Joy to the world! We do so want Christmas to be happy, don’t we? If there is one time of the year that arouses all the perfectionist instincts in us, this is it. We want everything to look right and taste right and go right. Imagine the horror of one church secretary who got the bulletin back from the printer and read that the choir would sing, “I Heard the Bills on Christmas Day.”
And then there is the man who had a great idea for his children’s Christmas. This was going to be super-special. He ordered a tree house from a mail order catalog, which of course came unassembled, and as he put it together, he realized that he had a sailboat on his hands instead. He fired off a complaint to the company and got back this reply, “While we regret the inconvenience this mistake must have caused you, it is nothing compared to that of the man by a lake somewhere who is getting ready to sail your tree house.”
We want everyone to be blissfully happy, unqualifiedly joyful, don’t we? So it doesn’t take very much to sour it all. I still remember my bright idea in my first parish. Let’s go out in the country to a member’s barn and film a live creche to show on Christmas Eve: live Joseph, live Mary, live shepherds and wisemen, live goat, live donkey, not a live baby. The day we assembled it was five below zero with at least a ten mile wind. Not very happy. As I remember it the goat and donkey got into it with one another, and we never did get them into the picture. Thoroughly depressing affair.
We want everything right except perhaps with the children. Indeed here half the fun is their innocent misunderstanding and un-self-conscious comedy. One minister writes, “I was sitting in my study on the saturday before Christmas. Outside in the courtyard of our church the men of the church were in the process of building the stage for a live nativity scene. Since my door was open, I heard two children discussing the process. Asked one of the other, ‘What is this going to be?’ Answered the other, ’Oh, they are building a live fertility scene.’” Close!
So much for holiday cheer, Christmas joy. But soon Christmas will be over now and in its fading shadows we will look forward to the reality of another year. The more important question: is there any joy out there waiting for us? One mother says that she is always sorry when Christmas is over because she knows that when her family has hung up their stockings on the mantel, it is the last time they will hang up anything for another whole year.
Is it possible or even proper to live a joyful life in a world where cancer wipes out friends and Husseins reign, where accidents mutilate young and old, and gangs terrorize the streets? Do we have a right to rejoice when so many are hungry and suffering, lonely and oppressed? In the midst of all the depressing realities of this world, how can we take our joy with any kind of integrity and good conscience?
Except that some of the very best and most caring and truly hurting seem to find it, find deep joy right in the midst of this kind of world. One of them was a young man, sick and frail as an infant, delicate and subject to illnesses all his life. He went into the ministry, but his physical problems were so severe that he could no longer serve his growing congregation. Instead he wrote them letters of hope and good cheer. He complained once to a friend about the harsh and uncouth texts of the hymns in that day, and so his friend challenged him to write better ones. He did. He wrote over 600 of them, hymns of praise and joy. When his health finally gave out in 1748 he left behind one of the most remarkable collections of hymns the world has ever known. His name, Isaac Watts, and he penned the hymn, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come.”
Except this is precisely the promise the Christmas angel gave to impoverished shepherd outcasts on a lonely hillside that dark night, “Hear me, I bring you good news of great joy.”
Except the Manger Babe became a man who was characterized more than anything else by his joy; joy even in the dark night of rejection and loneliness, who went off to the garden and trial with a song on his lips. My favorite artist’s portrayal has him head back in hearty laugh. Ever see him like that?
So what kind of joy is it—his joy right in the middle of the misery, coldness, cruelty of this kind of world? It really is a very simple thing. First of all joy in living, deep felt-delight at the privilege of being alive, the sense that good and hard, it is good to be here, to enjoy the gifts of a gracious and powerful God.
The late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross before she died looked back at hundreds of patients dealing with suffering and possible death, and wrote, “Not one of them has ever told me how many houses she had or how many handbags or sable coats. What they tell me of are tiny, almost insignificant moments in their lives —where they went fishing with a child or mountain climbing trips in Switzerland. Some brief moments of privacy in an interpersonal relationship. These are the things that keep people going at the end. They remember little moments that they have long forgotten and they suddenly have a smile on their faces. And they begin to reminisce about the little joys that made their lives meaningful and worth the living.
The Christmas word is a word about the divine taking up human life and so reconciling us to it as worth the living. Jesus embraced life in this world, his kind of world, a world marginal at best. Art Buchwald once said, “Whether these are the worst of times or the best of times, they are the only times we have.” The willingness to embrace our own particular fate and lot, all of it, as special and worth living to the full; therein lies the possibility of a quiet and deeply real joy. Henri Nouwen, now gone, but a spiritual guide for many of us, reflects on his birthday some years ago. “Within a few years (5,10,15,20 or 30) I will no longer be on this earth. The thought of this does not frighten me but fills me with a quiet joy. I am a small part of life, a human being in the midst of thousands of other human beings. It is good to be young, to grow old, and to die. It is good to live with others and to die with others. I can feel today that it is good to be and especially to be one of many. What counts are not the special and unique accomplishments in life that make me different from others, but the basic experiences of sadness and joy, pain and healing, which make me part of humanity. God became flesh to share with us in this simple living and dying and thus make it good.”
