Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘joy’

The Power of Love: a Different Joy

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

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You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].

Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.

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But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.

A little context please? Okay, yes.

The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.

Resultado de imagen para jesus singing karaoke
More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…

And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.

Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.

Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.

We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.

See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.

And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.

In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.

And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.


Joy Rising Out of Trauma

In the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy Netflix series Stranger Things the main characters all go through trauma:

Joyce loses her son, Will. Jonathan loses his little brother.

Eleven/Jane is experimented on, deprived of parental care, tortured, and manipulated psychologically.

Dustin, Mike, and Lucas lose their friend and think he’s dead.

Will is taken by a creature to another dimension and no one on the other side knows he’s alive. He is called “zombie boy” by his peers and haunted by nightmarish visions and flashbacks of the Upside Down.

Kali was experimented on and given a number, like Eleven.

Sherriff Hopper lost his child to cancer and his marriage ended.

The list goes on. Trauma. PTSD.

Life in the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 also explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. Consider Billy, a bully and the older stepbrother to Max.

Billy is pretty much your standard jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas. But the show reveals eventually that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and is now repeating what his father wants.

What the show does well is to give us an opportunity to talk about/deal with something that is often very difficult to handle. Anyone who has suffered great trauma in life knows just how hard it can be to address it. Time and time again, the characters of Stranger Things are in a back-and-forth state of post-traumatic stress. They are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects. This is the Demogorgon.

demoAnd it is extremely difficult to defeat.

In one scene, Joyce, Bob, and the boys are looking for the location of vines that are growing beneath the surface, in the upside down.

mapBobBob’s puzzle-solving skills come in handy, as he is able to draw a map using Will’s seemingly random drawings. This scene is a metaphor for navigating trauma. It’s beneath the surface, but it can be difficult to find a map to heal the lingering emotional wounds.

This is why a sweet kid like Eleven feels like both girl and monster. This is why Will feels like a zombie or a freak.

So how does Stranger Things offer a path to healing?

The show does a great job, I think, of demonstrating shared trauma: many of the main characters stand with each other in solidarity, encourage each other, and find deeper connections as a result. They construct a “new” family. The honesty and connectedness of shared trauma and acceptance can lead to realization, aha moments, personal growth, and even joy/gratitude. Examples from the show:

Kali “grew up” with El in the lab but they had not seen each other for years. When they reunited Kali shared: “I just feel whole, like a piece of me was missing and now it’s not.” Kali also understands El’s pain and protects her. She offers her a new purpose and encourages El to develop her special abilities. Sadly, Kali chooses to use her powers to get violent revenge. Because of this, El decides to return to her original place of trauma.

And in spite of Kali telling El that Going back to Hawkins and her friends is pointless and empty, El cones to the realization that what and who she was searching for was there all the time. She wasn’t a monster or someone to blame for the upside down. She didn’t have to be an outcast either.

She could help her friends.

Stories like this one can offer us a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with emotions that society often demands us to keep hidden. But stories can also make the intangible fears into literal things; in other words, indistinct kinds of anxiety can be channeled into flesh-and-blood enemies like the Demogorgon or Shadow Monster.

The darkness of trauma [the Upside Down], Stranger Things explains to us, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But there is a path to surviving it—not a quick fix, but a slow, arduous path to healing and recovery. And along that path are people who share our trauma, sit with us in times of loss, pain, and suffering. We find solidarity with them, friendship, and the kind of joy that goes far beyond surface happiness. It is the joy in knowing that your seemingly messed up, freakish existence is more than that. The trauma that you have suffered doesn’t tell your whole story. You are writing your story each day, right now. And others are interested in your fresh and unique narrative.

So friends, wherever you are on your journey today—whatever trauma you have suffered or are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Keep on writing your story anew. Much love to you in the Upside Down.

Walking with Joy

Zephaniah 3:17-20a             Inclusive Bible
For YHWH your God is in your midst, a warrior to keep you safe;  who will rejoice over you and be glad with it;  who will show you love once more,  and exult with songs of joy  and soothe those who are grieving.  At the appointed time I will take away your cries of woe and you will no longer endure reproach.  When that time comes, I will deal with all who oppress you.  I will rescue the lost and gather the dispersed. I will win for  my people praise and renown throughout the whole world.  When that time comes, I will gather you and bring you home.

What is joy?

Well now, that’s a loaded question!

What do you think?

What is joy?

Maybe you answered with: happiness.
Elation? A warm, fuzzy feeling? A notion that everything is going great? Or what?

It’s not all that easy to define joy, and probably that’s part of our issue with it. I don’t want to speak for you, but sometimes what joy is presented as to me doesn’t quite seem possible. After all, I don’t always feel happy. And happiness itself can be defined in so many different ways.

