Making the Choice for Joy

Ancient Testimony - Galatians 2:1, 22-25

May 22, 2011

by James W. Fraser

First, I want to thank Michael and Donna for the invitation to preach this spring.  I am a preacher at heart—it gives me joy!—and it is nice when there are occasions for that to be useful to my community here at Judson.

I also want to thank Jean, Jenny, and Ruby for agreeing to be part of this service and bring their gifts to us.  And I want to say a very special thank you to Peter.  Anyone who has ever preached or led a service at Judson knows that Peter is the person who holds everything together here… so if we fall apart a little bit in the next few weeks, it will be a lesson for all of us in Peter’s gifts.  You are going to be missed, Peter.

As a general rule, I have a standard structure for sermons: start with the texts and then move to their meaning (as I see it) and then to the present.  I nearly always follow that structure.  But today I’m not; rather, I am starting today with a lesson I have learned—sometimes learned the hard way—that has been among the most important in my life.  The result is a sermon that is a little more personal than I am normally comfortable with.  But the lesson has been important to me on my journey, and that lesson is that joy is a choice.  We do, I believe, make a choice to be joyful/joy-filled people—or not—quite before we get to the elements that most people think of as making us happy.

I did not learn this lesson easily.  There was a time in my life when I was feeling pretty messed up and pretty confused.  I did the traditional therapy route, which I concluded was more helpful on diagnosis than cure.  I suspect I am not the only one here who was an adult child of an alcoholic father and an enabling mother.  I spent much of my childhood in a kind of shuttle diplomacy between my two parents, trying to anticipate their wants before they voiced them, trying to keep things reasonably calm on the home front, trying to keep up the outward appearances of normality when, in fact, nothing was normal at home.  I found ways to dissemble, to work around my father and my mother, to make sure he did not have a clue what I was thinking or doing, and as a result developed a political antenna that today I am proud of.

The problem, of course, is though I could anticipate my parents’ moods, or those of other people, quite well, and keep things cooled out, I did not have a clue about what I wanted, or that I had a right to want anything.  And while traditional therapy was helpful on the diagnosis—I understood all too well what my patterns were and where they came from—I needed something beyond just an understanding of the situation. 

I found a spiritual director who moved me in a different way.  He did not ask, “How did things get this way?” but rather, very simply, “What do you want?”  And when the “What do you want?” question failed—I could not imagine an answer for it—he simply asked, “What is your intention for today?”  And that simpler question I could begin to answer. 

For me there was no magic moment, no dramatic change, just a slow and not always steady dawning of something new.  And so, finally, I was able to answer the question, “What do you want in your life?” with a very clear answer:  “I want honesty.  I want clarity.  And I want joy.”  I wanted that joy very much.  And with these answers came a capacity to draw these things into my life and make them real.  And with that clarity, I then found relationships easier, work easier, life easier.

My route to this lesson may be unique, but I think the outcome is actually quite common.  We have to want honesty and clarity and joy in order to get honesty and clarity and joy.  The odd thing, of course, is that we live in a culture that is constantly selling happiness, even joy, by a different route.  We see it all around us:  Go to this play, concert, nightclub; it will give you joy.  Buy this expensive outfit; the way people respond will give you joy.  Do enough exercises and your buff body will give you joy.  Use Tide on your laundry; the white sheets will give you joy.

And most of us have enough sense to take all of that with a very large grain of salt.  But we have more trouble when it gets to more “important” things in our lives.  We easily fall into a kind of if/then approach to joy:  If I get the job I want, then I will be happy.  If I get a new and different job or tenure or a book contract or a promotion and a raise or a good pension, then I will be happy.  If I meet the right person, get into the right relationship, then I will be happy.  If I find the right apartment in Manhattan, then I will be happy.

But I am convinced it never works that way. The job, the person, the contract, the raise, the apartment may make us happy for a little bit, but it tends to fade all too quickly.  But the decision to be happy, to be joyful—if that comes first—can attract all sorts of good things to us and also help us to deal in better ways with all the not-so-good things that cross our path.

