Week 4 Where’s the Joy?
The four Sundays of Advent prepare us to receive the promised gifts of the Messiah – today, the gift of joy.
Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
That’s been our promise for 2,000 years, but it seems that many of us haven’t claimed the gift.
Last week I mentioned listening to a man who had spent several decades in Africa and the Middle East designing telecommunications and satellite systems for developing countries.
When he returned to the US, he was struck by how bitter, stressed, and unhappy Americans have become.
So, I decided to look a little deeper into what’s going on.
One thing I found is that the UN’s annual World Happiness Index shows the US in steady decline, and now ranked 19th in the world.
Yet we live in one of the most prosperous countries, crime rates are low and declining, unemployment is low and the stock market is high.
But for whatever reasons, data show that 63% of Americans are anxious about the future of our country – that’s a higher percentage than those who worry about money – and 59% say that our country is at its lowest point in history.
So, where’s the joy?
Maybe we can’t change the direction of our country, but we can change our own lives, and together we can improve the lives of members of our church and some of our neighbors.
To get a handle on this, we must understand that humans are wired to be discontented.
That’s great in the sense that discontent has led to the development of civilization.
We weren’t content with raw meat so we harnessed fire.
We weren’t content with horse-drawn buggies so we developed automobiles.
But while discontent motivates us to innovate and improve, it can also rob us of joy.
There’s a balancing act between having goals to improve while simultaneously finding contentment in the moment.
The good news is that living with content – a prerequisite for joy – is something we can learn to do.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is most likely a composite of two letters and a thank you note that were later edited together into a single epistle.
The consensus is that he wrote the main letter during his second imprisonment in Rome where he eventually knew he was facing execution.
He had undergone years of hardship, imprisonment, beatings, and disappointments while planting churches, yet he could write,
Philippians 4:1 … for I’m lucky to have been born with a good disposition.
No, that’s not what he wrote.
What he did write is, Philippians 4:11 … for I have (what?) learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
How do we learn to be content?
Modern studies show that roughly 60% of your happiness is influenced – not determined – influenced by your genetic predisposition and your environment, and about 40% is under your control.
This has been an important understanding for me because I think I inherited a depression-cynicism gene– it runs through my family.
Both my mom and dad were intelligent and enormously creative, but my mom was in and out of mental institutions and my dad grew cynical and alienated from life.
I started out the same way.
I know this sounds really strange, but from an early age I had the idea that to be a grown-up meant you should be cynical, alienated and weighed down with worry.
Not until well into adulthood did something stir within me that I could be different, but I’d been taught that any such thinking was trivial and Pollyannaish.
Eventually, with lots of suspicion and some resistance I came to believe that I have a lot of control of how I feel and that I can view life with optimism.
I don’t have total control, but along the way, I found the God wanted me to experience a healthier life and was working within me to heal my attitudes.
For me, that was no trivial matter.
You and I live in partnership with God; together with God, we are co-creators of our lives.
We aren’t in this alone – but we are responsible for cultivating spiritual habits that open us to hope, peace, love, and joy.
A good place to begin is recognizing the joy-killers – which often come camouflaged as the very things we crave, the very things we expect will fill us with joy!
One is a psychological phenomenon that psychologists call tolerance.
Our minds adjust to our state of being, so we get used to what we have and then start craving more … this is the opposite of contentment.
I remember taking Kerstynn and some of her friends to a video arcade down on Ventura Blvd.
At first, they stood in awe of all the action, lights and sounds awaiting them.
Some began with a simple ski game, and after mastering that they stepped up to a more thrilling police shootout game.
At first, they held their tokens tightly, carefully considering which games to play.
But soon they were dropping their tokens faster and faster into any game where they didn’t have to stand in line.
As they ran out of tokens an interesting thing happened.
Instead of stepping back and saying, “Hey that was really great! Thank you, for bringing us here. Thanks for buying us all those tokens,” – instead they got sulky.
As I herded them out of the arcade, telling them one last time that no, I was not going to buy any more tokens, they glared resentfully at the kids who had a seemingly endless supply of tokens in their bulging pockets.
During the entire drive home, they fought in the backseat, complained that they were bored and hungry – a special hunger that only Johnny Rockets could relieve.
Now you tell me: would an additional handful of tokens have made these children joyful?
Would a cheeseburger and strawberry shake have filled them with joy?
Of course not.
Back in my MBA studies, we learned about “satisficers” – which explains that if there we have a true unmet need, we will not be satisfied until we have it.
Basic salary is an example.
But once that basic need is met, getting more of it will only bring short-term motivation.
The gift of joy is seldom found from externals; we experience joy when we become content with who we are.
