships. But as the Book of Isaiah tells us “the desert and parched land” will bloom again. Heroic tales, epic poetry and exalting music have long been a way people have expressed their strength and optimism. One such well-known example is The Ode to Joy. The poem was written in 1785 by Friedrich Schiller, and attained its more widespread familiarity in 1824 when it was used as the libretto for the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A powerful and soaring chorus, it is typically performed by a large choir accompanied by an equally large orchestra. Beethoven’s hearing had long been failing, and by 1824 he was completely deaf. Present at the premier, at the end of the performance one of his companions needed to ask him to turn to face the audience to receive their exuberant applause and acclaim. Nearly two centuries later, musicologists almost unanimously agree that it was Beethoven’s greatest work, and perhaps even the greatest work in the history of Western music. Had Beethoven allowed the external circumstances of his deafness to dampen his spirits, the world would have never had this magnificent piece of art.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has often been used as a protest anthem and celebration of music. One such example was in Santiago, Chile in 1973 when demonstrators sang the Ode to Joy to protest the military coup of Augusto Pinochet. Demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in China broadcast the recording to show defiance of the oppression of the Deng Xiaoping government. In Japan immediately following WWII, German POWs sang the Ode to Joy, and the Japanese people have staged a performance of it every December since that time. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sendai, Japan a 10,000 person chorus was assembled as a tribute and memorial to those who perished.
Words do have the power to move us. Here is a the first verse of Schiller’s poem in German with an English translation:
An die Freude
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Ode to Joy
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where thy gentle wing abides.
All of these examples of trust in God, releasing fear, and opening our hearts to joy are inspirations for those who want to transcend any challenges they may be experiencing. Unity minister Eric Butterworth (1916-2003) tells us:
Happiness is fundamentally an innate experience which few people discover. We may experience it occasionally, it may bubble up as a result of some outward stimuli. But very few people in life come to realize that joy is not a reactionary emotion. It’s not something that happens because of something “out there,” it is a causative energy that comes as a result of the release of an inner communion that can only be experienced as joy and happiness when we awaken to that inner flow.
The setting our our Unity Hall platform for Advent this year features Joy. Conceived and created by Unity Spiritual Center congregant Jim Larsen, the creche flanked by angels and shepherds with an illuminated crowning statement of Joy, symbolizes our call to follow the example of Jesus, the Christ and find our own inborn Christ spirit and allow it to shine into the world.
It can be more difficult at some times than at others, but when we realize that we have the freedom to choose each and every day to allow our inner joy to shine forth, not allowing external circumstances (good or bad) to determine our joy, we will be personally much happier and the world a better place where we can be love in action, honoring the Divine within all.
Now Go and Be the Light.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13
In times when humanity disappoints it is an important act to call out, name, and claim the consequences of our wrongs. In times of distress it is a prophetic act to call out, name, and claim our belief in the hope for tomorrow. Transform your thoughts of lamentation into hope:
I believe that (fill in with a lament, a sorrow, a confession) and I believe that (fill in a prophetic word of change).
Example: I believe that I have sometimes been silent in the face of injustice, AND I believe that I am capable of raising my voice and insisting goodness for all.
Example: I believe that sometimes I wonder if I can make a difference, AND I believe that the ways in which I allow God to use me through small acts of kindness really do help.
Create one or two statements of your own. Live into those ideas this week.