Now I want to be very careful here.  I am quite aware that everything I am saying this morning can all too easily be twisted into a kind of victim-blaming lesson; you know, “Your life is screwed up, well, it must be because you didn’t make the choice for joy!”  You are deep in depression, or a victim of bipolar illness: “Well, all you have to do is choose joy and it will be okay.” 

There are times of loss when joy just isn’t an option.  There are times of illness or when the chemical makeup in our bodies is not cooperating, when talk about “choosing joy” is just plan crazy.

A wise teacher once said:

There comes a time when such a viewpoint as “Yes, one creates one's own reality” is so misused that it ceases to have meaning.  Any truth misused becomes a half truth, and half truths are far more destructive than absolute fabrication because they bring with them enough of the flavor of truth that one fears to reject them.1

But sometimes—often—there are circumstances where it does work to make the choice for joy.  This is a deeper kind of decision, a decision to choose life, to choose to celebrate the good stuff and to mourn the bad stuff; to know that life is a cycle, but in that cycle we also have choices to make.

The choice for joy is not an easy one.  Ever.  It is not, ironically, a pain free one.  It takes courage.

Let me give a couple of examples of what I am talking about.

Our son Devin is one of the most joyful people I know.  Devin will be off to England in the fall to pursue a master’s degree, and he is going with great joy about the adventure and also about his studies, with which he is deeply and enthusiastically engaged.  He is also the one who keeps our family organized, takes the commuter train to visit his nieces and nephews, reminds his absent-minded father when it is someone’s birthday, and is generally a joy to be around.

But this was not always so.  Devin used to be Kaitlin.  And Kaitlin—though I loved her dearly—was not pleasant to be around once she reached adolescence.  She was distant, cynical, and plainly uncomfortable in her own skin.

I remember getting that message, “Dad, I have something to tell you,” at a time, I am sad to say, when he was not sure how I would respond to his being transgendered.  But he had the courage to claim who he was, and his right to be who he was, whether anyone else—parents, friends, teachers—was comfortable or not.

And in that courage, Devin not only found joy for himself and found clarity and focus for his life—though he certainly did that—but he also brought joy to family and friends because he is such a joyful person today.  We are very proud of him.  When I called to ask his permission to use this story in today’s sermon he said, “Yes… I really am happy now.”

Let me give another example.  Because I have been able to attend some of his performances I have heard Ruby Rims talk about the time, as a child, when he felt he needed to be in the closet, in terms of his sexuality.  And then came the time when he did not need to stay in the closet any longer and could be “out” as a gay man.  And someone said to him, “They ought to take all you people and put you on an island.”  And Ruby was able to respond, “They did.  It's called Manhattan.”  That, my friends, is embracing joy.  And embracing a sense of humor.  And most important, embracing oneself; who one is; one's right to be in the world; one's right to be in Manhattan; one's right to be a joy-filled person!  Not because life is always easy, but because it is always joyful.

This is not merely an individual issue.  Joy is a choice for communities as well as individuals, which brings me to this morning’s texts.

In the lesson that Jean read, Paul is telling an ancient church in Galatia, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  I wish modern religious communities could get that.  Religious communities are meant to be places of joy and love and generosity and kindness and gentleness.  I wish fundamentalists would get fundamentalist about that text, and I also wish liberals would focus in it more.

My dear friend Jimmy Maurici calls himself a fundamentalist, although his brand of fundamentalism is surely very different from what I hear elsewhere.  But Jimmy does have his critique of my theology.  He is always on my case: “You liberals focus too much on telling people what they should do,” he says.  “The Bible says in Jesus Christ you are forgiven, period.”  We don't need shoulds or rules or guilt.

Early in his ministry, in that long talk known as the sermon from the mountain, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  It is an interesting line.  There is no “Do this and you will get that”; no “Be good and you will be rewarded”; no “Suffer now, and celebrate later.”  Just the simple, if you really hunger for righteousness, you will get righteousness. 

As the Talmud says, “The joy of a mitzvah [the fulfillment of a religious duty] is the only way to get the holy spirit.”  The spirit's joy, in this case, is in the mitzvah—the good deed—itself.  It is not a reward to be offered separately for the mitzvah.  There might still be sickness.  There might still be hard times.  There might still be hurts and pains.  We don’t get rewarded by being taken off the list for those other things.  But those who seek righteousness shall find righteousness.  Those who find joy in good deeds will find joy in good deeds.  Those who seek a relationship with God shall have a relationship with God.  And that will be enough.