So let’s do this—let’s say what joy isn’t. Joy isn’t a feeling. Joy isn’t a bodily reaction to some external stimuli. Feelings are: the tickle you feel when a feather brushes your skin. We feel heat when the sun is strong in the sky. We feel relief when we sneeze. But joy is not a feeling, joy is an emotion. Emotions are active responses and they have objects. For example, your partner gets the new job she was hoping for, and you have joy over that event.

I’ll go a step further. Joy is an emotion, but perhaps it should be partnered with gratitude.

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brown is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

She is also the Founder and CEO of The Daring Way and COURAGEworks – an online learning community that offers eCourses, workshops, and interviews for individuals and organizations ready for braver living, loving, and leading. Brown’s 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 25 million viewers.

She once appeared on Oprah’s show, and talked about joy. She called joy the most terrifying emotion. Why terrifying? Because fear stems from having our joy taken away. How many of us, she asks, “have ever sat up and thought, ‘Wow, work’s going good, good relationship with my partner, parents seem to be doing okay. Holy crap. Something bad’s going to happen’? You know what that is? [It’s] when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’ What we do in moments of joyfulness is, we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.”

To illustrate this point, Dr. Brown shares with Oprah a story about a man she interviewed who admitted to her that he never allowed himself to be too joyful about anything in life. Then his wife of 40 years was killed in a car accident. Dr. Brown remembers him saying, “The second I realized [my wife] was gone, the first thing I thought was, ‘I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy. Because that did not protect me from what I feel right now.’”[1]

Truly joyful people, says Dr. Brown, do not allow fear to take away from fully experiencing joy. They practice gratitude. And it is tangible.

What if the root of joy is gratefulness?

What if joy is born out of gratefulness?

If so, even bad luck can give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it.

Gratitude makes us joyful.

And so, the prophet Zechariah says:
Yahweh rejoices over us.
Yahweh, G-d, shows love to us.
G-d soothes those who grieve and takes away woe.
G-d deals with those who are oppressed—rescuing and gathering them.
G-d brings us home. Home to joy.

Home to gratefulness.

Even tears and sadness can be pathways to gratefulness, and then to joy.


JOY: What Is It?

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

bowlGo find a bowl. Any size will do—preferably glass. Look at it. This bowl is empty, is it not? And yet, still a bowl, right? Now put stuff in it. It doesn’t matter—fill it. Now what is it? Has the bowl changed its essence? Is it now “candy” if that is what you filled it with? Is it water? Is it coins? No, the bowl is still a bowl. Now I want you to imagine that this bowl is you—your life. Now imagine all the things that your life becomes filled with—events, circumstances, successes, failures, good and bad relationships, life and death, money and no money, jobs, school, sicknesses, discoveries, sunny and rainy days, etc, etc. Your bowl [your life], though filled with events and things and people—is still not defined by its contents. Your life is still your life. You are still you. In spite of what we may think, our bowls are still the empty vessels of life that they always have been.

All of the stuff our bowls get filled with does not define us.

The bowl is about identity, of course. And so is the Matthew Gospel story about John and Jesus. During this season when many Christians are focused on the baby Jesus—a story that appears in only a handful of Bible verses—it is appropriate for us to talk about who Jesus was and is. Of course, that identity of Jesus has been determined by people over the centuries and still today.

Most of you probably have already figured out that Christ-mas and December 25th have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These traditions of Christmas [leading up to Dec. 25th in the West and January 7th in the East] are relatively new and more closely related to cultural traditions and winter solstice observances. In fact, celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. Moving forward, in the 1st and 2nd Century there is no mention of any celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the writings of early Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria. Still in this time period, Jesus of Nazareth was defined by his life and ministry, and his death. The four Gospels provide much more detail about his life and his death. They even provide more specific times as to when his death may have occurred.

So to sum up, the earliest NT Biblical writings—Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark—do not mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does the Gospel of John. Only Matthew and Luke tell this story and in entirely different ways with different details. The New Testament is much more concerned with what Jesus did as an adult and how he died. This is how he was defined.

But in Matthew’s Gospel, this was not even the case yet. John wasn’t sure about Jesus.

Everyone was waiting for a Messiah, a ruler of some sort, or at least a prophet who would shake things up and change the current state of people’s lives. They were all waiting. John was waiting. Was Jesus their guy? Or had they been waiting in vain? John was confused. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no king. Actually, he wasn’t even a religious leader. He had no sway in the temples, no power or authority in Jerusalem.

So was it time to give up on this Jesus and start waiting for another Messiah?

Of course, Jesus’ response isn’t what many wanted to hear. Jesus did not tell John:
Sure, I’m the Messiah. Here I am!
Bow down to me, worship me, the deal is done!
Everything is going to get better!

Instead, Jesus told his disciples to report back to John—to remind him of the compassionate and life-changing things that were happening to those who were typically left out and pushed down. Once again, Jesus borrowed from prophets like Isaiah, and lifted up the healings of those who were suffering; the new life for those who were considered dead; the poor being uplifted rather than ignored. But Jesus never really talked about himself. In fact, he talked about John. Who was John? How did people define him? What did people expect? A great priest with long, flowing robes who would lead the people? A prophet who would preach to them? John certainly was a prophet, but more than that. John was a guy who told the truth [no matter how painful]; he lived among the people without pretense; he exposed hypocrisy, greed, and injustice.

