READING: Don’t Hesitate
BY MARY OLIVER

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

“I Choose Joy”

Some of you know that I am early bird. I am just better in the mornings. And Tuesday mornings are my favorite. They fall after my Sabbath day on Monday, and I get a lot of joy out of waking up really early on these mornings. I usually rise when it is still dark out, and I make my coffee when everyone in my family is still asleep, and I sit outside on the porch, no matter the weather, and do my best to just breath, say, I AM HERE, and welcome in the week. A practice I learned from the late Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, is to recite part of a short mindfulness verse that goes: Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me…Thich Nhat Hanh says “What better way to start the day than with a smile? Your smile affirms your awareness and determination to live in peace and joy…So, [he says] look deeply, and smile.”

So, now you have a picture in your mind of your well-rested minister sitting on her porch under the morning stars blissed out and smiling, right? Sometimes I am this. I am often this. And sometimes I am not. I do this practice for a reason: I need it.

A dear friend of mine once said to me that her joy was hard-earned. I love this. Me too. It is hard-earned and something I have work at cultivating every day. Against all odds. And as with any spiritual practice worth its weight, it demands consistency and discipline.

So, this is where I tell you that I come from a long line of expert problematizers. I don’t know one family member on any side of my tree, who isn’t, bless their hearts, an Eeyore or a Piglet. Do I have any Winnie-the-Pooh fans in the house? For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, I come from a people who lived their lives, more or less, ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop,’ and who were masterful, truly masterful, at preparing themselves, at all times, for the absolute worst. Gloom and doom, those are the Eeyores, or feverishly anxious, those are my piglets. Many are a winning combination of both. And my dear ancestors spent their days toiling over the state of their lives and the state of the world and knocking on wood when good news or any overt expressions of contentment or joy were proclaimed: for fear of jinxing things.

Don’t tempt fate, they would say. I am trying to undo this knot. Trying to change the legacy here. We get to do that. Change legacies.

And this is hard. Because we live in, and have inherited, a world where joyless-ness and doom, waiting for the other shoe to drop, is a commonplace orientation to most everything. Our culture is steeped in it.

And this is why we need wise ones to teach us about perspective, like Thich Naht Han, and his healing practice of simply, radically smiling.

Or His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I dropped the ball this morning and left their book at home, The Book of Joy. I had planned to hold it up for you so that you could see them, on the cover, facing each other laughing. The book of Joy. This is a book to order or pick up from the library.

They write, in the introduction, “To celebrate one of our special birthdays, we met for a week in Dharmsala [in 2016] to enjoy our friendship and to create something that we hope will be a birthday gift for others…so much of life is spent in sadness, stress, and suffering…YET no dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”

Take that in. No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.

We get to alter the legacy.

And this book spends a few hundred pages documenting a conversation between these two spiritual leaders, these are deeply religious men, with completely different theologies–a theist and a non-theist–and yet are united in the healing, courageous, salvific power of JOY.

And these are men who know suffering. These are people who have lived it, and whose people live it. So, these are the kind of people I need to teach me about Joy.

So what is JOY exactly? Joy is not just about having more fun, and it’s not about feeling ‘happier’. Happiness is about an external thing in our present environment, that brings us a feeling of elation. And happiness is all about me. I feel happy when they have my favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream at the store. And this is real.

Joy, however, is a spiritual state of mind and being. Joy transcends the self. Joy spreads itself out to the world and sees the wholeness of the thing. Joy is not dependent on anyone or anything. It’s not dependent on my ice-cream being in stock or not.

And joy, according to Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, is made up by three simple ingredients: Love, Compassion and Generosity. Love of self, and love of all living beings equals JOY. Compassion for self, and compassion for all living beings equals…JOY. Generosity towards self, and generosity towards all living beings equals JOY. All of this, they say, weaves together a life that feels meaningful and connected. And a life rich with meaning and connection, is a life rich with joy. And we don’t practice all of this to just create joy for ourselves, remember joy transcends the self, and makes of us: (these are Archbishop Tutu’s words) “a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace… that can ripple out to all those around [us].” Yes, joy is contagious.

