• Craig Mueller

A Joy That Lasts

What is joy? The first word of a Christmas carol? A woman’s name? The formula J.O.Y.—Jesus, others, you? Something deeper than happiness?

Abiding in divine love is the source of deep joy, Jesus says. And my deep joy is what will make your joy complete, he adds. When everything else is fleeting and disposable, is this a joy that will truly last? And how is this even possible in our competitive, driven, and divisive world?

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. This book was recommended to me last year, and it has been on my shelf. But I started reading it this week with the hope that I may wise up a bit on the meaning of true joy.

The Book of Joy tells of a delightful week of conversation spent between two spiritual masters and mentors of our time: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Both have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Both have known suffering. Tutu, lived under apartheid in South Africa and then led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Dalai Lama was exiled with other refugees from Tibet to India. For many reasons I am intrigued with their marvelous friendship, not least for how it brings Buddhism and Christianity into dialogue.

Most of us turn to outward things, thinking they will bring us contentment. As the Dalai Lama says:

Everyone seeks happiness, joyfulness, but from outside—from money, from power, from big car, from big house. Most people never pay attention to the ultimate source of a happy life, which is inside, not outside. Even the source of physical health is inside, not outside.

The Dalai Lama goes on to say that as a Buddhist and thus a nonbeliever he is aware of the one billion nonbelievers on the planet who seek to be happier human beings and traditional religious faith is not the only way to do this. A good reminder for all of us.

Archbishop Tutu notes that as fragile creatures, we discover true joy from a place of weakness, from the challenges and adversity that life brings us. Yet you just don’t decide someday that you want to be more joyful. In his words:

If you are setting out to be joyful you are not going to end up being joyful. You’re going to be turned in on yourself. It’s like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people. And I think some suffering, maybe even intense suffering, is a necessary ingredient for life, certainly for developing compassion. . . In a paradoxical kind of way, it is how we face all the things that seem to be negative in our lives that determines the kind of person we become.

Yet, dealing with life’s hardships affects us all differently. As the pieces about Mental Health Month in our bulletin note, removing the stigma of mental illness is an important start. So are ways that loved ones be supportive, seek help themselves, and remain hopeful.

The challenge is that we expect our lives to always go well, that life will always work out, and that we will always be happy. That’s just not the way it is.

Speaking of feeling good and the hope that it will always last, earlier this spring I heard a speaker talk about something called Urban Float. It’s a personal float tank, an individualized pool where customers float in purified water and 1,200 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts. It delivers proven physical, mental, and emotional benefits. For $90 plus tax you can strip down, climb into a briny but purified personal tank and float far from the cares of the world—for up to 60 minutes.

How interesting that Holy Trinity uses three r words in our tagline: reverent, relevant, real. Urban Float also uses three r words to market it: renew, refresh, revive. Wow, those are spiritual words that occur in plenty hymns, prayers, and sermons. It sounds like the way we talk about baptism!

But one person described their experience of Float Tank this way: it’s great when you’re in the water, but once you get out, it doesn’t last. Or another comment was: I simply didn’t want to get out!

The conference presenter, Paul Hoffman described our desire to stay in our comfortable personal or congregational float tanks: “The powerful denial of homeostasis lulls us into the complacency of inertia. We do not want to get out of the patterns and habits that are killing us, but it all begins with a death.”

Baptism begins with a death. Something in us needs to die. Yet we don’t want to get out of our comfort zones. We close ourselves off from risk, growth, and transformation. However, the baptismal life is about getting out of the tank. It is about new beginnings. It is about letting go. It is about dying and rising. It is about abiding in something that truly endures. It is about moving beyond self to the needs of the world. It is about bearing fruit that will last.

Which leads us to some final words of wisdom:

From the Dalai Lama: Many people think of suffering as a problem. Actually, it is an opportunity that destiny has given you. In spite of difficulties and suffering, you can remain firm and maintain your composure.

And from Desmond Tutu: What the Dalai Lama and I are offering is a way of handling your worries: thinking about others. You can think of others who are in similar situations or perhaps even worse a situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole. Our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.

As one theologian puts it, faith is a journey toward the world. During Easter we reflect on the baptismal life. We are born in the waters of baptism for a life beyond ourselves, with a purpose that truly lasts.

When we are troubled by our own inertia and the absence of joy all around us, we find nourishment in this community, in water in the font, and food around this table. We abide in God’s never-ending faithfulness. We abide in a love stronger than death. And as this divine love flows in us, through us, and from us, we bear fruit—fruit that will last.

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© 2017 Craig Mueller