In his book, Authentic Faith, Gary Thomas says, “Spiritually speaking, we become sick when we start tolerating God’s blessings instead of being thankful for them. The Bible prescribes thankfulness as the way for us to counteract our growing accustomed to our affluence.”
So, another choice we make is to find what is good in the present moment – not ignoring the challenges, but seeing what we can appreciate.
I remember my first visit with Betty Higgins after coming to this church.
Sitting on her sofa with her legs too swollen and painful to stand on she told me about one tragedy after another – the premature death of her husband, Charley whom she adored; the crippling motorcycle crash of Chilo – whom she helped raise and care for while she was in her seventies and eighties; a bullet that had come through her bedroom window nearly killing her; the car that came off a freeway overpass and fell onto her daughter’s car on the Hollywood Freeway; the physical and mental damage inflicted on her daughter by a violent husband … on and on.
At first, I wasn’t sure whether to believe all the stories, and I certainly doubted when she said she felt so blessed and that life is so good.
But those of us who knew Betty know that both were true.
She taught me that I can focus on the hardship or on the blessings.
Paul’s famous passage, (Philippians 4:4) Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! is part of this teaching about learning to be content.
Lynn Goldberg describes a much-anticipated trip she and her husband took to Bhutan.
To visit the Bumdra monastery they climbed and camped at 11,500 feet.
She says the air was pure and clean, and the views were spectacular.
They were feeling all spiritual until the temperature dropped as the sun went down.
Then all she could focus on were her frozen hands and feet.
Their campfire gave limited relief and any joy she might have felt was overshadowed by her chattering teeth.
Their guide, on the other hand, seemed impervious to the cold.
He was wearing a Gho, a traditional knee-length robe that ties at the waist —and yet there she was, bundled in a down coat, freezing and feeling miserable.
She asked the guide if he was cold, and he replied that he was grateful to be able to camp at this sacred site.
She couldn’t understand how he seemed oblivious to the bone-numbing cold so he explained, “Rather than focusing on what I don’t have, I focus on what I do — I am lucky to have a fire, I am lucky to have this job, I am lucky to have a tent, and I am lucky to have your company.”
Eventually, this becomes a habit.
Philippians 4:8 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
Back in my corporate days, I worked with a woman who was chronically discontent.
She found fault with everything and everyone: her company car didn’t have all the high-end accessories, she felt underpaid, she resented people who were promoted ahead of her.
She wasn’t happy with what appeared to me to be a lovely upscale home.
I don’t know much of her personal life, but I wasn’t surprised when her marriage ended and she “upgraded” to a “better” husband.
She left our company because she was unhappy, but a few years later was back because she’d became unhappy with the company she’d gone to.
Chronic discontent is a form of laziness – she – we – could do better.
Proverbs 14:30 A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.
St. Francis de Sales was bishop of Geneva in the 1500s who became known for his gentle and compassionate way of dealing with the deep religious divisions of his time.
He wrote, “We must consider that there is no vocation that has not its irksome aspects, its bitterness, and disgusts. And what is more, except for those who are fully resigned to the will of God, each one would willingly change his condition for that of others; those who are bishops would like not to be; those who are married would like not be, and those who are not married would like to be. Whence come this general disquietude of souls, if not from a certain dislike of constraint and perversity of spirit that makes us think that each one is better off than we?”
So, how do we take responsibility for the condition of our soul?
Here are a few things we already know but which if put into practice can help us receive the angels’ announcement of joy.
There’s nothing new – but what if we really make a practice of these things:
First, give your psyche some space.
It can be as simple as taking some time every day to turn off the cell phone, the music, the TV . . . I’m not talking about going off for prayer or meditation . . . just some time when the world stops pulling at you and trying to grab you and manipulate you.
There’s a ton of evidence that being interrupted by social media and constant news updates is leading to massive stress, depression, and alienation.
I finally took that research seriously and cut way back on how much I allow myself to be interrupted or to be sucked into the latest headline on CNN, the ding of Facebook, or the rant of someone on Northridge Neighbors.
I’ve got to tell you, my ability to concentrate and my sense of wellbeing improved within days.
Second, an active practice of gratitude reminds us of God’s blessing … and it can be so simple.
When you walk through your front door, you can either see an out-of-date sofa with its dog fur and pee stain, or you can pause for a few seconds and give thanks for your doggies.
What if we remembered to give thanks when we adjust the thermostat – a miracle that keeps (us) comfortable whether its near freezing or over a hundred outside.
Just five seconds every time you walk through the door, pause and say, “Thank you, God, for this home.”
When you sit down to eat, you can either be focused on getting through the meal to get on to the next activity, or you can remember the gift of having food.
The birth of Jesus is just a couple of days away.
Opening the gifts he brings requires some effort on our part, but they are gifts that will bless us for our entire life.