A Life of Joy: Joy That Grows

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9

For the last two weeks we’ve been talking about joy, using this book The Book of Joy written by Douglas Abrams and based on a series of conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.  Two weeks ago we talked about what joy is. Then last week we talked about obstacles to joy – the anger, grief, adversity, fear, and other feelings or situations that might prevent us from living a joyful life.

We’ve also heard from both the Apostle Paul and the Psalmist on their experiences of joy and hardship.  Today we heard from Paul again, from his letter to the Philippians.  Philippians is sometimes known as “the letter of joy” because Paul says “joy” or rejoice” 16 times in four chapters.  You heard him in the passage we just read – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.”

The thing is that, just like anyone else, the Philippians had reason to not rejoice if they wanted to.  I guess otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had to be so adamant about it.  Philippi was a Roman city where worship of Jesus Christ was not necessarily looked kindly upon.  Paul, the spiritual leader of this persecuted community, was in jail at the time.  There were people coming in to try to teach the Philippians things Paul considered heresy, like you had to be circumcised to be a Christian.  AND, there was infighting in the community, too.  And yet Paul has the audacity to tell these people to rejoice always.

This is really a beautiful passage and yet I find it a little annoying because, as I’ve said throughout this series, it just doesn’t seem as easy as Paul makes it out to be.  Rejoice always, oh OK, I guess I’ll just do that, then.

But actually what I realized about this passage is that Paul follows this command up with some instructions.  Rejoice always.  Be gentle to the people around you.  Pray and release your worries to God.  Look around you and see the good things God has given you in the midst of your difficulties.  Keep doing these things, and you will be at peace.

Paul knows joy isn’t automatic, especially when times are hard.  Joy needs to be chosen, and nurtured, and cultivated.  So today, in this last week in our series, we’re going to talk about positive qualities we can cultivate in ourselves – or, as I said last week, let God cultivate in us, but with our own cooperation.

[And – I’ll add what has become my usual disclaimer: our experiences of mental health and/or illness may significantly affect our ability to feel joy.  If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, that does not mean that you somehow aren’t doing faith right.  God does want joy and healing and wholeness for you, as God does for everyone, and that might come through medication and therapy as well as through prayer and the support of a faith community.]

Our book lists eight pillars of joy, and just like with last week’s obstacles to joy, any one of them could make for multiple sermons in itself.  So if you want to hear more about any of these, you can read the book – or let me know and maybe I’ll preach a longer sermon on one or more of them sometime.[1]

 

Perspective

Last week, we talked about the power of reframing our situations when we encounter obstacles to joy.  This is one of the pillars of joy: the ability to put and keep things in perspective.

The book tells the story of someone who visited an army medical center and met two soldiers, on the same day, who had both lost the use of their legs.  Their physical state and prognosis was the same.  But one of them was curled up in bed railing against God and life and everything that had brought him to this place (which, by the way, I find totally understandable.)  The other said he had been given a second chance at life.

The Dalai Lama says we should always look at every situation from both a wider perspective and a larger perspective.  With a wider perspective, we see things more objectively – we realize that we are not the only one who matters, we are not necessarily the main player, and “our limited perspective is not the truth.”  When we look at things from a larger perspective, we think about how things will seem and how much they will matter a month or a year from now or even in the context of history itself.

Archbishop Tutu calls this seeing things from a “God’s eye perspective.”

When we can put things in their proper perspective, sometimes our problems and difficulties don’t seem quite so big after all.

 

Humility

The Dalai Lama told the story of a spiritual leader at a conference he went to in Delhi who insisted that his seat be higher than everyone else’s seat.  They had to bring in bricks to put under the legs of his chair to raise it up.

Needless to say, this is NOT the way to true joy.  In fact, when I read that story, I realized Jesus had something to say about that: “When you’re invited to a wedding feast,” he advises, “don’t sit in the seat of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited” (Luke 14:8).

Humility isn’t about being self-effacing or being hard on yourself, which in the end, are just more ways to focus on yourself.  Rather, humility allows us to see our actual place in the midst of things, to know that we are loved, that we matter, that we have something to share with the world – but also that we matter neither more or less than anyone else, and that other people have their own gifts and perspective to share as well.  When we’re not so worried about where we fall in the hierarchy, that frees us up to live more joyfully.

 

Humor

I’ve mentioned in the past couple weeks that it was surprising to me how much a book about joy really talked about suffering. But something author Douglas Abrams made a note of was how much time during these conversations was spent laughing.  “Having spent time with many spiritual leaders,” Abrams said, “I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.”

Obviously, laughter is not always an appropriate response to personal or global problems.  But often times there is something to laugh at within a situation that itself is not a laughing matter.  Archbishop Tutu talked about how during apartheid, they would sometimes have funerals for people killed by police, which would turn into unofficial political rallies.  He said, “We found that one of the best ways of helping our people direct their energies in positive directions was laughter.”

