Freedom for Joy

There’s a lot of talk about freedom and liberty these days, and whenever I hear the word freedom, my mind instantly goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the beautiful interpretations by Normal Rockwell. In his 1941 state of the union address, FDR proposed people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy:

Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear

These freedoms are much of what Unitarian Universalism is about – we speak of them in our principles, which affirm, among other things, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience; the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community; and Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Noble – strong – affirming. But as I read our principles, and as I think about FDR’s four freedoms, something is missing.

And it’s something we don’t seem to embrace, almost as though we don’t believe it is our right to have it. That something is joy.

We are, as Garrison Keillor puts it, “God’s Frozen people.” Given a choice at death between spending eternity in the joy of heaven or in a discussion about the existence of heaven, UUs will choose the discussion. We are incredibly earnest, hardworking, compassionate people, who forget how funny the church parking lots full of Priuses with “coexist” bumper stickers look to outsiders. We wonder in amazement when during a committee meeting check-in someone actually has good news.

A search of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Worship Web returns ZERO results for the keyword ‘joy’.

There is a little joy in our hymnal – we get “Joy to the World” at Christmastime and “There Is More Joy Somewhere” – but that’s about it.

We don’t tend to be expressive in our worship.

Some of our African-American ministers have suggested that if we were more joyful, and more expressive about our joy in our worship, we would be a long way toward the multicultural vision we have for our denomination. But many outside of the protestant European-American diaspora find our services – as a rule – stuffy, full of somber reflection, lacking in play and laughter.

We stifle our joy, because we are serious people in serious times.

Why are we not joyful? Why all the embarrassment about being happy? Why do we not feel free for joy?

I pick on UUs a little, much like we pick on our sisters and nephews and cousins, out of love and long-standing relationship. I was born into a Unitarian family, and while my spiritual journey took me out of our congregations for many years, my return was much like that of the prodigal son. I was welcomed back in, without question, my chosen congregation, upstate in Saratoga Springs, making me feel like a place had always been saved for me. Like the father in the New Testament parable, our denomination said “let us celebrate and rejoice, for she was lost and now has been found.”

So I pick on us a little, because I know that given a little prod, a little permission, we can embrace our freedom for joy.

Now I hear you thinking, “there is so much suffering in the world! How can we possibly be joyful?  We live in such a difficult, tragic world, that it is a denial of our common darkness to jump for joy!” And you might, rightly, quote theologian Fredrick Buechner to me, who said, “Compassion… is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

If we postpone joy until all the world is fed and clothed and peaceful and free – if we postpone joy until FDR’s four freedoms are a reality – we will spend generations in a dark and joyless world.

And that is so sad, for joy is an upswelling of life, of spirit, a blossoming of freedom. We are here for joy; philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would add that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Joy is what makes life worthwhile. And yes, we can be joyful AND work to make the world just and safe and free; as poet Kahil Gibran said, “He who has not looked on Sorrow will never see Joy.” Joseph Campbell advises us to “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

A few years ago, two of the teens from our congregation spent a week working on a project in a poor neighborhood in the city of San Salvador; their project? Paint a mural. Studies have shown that brightly colored murals on long, foreboding walls and abandoned buildings will actually bring crime rates down. Alongside other Americans, the priests who ran the project, and some of the neighborhood’s teens, Alie and Emma painted by day and wondered by night – each evening, the families in this neighborhood would prepare sumptuous meals despite their own poverty; and they would dance and sing with wild abandon in celebration of these visitors from the north. Alie remarked to one of the priests how surprised she was that these people who had no running water, little money, meager and crowded homes, and a constant fear of crime, disease, and death, would be so joyful. The priest replied that when you have literally nothing, you celebrate everything you do have – even if all you have is a soul touched by God. Even in shockingly oppressive conditions, there is one freedom no one can take away; your joy. Or as composer Richard Wagner put it, “Joy is not in things, it is in us.”

Now this isn’t to say that we should only look on the bright side in the face of injustice. We don’t have to look far to see that we’re in a real pickle:

Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine.

There is a clear and present danger to women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s dignity, with more and more draconian laws being passed to turn back 100 years of progress.

As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably, and continue to do so.

Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests.

The Borderlands continue to be a crucible for racism, poverty, oppression, and violence.

Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions. And they aren’t getting their due.

Religion is being used as a weapon against nearly everyone – and ‘freedom of religion’ is being perverted for deleterious causes.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ and genderQueer youth are killing themselves.

Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.

Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe.

Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and threaten post-secondary education as well.

Racism thrives.

Are you depressed yet? Are you angry yet? Angry enough to do something? Good. In his book Between Heaven and Mirth, Jesuit priest James Martin writes, “The anger that rises in you over an unjust situation may be a sign that God is moving you to address that injustice. …but where is joy then? It comes from an awareness that God is working through the compassion you feel.”  And remember: you don’t have to do everything – many hands make light work. And those hands are even lighter when they are accompanied by a smile, a laugh, and a little hope.

When you listen to the songs created by Africans who were enslaved in this country, something sticks out:  they are all remarkably hopeful. Again, you would think a people so horribly and appallingly oppressed, would have little to be hopeful about; yet it is hope and joy that is the organic pulse of life, not oppression. It is faith, born in the midst of deep suffering, that allows the oppressed to hope for liberation and a vision of freedom. Joy and hope exist in the spirituals of the 19th century, and the blues of the 20th century; even today, as theologian James Cone remarks, joy and hope exist in the sermons, songs, and stories of the oppressed as they “respond to the vision that stamps dignity upon their personhood.”


So to be joyful is to be dignified!?

