Based on Philippians 1:3-11
Paul says that every one of his prayers is filled with gratitude to God for the joy he has in the people in the church in Philippi. This feels like a very big claim, I’ve always been tempted to use logic against it – I really think he prayed prayers that didn’t include the church in Philippi. However, as I can also be prone to exaggeration, I have to let it go. Most scholars believe that Paul was particularly fond of the church in Philippi, that it was his favorite. That may be so, and help make sense of it all. In any case, he is expressing a large amount of joy.
Last week we talked about some similar words to the church in Thessalonia, and we focused on the life-giving nature of the gratitude. This week we’re playing with the joy. Paul’s joy in the people in the church in Philippi provides us a space to consider joy in our own lives.
I recently watched a TED talk about joy, “Where Joy Hides and Where to Find It.” The speaker, Ingrid Fetell Lee, talks about asking people about what brought them joy. She says,
“I noticed that there were certain things that started to come up again and again and again. They were things like cherry blossoms and bubbles … swimming pools and tree houses … hot air balloons and googly eyes —and ice cream cones, especially the ones with the sprinkles. These things seemed to cut across lines of age and gender and ethnicity. I mean, if you think about it, we all stop and turn our heads to the sky when the multicolored arc of a rainbow streaks across it. And fireworks — we don’t even need to know what they’re for, and we feel like we’re celebrating, too. These things aren’t joyful for just a few people; they’re joyful for nearly everyone. They’re universally joyful. And seeing them all together, it gave me this indescribably hopeful feeling. The sharply divided, politically polarized world we live in sometimes has the effect of making our differences feel so vast as to be insurmountable. And yet underneath it all, there’s a part of each of us that finds joy in the same things. And though we’re often told that these are just passing pleasures, in fact, they’re really important, because they remind us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world.”1
She goes on to say that she struggled to identify the patterns in those things for a long time, and then she noticed that things that bring joy are: “round things … pops of bright color … symmetrical shapes … a sense of abundance and multiplicity … a feeling of lightness or elevation.2 Ingrid Fetell Lee works in design and aesthetics, and that helps her see things others might have missed. Her next question is about why the world of humans is so dull, rectangular, and drab if that is the opposite of what brings us joy. She posits, “We all start out joyful, but as we get older, being colorful or exuberant opens us up to judgment. Adults who exhibit genuine joy are often dismissed as childish or too feminine or unserious or self-indulgent, and so we hold ourselves back from joy, and we end up in a world that looks like this.”3
Is that it? Is it so simple as we don’t want to be seen as childish or feminine or unserious? If so, that’s really sad. Jesus once said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17, also found in Matthew and Mark.) Now, I’m not claiming to know what he meant by that, but I’m going to suggest that it is POSSIBLE he meant we should allow ourselves space for joy. To be a follower of Jesus doesn’t have to be boring, drab, colorless, nor rectangular experience. It can be fun, and full of laughter and joy. In fact, I think joy is a sign of spiritual maturity!
That said, I’ve struggled with it too. Especially in the years that I was seen as a “young woman pastor” more easily than as a “pastor” I pushed to be taken seriously in entirely too many ways! A few years ago, when I attended the Courage to Lead program, we were asked to bring an object with special meaning to us to symbolize our intention for the retreats. Rather to my own shock, I picked a stick that I’ve been carrying around the world for 20+ years.
I’d first encountered that stick when I was a junior high camper at Sky Lake, participating in a camp where we slept in tents, cooked our meals over fires, and generally savored being in the woods. Someone had identified a small black birch tree, and pointed it out. A conversation ensued about birch beer, which is a soda of my childhood in Pennsylvania that I’ve realized not everyone has has experienced.4 Think rootbeer, but … better. We wondered if the tree would taste like birch beer, so we… tried it. We tried sucking on this little tree, and it turned out it DID taste like birch beer! I’ve recently looked it up, and it turns out birch beer is flavored from the bark of black birch trees, so this is fairly reasonable.
Anyway, my young self thought it was AWESOME that a tree tasted like birch beer. So I broke off a stick and sucked on it, and then I kept the stick as a reminder of that awesomeness. It lived in a drawer in my parent’s house until I moved into my first parsonage, and then it has moved with me since. I can still look at this ridiculous stick and remember the JOY of that day. When I was asked to bring an object to a retreat in Wisconsin I looked around the house for something light and easy to pack. I brought the stick. Then I remembered I had to connect it to an intention, and that meant I had to figure out how on earth to connect a 20+ year old birch stick to my intentionality around my leadership capacity as a pastor.
As I shared about the stick at that retreat, I found myself saying that I’m naturally a person who experiences wonder and delight in the world. Yet, I was aware I’d leaned into critical thinking and cynicism in order to soothe hurts related to realizing how broken the world, its institutions, and its people are. I hoped in the course of the Courage to Lead program I might find my way back to being a person who finds it easy to see wonder and delight in the world.
That retreat was in 2015. The intention I brought to it has seemed to … work. I see differently than I once did, and there is more wonder in what I see than ever. In the November newsletter I talked about stages of faith development: pre-critical naivete, critical thinking, and post-critical naivete. It still takes a little bit of effort for me to be in post-critical naivete, but it is easier than it used to be. I know how broken things are, and now, even knowing that, I can see how wonderful and miraculous it is when things are a little less broken, or healing happens, or delight breaks in. It has become a little bit easier for me to see complexity and wonder at the same time.
And all of that lets the joy in better – EVEN these days!
I am also wondering what else holds us back from joy? One proposal, that I think holds water, is that we get held back from joy by trying to be taken seriously. Of course, sometimes we don’t feel joy because we are too busy feeling other things, and that’s healthy and appropriate. Yet, if we are looking for joy, how can we find it? I wonder if sometimes our lives end up being too stuffed full to make space for joy – because joy likes spontaneity and a little bit of time to savor. (It is not overly methodical!!!) Apparently color, roundness, lightness, and symmetry can help – as can ice cream and balloons. I suspect that more than anything we may need to just open ourselves up to it – allow little things that bring us joy to matter and savor their goodness.
Paul talks about a very deep joy, and I think his joy intersects with his faith. He goes on to say, “ I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (v. 6) That’s a pretty joy-filled statement too. That confidence is outstanding. What if it is true? What if the things that matter most WILL be brought to completion? Its a wondrous idea. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.”5 If the work that God has begun in us is the work of many generations, then it is only by faith and hope that we can trust it will get done.
And there are many things that I think God is up to that are going to take generations: racial equity, gender equity, full inclusion and celebration of LGBTQIA people, eliminating world hunger, creating world peace, adequate housing for all, excellent health care for all, curing cancer, making space for people with disabilities to be seen as equally vital to our shared humanity, universal access to education, helping us adapt to climate change, guiding us to minimize climate change, curing HIV/AIDS, creating a world where all people know and live compassion and empathy, making space for beauty in many forms to fill up human souls, long term sustainability, and access for all to sources of deep joy – to name a few. I hope and pray that Paul is right and the work that God has begun, God will bring to completion.
In the meantime, we can notice the instances – large or small – where progress is being made. I believe that in noticing such things, and celebrating them, creates more of them! I think part of our work as co-creators with God is to attend to the goodness (as well as to try to create it.) I think noticing joyful things and savoring them matters. I think joy is one of the many gifts God gifts us, and paying attention to it gives us clues as to who God is and what God is up to in the world. Paul goes on, in our passage today to say, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” I’d add joy. This is MY prayer: that your joy and love may overflow more and more – and that they’ll guide you into fuller knowledge and insight. May God help make it so. Amen
Preached by Rev. Sara E. Baron on December 9, 2018