I know that as I’ve officiated funerals, some of the best funerals I’ve seen are ones where people tell stories and laugh about the person who has died.  It’s not about denying grief, since there are often plenty of tears too.  But laughter is a way to find joy and gratitude and togetherness even in the midst of sadness and loss.

If you need some help cultivating your own sense of humor, Archbishop Tutu also has some advice for you: “If you laugh at yourself,” he says, “…it’s really the easiest place to begin.”

 

Acceptance

The Dalai Lama’s favorite saying is: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied?  What is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”

I know many people, in this political climate especially, who would say, “If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.”  I know a lot of people who would say that this week in particular.  In other words, it seems like the last thing we should do is accept the status quo.

But acceptance doesn’t mean resignation.  It doesn’t mean cynicism.  It means being realistic about what currently is so that we can move forward from there.  Acceptance means not hiding from the truth, not being in denial, but seeing what is and what we can do to change it.  In the famous words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 

Forgiveness

I’ve told you before that the first time I ever considered that I might be called to ministry, it was in reading Archbishop Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about his time leading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu has some powerful stories to tell – for example, about the parents of Amy Biehl, a white student who was killed in one of South Africa’s black townships.  She had gone there to do the work of reconciliation, and her parents carried on that legacy after her death by forming an organization to improve conditions in the township – and even employing the person who had killed their daughter.  And, for example, the story of a black mother whose son had been dragged to his death who confronted her son’s killer during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings and said, “My child, we forgive you.”

“When we forgive,” Archbishop Tutu says, “we take back control of our own fate and feelings.”  Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean your relationship is the same as it once was.  Rather, you can decide whether to renew the relationship or release it.  But either way, that person doesn’t have to keep you imprisoned in your anger and bitterness anymore.

 

Gratitude

In the words of a Benedictine monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

At the beginning of this year, I tried taking this to heart by starting a gratitude journal.  The plan was that every day I would write down things I was thankful for.  I have not done that every day.  I have averaged maybe once a week.  It’s been an imperfect practice, but I’ve also found that even during the hardest times I’ve had since I started doing this, there are always things to be grateful for.

I realized during one of those hard times that I could be sad but genuinely grateful too.  Gratitude doesn’t mean that we stop feeling normal human emotions.  But it does, I think, open up some room for joy even in hard times.

According to the Dalai Lama, it’s not just those good things that we should be grateful for.  We should even be grateful for our enemies, “our most precious spiritual teachers.”  So if you feel like you’re pretty good at gratitude and want to level up, you might try being thankful even for the hard times and difficult people you encounter and how they can help you grow.

 

Compassion

One of the monks who works with the Dalai Lama had a good definition of compassion: “Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

In other words, it’s possible to have empathy and simply feel someone else’s pain, but compassion moves us toward action.

“When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering,” said the Dalai Lama, “our own suffering is reduced.”

In the end, we are not meant to do this alone.  When we are both ready to help someone in need and willing to receive help from others when we need it, we are living into who God created us to be as human beings.  We can live more genuinely and more joyfully when we live it together, with all of its challenges and heartaches.

 

Generosity

We all know that money can’t buy happiness, right?  Well, apparently it depends.

I heard a TED Talk a while ago from a professor at Harvard Business School who had been involved in a study.  They took a bunch of people, asked then to rank their happiness level, and gave them some money.  To some of the people they said go do with this money whatever you would normally do with it.  Buy something, go out to eat, pay your bills.  To the other people they said use this money on other people.  Give it away, buy someone something, or donate it.  At the end of the day they asked the people to rank their happiness again.  The people who spent the money on themselves were no more or less happy at the end of the day than at the beginning.  But the people who gave it away or spent it on others were more happy at the end of the day.[2]

Not everyone has gobs of cash to give away, of course, but actually in this study, the amount didn’t matter.  It’s not limited to money, either.  I know I’ve experienced real generosity from people I meet here during the week who probably don’t have a whole lot.  I’ve been handed money for the offering plate from people who are staying at the Homeless Services Center.  I’ve also gotten flowers, Metro tokens, and baby gifts.  I’ve been bought breakfast.  Generosity is never the privilege of the rich – in fact, statistically, the more we have, the less – proportionally – we tend to give.

This is another one of those times when Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said to give to everyone who begs of you, to lend without expecting anything back, even when he told the rich man to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor.  These aren’t just impossible expectations.  They are invitations into a more joyful life.

Archbishop Tutu likes to say that “God doesn’t know very much math,” because instead of having less when you give something away, you end up with more.

 

 

Again, joy isn’t found by flipping some switch, and none of these pillars of joy are the result of flipping a switch.  These are all things that we can keep growing into over the course of a lifetime, as God grants us grace, and as we intentionally take God up on it.

A life of faith is perhaps by definition not an easy life, because it is a life of sacrifice and service and giving yourself for others.   But God does want it to be a joyful life.  Joy may not be immediate, it may not be automatic, but God invites us to grow in it – and we can start today.

 

 

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness

in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the third section of the book, “The Pillars  of Joy,” p. 191-275, unless otherwise specified.

