Opening, Again, to Joy

Many years ago, when my children were small and we lived together in a big limestone farmhouse in Columbus, Indiana, I was living a busy and often stressful life. I was a self-employed writer with a small business and juggling a busy household and school activities with deadlines, editors, and more. It was often my practice to plan the day’s tasks before the kids got up, launch everybody into the day and off to school, write all day long—with a couple of breaks to take the dogs out—and then put my work on pause when the big yellow school bus chugged up the street in the afternoon. After snacks and homework, some outside play and dinner, it was bathtime, books, and then bed for the kids—and back to work for me. Often I’d stay up til 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, trying to get within a reasonable reach of the next big deadline on my calendar.

One day as I was cleaning up after supper, I opened the closet off the kitchen where the trash can was kept. The trash was overflowing—again. I pushed it down with a sigh and then half saw and half heard the words, “Joy! If not now, when?” scrolled in the darkness above the trash. It was like seeing handwriting mysteriously appear on a wall. At the time, I laughed a little, surprised, and thought, “Wow, I’m working too hard. I need a break!” And went back to doing the dishes.

But a few days later, sitting out on the front porch drinking coffee after the kids left for school, that moment came back to my mind. It seemed more profound. That’s right, I thought. In a stressed out moment when I’m trying to rush through the day to get back to the work I need to do to keep a roof over our heads, I certainly needed the hopeful reminder that if I could feel joyful just then—with stress, and busyness, and a never-ending list of chores to do—then I could be happy anytime, come what may. Suddenly I wondered whether joy, like God, is something that is available always, around us every moment, within our reach throughout our day–if only we let ourselves look for it. If only we know what we’re looking for.

In our modern world, people often think of joy as a kind of supreme happiness that is mostly unreachable—something that happens in the pinnacle moments of life, like when you first hold your newborn baby, or someone buys your first painting, or you win the lottery after playing it for 20 years. Joy is reserved for the extra-special moments when everything feels right and good and life unfolds the way it should for once. But we don’t expect that kind of joy to stay. Rather it arrives, maybe unexpectedly, and gives us a great boost of hope and belief in the goodness of life, which then—human life being as it is and our minds being what they are—soon fades into routine experience, or worse, right back into the slough of stress and turmoil we were dealing with before.

In the verses we heard as our Old Testament reading today, the psalmist is claiming joy after a time of struggle, saying that God will set everything right once again and mourning is almost done:

4Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
    and give thanks to his holy name.[b]
For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favor is for a lifetime.[c]
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

11You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
    you have loosed my sackcloth
    and clothed me with gladness,
12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

These are encouraging and hopeful thoughts, especially as we ourselves begin gradually to emerge from a devastating, stressful, and upsetting year. Joy comes in the morning. God will once again clothe us in gladness. Life will eventually feel good and light and free and blessed once again. Lord knows we need that, pray for it, and look forward to its arrival.

But as I was reading about joy this week I was drawn to the writings of Elise Boulding, who offers a different, larger, and more constant take on joy. Elise Boulding was a Quaker sociologist quite active in the international peace movement and much loved among Friends. Born in Norway in 1920, she came to the U.S. when she was three. Her family was greatly disturbed by World War II and as a young woman, the peace testimony drew her to the Religious Society of Friends. Not long after, she met her husband Kenneth—also a Quaker and a respected economist and peace researcher—and they married and raised five children together. When her youngest was still in diapers—and at age 36, she had already not only had four other children but also served several years in peace work, completed a master’s degree in Sociology, and started her Ph.D—Elise was asked to give the 1956 William Penn Lecture at the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia. The title of her lecture that day was, “The Joy That Is Set before Us,” and its opening lines are

“Joy is a frighteningly difficult subject to speak about, and I did not choose it willingly. It came, and would not be put aside. Christian joy is usually considered the province of saints and mystics. In our world the average Christian contents himself with a more temporal happiness. For the real difference between happiness and joy is that one is grounded in this world, and the other in eternity. Happiness cannot encompass suffering and evil. Joy can. Happiness depends on the present. Joy leaps into the future and triumphantly creates a new present out of it. It is a fruit of the spirit, a gift of God—no man can own it. His Kingdom is Joy, said Paul. Joy is the ultimate liberation of the human spirit. It enables man to travel to the very gates of heaven and to the depths of hell, and never cease rejoicing.”

Isn’t that a remarkable statement? How might we be changed if we could have a taste of a joy like that?

