Sermon located at: http://www.uunashua.org/sermons/joyandwoe.shtml
Sermon by Steve Edington
About two weeks ago, thanks to Time Magazine, I learned that I am among the happiest people in the land – or the happiest at my job anyway. Really, the magazine did a survey of the people who were the happiest, and least happy, with their jobs. Whatever their criterion for happiness was – and they didn’t actually say what it was – members of the clergy, from a wide range of faith traditions, came in first. Firefighters came in second. Ministers, Firefighters, and on down from there to Gas Station Attendants, who were the least happy with their work. (Hey, I just report this stuff; don’t ask me to explain it.)
Now, I have to tell you, I tried mightily to come up with some kind of cute and clever reason as to why ministers and firefighters got grouped together as numbers one and two at the top of the happiness scale, and couldn’t get anything at all. The punch line just wasn’t there for me. But if you can come up with one let me know. Maybe I can use it somewhere else.
Well, that Time piece did generate a certain amount of chatter on a UU ministers’ chat line I’m on, with a bunch of us trying to figure out if we’re as happy as we’re supposed to be. It happened to be the day before Thanksgiving when I logged into the conversation. I was in a whimsical kind of mood just sitting around by myself. Michele and Gordon had already departed for New York. I would join them the next day. So I dashed off a few thoughts of my own on the subject to the chat-line, using the title “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
I clicked “Send” and didn’t think much more about it…until later that evening when I started getting requests from several of my colleagues asking if they could quote me on what I’d said in their sermons. Which sent me back to re-read just what it was I did say. Then, when I came to write this sermon, I figured that if some of my esteemed colleagues out there are using my stuff I might as well get some mileage out of it myself. So, with some minor editing, here’s a part of what I said:
“Throwing in the usual caveats about happiness being hard to define, and knowing that we’ve all had our less than happy times as ministers, I can buy into what Time is reporting…I certainly don’t go around deliriously happy all the time, as that would be a little hard to take and would make me very hard to take as well. But with over 35 years in the ministry and with still a few trips around the block yet to come, I don’t know of anything else I could have done with my life to this point that’s given me a better overall sense of satisfaction than being a minister has…Here’s why I think we clergy come out at or near the top of the happiness scale:
[First] “Ours is one of the few callings and professions left, especially when it comes to the UU ministry, where you can be an actual ‘Renaissance Person’ and make a living at it. I don’t know of any other career I could have chosen that allows me to draw on as wide a range of interests and involvements as I have, and feel they are part of a larger whole. Or, to put it another way, being a minister has allowed me to live a largely un-fragmented life, even with the various fragmented times and moments every one of us experiences now and then.
[Second] “Ministry is not an end in itself or only a way to make a living. Granted there are times, as we all well know, when it feels like just a job and a pain-in-the-wherever job at that. But ministry is really about serving a higher cause or purpose – named in a variety of ways – that transcends even the word ‘ministry.’ I know there are other professions that can rightly make the same claim, but I think it is especially pronounced with us. I think a fundamental component of happiness, or state of well being, is living with a sense and awareness that you are participating in something greater than yourself, and the ministry gives us that.”
Then, just to wrap it all up on a down to earth note, I added this: “I’m going to save what I’ve just written here so I can refer to it when I’m in one of my what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-chose-to-do-this? kinds of moods. But it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m in a quiet lull before the Holiday storm and craziness, and thinking that all in all I rather like where I am and what I’m doing.”
As I mused a bit on this conversation with colleagues, and with the happiness rankings in Time magazine, I think what we were really talking and writing about was joy. I don’t mean to split semantic hairs here, but I think it is possible to live a life of joy without always being happy or having fun. One of my former UU minister colleagues – now passed away – expressed this idea very well in a meditation piece he wrote on joy and fun. These words are by the late Rev. John Taylor: “It is not difficult to bring fun into our lives, but it is a life-long task to find joy…Fun arrives, contributes its brief sensation, and leaves…Joy is a product of effort, time, and sacrifice…it is pried from the great stones of existence…Fun is escape which we all need; joy is fulfillment which we all seek.”
Just for the record, I’m in favor of – and seek out – both joy and fun. Fun is sitting around with a few friends and a few brews and a nice spread of food and watching the Patriots thrash their latest opponent. The kind of fun, that is to say, that I can get into and need to get into – the “kind of escape we all need” as Rev. Taylor put it. Joy is more of an ongoing quest, in Taylor’s words again, for the “fulfillment we all seek.”
On the Christian calendar this is the first Sunday of the four Sundays of Advent. The four themes of these Sundays are joy, hope, peace, and love. For Christians they are the four themes to be meditated upon in preparing to celebrate the arrival, or advent, of the birth of Jesus. Beyond any particular religious observance, however, I would say these are four basic elements that one needs to possess internally in order to have any kind of a spiritual life – whatever a person’s faith stance may be. With that in mind let’s explore a little further this theme or element of joy.
