“And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good.”
– The Book of Genesis
“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
– Barbara Kingsolver
Be careful this month. Our theme of joy is deceptive. One could easily see this is a way to end the year “on a light note.” But there’s deep work for us to do with this topic.
There have been many religious perspectives that begin with the idea that this world is broken, a place of misery and pain, toil and struggle. We are told that our job is to survive it, indeed transcend it, through sacrifice, confession of our own brokenness, and an industrious “Protestant work ethic.” Joy is reserved for a time far off and found in a heaven granted to those who earn it.
And yet there are others–Unitarians Universalist included–that just don’t see it this way. They look out, and as the God of Genesis, their response is “behold, it is good!” The “problem” according to this spiritual view lies not so much in a fallen, irredeemable world but with our limited perspective. Heaven, as our UU forbearers argued, is right here on earth; our job is to see it and take pleasure in it. And far from being indulgent or seductive, this “work” of pleasure and delight is the key to humanizing us. As Barbara Kingsolver’s words suggest, joy has the power to transform us.
With “one, long, holy stare at a single glorious thing,” we are suddenly reconnected. Balance is restored. We see the world not simply as brutish, broken and dangerous, but also as gentle, surprising and woven through with a Love that will not let us go. This simple act of sacred staring is not about distraction. It’s about achieving a wider view. It’s about stepping back and seeing it all as a gift. When we feel joy, we don’t simply feel delighted in one tiny piece of the world; we feel welcomed back in–connected once again to the whole.
In this sense, as many have said, the opposite of joy is not sadness, but isolation and disconnection. Joy doesn’t just make us feel happy; It restores the relationship. And not just relationship to the world, but also to the Divine. Theologian John Cobb describes God as “the all of everything.” Joy places us within that whole, not outside it. In this way, the experience of joy is very much also the experience of God.
So, friends, are you ready for that? Are you ready to be welcomed back in? If so, look around. There are dozens of “glorious things” inviting you to return.
Excerpt from Soul Matters.