Nov 30 2015
Looking for Joy in All the Right Places
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
When I meet with the Worship Associates to begin planning our December worship services, I groan as we turn toward the month’s theme of Joy. How can joy make me protest? Well, it’s the media’s relentless insistence on good cheer—as though happiness can be produced on demand. It’s the nonstop soundtrack of perky holiday songs—enjoyable for the first few weeks, not so much after that. It’s the shopping frenzy that skyrockets earlier and earlier each year, even as it draws me up in its wake. Kudos to all of you who find December joyful from the get-go, but I confess: the symptoms of the season can turn your Senior Minister into a bit of a “Bah, humbug!” kind of person.
The theme brings up other questions, too. What is joy, anyway? Does the quality of joy change over time for each of us? Maybe I’m holding joy to the wrong standard, expecting elation when quiet contentment now signals my own deeper experience of joy.
In response to all this puzzling, Worship Associate Brian Singer and I give ourselves some homework: Every day, we will make a list of everything that brings us joy, large or small, between November 11 and December 13, when he and I lead worship together.
I am failing at this homework. Oh, there have been plenty of sweet moments since Brian and I concocted this plan, but somehow I still resist listing these things as “joy.”
What’s up with that?
I bet it has something to do with my most common theme: that we are called to live with broken-openheartedness. As I write, we are flooded with news of violent attacks and with violent responses to those attacks. We wait anxiously to hear whether the United Nations Climate Summit in wounded Paris will produce effective responses to climate disruption. Heck, when we look at the woes of the world—both far away and nearby—they are enough to make anyone glum.
And yet—my better self reminds me that it’s not enough to stay stuck there. Why are the December holidays associated with joy, after all? At the heart of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa lie some common themes. Each of them offers the promise of new life: whether it comes in the form of an amazing liberation struggle and the miracle of light, or in the birth of a humble child who teachings of love will change the world, or in the celebration of a rich heritage and the renewal of commitment to community. Each one calls us to connect to something larger than ourselves. These holidays promise that we will find joy in these connections.
So today, I finally start my homework—my list of small daily joys. As coauthor Karin and I start our trip to Phoenix, I notice the joy sparked by conversations with strangers we meet along the way: with the taxi driver who is proud of his profession; with the baristas at the airport Starbucks where our smiles and warm wishes really do make for a better day; with the cashier at the newsstand, where I buy handfuls of beautiful greeting cards—a silly card for my brother who turns 70 today; several copies of a card that says, “In my imaginary universe you live right next door”; a Thanksgiving card that quotes our Unitarian ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson; and thank-you cards for the folks who will put me up in Phoenix. I imagine the pleasure these cards will bring to their recipients. The cashier and I joke about how much the cards will cost, and laugh when both of us guess too low. Sure, I see the irony in my getting some joy out of shopping, but on a deeper level, I also see that I managed to connect to something larger than my own grumpy self.
And suddenly joy doesn’t seem so hard to find! Listening to my own inner guides (rather than the corporate ads and soundtracks) and turning my thoughts toward those around me, a hundred ways to find joy occur to me.
So, friends, let us engage in this spiritual practice of finding—and creating joy—this season. Let us connect with something larger than ourselves. Let us model compassionate, loving responses to the world’s woes and to our own broken hearts. This is the “new life” that will make the holidays meaningful for us Unitarian Universalists. This is the miracle that we can create together. Come, my boon companions, let us go looking for joy in all the right places!
With renewed hope and joy,
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