To John Taylor’s wise words that I’ve already offered I would add these from the 18th century British romantic poet, William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine, under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.” The language may be a bit archaic, but the words are wise. What Blake and Taylor are each saying in their own way is that joy is something that is meaningfully arrived at in the midst of the test and challenges and even pains that life inevitably places upon us. What I’d like to do then for the next several minutes is offer a few perspectives which, while not guaranteeing us joy in the sense that I’ve been describing it, can hopefully keep us open to it, and keep alive the possibility that the “fulfillment which we all seek” can on occasion be found and realized.
One perspective is to maintain an awareness that we live in the midst of the choices we have made and the ones that have been made for us. In working with Ric Masten on the book I introduced last week, one of his poems that really stood out for me – and the one that he specifically requested that I end the book with – is called Master of Ceremonies. I’ll take you through it:
I refuse to believe in personal free choice it feels like I have it but when I back away from something I have chosen it always turns out that the choice I made was based on something I didn’t choose
I arrived predetermined gifts and talents, DNA, IQ, disposition all of which begat the artist that begat the actor-playwright that begat the troubadour that begat the poet that begat the minister adding up to the master of ceremonies that I am now.
Ric is expressing in a poetic way what the theologian Paul Tillich called “finite freedom.” We make our choices within the boundaries life gives us, including our mortality. Which gets us back to the poem:
I ask myself how lucky can you be?able to make a good livelihood by assisting the creation of unforgettable moments for audience and congregation but most of all for the couples I have danced with on the beaches and rocky promontories
The last couple of lines refer to the weddings Ric’s officiated in his Big Sur area, and what he’s really celebrating in the poem itself is the life he’s been able to give himself within the time bound existence he’s been given to live it in. And then he closes the poem with these words:
For someone who doesn’t believe that my choices are free
I rejoice in the life that has chosen me.
As I said, this is the note on which Ric wanted to end our book, and I was more than willing to oblige. He wrote this poem sometime after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which he continues to battle. And that battle, as those of you who are on his weekly e-mail list know, has certainly had it less than joyful moments, especially in recent weeks. Joy and woe are indeed woven fine. But to be able to look at the givens in our lives and the finite freedom choices we’ve made in the face of those givens, and then be able to say, “I rejoice in the life that has chosen me” is to know joy.
Another condition or perspective for keeping joy available and attainable is to have a sense of peace with one’s personal past – with all that you chose and didn’t choose but got anyway. In his book The Wind in Both Ears the Universalist minister and one-time Dean at St. Lawrence, the late Dr. Angus MacLean, wrote, “I believe that in order to be truly free one must make peace with his or her personal past. This is a freedom made up of some appreciation, some understanding, and some forgiveness.”
That’s good – appreciation, understanding, and forgiveness. What is it that you can look back upon and value and appreciate – say “yes” to? And there are, no doubt, things that got visited upon you, that you cannot value or appreciate; but can you come to understand how they happened? But sometimes understanding only goes so far as well. And when appreciation or understanding are difficult if not impossible, then can forgiveness – of others or even of yourself – come into play?
The freedom of which Dr. MacLean speaks here in not the freedom of forgetting or dismissing, which isn’t really freedom at all. But rather it’s the freedom of reconciliation, of being reconciled to oneself and to all that has brought you here – that life that chose you as well as the life you chose: the joys, the pains, and all that’s in between. This is a season when remembrances are especially pronounced; some of them bring us joy and others remind us of the unhealed parts ourselves and our world. This is a season that reminds us of our need to be at peace with our personal selves; for having this kind of peace, however much of a struggle it may be at times to get it, is another condition that keeps joy available.
My final perspective this morning for keeping joy available is to be able to believe in your “eternal spring.” The two words are from a line by Albert Camus that is a part of my personal scripture. Camus once wrote:” In the midst of winter I discovered that there was within me an eternal spring.” Camus was an avowed atheist. But if religion can be defined as having a passion for life, which is one of my several definitions of the term, the Camus is one of the more religious atheists whose works I’ve ever read. I find the phrase “eternal spring” to be a wonderful metaphor for that which ultimately sustains and nurtures us. I’m also struck by Camus’ saying that he found his eternal spring in the midst of winter rather, than, say in the pleasantries of summer. The promise of life is found, he’s saying, in the midst of death and diminishment. His words resonate well with those of John Taylor’s: “Joy is the product of time and sacrifice…it is pried from the great stones of existence…but occasionally it surprises us in the midst of effort.”
The surprise of joy in the midst of effort; the eternal spring in the midst of winter. For me, these are the essential messages of this season. They are the eternal messages that are behind these stories and the myths of this season. Light fades and fires are lit. The cold comes and fires of warmth are kindled. The earth dies and a birth is celebrated. In the midst of winter the eternal spring is found. This is what we are promised. The challenge is to believe and act on such promises, for that and only that is what makes them real since, in the end, they are promises we have to make to ourselves and to each other. The challenge to us is to be a sustaining community where joy is found in the midst of effort and even woe, and where we offer to one another “a rose in the winter time.,”:
December 2, 2007