 

[2]     https://www.npr.org/2014/04/04/297888687/can-money-buy-you-happiness

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A Life of Joy: Joy That Overcomes

Scripture: Psalm 30

We are spending these last few weeks of September talking about joy.  Last week I introduced to you the book which is guiding this series, The Book of Joy, written by Douglas Abrams and based on a series of guided conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.  Not only are both men famous spiritual leaders, they are also both known for their joy, and these conversations were meant to collect their lived wisdom on the subject.

Last week I asked you to define joy for me.  You answered things like peace, contentment, waking up to a new day, knowing that you are a child of God.  These are all things that God wants for us as God’s beloved children living a life of faith.

Today my question is: what are obstacles we encounter to finding joy in our lives?  What kinds of things might prevent us from feeling joy?

The book lists 8 of these obstacles to joy that emerged from their conversations.[1]  They are:

Fear, anxiety, and stress.  We’re not necessarily talking about immediate dangers right in front of us, but as Douglas Abrams wrote, “We have a continual feeling of being overwhelmed and not being able to handle our work commitments, our family commitments, or the digital devices that are constantly reminding us of all the things that we are missing.  Juggling so many things at the same time, we can feel like we are always one step behind.”  I like to make notes in the margins when I read, and next to this one, I simply wrote, “Yes.”

Frustration and anger: Anything from good old-fashioned road rage to a rift in a personal relationship, or maybe even anger that is more systemic and directed at oppressive aspects of our society.

Sadness and grief.  Sadness, according to studies, is apparently the longest-lived of our negative emotions.  We tend to get over fear and anger relatively quickly, or at least they come and go.  Sadness tends to linger.

Despair.  One woman who sent in a question for this series of conversations put it this way – “The world is in such turmoil – war, starvation, terrorism, pollution, genocide.  How do I find joy in the midst of such large world problems?”

Loneliness.  The book cites a study that shows the average number of close friends people report having is decreasing, and one in ten people say they have no close friends. We’re more connected than ever and also, often, lonelier than ever.

Envy.  We tend to compare ourselves most to people we consider to be like us.  So, I’m not going to be jealous of the fact that Mark Zuckerberg is worth $60 billion – he’s barely even on my radar – but if my colleague gets a promotion and a raise, I’m going to have a lot to say about that.

Suffering and adversity.  Here the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu talked a lot about the challenges they each faced on behalf of their people in South Africa and Tibet, though we could also talk about the unwelcome challenges each of us face in our lives, from homelessness to racism to addiction to cancer.

Illness and fear of death.  I’m reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes, where the specter of death looming over everything seems at first to make life pointless.

Does that seem like a good list?  Are you all good and depressed?

I said last week that I found it interesting that in a book about joy, so much of the conversation revolved around suffering.  But when I thought about it more, that actually made a lot of sense.  No one needs to read a book or hear a sermon about joy if you never have a reason to not feel joyful.  The question is, how do we find joy in a world where there seem to be so many obstacles to doing so?  And then the second question is – in a world full of such obstacles, randomly divvied out, do we even have any control over whether we are joyful at all?

Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama come from two different religious traditions, which means they don’t always agree on everything.  (I’m sure if they came from the same religious tradition they wouldn’t always agree on everything either.)  One thing don’t always agree on is how much control we have over the feelings that can become obstacles to joy.

The Dalai Lama spends a good amount of time in these conversations talking about building up what he calls “mental immunity.”  He says that just like building up our physical immunity by doing things like eating a healthy diet and being active, we can build up our mental immunity to help us avoid negative emotions and develop positive ones.  If you have mental immunity, he says, “when disturbances come, you will have some distress but quickly recover.”  If not, then small problems are likely to become big.

Archbishop Tutu always wants to stress that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for having negative emotions.  This is a natural part of the human experience, and we can just make things worse for ourselves when not only are we angry, but we’re also mad at ourselves for being angry.  Or not only are we sad, but we feel guilty for being sad.  “I do at times get very angry at God,” he admits.

I tend to take comfort in the fact that the Bible does encapsulate and embrace the vast range of our human emotion, and nowhere do we see that better than in the Psalms.  In the Psalms we encounter pain; in the Psalms we encounter anger; in the Psalms we encounter contrition; in the Psalms we encounter comfort and contentment; in the Psalms we encounter elated joy.

Today, in Psalm 30, we encountered both suffering and joy.  As in most psalms, it’s hard to make out exactly what’s been going on in the background that has led to either of these states of being.  But what we know is that the psalmist once felt close to death, either literally or metaphorically, and now they praise God for delivering them.

In the Psalm we learn a little bit about what that previous period of suffering was like.  We even hear the psalmist bargaining with God: “What point is there if I die?  Will I be able to praise you from the underworld?”

But then the Psalm moves abruptly back to joy: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”  In fact, in almost all of the lament psalms we have – and there are more lament psalms than any other kind – we find a shift at the end from lament to praise.  It may be that what the psalmist prayed for has come to pass, and then the ending was added.  But it might not be.  It might be that the psalmist himself or herself has come to a new place in relation to the situation and in relation to God.[2]  It might be that the psalmist has discovered that joy and dancing don’t have to depend on external circumstances.

