Making Room for Joy – 12/12/21

When I was in college, each year there was a Christmas banquet.  It was basically like a high school prom but with Christmas trees.  The main difference between our Christmas banquet and prom is that there was no dancing – we were at a Christian college after all and who knew what that dancing would lead to.  The banquet itself wasn’t all that exciting.  But all of us made plans to do things after the banquet.  My group of friends was not much for following the strict rules of the college, so we decided to try to stay overnight in Chicago.

This was no small task.  We were not allowed to stay off campus unless we were staying with family and provided contact information to our resident assistant.  Needless to say, it would be frowned upon if we all said we were staying together at a hotel in Chicago since girls were not even allowed in our rooms.  But with a little deceit unbecoming of a minister, we were able to make our plan work.

We started off our night by walking through downtown Chicago.  Dressed in our Christmas banquet finest, we felt like we were living in a movie.  Not satisfied with the subpar meal served at the banquet, we ate at what we believed to be an exclusive and high-end restaurant – the Cheesecake factory.  And then we were off to our hotel.

We booked two hotel rooms for all of us to share.  We had visions of staying in luxury.  Many of us had never stayed in Chicago before.  We probably should have known by the overly reasonable price that our accommodations were less than five-star.  When we walked into the lobby, it was reminiscent of the hotel in “The Shining,” but somehow less inviting.  When we got to our rooms, we found the hotel rooms had no heat.  In fact, the windows had gaps between the window frame and the wall, and it was actually snowing into the room.

When we went down to the front desk to complain, we were offered another room. In fact, we were told we could have any other room we wanted on our floor because no one else was staying there.  I thought he was joking, but then we were handed several keys to surrounding rooms.  As we explored these rooms, we found that none were an improvement from our initial assignments.  And it seemed like our big night of living it up in Chicago was doomed to failure.

When I contemplated the topics for our Advent services, I was intimidated by the theme of joy particularly after what all of us have endured over the past couple of years.  Of peace, hope, joy, and love, I find joy to be the most fleeting.  Unlike the other three, joy is something that passes more easily, an emotion that seems to ebb and flow based upon our immediate circumstances.  When going through a difficult time, our joy often dissipates only to return when we weather the storm.  We can view joy as passive, as reactive to events in our lives.

Buddhism refers to this passing joy as dukkha, or suffering.  It is a conditioned happiness rather than one which is drawn from within.  In contrast, Buddhism speaks of an innate or unconditional joy that resides within, even though it is sometimes hidden.  And this joy cannot be brought out through something external.  As we recognize this joy, differentiate it from the idea of happiness imposed upon us by culture, we are able to counteract harmful systems which have been put in place to benefit from our lack of tapping into this internal joy.  We give up the “pursuit of happiness,” measuring our joy through material or social gain.  We move past the belief that finding joy relates to attaining access to resources which are limited, that to acquire what we need for our own joy we will necessarily need to take from others to have more for ourselves.

Buddism teaches us that this inner joy is achieved through deliberate practice, inviting uncomfortable or vulnerable feelings which arise within us and meeting them with compassion and gentleness rather than seeking to banish them.  And as we begin to allow these feelings to simply be, we begin to experience what has been termed “essence love,” the root of our inner joy.  We begin to see our own value, and in turn to see the value in everyone who surrounds us.

In our first reading for this morning, the book of Isaiah speaks of the emergence of this inner joy.   “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined.”  The light and darkness describe opposite scenarios.  While the light symbolizes life and joy, the darkness is a metaphor of death and depression.  One translation of those people Isaiah describes is “dwellers in a land as dark as death.”

Isaiah is creating a mental picture for the people of Judah at a time when Isaiah knows there is trouble to come, trouble that will for many years destroy any sense of safety and security, any sense of happiness or contentment.  The focus of this passage is to provide assurance of joy even knowing Israel will endure years of pain living in the exile.  For these people who have suffered, Isaiah says that things will change, that the joy they once felt will return, for “there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.”

The problem with the joy we generally associate with faith is the ease with which we are told it comes.  I was always taught that inner joy is naturally bestowed on us because of faith, at least if that faith is genuine.  Christianity has failed people by saying joy is a natural outgrowth of simply believing in a set of doctrine, by pinning that joy on an afterlife which allows for an escapism from doing the work to make room for a lasting joy we can experience now.  For so much of my life, I thought something was wrong with me.  If I am truly a Christian, why am I not as joyful as I am supposed to be?  Why do I still feel bogged down by the pain of my past?  Maybe this means my faith is just weak because I don’t have that joy that everyone around me professes to have.

But joy does not just appear.   Joy is something we need to cultivate, something we need to cling to, something that we have to actively choose to embrace.  The light which shone with the birth of Jesus, the light which emerges in the darkness and still shines today, relates to that Buddhist notion of joy.  Joy does not emerge without difficulty, does not emerge separately from challenges, and does not occur in isolation.  Through recognizing the value of ourselves and all we encounter, through engaging in a ministry of healing, we are increasingly able to accept our own lives as they happen, to cultivate joy such that it becomes something more than a passing emotion, it becomes a light which can shine in any darkness.

Each year at this time we retell stories, stories that remind us how joy can break through like candlelight in the darkness.  But it is often hidden by the struggles we encounter.  The stories we hear at the holidays remind us there is still joy in the world, even if it comes alongside difficulties.  It is only after a long and difficult journey to Bethlehem that Mary and Joseph find joy in the birth of their baby.  It is only after fighting difficult battles against impossible odds that the Maccabees win back their city and the oil in the temple burns for eight days.  It is only in the longest darkness of the year that the winter solstice arrives.  While joy is central in the primary events which this time of year celebrates, there is a theme which runs alongside those.  That joy is accompanied by waiting, that joy comes alongside uncertainty, that joy is not about idealism.

Perhaps what we need to do to make room for joy this year is simply be open to its appearance and pay attention to how it makes itself known.  We may find it has already arrived, even if its coming is less obvious, less grand than we imagined.  Maybe the best way

to do that is to open our eyes and take care of the first thing we see. Open the door and take care of the first people we see outside. And that changes lives. Everything good starts out so small, it’s almost invisible.  But a single light can dramatically change our experience of darkness, can be a point of joy which allows us to move from despair.

After our initial frustration and disappointment at the state of our lodging in Chicago, we began to make the best of it.  Still carrying our cameras from the banquet, we posed for pictures within the snow blowing into our rooms.  We played a game called murder because it seemed particularly appropriate in our horror movie style surroundings.  What could have been a miserable night became a memorable night for me.  Alone, I would have despaired of my circumstances.  But in the presence of my friends, a light shined in the darkness of that Bates-like motel and joy was found even in the discomfort.  Even if it was not initially apparent, it could be found when we sought it out.

Just as we have done each week of advent, each of us will have the opportunity to light the advent candle for joy this year.  During our time of response, I invite you go to the back of the sanctuary where we have the word “joy” spelled out in tealights.  As you light one of the candles, it is an opportunity to make room for a joy that is more than fleeting, to claim the joy we can have through light which shines in any darkness.