And the archbishop also says: “Discovering joy does not…save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

So, Joy keeps us from becoming brittle in spirit. We can feel happiness but be so very brittle in spirit. Not so with joy.

And some of you will ask, how in the world, Rev. Sophia, can we afford to be joyful? The world is on fire. It’s our duty, and what our faith calls us towards: to be embittered and enraged. No, some of you might say Joy is the luxury of privileged, apathetic people.

 And I hear you.

And I want to caution us all, myself included–I do not preach from a pulpit on high here–I want to caution us all against giving up our right to joy in the name of engagement with the news of the day or doing the work of justice. I want to caution us all against settling for crumbs in the name of being a good citizen. Let us take care to not trample or trade our joy away. For we cannot do good work in the world without it, and I hope you hear me when I say that.

Interestingly, despair and hopelessness, brittleness of spirit, they don’t turn us outwards, towards each other, they often turn us inward. Whereas love and compassion and generosity, hope and JOY, these things send us into the arms of others, those are Archbishop Tutu’s words. Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Cornel West, Thich Naht Han, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, Desmond Tutu, all of these wise, wise spiritual leaders, teach us that Love, Compassion, Generosity, Hope, Joy these are the things that in the end, will save us, heal us, transcend us. And they all require faith in a Moral and Good Universe whose arc is long and always bends towards justice, and which is forever teaching us to not fear tempting fate, but rather to believe, believe, believe in human beings’ goodness being the powerful stuff that will shape it! This is the power we wield. And I lean on the Great Spirit that I call God, please translate that word for yourselves, to guide me in this deep and faithful knowing.

The Dalai Lama says that “YES, there are many, many things that can depress us. But there also are very many things that are fantastic about our world. Unfortunately, the media do not report on these because they aren’t seen as news…It is easy to feel like our basic human nature is to kill and be corrupt…but we must keep a more holistic view…We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective.” Not rose-colored glasses or head in the sand thinking, but proportion. Meditate on this: there are billions of people in this world being generous, kind and loving to one another. Right now. Billions. Can you allow this to not erase the bad news, but just sit there next to it. Can you courageously invite yourself to experience joy at the thought of this?

The reason this is hard, is because we have become habituated to despair. It is our default setting. And we have settled for crumbs when joy is meant to be a fully nourishing meal.

I want you to think about this question over the coming weeks: Why have we settled for so little? There’s a lot of history in the answer, a lot of oppressive systems at work here, a lot of religious doctrine that has been twisted, abused and defiled in this query–why have we settled for crumbs?, there’s a lot about our families, our ancestors–what they put in place to survive as the oppressed and the oppressor–in this waiting for the other shoe to drop thinking. Understanding that in this question and in the daily and radical act of Choosing Joy, we do not shut the door on any of this, we open it; understanding that Choosing Joy thrusts us into the arms of one another, even the stranger or our enemies, and makes of us oases of peace that ripple out to all of those around us; understanding that choosing joy is about courageously saying YES, I choose hope. And I will not, I will not, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “I will not bow before the altar of hate and condemnation and hopelessness and retaliatation…” anymore. I choose hope. I choose love. I choose faith. I choose joy. And I’m going to keep on until I find it. As in the words of our sorrow song, in the face of the worst kind of horror, I’m gonna keep on till I find it.

Before we sing with joy and gusto Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, Joyful music lifts us sunward in the triumph song of life, before we do this, let’s listen to the words of our poet again. Allow this to be our closing prayer. One that I hope you will carry out with you today–hold for yourself and gift to your fellows.

Don’t Hesitate. Mary Oliver.

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Joy is not made to be a crumb. 

Amen.

Won’t you now rise in body and spirit and sing hymn #29 with me.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.