What the psalms promise us is that while weeping may last for the night, joy comes with the morning.  Despair doesn’t have the last word.  In fact, that’s the central tenet of our faith rooted in resurrection: despair may linger, but it doesn’t get the last word.

But the psalms don’t promise is that this shift is always going to happen outside us, with a change in our circumstances.  It would be nice if that were the case, that sickness always ended in physical healing and the sources of our adversity were eventually removed.  But it’s not, at least not in this life.  Sometimes resurrection happens in our hearts instead.

The psalmist still gives God the glory: it is God who has turned weeping into dancing.  It is God who works this kind of change in our hearts – but, most often, at least, with our cooperation.

In the end, it’s possible to accept and embrace our real human emotions and also develop some mental immunity that will help get us get from weeping to dancing again.  Of course we’re still going to feel grief when tragedy strikes, but we don’t have to wallow in it forever.  And at the same time, little things don’t have to become big things.  The driver who cut you off on your way to work doesn’t have to ruin your whole day.  There is joy to be found that overcomes these obstacles.

So we come back to the question of how: how do we find joy in the midst of a world filled with fear, and anger, and grief, and loneliness, and despair, and envy, and adversity, and death?

I’ll be honest, as I was writing this sermon, my original intention was to go back to each of those eight obstacles and talk about how Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advise overcoming them.  I quickly realized that we were going to be here all day if I tried to do that.  So if you are interested in reading about them in more detail, I will commend to you this book.

What I did notice as I went through them was that the changes involved in overcoming each obstacle were actually pretty similar.  Each one requires us to intentionally reframe the circumstances we find ourselves in, to start to think about them differently so that we can respond to them differently.  (Let me repeat my disclaimer from last week that being able to do that probably requires a reasonable amount of mental health in the first place, and that God can absolutely work through medication and therapy as well.)

For example, in talking about frustration and anger, the Dalai Lama gave the example of someone he knew who was repairing an old car that had broken down.  As he came out from under the car, he banged his head on the fender.  He got so mad at this that he just started banging his head on the car over and over.  Obviously, this didn’t do him any good.

“When anger develops,” the Dalai Lama says, “think what is the cause? And then also think, what will be the result of my anger, my angry face, or my shouting?”  When we can answer these questions, it becomes easier to put some distance between ourselves and our anger, to see it more objectively.

Archbishop Tutu spoke of praying for the South African government officials who were responsible for upholding the apartheid regime – not just that they would have a change of heart, but also praying genuinely for their well-being.  (I sense a lot of us might feel like traitors if we did that.)  But, as Douglas Abrams put it, this “helped [the Archbishop] to love [those officials] rather than hate them, and ultimately made it possible to work with them to help transition the country to democracy.”[3]

There is joy to be found in the reframing of our circumstances.  When we are overcome by stress, we can choose to rethink our own goals and ambitions.  When we are sad and grieving, we can appreciate the way sadness binds us together with others, and may even gives us a sense of purpose – to live the way someone we lost would have wanted us to, for example.  When we are envious, we can challenge our own perception of “me” and “them” and think of the happiness this thing we envy must bring the other person.  When we are faced with death, we can redirect our focus toward the eternal.

I told you last week about a not-so-distant time in my life (when I was reading this book) that I was having trouble finding joy, and my reaction to suggestions like these was almost always, “It’s not that easy.”  I had some fights with these two spiritual leaders in the margins of my book.  You can’t just flip a switch, I would say.  You can’t just be angry, remember that you are supposed to be joyful instead, and all of a sudden feel joyful.

The truth is that it’s not that easy, and I don’t think either the Dalai Lama or Archbishop Tutu is saying that it is.  None of these things are meant to be quick fixes, and honestly I think a big part of my own problem is that I’ve expected them to be.  I think I should be able to count my blessings and automatically feel better. But in reality these are disciplines, meant to be practiced over and over until they become easier.  We Methodists would call this sanctification, the process of becoming more holy throughout our lives.  And it is always God who sanctifies us, never us by our own effort.  But that said, we do have to cooperate.

I want to end by actually working through one of the practices that the book provides that help us reframe the obstacles to joy we face.

(For those reading along at home, this is a practice that allows us to contemplate a situation that has given rise to a negative emotion in us and analyze it or look at it more objectively.  In it you are invited to bring to something that caused you fear, anger, or sadness, then ask yourself a series of questions: What is the source of this feeling?  Is this the only way to look at it?  What is the worst that could happen?  What were my expectations, and can I release them?  Is my [fear, anger, etc] helpful?)[4]

Use this practice to help you enter into the life of joy that God invites you into, which is a joy that doesn’t deny the suffering of life but also is strong enough to overcome it.  Because weeping may linger for the night, but if we allow God to work on our hearts, joy will come with the morning.

 

 

[1]  His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the second section of the book, “The Obstacles to Joy,” p. 83-168, unless otherwise specified.