Throughout her lecture, she goes on to tie the idea of joy to a vision of what can be—not based on the daily frustrations and myriad details that fill up our time—but connected to real sense of the Kingdom of God with us, lived out in real time. Hence her title: “The joy that is set before us.” Her ideas are based on the immediacy of the message Jesus shared with the Pharisees about the kingdom of God in Luke 17:20:

“Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Jesus was pointing us toward a vision of what’s possible that is so far beyond the world of power and status that it scared and threatened the people of his day. He was doing his best to live and model and teach what life can look like when we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the kingdom of God is in our midst, already, right now, and we each have a part in making it more visible. That lived out, says Boulding, is the source of the joy that never leaves.

When we suddenly get a vision of what our very own daily lives could be like under the full sway of love and light, peace and compassion and truth, we begin to yearn for that and gradually start to make choices that help us live that way. In addition to the person and presence of Jesus, we have many others who point out the way. John Woolman is one example she offers, saying:

“John Woolman took that leap into the future, and lived as if the Kingdom were already here. He could not have done so if he had not had a clear vision of that Kingdom. By his life, he brought it a little closer to the rest of the world than it had ever been before.”

She also points to St. Francis—who had so much joy he continually sang praises to God and even on his deathbed he sang a song of praise to Sister Death—and my own favorite mystic, Brother Lawrence in this passage:

“St. Francis heard a voice before the crucifix in St. Demian’s saying, ‘Francis, go, repair my house that thou seest is all in ruins”—and he walked out of the shop where he had been selling cloth for his father, never to return. Brother Lawrence saw a vision of God’s Providence in a tree stripped of its leaves in winter and stayed all his life in a monastery kitchen washing dishes—in the presence of God. Each man, through the strength of his vision, was living as if the Kingdom were already here. Some [people] must change their work, like St. Francis; others must do for God’s sake what they formerly did for their own, like Brother Lawrence.”

We are living in a time of powerful images and great potential for change. Our nightly news stories are filled with pictures of people in pain, people in conflict, people fighting illness, people out of work. What we fill our minds and hearts with matters, because if we’re not careful, those images—and the feelings they elicit–can replace our hopeful vision of what’s possible when God’s love is at the helm. And if that vision falls away, fades, or gets discarded, what then will be our plan for bringing more of God’s love and light into this world?

The good news is that we each have a vision within of what the kingdom of God means to us. We might have to uncover it, go searching for it, or maybe ask God to point us in the right direction so we can rediscover it, understand it, and put our energies into the good work of making it visible. And our visions may not all match perfectly—one person’s vision of God’s perfect peace might be walking in a beautiful forest all alone. They might do their part to bring it about by caring for the earth, loving nature, acting as God leads for the stewardship of the planet. Another person’s vision of the kingdom of God in the here and now might be a happy, well-fed, secure community. They might shower love and light through all kinds of social activities, or work with non-profit organizations, or look for opportunities to share love and hope with those who need it. Another person’s vision of the kingdom of God might be simply sitting at God’s feet and watching God work, day in and day out, as God bringing blessings and love, transformation, and joy to all who welcome it. As she lives in the kingdom each day, her primary tools might be prayer and praise.

Like John Woolman and St. Francis, Brother Lawrence, Jesus, and Elise Boulding, we too can find our vision of the Kingdom of God and begin to live it, day by day by day. We might have to pull it out from under the bed, dust it off, and take a good long look at what we believed once upon a time and adjust it for what we believe today. But with a little attention and intention, we’ll be able to see what kind of shape our vision is in. Has it gotten frayed around the edges, nibbled away by discouragement? Have we lost touch with the love and hope at its heart? Does it need shoring up, cleaning up, some fresh new energy? If there are parts we don’t understand or we feel uncertain about what our own unique vision might be, God will help us with that. We can simply ask in prayer and God will share with us a beautiful—and possible—vision for peace and mercy, love and right order—something we can live right now, in our ordinary, everyday Quaker lives. As Jesus said, the kingdom of God isn’t something startling and huge “out there” that will somehow one day announce its arrival with great fanfare and some cosmic coordinator. Instead it is a vision God tenderly places in each of our hearts, waiting for us to notice and care, and find the hope to do our best live it out—choice by choice and day by day. The kingdom is already in our midst. Living it is up to us. And the joy—lasting joy: if not now, when?—is surely, surely within our reach.

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