Singing Trees, Dancing Whales
The choir marched in this morning singing one of the greatest Christian hymns ever written, with its triumphant melody based on the “Hymn of Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A moment after that _____________ read some of the Biblical verses that celebrate joy, and then we sang that other magnificent hymn to joy, “This Is My Father’s World.” Just before I stood up to speak, the choir set the tone for the sermon once again with their rousing declaration of “Joy in the Morning.” Even if I had not told you at the beginning of our worship, you would have guessed that the emotion we call “joy” was been at the center of my thoughts for more than a week.
Definition is always crucial: what is “joy” and how is it different from fun and frolic, from pleasure and happiness and excitement? The closest synonyms I can find for joy are bliss, ecstasy and rapture — states of mind we associate with the highest and most intense moments of happiness or delight — moments that for the most part tend to come unexpectedly. We can arrange to have fun — joy is a surprise that comes unbidden. It cannot be commandeered, it cannot be coerced, it cannot beeven gently cajoled into existence. Fun and frolic are things we can plan for and manage. Joy happens.
I find myself wanting to use the word “transcendence” except that so many people feel uncomfortable with it. Make a surprise announcement at your next dinner party that you’d like to have everybody discuss “transcendence” for a few minutes and watch the table start to clear. And no wonder, I suppose, since it suggests a mystical experience beyond the ordinary, bordering on the supernatural. But if I read correctly all those remarks about joy in the Bible, transcendence seems to be a pretty good synonym — and we probably know more about it than we think. All of us, if we are lucky, have moments of what I would call “pure being,” when we are suddenly thrilled by a sense of being in perfect harmony with the created world.
I can remember easily the times when this happened to me. I relate my own experiences, by the way, only because I don’t know yours, which may be far better examples of what I am trying to define. A profound joy came quite unbidden only last Sunday as I sat for the first time ever in the balcony during a worship service. Two of the many people I have married in that room sat right in front of me, deeply and tenderly in love despite some odds that have required all the courage and devotion they can muster. I looked down at people with whom for so many years I have shared the joys of weddings and christenings, for whom I have spoken prayers when they were ill, and with whom I had shared the anguish of bereavement in the death of a child, a wife or a husband — I saw Dr. Tom Luellan and thought of Ruth, I saw Juanita James and thought of Jimmy — I had time I do not have in the pulpit to remember sad or happy times I have shared with almost every single person in this room.
I looked at the choir which has made my sermons so much better on so many Sundays, and at one face in the choir dearer to me than life itself and thought of that day when the two of us on a trip saw a white church on a hill and knew we wanted its twin built in Wichita, and I thought of how each year brings us a little closer to an inevitable time when she won’t sing there and I won’t speak here….and a joy transcending both sorrow and gladness came with such fullness that I turned my face to the wall sothat my dear friend Jerry Harney, sitting beside me, would not see “tears of joy.” It’s hard to talk about that, and perhaps one shouldn’t even try if one can believe a line from Shakespeare: “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much.” (MAAN)
But as much as I love this place, that intense feeling will come once in a while in other places. There was that day, for example, very early one morning on the Oregon coast when I had gone for a walk while everybody else still slept in the RV, and how first, as I stood for awhile at the water’s edge an osprey suddenly plunged like a bolt of lightning to capture a fish only a few feet from me, and how next, as I wandered through a slight fog back to the campsite, a deer suddenly stepped into my path and stood staring at me. I hope it will make some sense to you, but I felt an extraordinary sense of union with the created world that morning. I was not just exhilarated, I was ecstastic. I have long since forgotten other places we visited, meals we ate, dozens of pleasant things that happened to us, but those two moments of transcendence on that solitary stroll are imprinted indelibly in my memory and they are a comfort when I need them. I was feeling, not thinking, at the time so I probably didn’t realize it, but I was actually praying….without words. Because as that very wise rabbi Abraham Heschel says, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings.” The kind of joy I felt that morning, he would say, “is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.”
The poets of the Hebrew Bible felt no embarrassment about this kind of rapture. One of them speaks of how “all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psa. 96:12). But in the prose by which our daily lives are ruled, what would we think of someone who said to us, “I am gloriously happy, I am at one with the world God has made, I have heard the trees singing”? I think most of us would be a little embarrassed, as that splendid Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor was one day when she witnessed what seemed to her a completely illogical joy.
She says, “I remember walking past a big downtown water fountain with a grownup friend of mine a number of years ago. We were right in the middle of the Plaza at Georgia State University, with students sitting all over the place. It was one of the first days of spring. The sun was shining. Pigeons were flapping in the sky overhead. We were talking about something very adult when all of a sudden my friend just snapped. He ran over to the water fountain, plunged his hands into it and drenched himself. Then he ran back to me, squealing like a five-year-old, and put his cold, wet hands on either side of my face.