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 21

[3] The Book of Joy, p. 319

[4] The Book of Joy, “Joy Practices,” p. 317-319

A Life of Joy: Joy That Endures

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18

Today I’ll open with a question: how do you define joy?

Joy is one of those things that we all want; we know we should have it, to be living fully as God desires for us; we know it when we feel it, and yet it can in fact be hard to define, and when we seek it, it can prove to be elusive.

A year or so ago, a book came out that was all about joy: what it is, what are the obstacles we face in finding it, and how we can intentionally cultivate it in our lives.  It’s called The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. [1] It might have been just any slightly cheesy self-help book, but this book was written based on a set of conversations between South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.  Both are spiritual giants (and/or religious celebrities) who are known, among other things, for the joy they seem to exude.

You may know from previous sermons I have preached that I’m a bit of a Desmond Tutu fangirl, and I consider him and his writing about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid instrumental in my early understanding of my call to ministry.  I do also appreciate the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, though his wisdom is that of a different religious tradition.  Anyway, when I saw this book was coming out, I knew I would have to get it.

Honestly, while I ordered the book largely for the names on the cover, the question of joy and how to find it was also a personal one for me.  I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but I can think of a couple semi-prolonged periods in my life that were probably kind of borderline.  I ended up reading this book, toward the beginning of this year, during one of those periods.  And so what I first approached as something that might make a good sermon series became a chance to ask for myself: what is joy, really?  And where do I find it, or how do I generate it, especially during a time when for one reason or another it seemed kind of hard to come by?

I’ve never really been one for easy answers to questions like these.  I’ve never liked, for example, the assumption that a strong faith alone would make me feel joyful.  Maybe it should – which is one of the things I’ve wrestled with some during those periods of my life that I have struggled – but that’s not always my experience. My faith may tell me that there is something bigger than what I am going through at the moment, but it doesn’t necessarily make me feel it.  And since even Mother Teresa famously experienced that “dark night of the soul” over much of her life and ministry, I know I’m not alone in that.  And I’ve also never liked the implication that if I could just remember to be thankful for what I have, then that would be the change in perspective I needed to make myself feel joyful.  In fact, this is the kind of thing that has often made me feel guilty, because I know how much I have to be thankful for – I’ve listed it out, regularly – and I don’t always understand why that doesn’t seem to translate into a feeling of joy.

I’m not going to tell you that this book changed everything for me.  Actually, I think the changing seasons and some extra vitamin D in my diet once a blood test showed my levels had dipped low again made a lot of difference.  I’ll add my disclaimer here: sometimes God works through things like vitamin D.  And antidepressants.  And anti-anxiety medication.  And good therapists.  If you need those things, or those are things that help you, that is not a negative judgment on your faith.  Those are resources God has given us to help.

Still, those are things that can help us lay the groundwork for joy, and help create the conditions for joy to take root in our lives, but they don’t create joy itself.

Neither can reading a book or hearing a sermon spontaneously create joy in our lives, but I do think Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, along with the science and research that writer Douglas Abrams brings in, can help us think about joy and where it does and doesn’t come from in new ways that might even find helpful.  So that’s what we’re going to do over these next few weeks.

Interestingly, for a book about joy, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama spent a lot of time in their conversations talking about suffering.

Both men have led lives that included some amount of suffering.  I don’t want to overstate that, since there are certainly people in the world who I imagine have it worse than two prominent spiritual leaders.  And yet the Dalai Lama, who was born in a rural part of eastern Tibet with the name Lhamo Dhondup, was taken away from his family at the age of two when he was found, according to their tradition, to be the next incarnation of the previous Dalai Lama.  He was raised in grandeur but also relative social isolation in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.  When he was 15, China invaded Tibet, and he was thrust into a life of diplomacy as he tried to rule his country, until nine years later when he decided to go into exile and escaped over the mountains to India.  Since then, he has not been home.

Archbishop Tutu, for his part, repeatedly put his life on the line as he helped lead the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  It was a long struggle that I’m sure must have often seemed thankless, and though the apartheid regime did of course fall, the struggle for racial equality and justice in South Africa is far from over.  These days he’s fighting prostate cancer, a very different kind of struggle.

And so one of the questions the book started out with, asked by Archbishop Tutu to the Dalai Lama, is “Why are you not morose?” In other words – how come you can be joyful, anyway?

I read that and was reminded of this passage from 2 Corinthians, which I’ve always loved.  The apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about some of the struggles he has faced.  He’s not specific about what troubles he’s referring to, and so it’s likely that some of them are physical persecution, imprisonment, and threats to his own life as he goes about his ministry, and that some of them also might be disappointments he’s faced in trying to build up these first churches in different places around the Roman Empire.

Paul writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Paul doesn’t use the word joy in this passage, but what he’s describing is life and wholeness and peace found despite or even within his own suffering.  Beneath it all, there is something good that endures, and that allows Paul to endure.

