Practice Joy in All Times
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Faith in Real Life Blog
Hebrews 12:1–2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Philippians 4:4–6
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What gives us joy?  In their book The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama suggest that happiness is fleeting but joy is an internal connection to something greater than yourself. Tutu writes “Joy subsumes happiness. Joy is the far greater thing.”  If you google the difference between happiness and joy, there is a remarkable consensus on the difference. Happiness tends to be externally based and to that extent is always transitory, Joy can be cultivated and provides an inner contentment even in the face of extreme hardship. 
These two passages point us to this fundamental question of ordinary living.  What makes a life well lived? Are we pursuing happiness to the exclusion of joy? As we survey the many ways we can invest our time, energy and money, how do we decide what is most important? Most of us, as children, are focused upon immediate gratification—some of us never stop that pursuit.  Unfortunately, no matter how good the candy tastes, or wonderful the approval is, we will be left wanting. Unless we find something lasting—dare I say eternal—our quest will be endless and ultimately fruitless.  Ordinary hardships and disappointments will rob us of our happiness and we will be left joyless.  
Religiously there is a massive temptation to focus upon happiness.  There is nothing wrong with that focus—except when it is exclusive.  In that event, we make ourselves and our personal needs the center of the universe.  This self centeredness excludes others and leads to entitlement.  Whenever we turn to such false self sufficiency, we turn away from God.  And that is the most basic definition of Sin—with a capital S.  
The religious journey is the quest for something that feeds and nourishes us beyond life contingencies.  Whether it is secularly or religiously expressed, I spend much of life trying to help people with this question.  A few examples that have occurred just this week.  
  1. A middle aged woman who aggressively describes herself as a non believer commented that she had just realized she had probably lived half of her life.  She is married, a mother, lives comfortably and is very active politically and in her neighborhood. She ‘has it all.’  But now she is wondering what will be important in the second half of her life.  What is a life well lived? Questions of meaning are often not raised until we’ve accomplished what we thought most important.
  2. A middle aged man who prided himself on his stock market acumen pointedly avoided looking at the numbers over this current stock market slide–until this week.  He is down over 60%.  He is very depressed.  He said he had gotten caught up in feeling smarter than most people and had discovered his capacity for greed.  What is a life well lived? Who is he now that he knows he is both smart and ordinary?
  3. A single mom in her mid fifties has devoted her life to family. She lost her father when she was 16 and knew what it meant to lose family. To this day she says she had turned off ‘amber alerts’ saying ‘if she can’t fix it, she doesn’t want to hear it.’ In many ways her grief has led her to be a ‘universal’ mom noted for adopting ‘strays’.  What is a life well lived? She can’t fix the big problems but she can help one by one. She asks, Is this bite size piece enough?
  4. Finally (but certainly not the last), a younger man must balance his vocational dreams with the responsibilities of adulthood.  Virtually every parent on the face of the earth has had to struggle with this one. ‘Follow your Bliss’ is a great book title but it falls well short of paying the bills.  Its best use is raising the questions of work-life balance.  It falls well short of answering them. What is a life well lived when you must balance personal aspirations with the needs of your family?  
As I was typing this blog, I received one of these emails that gets endlessly forwarded.  I will join the chain.  I find it fascinating and as good an example as I could imagine of the point I am trying to make. (  A caterpillar must digest itself in order to be transformed.  
If we are going to find joy, we must be willing to be transformed.  We must let go of many of the things we thought critical to life to discover new possibilities.  We must be willing to digest our personal ego needs in order to look beyond ourselves.  In each of these vignettes, there is grief.  We cling to what we know, try to manage our lives but at some point we will run into what we don’t know, what we cannot manage and what we simply cannot do.   That is quite a blow to the intelligent and the competent raised on an ethos that says if you can dream it, you can do it.  
There is a very fine line between the expectation that we do everything we can and the belief we can do anything if we work hard enough.  Discovering that line is often the beginning of a faith journey. Secularly, that line is almost always experienced as a failure and/or an embarrassment. It takes quite a transformation to begin to see it as freeing, comforting and even joyous. We have the opportunity to be who we can be instead of the rat race of seeking to be what we think we should be.  
The race of life that is set before us described in Hebrews makes it clear that life includes pain, suffering, failure, loss and death.  To think that such things are stigmas, signs of our failures or our sinfulness is damning — they belong to life.  They cannot be avoided.  The promise of our faith is that Jesus endured all of these things to show us that God is with us and there is something new beyond our secular definitions.  
The Philippians passage reminds us of our call and our promise.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”  Our call is to mindfulness, care and compassion.  These are eternal and there is nothing that happens to us that prevents such care.  That is an impossibly high standard but moving in that direction gives a peace beyond understanding.  On the cross, as painful a place as I can imagine, Jesus spoke to his mother, forgave those who were killing him, and offered hope to a dying criminal.  He fully acknowledges his despair, his human needs and the end of his life.  And finally, he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus was able to practice joy because for him, no matter what, The Lord is near.  The rest of us will be anxious, afraid and distrustful.  We are more likely to visit joy than live in it.  But with practice, we can find such joy.  
One last caveat.  ‘Trusting the Lord’, ‘Turning it over to God’ or ‘Let go and let God’ are all ways to encourage us to feel safe with the unknown—to feel safe with what we cannot manage.  It is not intended to be a form of abdication but a willingness to struggle with that fine line between our accountability and our human limitations.  When I commented that usually I have only done that kind of letting go was when my fingers were pried off the bar, Ron Johnson commented, ‘That’s the way it should be.’  I have always thought my clutching at control was a sign of unfaithfulness.  It is, but it is not all it is.  Each of us must be willing to do our best—and be willing to fail— in order to find the edges of who we are created to be. That is a different way to live in faith.   

Learn what is eternal.  Love the person in front of you. You will find peace in ways that are unimaginable.  Your capacity to practice joy will grow. 

Let it be so.