Text: Philippians 4:4-7
I saw the car commercial, just slightly in my vision as I was walking through the basement. I was doing laundry, but I could tell that the ad was showing footage of a beautiful, expensive, luxury automobile, zooming at high speeds around the highway curves. And there was some sort of prattle going on, I don’t remember the monologue, but I think it was a man talking about how he was going to his holiday family reunion, and he was going to show them how successful he had become.
I smiled. The messages of this season are so interesting. You can show people how much you love them with a diamond. Your can make your children happy by buying them a video game. Now, you can finally let your brother and sister know that you got the biggest piece of the pie. You own the most toys. You won the ultimate tug-of-war, because you have a shiny car. Not only can you buy emotional security for your spouse, happy memories for your kids, but you can win the final grand victory for your sibling rivalry. In fact, if we believe the commercials, the only thing that money cannot buy is poverty.
In this season, the idea that money will buy our happiness seeps into just about everything we do. And in this time when we are grasping for joy, we almost believe it.
Joy is part of our Christmas season, and it is a theme in the Bible. The command to “Rejoice” was repeated in our Scriptures and it is peppered in our hymns. And so we gather around, in this time when we know we ought to be joyful, with this expectation that we will be happy. We even read the command from Philippians this morning: “Rejoice!” the author, Paul, says, “And again I say Rejoice!”
And yet, let’s be honest, often with the shorter days, gloom and depression can set in. This is a time when expectations run high and money can run low. It is a season when we can be surrounded by people, but feeling utterly alone. It is a moment when we long to be with our families and our friends, and yet we find ourselves working overtime and attending those parties that we really ought to be seen at.
So, with this command in front of us, and with these holiday pressures all around us, we have to ask, “What gives us joy?”
When I think about joy, two vivid scenes from the last couple of years pop in my mind. And please forgive me, because they are both bathroom scenes: one from a movie and the other from a book.
The first was from Slumdog Millionaire. I know that there has been some controversy about the portrayal of people in India and anger about the name of the movie itself. But, I must say, I liked the movie. There was this unforgettable moment in it. A little boy was in an outhouse, and his brother wanted him to come out of it. Just at that moment, a helicopter came flying over their heads, and news spread that a celebrity was visiting the city. His brother locked him in the outhouse. The boy wanted so badly to see the man that he escaped the only way he knew how. He fell into the excrement.
Then the boy went to go meet the famous man, without wiping anything off. And the crowd of people, who were surrounding the celebrity, moved out of the way for the little boy. He smelled, and they were all afraid that he was going to touch them!
And the celebrity gave the boy his signature.
The boy yelled and jumped for joy. The elation, the pure happiness of this moment, when this boy is covered from head to toe in filth, was an amazing moment.
I found myself, during the whole movie, rooting for such simple things for these children. A home. School. Food. Safety. I thought that it would be a happy ending if they could only have these basic things.
The second bathroom scene that stayed with me this year was much different. It was from the book Eat, Pray, Love, when the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was on the clean bathroom floor of her suburban home. It was a beautiful house, with new furniture. Gilbert had everything that a person could want, everything that we strive for—a great career, a successful spouse. And yet, she would find herself, late at night, on the floor of the bathroom when she should have been sleeping. She was fighting a wave of overwhelming depression, and trying to talk herself out of hurting herself.
We talked about Eat, Pray, Love at the women’s retreat. We turned it over in our discussions, how the book has sold millions of copies. And we realized that it must be because a lot of people relate to the story–that story of finally having everything that you want and realizing that you’re miserable in the midst of it.
We see this unfold in the news all too often. We see the perfect “family man,” the sports star or politician, they seem to have everything together, then we watch them destroy their lives and themselves. And we scratch our heads and ask, “Why did they do that? They had everything that they could have wanted.” We look at their amazing spouses, and we realize it has nothing to do with what they already have.
Then, as the sordid details of their secret lives come out, we realize that men and women do not just cheat on their spouses because there is someone better who happens to be available. Sometimes they cheat because they are miserable. There is a giant vacuum inside of them that needs. And when they try to fill it with money, power, success, and accolades, and then it’s still there. So they grasp on to sex try to figure out if there is something else that can fill it.
Back to the two scenes, they contrast in my mind, and make me wonder—what is joy? Why does one person experience it in the midst of a slum and another person cannot find it in the midst of luxury? There are studies out that say that in this time and age, even before unemployment got so high, when men and women had many more comforts of life, that we were more depressed than ever before in our country.
