“Rejoice…always, again I say Rejoice.”
How many of you bristle at this kind of enforced happiness?
This time of year is tricky. Coping with joy is always tricky, but this time of year especially. I worked in retail for almost a decade, so this time of year triggers some very specific, and not always pleasant memories. I don’t seek out crowds at any time, but this time of year, I actively avoid them. I shudder at the chirpy, treacly Christmas music. I squint at the more garish displays of “Christmas cheer.” And…I’m afraid to admit any of this for fear of being labeled “a Grinch” or a “Scrooge” and being told to “get with the program! Come on! Rejoice already! I love Christmas. I love Advent, and putting up the tree and decorating it. I love our traditions, and celebrating with you all. I look forward to Lessons and Carols, and the party afterwards, and to the Xmas eve services which are so deeply joyful and lovely. I’m not a Grinch, but this time of year, when I’m outside of these hallowed walls, I feel my armor going up, and, ironically, that makes it harder to cope with joy.
Wait a minute. Does he keep saying “cope with joy?” He has to “cope with joy?” Yes, I did. Joy is something we all have trouble dealing with—all year long—it just gets pronounced in Advent. Brené Brown, who has been researching shame and belonging and resilience and vulnerability for two decades says that “joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” [She says this in a variety of places—here for example, most of the ideas in this sermon come from a reading of her most recent book, Dare to Lead.]
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience,” she says, “and if you cannot tolerate joy…you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” Or what we call in my house, “disaster planning.”
“Life is so pretty good right now…there’s no way it can last.” Or you’re looking at someone you really love, and you have this intense feeling of love and joy…and almost immediately you picture something terrible happening to them and what you would do if that happened. I know I’ve done that… She calls this “foreboding joy.”
We can’t handle the kind of vulnerability that joy invites us into so we flip it into a tragedy, and start doomsday prepping…because it’s easier. Rehearsing tragedy is easier than leaning in to the vulnerability…the openness…that joy invites us into.
We’ve got this tension right in our readings today…On the one hand you’ve got Zephaniah and Paul exhorting you to Rejoice! Come on…! Don’t worry, be happy! Turn that frown upside down…And then…you’ve got…“You brood of vipers!” So even if you allowed yourself to experience a bit of joy with Zephaniah…be just a little bit vulnerable with Paul…here come’s John and … See. I knew it. That armor goes up, and we’re hunkering down.
And when that happens…we start getting isolated…and disconnected…and numb…and “sorely hindered by our sins.”
So what’s the way out? We need to learn how to tolerate joy—how to cultivate joy. Now, let’s be clear, joy and happiness—not the same thing? Happiness is fleeting…it comes and goes… it’s sort of external…you see something, or hear something and you feel happy (for a moment). Joy emerges from within. Joy is something that roots you to the ground and wells up. It is entirely possible to experience joy and not be happy all at the same time. I have lots of joy in the run up to Christmas…but I’m not always happy then.
And the practice that lies at the root of joy is…gratitude. Joy and gratitude are inextricable. You can’t will joy into existence…but you can practice gratitude. And gratitude is something you have to intentionally practice. I was raised, like many of you were, to say “please,” and “thank you.” And I’m also aware, that while saying, “thank you,” is nice, when it becomes completely rote, its meaning is diminished. So I’ve one of my Advent practices is that in my morning prayers, to try and name specific things I am grateful for… actually saying, “I am grateful for….” I haven’t worked up to keeping a gratitude journal, or creating gratitude art, but those are both good things and if it works for you, great.
I’ve only been doing this for a few weeks and already I’m becoming aware of several things. First, when I start being specific…I’m grateful for this person for this reason…I’m reminded of another person, and another, and before long there’s a whole web of connections built simply through gratitude.
Second. I’m more aware of things that get in my way….I have to do this practice first thing in the morning…before I open the paper, or turn on my news feed…because after that…it’s harder to be grateful…or joyful…As soon as the world rushes in via whatever media, I move into feelings of scarcity—not about material things necessarily, but the culture we live in pounds a message of scarcity into our heads…That what ever it is we have…who ever it is we are…it’s not enough. What ever it is we’re doing…we either doing it wrong, or at least we could be doing it better. We could be more, have more, do more, accomplish more…more more more more…and this just all makes me feel…not enough…it’s scarcity thinking. It’s the opposite of gratitude. And I think this is what’s happening to people who meet John out by the river. They’re caught up in the disaster planning, and scarcity thinking…“Oh, it’s bad and getting worse…What should we do?” And John prescribes the medicine of generosity and gratitude…”If you are able share what you have…do it…not so one has more, but so that you both have enough. If you want to let go of feeling like there’s never enough…then stop grasping for more….stop collecting more…stop extorting more….Be satisfied with what you have…be grateful for what you do have…and things will begin to change.
Learning how to not simply cope with joy but actually learning how to live into joy is an incredibly courageous and vulnerable act. Having a real practice of gratitude helps, but we will still have those moments when we experience real joy…when we’re looking at our beloved…and we feel joy and almost simultaneously feel that cold hand of dread—the “what ifs…” In those moments…Brené Brown suggests trying this…instead of launching into a full-on disaster plan, use it as a reminder to practice gratitude. “I’m so glad I’m here to see this.” “I’m so grateful for this experience…however fleeting.” If you practice that…really practice it…I promise you you’ll experience a change.
Last week Anoma encouraged us to prepare for Christmas by slowing down…being silent…learning how to wait…This week, I’m encouraging you to try on some practice of gratitude, because it will open you up to experience the true joy…the deep abiding…scary, open-hearted, literally life-giving joy of Christmas.
Above is a DRAFT of the homily, and likely varies considerably from the recorded version. Please do not cite without permission.