Why not? What, in the rule books, says we have to be stoic in order to carry dignity? Well, besides Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations – a rule book for Stoics. In fact, aren’t we more attracted to people who express joy rather than hide it behind the façade of gravitas? I think of Teresa of Avila, who said “let each of us humbly use joy to cheer one another.”

Cheering each other with joy is easy, because joy is contagious. When we express joy – through laughter, and dancing, and cheering, and singing, and even smiling – we share a little of that divinity with each other, and maybe help each other.

How many times have you been in a rotten mood and have been wallowing in it? You know the kind – the day started badly from the moment you put your feet on the cold floor made dismayingly damp by the puppy. Then there was no hot water in the shower. You spilled the used, wet coffee grounds on the counter. And once you got to work, you received a text from your daughter, upset because you forgot to sign the permission slip for today’s field trip. You are in a foul mood, and no one better get in your way. You wallow in it. You grumble audibly. You scowl and curse and fume, creating a PigPen-like cloud of disconsolate misery that follows wherever you go.

And then some wiseacre cracks a joke. You force yourself to not smile. “I’m not in the mood” you might say. But instead of leaving, this guy keeps it up, ribbing you playfully, maybe telling you how it could be worse – that you could have had your arms full of burgers and fries and shakes and trip on the door jamb just as you’re entering the room of your friends waiting for their lunches…. Or that you could have watched your bookbag full of final exam essays blow off the top of your car as you pulled away from the street, papers flying all over including squarely in the face of your neighbor – the judge, or how you could have hit a puddle just right so that it created a wave that drenched three nuns standing on the curb. You stifle your laugh and your lighthearted tormentor is not gonna let up and you fight it and fight it … until dammit, you can’t help it… and you guffaw.

And you feel a little better. Maybe the stress of the morning releases a little. Maybe you realize that sometimes we just have lousy mornings, and they help us appreciate the good ones a bit more. We laugh at ourselves and psychologically get out of our own way. Trappist monk Thomas Merton felt that “the main reason we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously.” Reverend David Robb, over at All Souls, says that “those who can laugh at themselves can also look at themselves critically, but not harshly, as key element of emotional growth.”

That’s… joy.

Balm for a troubled soul.

The Persian mystic Hafiz would call it “the glorious sound of a soul waking up.”

Again, the caveat – I’m not saying we have to be joyful all the time. Sadness, anger, fear, anxiety – they’re all natural responses, and even desirable. They show we are emotionally alive. But joy shouldn’t be left out of that mix; nor should our freedom to express it. And maybe Joy – rather than melancholy or bitterness or sadness – maybe Joy should be our default setting.

So how do we all embrace our freedom for joy?

First: practice gratitude.

It doesn’t take much: you can start by thinking of one thing you are grateful for right this moment. Now practice that every day – like all new skills, start small – take one moment. Then build it up – maybe be grateful for something when you wake up (I’m grateful I woke up) and when you go to bed (I’m grateful for clean sheets). Add a little gratitude to your meals (I’m grateful for this food) and your commute (I’m grateful there’s a seat on the bus), and before you know it, you’ll be practicing gratitude. And you all know what happens when you are grateful for something – BAM! A little joy comes in.

Next: Practice the Principle of Delayed Understanding.

Sometimes we get so busy focusing on what is happening as it is happening, we forget to experience what is happening. We’re constantly analyzing it, looking for angles, and we get serious and thoughtful and then our thoughts take us someplace that might be sad or annoying and we start wondering why this came up and do I really blame my mother and maybe my cat would like me more if I wore catnip-scented perfume and before you know it, you’ve missed the moment.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says that life is lived forward but understood backward; motivational speaker David Roche calls this the principle of delayed understanding. If we would just let go, we’ll experience what’s happening just fine and remember it later. The yogi Ram Dass would tell us to “be here now” – yes, it’s a way to find peace, but it’s also a way to find joy. Figure out what it all means later…be here now.

Third – and I’ll close with this idea, which is a riff off Ghandi – be the joy you want to see in the world.

This one is a bit tougher. Many of us work or study in places that are full of strife, conflict, negativity, and at the very least, complaining. The cliché misery loves company is a cliché because it’s true. It’s easier to say “me too” when someone complains than say “gee, not me!” Yet if we remember that We are not our Environment – and that we have an effect on our environment – then we can hold on to those moments of gratitude, the contagion of humor, the perspectives that allow us to share a smile instead of a frown – and maybe bring a little joy in. You are in a joyless place? Be joyful. Not sticky sweet Disney princess joyful – but honestly, gratefully, mirthfully joyful. Translate that to our congregations: be joyful in worship, in committee meetings, working for justice, caring for our community. We are already known as the Church of the Yellow Shirts – let us also be known as the Religion of Joy.

I’ve had plenty of traumas in my life – and I have worked at some soulless places. But one comment I get constantly is “you are always smiling.” In fact, when I told some colleagues I was preaching on joy, they said “there’s no one better – you embody joy.” I think my colleagues were being kind, because a lot of times it’s not easy to be joyful. I do suffer from episodic depression. I do go through spells of deep mourning and melancholy. But because I know – and remember most of the time – that I am made for joy, I can look at the world with hope. Yes, I am an optimist – because the alternative is unbearable. Despite the pain, it’s much more bearable to let joy be my default position.

So let us embrace this freedom, and let joy propel us and buoy us as we work to nurture the world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

If freedom is the ability to make choices, let us be free to make a choice for joy.

Note: This was originally written as a sermon, delivered at the UU Congregation of Queens. To read it in its original form, click here.

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