Is it because we have too much money? About 15 years ago, I did some work in Kenya, and people in the villages would dance and sing all night long, completely outlasting my 20-year-old self. And after these long nights, my friend Grace would tell me, “We are poor people, but we are rich with happiness.” I never doubted it.
The experience had an effect on me. And I began to have this romantic notion that people who lived in poverty were somehow happier. On top of that, I had a sense of religious asceticism, and believed that when I gave material possessions up, then I would be satisfied. And when I left seminary, I decided to go to one of the poorest areas in the country to pastor in a very small congregation.
But, after living for a few years under the poverty level and realized that there is nothing satisfying about not knowing how I was going to pay for my student loans, or where my next mortgage payment was going to come from. The marital tension was overwhelming. And I quickly became a failed ascetic.
I am not so shallow to think that material possession can buy us happiness, and I learned that giving them up didn’t work for me. But I do wonder, where does joy come from? What sort of things need to be in place so that we might experience joy? Paul ought to know about joy in all kinds of circumstances, he is writing this from prison—and he is telling the community to “rejoice.”
There are things that we can learn to do-eat well and exercise. There are also spiritual disciplines that I have learned in my own life, and things that I have seen others going through as well.
Now, if you are experiencing chemical depression, then do not hesitate to get the help that you need. Often there is a chemical imbalance within our minds that physical and mental exercises will not resolve, and it’s important to get the help that you need.
But, aside from that, there are some things that we can do.
First, we can understand that God loves us and wants the best for us. I know that this might seem trite. It might sound like a bumper sticker on the car of someone you would not invite to your holiday parties, but it is a powerful truth when we can internalize it. For some of us, we get God all mixed up with our parents.
And if we had a father who was never satisfied no matter how hard we tried. If we had a dad who was always absent from our lives. Or a mother who seemed so wrapped up in her own depression to be there emotionally for her child. Or parents who regulated the amount of money or food they gave to us according to how much we were getting along with them. Or if we had parents who abused us. Then, when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we might have the tendency to get the parental metaphor and God all mixed up, and we might imagine that we have a God who can never be pleased, who is never quite satisfied with what we do. Or we could even think that we have a manipulative God who dispenses joy and good things only as God is pleased.
But, if we can begin to imagine a God who loves us, who wants us to have abundant life, who wants us to have a deep abiding joy. If we can begin to imagine a God who will love us and hold us, who thinks that we are good, and delights even in the very smell of us, we can begin to heal from those wounds of our past.
The second thing is to make a gratitude list. Listing everything that we are thankful for. Paul seems to be pointing to this practice when hw says “whatever is whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
It is a rare thing to have everything that we need all at one time. If our job is going well, sometimes we do not have the relationship that we want. If our health is good, then we do not have the job that we want. If we have the career that we always dreamed of, then suddenly we realize that we miss that time with our family that we used to have.
If you are human, there will always a point of dissatisfaction in your life, a place where things seem unbearable. And yet, if we are able to take a few moments to step back, and remember all that we do have, then it’s like getting an injury when we are basically healthy. We can overcome it a lot easier.
The third thing that we can learn to do is to help others, even with our weaknesses. Going back to this retreat, we spent a lot of time talking about archetypes. We looked at the archetypes in the great myths, some that Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell pointed out, and as I was preparing, I noticed that archetype of the wounded healer.
It is a powerful metaphor. I have a friend who was sexually abused as a child, and I asked her one time how she was so resilient. How she was able to live such a productive life. I knew people who were in her same circumstances who were not able to get over the trauma. And she told me that she had learned to use it as a source of healing. Through her work as a counselor, she had been able to talk to people who had gone through similar circumstances, and she had been able to show them that they could live abundant lives. In some sort of emotional sense, it was like she was like she was able to show them her flesh, and to tell them, “Look, the scars will heal. They feel like they are gaping right now, and the pain seems too much to bear, but I have proof that they can heal.”
This is a season when forced happiness surrounds us. And it is a time when we are reminded of the spiritual discipline of rejoicing. We can learn to drink from that deep well of contentment that can fill us. When we are able to use our wounds as a source of healing for others, when we are able to focus on the good things that surrounds us, and when we are able to trust and rest in the fact that God loves us and wants us to have an abundant live.
May we go out in this season, with an overwhelming sense of joy.
To the glory of God our Creator,
God our Liberator,
and God, our Sustainer. Amen.