In the fourth century of the modern era, as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, some Christians could not deal with all the “official stuff” and went off to live as mystics in the desert.  Thomas Merton tells some of the stories they left us:

A brother asked one of the elders:  What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby?  The old man replied:  God alone knows what is good.  However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros . . . asking:  What good work shall I do?  and that he replied:  Not all works are alike.  For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him.  Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him.  And David was humble, and God was with him.  Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.2

“Therefore, whatever you see our soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall you’re your heart safe.”  Abraham was hospitable, invited lots of people in, and God was with him.  Elias liked to be alone, and God was with him.  David took another course, and God was with him.  Not sacrifice, not “I don’t count,” not some of the boring things we attribute to saints; but do what your heart desires, for your heart probably knows—better than you think—the special gifts God has given you.

Think about what this means.

If you find joy in being part of a community like Judson, do it; God will bless you.  If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it; God will find other uses for you and other ways for you to learn the lessons you need.

If you find joy volunteering or marching or helping out, do it; God will be with you. But if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it; God will find other uses for you (and the residents of the place you might have volunteered or the participants on the march will probably be much happier not having someone around who does not really want to be there).

If you find joy in inviting people into your house, being active in the community, taking care of lost and stray animals, or visiting the sick—and so on and so on—if you truly enjoy it, do it, and God will bless you for it.  But if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it; God has plenty of other uses for you and plenty of other things for you to enjoy.

In fact, this message—do what you enjoy/what your heart desires—is a dangerous message.  Churches, and most societies, have functioned well with guilt and shoulds.  What if we say, only come to church if you enjoy it—what might happen?  It might be an empty place!  Or the work might not get done!

But then again, think about what might happen.  Think about what this does to the notion of service.  There can be no complaining; there can be no grumping that someone didn’t do their part; there can be no sense of anger at doing a job we didn’t want, or guilt that we didn’t do a job someone else said we should do.  When the whole notion of shoulds drops out of the definition of service and is replaced by “Do what your heart desires,” my guess is that we take a big step toward a world that is a better and much happier place.

This is not just a matter for religious communities, but for the world.  Several years ago, I had the good fortune to ask Paulo Freire about this issue of joy.  And he responded, as Jenny read:

To be in the world and with the world and with others requires the cultivation of joy.  Joy helps us, prevents us from falling into the pessimism that ultimately negates life . . . I find that the unjoyful spirit of dictatorships and totalitarian states could be understood as an attempt to put the breaks on the people's creativity . . . Authoritarian regimes must ensure that there is no joyful instability. 

Which means that if the oppressors destroy our joy—and make us grim—they have already won.

It also means that if we really want to combat authoritarianism, in New York City or the United States or the world, we must do so joyfully.  We cannot do so glumly or grimly.  The modern world is dependent on driven, unhappy and frightened people—both those who profit most but never have enough and those who profit least yet desperately fear losing what little they have.  Like many other tyrannies that have come before it, today's out of control capitalism cannot withstand a significant dose of joy. 

American politics today are in a “gottcha” mold—and some are getting caught in pretty surprising ways (!)—but what we need is a culture that joyfully embraces a better life for everyone.  But making that better life is not easy.  Jane Addams, the wise sage of Chicago’s Hull House once said: “We have learned to say that the good must be extended to everyone; but we have yet learned to say that the good must be created by everyone, in order to be truly worth having.”

Freire always rejected the role of a vanguard who seek sought to lead others as if they alone knew best.  He wrote: 

They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.  A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.3

It was this sort of stance that led many in authority to be wary of Freire, while those who struggled from the bottom of society found him so helpful.

Our world, I believe more strongly than ever, needs joyful change, needs solidarity and a joyful linking of hands.  Joy, I have come to believe, changes our lives, our communities, and our world.  It is a good choice to make.  Amen.



1 Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton, Emmanuel II: The Choice for Love.

2 Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert.

3 Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844