It’s natural that we may feel happier or less happy dependent on our circumstances in life.  We also know that circumstances aren’t everything.  In college, when I worked at my church’s Respite Care center for older and disabled adults, I knew a blind quadriplegic who was just about the sunniest person I had ever met.    And on the other hand, I think of someone like Robin Williams, who seemed to have it all, who was known for making other people laugh, and yet who took his own life.  (I know that gets back to mental health and again, any mental health struggles you may be having are not a judgment on you.)  But it is clear that how good we may or may not have things, outwardly, isn’t everything.

But it makes me wonder what it is that makes the difference.  Why is it that one person who is persecuted might feel forsaken, but not Paul?  Or that one person who is afflicted might be crushed, but Paul is not?

For Paul, when nothing we have is good, that’s when we can best know the goodness of God.  When our human power fails, that’s when we can mostly clearly see the power of God at work.  And when we are robbed of all the things we have that are temporary, that’s when we learn to value what is eternal.

I’ve already shared that this shift in perspective is not an easy or automatic thing for me.  I may believe this in my head and not in my heart.  And at the same time, there is a freedom in realizing that my circumstances, whether they are good or bad, don’t have to define me.  God is bigger than they are.  And God invites us into a life of joy, all of us, rich and poor, healthy and sick, persecuted and celebrated.

“We are fragile creatures,” says Archbishop Tutu, “and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy…We can face suffering a way that ennobles rather than embitters.  We have hardship without becoming hard.  We have heartbreak without becoming broken.”[2]

A commentary I was reading pointed out something interesting in this passage from 2 Corinthians, something I never paid much attention to before.  When I quote this passage, I usually stop after this litany of empowerment: “…persecuted, but not forsaken; stuck down, but not destroyed.” But Paul continues: “[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

Death is at work in us, but life in you?  You would think, this commentator said, that after talking about the life of Jesus being made visible in him, Paul would say his people “should be finding the same in [themselves].”  But the reason Paul is going through everything he is going through, the thing that keeps him going through all of it, is not just that he’s gaining something spiritual for himself.  It’s that he’s doing it for others – that others might know God and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Just as Jesus died that we might have life, Paul dies to himself every day so that others might have life.[3]

As it turns out, maybe that has something to do with Paul’s enduring joy despite his circumstances.

Paul can be afflicted but not crushed and persecuted but not forsaken and struck down but not destroyed because even when the power of death is at work all around him, God is at work bringing forth life – through Paul, and for others.

And because of that, for Paul too.

A theme that both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu return to again and again in their conversation is that true joy comes from opening ourselves up to othes.

For the Dalai Lama, meditating on his own suffering and the suffering of his people leads him to think of others in the world who are suffering.  It’s not about schadenfreude, or being relieved that someone else has it worse than you do, or giving thanks that you are not like other people.  It’s about seeing yourself as connected to other people, as part of a bigger picture of humanity.

Archbishop Tutu, for his part, appeals to the concept of ubuntu: the idea that a person is a person through other people.  “Ubuntu,” he says, “says that when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you.  … I mean simply to say that ultimately, our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.”

Have you ever had the experience of feeling sad, or grumpy, and something happened to pull you away from yourself and do something for someone else, and it completely changed your perspective?

When I was in seminary, the church where I was an intern had a women’s shelter in its basement.  As part of my internship, I used to go every Tuesday and talk and pray with the women who were there.  As a rule, I never wanted to head downtown on a Tuesday night to do this.  I was always tired.  I always had homework to do.  I did not feel joyful about sitting in Atlanta traffic.

And yet almost without exception, every Tuesday night, I drove home singing.

It’s easy, as we search for joy in this life, to search in the wrong places.  And I don’t just mean the obvious wrong places, like money and fame (though those too.)  I wonder – and I’m guilty of this – if we worry so much about finding our own bliss, our own self-fulfillment, our purpose, even our one true calling – that we stop really looking outward to how we can help and how we can serve.

In the end, as Archbishop Tutu puts it, if we set out seeking joy itself, we’re going to be disappointed.  The real question, he says, is not “How can I be happy?” but “How can I spread compassion and love?”

I said before that I don’t like easy answers, and I don’t think that this is a magic one either.  We may not always feel joyful, and that’s OK.  We’re human, just as God created us to be.  But if we are to seek a joy that endures, love and compassion and service to others seem like a good place to start looking.

That’s the life that God invites us into, as we learn day by day to die to ourselves, and offer life to others.

Do you want to be joyful?  How can you spread compassion and love?

 

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.  All quotes and references in this sermon come from the first section of the book, “The Nature of True Joy,” p. 30-64, unless otherwise specified.

[2] The Book of Joy, p. 11

[3] Ernest Best, Interpretation: Second Corinthians, p. 43.

You Will Know a Tree By Its Fruit

Scripture: Luke 6:43-45

I want to begin today by saying that I love the United Methodist Church.  I was baptized in it, formed in it, learned to understand my call to ministry in it, and have committed my vocational life to it.  And while the Body of Christ can never be encapsulated in just one denomination, I believe we the United Methodist Church are an important part of that Body with a message of God’s love and grace to share with the world.  I want you to believe that too.

