Surprised by Joy

Beth A. Faeth December 17, 2018

Scriptures Isaiah 12:2–4; Luke 1:39–45

While there is much that frustrates me about the holiday season—in regards to expectations, consumerism, materialism . . . you get my drift—there is one thing of which I never tire: the lights. A spiritual practice for me this Advent has been regular late-night neighborhood walks with my dog, soaking up the different light displays dotting the streets and cul-de-sacs. My husband had an affinity for lights, too, and for many years our home was decorated in elaborate (but never gaudy) ways. Each year, he created something a bit different. One of the reasons I loved this was that I had no responsibility in the assembly process. My only job was to ooh and aah over the results. We had a large pine tree on the corner of our lot, which was always adorned from top to bottom with big colorful bulbs. The “beacon of Pine Tree Trail” several neighbors called it, which is a lot coming from my downright dysfunctional non-communicative neighborhood.

But things change, and often not in the way we wish. The beacon pine tree died, and so did the one who strung the lights. Last year, for the first time ever, I was in charge of our outdoor light display. Mustering up what very little Christmas spirit I had, I wrangled my girls to help and we went outside to figure things out. It was a disaster. We blew fuses . . . multiple times. The lights were tangled and some burnt out. Nothing working in our favor, we slowly dissolved in anger and tears, cursing the whole practice of dumb outdoor lights. The only thing I could get to work on that miserable day was something I had purchased years ago at Menards for $6.99. In the middle of our front window was our new—and now, only—light beacon: the word JOY. Well, to be honest, first it said “yoj” because it took a while to figure out how to hang it correctly. But that was something we did accomplish, and I stood out in the middle of my front yard, staring at that brightly lit symbolic word, feeling frustrated and terribly alone and prayed that God would somehow direct me towards joy in the days to come.

During Advent we have invited you to consider the ways in which you witness the themes of this season: hope, peace, joy and love. You are encouraged to think outside of the box about this and to imagine these defining words in new ways, paying special attention to how you have noticed them enacted in your life and in the world, and then allowing these new perspectives to create transformation in your relationship with the Divine.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate joy. This day is traditionally known as Gaudete, which is Latin for “rejoice.” And while we could probably discuss a hundred definitions for joy, we might all agree that joy is not to be confused with happiness. The root of happiness is hap, meaning chance (as in happenstance or haphazard). Happiness depends on things going our way, whereas joy is based on a deeper understanding, a grounding in both knowing and being known. Two weeks ago, Paula invited us to consider hope as an “orientation of the spirit.” To continue that thought, I would suggest joy is an orientation of the heart. Joy is a contentment that is not contingent on certain circumstances. Joy happens when we root ourselves in the understanding that we are embraced by the Divine’s love and have been created for an intentional purpose.

Joy is something we can celebrate even when things are not going our way, even in the midst of unhappiness. While happiness is dependent on things going well in our lives, joy is not dependent on outside forces. Happiness requires positive conditions: good health, right relationships, a good job, a new toy. Joy, on the other hand, can be found even when these other conditions do not exist. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room.”

The Prophet, by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, was originally published in 1923 and has never been out of print. The prophet in the story, named Almustafa, has lived in the city of Orphalese for 12 years and is about to board a ship that will carry him home. Before he departs, the people gather around him, asking for final words of wisdom that they might pass on to their children. The prophet consents and answers their questions with short ruminations—which like all good teaching raises more questions than answers. Together they ponder queries on a wide variety of human conditions. In one chapter a woman says: “Speak to us of joy and sorrow.” And the prophet answers:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

I know this kind of joy—joy born from sorrow—and I know many of you do, too. Thank you to those who commented on the flowers here in the sanctuary last Sunday, given in memory of my first daughter, Julia Anne. It is a part of my story that you do not know, for her presence in my life was two decades ago, long before I came here. As some of you told me your own stories of pain and loss as a result of learning about mine, I am reminded again of how tenderly we must be with one another, for we do not know the heavy sorrow one invisibly carries.

I have alluded to my grief journey in other sermons, as grief has multiple threads in my life’s tapestry. At the beginning of Advent in 1998, my husband and I were eagerly awaiting the birth of our first baby. She had been longed for for years; sadly, pregnancy was not an easy goal for this goal-setter to achieve. As the first pangs of labor began on her due date, December 1, we were filled with the anxious, hopeful expectation that all we had been waiting for would finally come to fruition. Instead things went horribly wrong, and the birth process turned into a death march as her tiny heart stopped beating. My body, acting as protective mama bear, did not want to let her go and held on so fiercely that it was not until December 4th that she was released traumatically into this world, and I had to say hello and goodbye to my precious, perfect baby girl at the same time.

And so began the darkest time in my life, when all I had trusted and believed lay in shattered shards all around me. For the one thing I knew to be true was that I was called to be a mother. More so than a minister or a wife or any of my other ordained roles, I believed that God had created me to be a parent. It had always been the essence of my life’s understanding. In that very bleak midwinter, I could not feel God’s presence anymore, except for how it was shown to me through the love and care of others. The sorrow that I experienced in Julia’s death was carved so deeply into my being that every year during the first week of Advent the pain is visceral enough to bring me to my knees.

What I did not know at the time was the concave part of my soul was creating room for joy yet unknown. Grief and sorrow lead us into a time of rebuilding and rediscovery, even when we are too numb and too sad to decipher that that is what is happening. In retrospect, I now know that in that agonizing year that followed, I had to define anew who and what God is, how to lead a congregation from my place of deep woundedness, how to be present to relationships I had long taken for granted. My understanding of joy before that time was trite—I equated joy with fleeting feelings of euphoria when something happened that felt good. Being hollowed out by grief led me on a journey of experiencing joy differently—as an orientation of the heart, a centering of the spirit.

As I found God again and grounded my soul in the knowledge of a Divine presence, so did I know joy. In our scripture scene today, Mary visits Elizabeth, a woman also hollowed out by sorrow after years of infertility. Both women are expecting—in unexpected ways—and Elizabeth claims her newfound joy as she encounters Mary and recognizes that she is gestating the Promised One. To recognize the Divine is to know joy. And that joy fills all the cracks and crevices created by sorrow. Eighteen months after losing Julia, my beloved Eliana was born, and almost four years later my darling, cherished Hannah, looking like her sister Julia’s twin, surprised everyone by her presence. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment.” As I lived into my calling as a mother, all the carved-out places where I knew only sadness became a space for joy to be created anew. That does not mean that I do not feel Julia’s death any less keenly. Joy and sorrow: there is always room for both. For they are, indeed, inseparable.

As you tend to the hurting places in your spirit—those-sorrow filled spaces created by grief, loss, discontent, injustice, depression, exclusion—trust that the emptiness is a would-be vessel for something beautiful to be born. The Divine waits for us there, and as we acknowledge the threads of light that shine through the darkness, we move all the more closer to being surprised by joy.

This year we have a few more lights on the outside of our house. This old dog continues to learn new tricks as I hone the annoying practice of maintaining a home. But there will always be a reserved place for JOY that commands the most attention now, a new beacon in the neighborhood, reminding us all that our joy is sorrow unmasked. In this Advent season and always, let us bear witness to joy born from sorrow: in our own lives, in the lives of the ones we love and in our desperate, hurting world. Amen.