May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Let’s see… being able to reach the top shelf without needing a stool; Manicures, pedicures and massages; fewer pounds around the waist; travel to exotic destinations, Broadway shows; paid off credit cards… These are all things that make me happy. Some are guilty pleasures, some I believe I need to navigate life. Some are just wishful thinking.
I’m a reasonably happy person. I found out during the lockdown though, that while I missed some of these things, I didn’t feel deprived, rather with priorities realigned, I managed. We all did. Now I wonder what will happen. Will we indulge in all our whims, or will we live differently?
We are a culture oriented towards happiness. The Bill of Rights actually says that this country is about ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Something I find ironic since we don’t make the top ten in the World Happiness Report. Yes, that’s a thing. So there seems to be a gap, if not a conflict, in what we believe about ourselves and how we actually live.
On the one hand, we are encouraged pursuing happiness as a lifestyle choice that sets us up to be dissatisfied when we don’t attain it. On the other, it promotes the core value that happiness is a personal quest above all. Happiness is totally up to you, you are in complete control of your destiny and thus your happiness. If it doesn’t work out, you must be a failure.
Failure, as they say, is not an option. The world is full of options. Entire industries exist to facilitate this pursuit, from entertainment, to education, to science, and everything in between, each preaching, “this will make you happy.” How do you measure happiness? Is it success? Is it your bank account? Your physical attributes? is it your social position?
Did the pandemic make you rethink what you value, what is most important to you? One of the ways to know what you value is what gets you through the hard times. In those cases, we look for something else. Something more durable and deeper.
Continuing his meditation of the vine and the branches, Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Not happiness, but complete joy. What would that feel like, be like? What would we do to attain it? My idea of being taller, thinner, well rested and put together, in Tahiti drink in hand enjoying the sunset, doesn’t even compare! Because even though I have a strong desire to enjoy life like the rich and famous, at a deeper level, I know of a stronger desire yet: complete joy. And the idea that God is offering me that, just blows me away! All of this, as today’s collect says, is something that surpasses human understanding.
I struggle with this notion that joy is what God wants most for us. That God is so invested in me that joy is the ultimate goal of my life, joy not happiness. Think about that: What God wants for me is better than what I want for myself.
Not that Jesus’ disciples are asking for that. No, in fact, the passage read today takes place at the Last Supper, a continuation of what we heard last week. They are wrestling with the strange message he is trying to get them to understand, that they are loved without measure by him, by God. And even though he’s delivering bad news, difficult news to comprehend, news that their world is going to be torn apart, Jesus wants them to know of his utmost concern for them: that their joy may be complete. Despite the pain, despite the separation, despite the violence and the horror. It is joy that will get them through life, post resurrection and us, post pandemic. For God’s love is abiding and joy for the long run . Happiness cannot sustain us in the same way.
I think that’s because all human experience is one of being incomplete, lacking somehow, failing. We are always either striving or longing for what we want to achieve or what we don’t have. In a positive way, it keeps humanity going: it makes for explorers, entrepreneurs, inventors, creators. In a negative way, it means that we are never satisfied, always looking for the next thing, always believing that the grass is greener elsewhere, maybe even that we’ve been shortchanged somehow, deeply longing to connect with our reason for being.
That points to something else to consider today, the difference between joy and happiness. From a Christian perspective, “joy is a limitless, life-defining, transformative reservoir waiting to be tapped into. Joy is not simply a feeling that happens. It is not elation, jubilation or exhilaration — emotions that may be present with joy; emotions express joy, but don’t define it. In its truest expression, joy transforms difficult times into blessings and turns heartache into gratitude. Joy brings meaning to life. In fact, it brings life to life.” That’s what sustains us.
Jesus himself explains this by comparing joy to childbirth: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (John 16:21) That, I can attest to, there is no joy like motherhood.
Joy and happiness are wonderful to experience, but they are very different. Happiness is pursued, chased like something that might not be caught; joy is cultivated, it’s a decision, it comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are, and ultimately, to whom you belong: God.
I am happy that we are closer to reopening everything and getting on with our lives. Yet I do not want the lessons learned during this time to go unheeded. Let us stand firm against attempts at superficial changes. Let’s not rush normalcy in an effort just to relieve the pain we’ve suffered. Let’s keep realigning our priorities. Let’s work for something better, deeper, more fulfilling before reaching for an anaesthetic. Let’s love better. Let’s commit to everyone’s wellbeing. Let us cling to the vine, to the truth, to the good news that God’s preferred future for us is joy, complete joy. Amen.