“I was appalled, absolutely appalled. Everyone was staring. And I’ll tell you the worst part. The worst part was that I wanted to throw a scarf over his head, because his face was so completely open, so utterly defenseless, that I could hardly stand to look at it. I didn’t say it, but I thought it: ‘For heaven’s sake, man, get hold of yourself! You’ve got to learn to protect yourself better than that. Think what could happen to you if you walked around letting everyone see who you are like that. You could get hurt! You could scare someone!’ Now, all these years later, I wish I could find him and tell him that he was right and I was wrong. I wish I could tell him about Moses, who came down from the mountain of the Lord with a face so bright that he wore a veil so he wouldn’t frighten anyone.”
Barbara Brown Taylor’s friend was not crazy after all, no more so than some others who suddenly and unexpectedly are surprised by joy. One of America’s premier novelists and theologians is Frederick Buechner who in his most recent book, The Longing For Home, describes a trip to Sea World in Florida where he watched the amazing dance of the whales — a “dance of joy” he called it, one that moved him to tears by its sheer exuberance and beauty. He discovered that his wife and daughter were as moved as he was.
“We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom, and it had almost broken our hearts. For a few moments we had seen Eden and been part of the great dance that goes on at the heart of creation. We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the way life was created to be and is not. The world is full of darkness, but what I think we caught sight of in that tourist trap in Orlando, Florida, of all places, was that at the heart of darkness — whoever would have believed it? — there is joy unimaginable. The world does bad things to us all, and we do bad things to the world and to each other and maybe most of all to ourselves, but in that dazzle of bright water as the glittering whales hurled themselves into the sun, I believe that what we saw was that joy is what we belong to…..God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whtever else it means to say that God created us in his image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us. We have God’s joy in our blood.” Now this, dear UCC friends, is not a man bereft of his senses. I may be, but he is not. He is a successful novelist, a superb preacher, and one of the most gifted religious thinkers in the country. But once in a while he “loses it” and is overcome by transcendental joy.
Nor would any thoughtful person list the Irish poet William Butler Yeats among the crazies, but listen as he describes a similar experience that happened to him in a London coffee shop:
“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, in a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table top.
While on the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less,
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”
Although Yeats uses the word “happiness,” he is writing about a happiness “so great” that he feels himself incredibly blessed, having for moments at least the power even to bless others. This, I think, is what poets in and out of scripture mean by that rare and wondrous thing called “joy.”
I have learned that joy is inextricably bound up with a sense of gratitude. It’s no accident that we so often speak of “tears of joy” because when happiness gets intense enough, tears are likely: the highway patrolman says, “It was a bad crash, but your daughter wasn’t hurt.” The oncologist says, “Good news….it wasn’t malignant.” The heart surgeon says, “The bypasses went like clockwork; he’s in good shape” — and joy swells in you like a balloon, tears flow, you hug everybody in sight! And this joy can easily co-exist with pain. For me, one day in the hospital, hurting from surgery, an indescribable joy came when Billie handed me the stack of get-well cards and tender notes and showed me the flowers and even a couple of books from people I knew then for a fact cared as much about me as I did about them. Joy can thrive in the midst of deprivation and an uncertain future. The most joy-filled letter in the New Testament is the one Paul wrote to his church in Philippi when he was in prison, cut off from his work and his friends and concerned to hear that some were out preaching the good news out of false motives. Even that would not diminish his joy in what he did. What does it matter? he writes. After all, Christ is proclaimed, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.
It may strike some of you as odd and even unbelievable, but it is possible to be overcome by that kind of joy even in the very moment when you first truly come to terms with your own mortality. Some people do that in youth or in middle age, and are perhaps very fortunate to do so, but I lived such a healthy life for so long that it was very late before I deeply and honestly confronted the certainty that I would not, after all, just go on and on and on. And however strange it may sound, one can be filled in that moment of truth with a strange and wondrous joy.
I know because five years ago, after surgery, even before I was learned I had cheated the inevitable that time, I ate lunch every day during a beautiful October out on the screened-in back porch, hearing the birds say goodbye to summer, seeing how brilliant the flowers were in the slanting sunlight of those perfect days….and so full of joy for being alive and being loved that it was almost unbearable. From a book entitled Dear Gift of Life: A Man’s Encounter with Death, I’d like to share some words that may be useful, soon or late, to every one of us. Listen as Bradford Smith speaks of the final months of his life:
“We usually refuse to face (death) for ourselves until something forces us to. Then, strangely, the response is not fear any longer, but acceptance, even contentment…You can relax, take time to drink in all that is beautiful, listen to all the music your soul longs for…read the books you have longed to go back to, let nature sink in through every pore, spend more time with those you love, and ease the string to your bow so that living loses its tenseness but not its joy.”
What I’m trying to say this morning is: don’t wait that long to discover joy! If you have not heard the trees sing or seen the whales dance, take the time to listen and look — and remember the words of One more noble of spirit than any of us: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” May it be so!
May the God of hope fill us with such peace of mind and such
` constant thankfulness that joy will come often, we ask in His
name who binds us together in happiness in this place.