Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; John 16:20-22
The Rev. Tom Herbek
Oct. 9, 2016
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we consider the times in our life when we weep, when we mourn. Today, I would ask that we consider the second half of those phrases from Ecclesiastes 3:4, a time to laugh and a time to dance. But, ironically, we cannot have the second part without having experienced the first part. In John 16, Jesus urges the disciples to remember that joy is only birthed through pain.
In her first book entitled, Speaking of Faith, journalist Krista Tippett describes a place where she discovered moments of joy that completely surprised her:
In New Haven I worked as a chaplain on the Alzheimer’s and dementia floor – Wooster II – of a home and hospital for the elderly. The people there reversed all the rules of social discourse of the life I had led up to then. They would ask me my name but never remember it. They were not interested in my background and education, the places I’d seen, the titles I’d held, the credentials- in other words, all with which I had presented and positioned myself in the world. They would only know whether I was kind, gentle, patient, a good listener.
Unlike their children, spouses, and friends who were grieving the incremental loss of the person they had known for a lifetime, I had no memory of their former selves. I could come to know them and love them as they were now, and this was my greatest gift to them. But they gave me far more.
I have always been invested in ideas, in words, in the presentation of words. The people on Wooster II took me out of my head. They taught me the gravity of nonverbal presence – of eye contact and touch. I learned to accept silence, not to fill it with talk, to respect the immensity of what eyes and hands alone could express. The ideas I had read came back to me on that dementia ward- the notion that in the end, the reality of God is most powerfully expressed not in ideas and proclamations but in presence. I sometimes felt that presence palpably in silence and the searching bond of raw togetherness between us. I could not begin to take away their suffering. But I sat with it, with them. Sometimes we seemed to summon a palpable joy, a redemptive presence larger than ourselves, that made it all more bearable, if just in moments.
For ten years, I was a chaplain supervisor, teaching clinical skills to seminarians and newly minted ministers. I am amazed by how often my chaplaincy students used to ask me what would be “the right words” to say to someone. After a while they began to realize that, most often, their words were usually the least important helping resource that they had. In the same way, what most often brings us joy is the opposite of what we might think.
I just finished The Book of Joy, transcribed by Douglas Abrams and describing a meeting between South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama as they talked together for a week about “Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.”
“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,” the Archbishop noted, “save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”
“It’s wonderful to discover that what we want is not actually happiness. It is not actually what I would speak of. I would speak of joy. Joy subsumes happiness. Joy is the far greater thing. Think of a mother who is going to give birth. Almost all of us want to escape pain. And mothers know that they are going to have pain, the great pain of giving birth. But they accept it. And even after the most painful labor, once the baby is out, you can’t measure the mother’s joy. It is one of those incredible things that joy can come so quickly from suffering.
It seems to me that we have heard this before, as the writer of John’s gospel reminds us. So how do we find joy in our life? Douglas Abrams questions Desmond Tutu:
Many people are waiting for happiness or joy. When they get a job, when they fall in love, when they get rich, then they will be happy, then they will have joy. You are talking about something that is available right now, without waiting for anything.
The Archbishop considered his response carefully. “I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.” Was it really that straightforward? Did we just need to stimulate and satisfy our dedicated brain circuit of generosity? As if anticipating my skepticism, the Archbishop continued, “It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate.”
The Dalai Lama added that we must train our mind:
“One time I was in Jerusalem,” the Dalai Lama said, “and I met with a teacher who used to tell his students, ‘When you are irritated or angry with someone, you should remember that they are made in the image of God.’ Some of the students in the class were Palestinians, and they had to cross through Israeli checkpoints. They told him that when they would get nervous and irritated, they would think that these soldiers were made in the image of God, and they would relax and feel better. At the physical level one has to act accordingly, but at the mental level one can remain calm and relaxed. This is how you train the mind.”
Both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu strongly affirm that there are two keys to finding joy:
One is forgiveness, and one is gratitude. Abrams tells the story of Anthony Ray Hinton:
Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He was working in a locked factory at the time of the crime that he was being accused of. When he was arrested in the state of Alabama, he was told by the police officers that he would be going to jail because he was black. He spent thirty years in a five-by-seven-foot cell in solitary confinement, allowed out only one hour a day. During his time on death row, Hinton became a counselor and friend not only to the other inmates, fifty-four of whom were put to death, but to the death row guards, many of whom begged Hinton’s attorney to get him out.
When a unanimous Supreme Court ruling ordered his release, he was finally able to walk free. “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away,” he told me. “People run out of the rain. I run into the rain. How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious? Having missed the rain for so many years, I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.”
When Hinton was interviewed on 60 Minutes, the interviewer asked whether he was angry at those who had put him in jail. He responded that he had forgiven all the people who had sent him to jail. The interviewer incredulously asked, “But they took thirty years of your life – how can you not be angry?”
Hinton responded, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”
Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama said repeatedly that the way we heal our pain is to reach out to the pain in others, and it is then that our joy becomes contagious, our love, our compassion, our generosity become contagious to those around us.
We have been taught that we must do everything we can to avoid pain, and in some ways that is true, but not in all ways. We come together with others especially in the tough times. As Abrams writes:
Sadness is in many ways the emotion that causes us to reach out to one another in support and solidarity. The Archbishop expressed it quite wonderfully when he explained, “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunkydory-ness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”
But without the right words to say, without the necessary training, how can we help? Tutu calls on us to recognize the gifts we do have, in humility:
“Humility is the recognition that your gifts are from God, and this lets you sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.”
It is ironic that, as we become more compassionate and more comfortable with our ability to make a difference for others, we experience joy in ways that surprise us. And a crucial response for us in order to experience joy is to also be compassionate to ourselves. Perhaps hardest for those of us who are do-ers and care-ers and really compassionate with others, is to learn to be compassionate to ourselves.
Psychologist Kristin Neff has identified ways to express self-compassion: “When we treat ourselves with compassion, we accept that there are parts of our personality that we may not be satisfied with, but we do not berate ourselves as we try to address them. When we go through a difficult time, we are caring and kind to ourselves, as we would be to a friend or relative. When we feel inadequate in some way, we remind ourselves that all people have these feelings or limitations. When things are hard, we recognize that all people go through similar challenges. And finally, when we are feeling down, we try to understand this feeling with curiosity and acceptance rather than rejection or self-judgment.”
In order to experience joy, our compassion must also extend to ourselves.
At the end of the week-long dialogue between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, these two good friends and wise spiritual leaders, Abrams asked Desmond Tutu if he would like to give the readers of this book a blessing, and this is what he said:
“Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter– and joy.
God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing. And God says, “Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this – hey, presto – you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift for this caring for others.”
May we all, each of us in our own way, fellow journeyers in life with this compassionate, caring church family, discover joy. And, as the Archbishop suggests, may we hear God’s call to each of us: “Please, my child, help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion.” And then, as Jesus once said, “No one will then take your joy from you!”