So I would much rather stand up here today and tell you about all the wonderful things that we are doing together as United Methodists – things like Africa University in Zimbabwe, and young adult mission programs, and some awesome disaster relief efforts around the world – than tell you about how we are fighting.

But we are fighting, and I don’t think it does us any good to ignore that.  If you’ve been around for a while, you know that I’ve tried to update you occasionally on what’s going on, but in case you are new, basically there are deep divisions in the UMC, as in our surrounding culture, over the questions of same-sex marriage and whether people in same-sex relationships can be ordained as clergy.

We’ll get into some of the details of this conflict later during our Q&A time after worship, but right now I’ll just say that it’s gotten to a point in the denomination where basically everyone agrees we can’t just go on fighting like this, and we have to come to some sort of agreement, whether it’s a compromise, a split, or something else.  On February 23-26 in St. Louis, we will have a special General Conference, a denomination-wide meeting, specifically for the purpose of finding a “way forward.”

Again, this is a hard thing to talk about.  I know some of you are going to disagree with what I’m about to say.  Some of you might question my commitment to certain things you value.  I might even make some of you mad, though that is not my goal.  So, as I’ve said here before, if I do make you mad or uncomfortable, or if you have questions about where I’m coming from, I hope you’ll talk to me about them instead of just leaving angry.  I hope that today can be the beginning of some important and necessary conversations.

I know that you all probably hold a variety of opinions and beliefs when it comes to same-sex marriage and whether gay clergy should be ordained.  You come from different places around the world, different cultural contexts, and different generations.  You may or may not have people you love in your life who openly identify as LGBTQ.  All of those things contribute to the beliefs we hold.

Many of you have probably also found that your beliefs have evolved over time, as our cultural conversation and norms around same-sex relationships have changed.  Those of you who grew up in a time and place where these things were simply not talked about now live in a world where same-sex marriage is legal, where gay characters are routinely depicted in TV shows and movies, and where it’s very very likely that you know someone who is gay.

I’ll turn 35 next month, which means I grew up in a different world (as far as all this is concerned) than many of you who are older – and also a different world from those of you who are somewhat younger.  I know I seem young to some of you, but our cultural conversation around same-sex relationships and LGBTQ issues was very different in the mid-late 1990s, when I was first starting to become aware of it at all, than it is today.  And so my beliefs have evolved and changed over time, too.

I remember, for example, the first time I heard a rumor that a boy in my middle school was gay, and I thought it was weird, and maybe kind of gross.

I remember, in high school, going to an event that was jointly sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where they brought in a self-identified “ex-gay” person and had some debate and conversation around that, and I remember not being sure exactly what I thought or how my faith played into it.

I remember being in college and talking to my campus minister about the conversation that was going on in the United Methodist Church at that point, as I prepared to enter the ordination process.  I told him, at that time, that I thought same-sex marriage was OK.  But I didn’t feel like it was my personal cause.

This is the story of how it became my cause.

So often our hearts and minds are changed not because we heard a convincing argument, but because we met someone who didn’t fit into our boxes.  I met Dave at the very beginning of seminary, on registration day, when they gathered us into a room to fill out bubble sheets.  Later that morning he was in line ahead of me at the bookstore, and he said something about needing a lunch buddy.  I was all about making new friends, so I took an introvert-leap-of-faith and said, “I’ll be your lunch buddy.”  So Dave and I had lunch that day, and we ended up talking for hours, and at some point during that conversation, Dave told me about his partner, Jay.

Dave quickly became – and stayed – one of my best seminary friends, and he brought Jay into the fold of our group as well.  Dave was the first openly gay person I had ever been close to, and Dave and Jay were the first gay couple I had ever known well.

I was 23 and single when I met Dave.  He was in his thirties and had been with Jay for about three years.  They weren’t able to be legally married at that point, but they had a house together, and wore rings, and were committed to each other as husbands.  What I saw in their relationship, as I got to know them both, was exactly what I hoped to someday have in a relationship of my own.  They balanced each other ( with Jay’s even-tempered good humor to Dave’s constant enthusiasm); they supported each other; they had fun together; they weathered hard times together; they loved each other.  And they made each other better.  Obviously they had their own struggles and imperfections as everyone in any kind of relationship does – I don’t want to idealize their relationship or any category of relationships.  But I will still contend that they are one of the best couples I’ve ever known, and best suited to each other.

Jesus once said “A tree will be known by its fruit.”  Actually, he said it twice: once in Matthew and once in Luke.  He’s not talking about relationships, per se.  When he says these words in Matthew, he’s talking about how to recognize false prophets.  When he says them in Luke, he’s talking about knowing someone’s heart by the evidence you see in their words and their lives.  But I once heard a writer, whose name I can no longer remember and who the internet did not help me find, use this verse in the context of thinking about same-sex relationships, and that was helpful to me.  Because the fruit of Dave and Jay’s relationship, that I saw, was love and support and commitment and forgiveness and strength and joy.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to hear Jesus’ words here: a bad tree doesn’t bear that kind of fruit.