People tried to define John in certain ways and with various titles.

So did people try to define Jesus in certain ways and with various titles.

We still do it.
At Christmastime, we talk about Jesus as Savior and Messiah—and these are things that Jesus actually never said about himself.

We sing joy to the world, the Savior reigns…but after 2000+ years, does the Savior reign?
I mean, the world that John and Jesus both hoped for still doesn’t exist.

People are still incredibly poor. There is still great evil and corruption in the world.

Many times, joy is hard to come by.

I know that I am challenging a lot of our most popular assumptions. But I think that we need to do this if we are to concretely live out faith and practice compassion in life. Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John both taught compassion, love, truth, and justice. Neither one of them believed that one person alone could bring such balance to the world. It would take a village—no, a whole community of people. And so Jesus called people lights in the world. Lights is plural. You, me, everybody else—lights in this world.

It is one of the biggest challenges of this holiday season, because we often force an identity on Jesus and then on ourselves. Christmastime is supposed to be a happy season of smiles, hugs, warm feelings, and stuffed stockings. But that’s not really at all what the story and message of Jesus of Nazareth is about.

It is about JOY.

Okay, but what is joy? To address this question, we have to ask another question:

What is happiness?

Often, the two words [and ideas] of joy and happiness are lumped together. Certainly, during this holiday season, we are bombarded with images, songs, and stories that tell us to be happy. Have a holly, jolly, Christmas! We say merry Christmas for a reason, right? Or..happy holidays? I mean, who would really go so far as to say to someone have a mediocre, melancholy Christmas or May you have a realistic holiday or better yet,
Miserable Christmas to you, too!

Uh, I’m joking, of course. But I am not joking about this word happiness. We have got to take a closer look because Happy Christmas is less about reality and more about marketing.

According to the Free Dictionary and Psychology Today, happiness is an emotion based on the external. It is based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is also connected to the future—something you do not currently have but hope to have one day. Happiness depends on outer circumstances that will need to align with your expectations in order for you to “feel” happy. Thus, a “Merry” Christmas, in this sense, depends on whether your family and your friends meet your expectations for the holidays to be “happy.” If they don’t, unhappiness results. Happiness, then, is a roller coaster of emotion; we are at the mercy of other people and things, speeding up and down and hurling through loopy-loops until we get sick. Now I happen to like roller coasters, but just not the emotional kind that I was speaking of there. I’m not a huge fan of being happy one moment and then depressed a bit later, and then repeating the same cycle again and again.

So that’s happiness. But what is joy? Ah, here we go.

Joy is actually not external, cannot be bought in a store, is not conditional on someone else’s behavior—in fact, joy is completely independent of everything and exists on its own. Joy laughs at attachments. Joy doesn’t need them. Joy is free; joy lives and breathes on its own. Hmmm…so do you think we can start a movement? Can we instead say to other Christians, have a joyful Christmas? Can we say to those who are not Christians, have a joyful holiday?

I think we can. And I think it is more real and certainly healthier. For joy means being at peace with yourself—accepting who you are, where you are, and why you are. Joy is about accepting who you are not, and who you are not with. I received a great question about joy this week: what does joy feel like? Seems like something children are privy to. Explain the way joy feels!

Joy does not feel like happiness. It’s deeper, fuller, more realistically yours.

JOY does not come from your successes or achieving goals you set for yourself.

JOY is not dependent upon external circumstances.

JOY is when you are grateful consistently—even when there is no success.

JOY is internally and eternally yours when you are joyful regardless.

With practice, we can experience joy even in the midst of sadness. We will need to see life as more than just one disappointment or success after another. We have to let go of judgments and the negative emotions that come with them. If we can work on that, we will find joyful freedom.

Life is a gift. And each and every one of us is a life-gift. Our bowls can be filled with plenty of things, but it doesn’t change the fact that each one of us is a life and gift. Gratefulness comes when we just realize how much of a gift life actually is. And those around us are gifts, too. And this life is unpredictable and will always surprise us. Joy is in embracing the changes and the surprises. It is seeing a snowstorm not as an inconvenience or a fearful event, but as a moment to pause and admire creation—to stop and breathe and laugh, cry, and experience. When joy and gratitude live in you, the imperfections of your life add beauty and wholeness to your life.

Friends, we are trained at very early ages to believe that we are defined by other people and by the things we have. We are often told that only when we acquire certain things will we be happy. We are conditioned to believe that if we do not have certain things, we cannot be whole or content.

But we are not valued by what we have, nor by what we accomplish.

Our value is in who we are.

So find inner joy in who you are, as you are. And may that internal joy you discover lead you to compassionate living with others—recognizing the life and gifts in them. That is what this season and this life are about.


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