There is an old poem I used to read around this time of year that beautifully makes the same point. “A tired old doctor died today, and a baby boy was born — /A little new soul that was pink and frail, and a soul that was gray and worn. / And — halfway here and halfway there On a white, high hill of shining air — /They met and passed and paused to speak in the flushed and hearty dawn. / The man looked down at the soft, small thing, with wise and weary eyes; /And the little chap stared back at him, with startled, scared surmise, /And then he shook his downy head —/’I think I won’t be born,’ he said; /’You are too gray and sad!’/ And he shrank from the pathway down the skies. / But the tired old doctor roused once more at the battle-cry of birth, /And there was memory in his look of grief and toil and mirth. /’Go on!’ he said./ ‘It’s good— and bad: It’s hard! Go on! It’s ours, my lad.’ / And he stood and urged him out of sight, down to the waiting earth.”
“Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said. We can transcend our circumstance and find joy in being alive under God’s good heaven.
Joy in living is there in him. And secondly there is joy in giving. “Greater love has no one than that he lay down his life for his friends. Abide in my love …so that my joy may be in you…” His kind of love, love not as sentiment and momentary emotion, but as self-transcending, giving to others. Again a simple thing, but here is where deep joy comes.
What is it about Jesus? What sets him apart? Is it not the joy he takes in people and in helping them to lives abundant and rich? Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to sum him up by saying he was the “man for others.” And it is here that we finally find joy, not in power and prestige, not in limos and limelight, but in reaching out to others, in giving of ourselves.
Gretchen Bodum, a friend from afar, sends me a column her sister-in-law wrote recently for a newspaper. “I’m not exactly sure why I fell for Ron. There are over 90 people living at the Samaritan Inn this Christmas. There are men and women and children and babies, and all are deserving of better, but there was something about Ron that touched my heart. Maybe it’s because my Dad is named Ron, and so is my brother, or maybe it’s because we are the same age. I might have gone to school with Ron or hung out with Ron, but I didn’t; I met him in a homeless shelter.
“Some people who end up homeless can count on their families to help them, but Ron’s parents are both gone and, as so often happens, other family members are out of state or out of room or out of touch. Ron is trying to get his own apartment, but it will take time to save the money he will need for the first month’s rent, a security deposit, utility deposits and the application fee. That’s a big nut when you make just over minimum wage.
“To accelerate his savings, Ron got a second job just before Thanksgiving. He has been hired as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army to work in Frisco. ‘I’ll be able to save more money now,’ he told me proudly. One week later, Ron tells me he is the top-producing bell ringer in his area. ‘Here’s the secret,’ he confides, ‘you make a little small talk. For example, if a guy walks by wearing a Colorado State sweatshirt, you might say, “Go Rams!” People like that kind of stuff.
“Now Ron’s second gig is almost over, but he’s going to hustle right up to the end. ‘I like helping a good cause,’ he tells me, never realizing, I guess, that he, too, is a good cause. ‘I like how it makes me feel.’ And that’s when I realize that Ron has learned a lesson we all must learn sooner or later, and that is that it’s not always about “me and mine.” We’re all intimately connected to one another here on old planet Earth, and, as such, we are all responsible for one another. It’s an overwhelming concept, to be sure, but when we give — of our time, our stuff, of our money — we make a dent in the universe, and that makes us feel good. So this year, give a little back. I can’t guarantee you will change someone else’s life, but I can guarantee you will change yours.”
“Joy in living. Joy in giving. And joy in God. Even dour old Calvin, whom no one has ever mistook to be a lively exuberant spirit, defined the purpose of life as glorifying God and enjoying him forever. But what does it mean to find joy in God? Here our eyes begin to glaze over. But I have seen joy in God. In the eyes of children singing at A Joyful Noise not far from here. In the glowing faces of people in Ghana rejoicing in tin-roofed worship. In the moist eyes of pilgrims sharing God’s meal in a holy land. It usually adds up to deep joy in the word that this old planet is not spinning out of control, our lives have meaning and future, and love will ultimately win over all the chaos and suffering. It is joy in the fact that we are never truly alone in the business of life. And it is usually not a matter of discussion but of song. And sometimes we best sing this joy, when we are not so preoccupied with the possessions and diversions of our affluent lives. Maybe we know joy in God in our songs.
Rushmore Kidder writes of an elderly woman, born of a family of great New England heritage, who never married, but who has given herself over the years in so many ways to her community and friends. “What would you say to somebody — right now in 2003— who’s tempted to feel alone?” She paused for a moment. And then simply, in the matter-of-fact way you might tell someone what you thought about a political candidate or a new pie recipe, she said: “I think I’m companioned by the Lord. I don’t feel any sense of being alone. I feel a sense of security in this — the same as you had with your parents when you went round with them.”
And Jesus said, “The hour is coming, indeed, it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his own home, and then you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” There is the deep joy that truly overcomes the world.
But the rest is up to us. Whether we are willing to embrace life, reach out in love to others, trust ourselves to the Lord of both, is very much up to us. To be joyful is finally our decision. So we are commanded again and again, “Rejoice and sing for joy.” And what better decision, what better resolve for the New Year—to be more the people of joy.
Some of you may remember Jan Struther, the British novelist, particularly for her beautiful story during the Second World War, Mrs. Miniver, and for the film by the same title. Jan Struther died a few years ago. Since then, attention has been given to a little poem she had written, and which was read at her funeral. It not only reveals a rare spirit, but also has a bright light to throw on all of life.
“One day my life will end; and lest/ Some whim should prompt you to review it./ Let her who knew the subject best/ Tell you the shortest way to do it:/ Then say: “Here lies one doubly blest.” Say: “She was happy.” Say: “She knew it.”
I have said these things so that your joy may be complete. .