Over our three years in seminary I got to know a lot more about Dave and what life had been like for him before Jay.  He had been raised in a conservative Presbyterian denomination and much of its theology and evangelical spirit still resonated deeply with him.  Dave loved Jesus and wasn’t afraid to tell anyone about it.  He had long felt called to pastoral ministry, and had even begun seminary years before, at a school related to his conservative denomination.  He had also spent years praying to God every night to let him stop being gay, and Dave did his best to work with God on this one: he was even engaged to a woman for a time.  But it wasn’t honest, and it wasn’t sustainable.  Something had to give.

What gave was Dave’s relationship with his church and his hopes for ministry; even his relationship with his family became strained.

These days Dave and Jay live in southern California, where Dave is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.  They got married five years ago at the UCC General Synod, with over a thousand church people present.  And while he and his family may still have their theological differences, they realized over time that their love for each other was enough to overcome those.

For me, when my own denomination fights about whether same-sex couples should be able to get married or whether LGBTQ people should be able to be ordained, it’s not some faceless theological issue to discuss or debate.  It’s about Dave and Jay, and whether we can call their relationship good in the eyes of God, which I believe it is.  And it’s about whether Dave should be able to bring the immense passion for the Gospel and the real gifts he has to the leadership of a church.

To me, this fight we are having in the UMC is a fight over whether Dave should be welcome in my church.  Not just welcome as a sinner specifically called to repentance for a particular part of his identity; not just welcome as long as he sits there quietly and doesn’t act too gay; not just welcome as long as he doesn’t expect to have his marriage honored or celebrated here; not just welcome as long as he doesn’t expect to be able to share his gifts for leadership in the same way I can – but welcome, as he is.

It honestly hurts my heart that I can’t say that’s the case.

I know – I know – that if we’re going to have a biblical argument, it’s easier to make a case against same-sex relationships than for them.  Loving, committed same-sex relationships were simply not a thing that were on anyone’s radar thousands of years ago in the Ancient Near East.  And so when same-sex sexual activity occurred, it seemed to people to violate something about the world as they understood it.  And so Leviticus forbids a man from sleeping with another man.  And so in several of Paul’s letters same-sex sexual activity is named as a sign of sinfulness.  There are certainly conversations we can have about the translations and intent behind those passages, but there are no scriptures I can point to and say, “This is where God specifically condones same-sex relationships.”

But I don’t believe the only or most faithful way to read the Bible is to take ancient laws that come out of ancient social contexts and try to directly apply them to life today.  And, in fact, most of us intuitively get this, which is the reason we do things like wear clothing made out more than one kind of fabric, which is forbidden by Leviticus; or why we don’t make women wear head coverings in church, as instructed by Paul.  We know that we have to look for the larger message of who God is and what God wants from us.

When I read the Bible – not just a few select verses but the whole story of God’s people – I am confronted with a story of God breaking down the barriers that human beings set up to divide ourselves from each other.

In one of my favorite stories in Acts, Peter confronts an issue that would threaten to divide the early church.  Peter is an observant Jew, and that means he keeps kosher – he doesn’t eat certain foods forbidden by Leviticus.  But then one day he has a vision in which God tells him to eat non-kosher food.  And just as he has this vision, there’s a knock on the door.  It’s the messengers of Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman (not a Jew).

If you were going to have a strictly biblical argument, it might have been easier to make the case that Peter shouldn’t go to Cornelius’s house.  There he might be served and eat non-kosher food.  And if you were going to have a biblical argument, it would have been easier to make the case that Cornelius never should have been fully welcomed into the church, not without becoming Jewish, and yet when Peter goes to Cornelius’s house he hears testimony of the new things the Holy Spirit is doing, and Peter becomes the champion of including people like Cornelius.  It becomes his cause.  He sees the fruit of the Holy Spirit moving in Cornelius’s life, and no matter what his prior convictions may have told him, he knows this tree must be good.

I believe that sometimes we find that all our best theologies can’t stand up against love and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

You might tell me that I can’t just throw away the parts of the Bible I don’t like.  I agree.  I believe we need to read the Bible seriously and prayerfully with an understanding of the ancient culture in which it was written and with our hearts open to what it has to say to us today, including when that convicts us.  I believe that it’s not always easy work to discern what aspects of an ancient culture are meant to apply to us today, and in what way, and it takes humility and discernment to figure it out.

I also believe in a God I meet through Scripture who made an unimaginably diverse creation and called it good.  I believe in a God who wants us to love one another, fully, even when doing so stretches us and our belief systems.  I believe in a God who wants to knock down the walls that divide us.  I believe in a God who calls us to lives of mercy, and hospitality, and justice, and joy.

I don’t always practice those things perfectly, but I know them when I see them.  You will know a tree by its fruit.

My prayer for my beloved church is that we will open our hearts to see God’s grace and goodness in ways, and people, and relationships, we may never have expected.