Choose Joy

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

I have a spam call blocker on my cell phone. It is supposed to block unwanted calls from those folks trying to sell me a car warranty that I don’t need, for a price I don’t want to pay, and other nuisance type calls. At my age, I get the Medicare rip-off calls multiple times a day. I don’t think my phone is really hooked up with a spam call database somewhere. It seems to operate based on not letting calls through from numbers that aren’t in my contacts, which can sometimes cause issues! Especially when I am waiting on a doctor or a service person to call back and they call from a number I don’t already have. So that means I am still examining the numbers that call me (the ones without names), trying to guess if this is someone I want to talk to or not. It often happens when the spam blocker is in a particularly aggressive mood and won’t let unknown numbers leave a message, so important calls—that aren’t already contacts—I need to answer!  

I was sharing with the board the other night during our meeting that I had answered one of those “mystery” calls. I just knew I should answer. I was delighted to enter into conversation with a person who is interested in being our next interim choir director. Joanna was great, but she has moved on the job she had taken in Pennsylvania before she spent a few weeks with us. I still don’t quite know how the person who called knew we might be looking for our next interim.

We aren’t ready to make a longer-term decision, yet. I want to talk more with the choir before I put a full job description out there on the “interwebs.” Picking up the phone, actually pushing the answer icon for this mystery caller, meant that I heard how interested they are in leading our congregation’s choir, singing an occasional solo themselves and leading our hymn singing two Sundays a month. They’d be happy to rehearse on Thursday evenings and they have accompanist who could come with them.  They also have a background that would make them the right person for now to do these things and to be present to the choir and the congregation.

I shared this with the board and added how on numerous occasions when I have experienced an administrator or a Director of Religious Education or some other staff person leaving for whatever reason, within just a few weeks the next one seems to just walk in the door. That has happened again and again. 

But UUs don’t really believe in miracles, right? 

How about joy, do we believe in that?

We (including myself in that) often approach the unexplainable reasons for joy, the events that might feel serendipitous (that seem to line up for good, out of “nowhere”) with cynicism and suspicion. 

I was expressing to the board my joy that this person wants to be with us on Christmas Eve. She wants to sing a solo or two. She wants to lead our congregational singing, at no charge, just to see if we’d be the right “fit” for each other.

Both of those seem like incredible gifts, both her presence and the no charge. A gift from beyond the spam blocker, one I didn’t ask for; one—no, two—I am choosing to be joyful about. 

Why not? 

I am choosing to feel the JOY. It is hard for a cynic.  It isn’t natural for some of us to be giddy with joy.

As my colleague the Rev. Janet Parsons says: 

Joy requires some care and attention on our parts, some effort, as it turns out. Joy is not the same as happiness, and it can feel elusive. Here we are, coping with … very long nights. Grief does not take a holiday, and we feel all our losses so acutely at this time of year. …we struggle to comprehend the effects of the climate crisis, and we worry about the future for our children and grandchildren. Perhaps we struggle financially to meet the demands of the holidays. With so much to burden us, can we make room for joy?

Can we choose joy?

Joy is a conscious effort. Joy is different from happiness, which rises in response to external events. The new Lexus in the driveway on Christmas morning with the red bow on the roof might bring us happiness.

But joy is deeper, born out of gratitude, born out of a choice to look hard each day for what is right with the world. Joy is born out of love, and appreciation for beauty.

We could all benefit from more joy. These last few years have been sad and scary. To choose joy, one needs to practice gratitude, to look hard each and every day for what is right with the world. To actually love our lives and each other.

Naomi Holdt, a psychologist, gives “a gentle reminder about why you [might be] utterly exhausted.” She says:

No one I know began this year on a full tank. Given the vicious onslaught of the previous two years (let’s just call it what it was) most of us dragged ourselves across the finish line of 2021… frazzled, spent, running on aged adrenaline fumes.

We crawled into 2022 still carrying shock, trauma, grief, heaviness, disbelief…

The memories of a surreal existence…

And then it began…

The fastest hurricane year we could ever have imagined. Whether we have consciously processed it or not, this has been a year of more pressure, more stress, and a race to “catch up” in all departments… Every. Single. One. Work, school, sports, relationships, life…

Though not intentionally aware, perhaps hopeful that the busier we are, the more readily we will forget… the more easily we will undo the emotional tangle… the more permanently we will wipe away the scarring wounds…

We can’t.

And attempts to re-create some semblance of “normal” on steroids while disregarding that for almost two years our sympathetic nervous systems were on full alert, has left our collective mental health in tatters. Our children and teens are not exempt. The natural byproduct of fighting a hurricane is complete and utter exhaustion…

So, before you begin questioning the absolutely depleted and wrung-dry state you are in—Pause.


Remind yourself of who you are and what you have endured.

And then remind yourself of what you have overcome.

Despite it all, you’re still going. (Even on the days you stumble and find yourself face down in a pile of dirt).

Understanding brings compassion…

Most of the world’s citizens are in need of a little extra TLC at the moment. Most are donning invisible “Handle with care” posters around their necks and “Fragile” tattoos on their bodies…

Instead of racing to the finish line of this year, tread gently.

Go slowly.

Amidst the chaos, find small pockets of silence.

Find compassion.

Allow the healing.

And most of all… Be kind. There’s no human being on earth who couldn’t use just a little bit more of the healing salve of kindness.

While you are finding compassion, allowing healing, and practicing kindness, choose joy. I hope you have already been doing that all this month. Every winter holiday is about joy.

You may have read in your Touchstones journal that “…joy is related to a sense of harmony within and with other people; an increase in vitality that makes us feel more alive; an experience of transcendence in which we move beyond personal ego boundaries.”

There is a quote in this month’s journal from the social psychologist Patty Van Cappellen. She says, “Joy arises from realizing how circumstances align perfectly and just make sense: things are exactly how they ought to be at that moment. Joy is elicited by the appraisal that an event aligns…with what we value, what we strive for, and what we live for….”

I want to be ready.

Ready for the unexpected JOY of this season, in all the ways it arrives.

UU Minister Rev. Jason Cook offers this regarding one of the important holidays for us and for so many across the world:

The Hanukkah flame, the one that lasts beyond our expectations, is representative of the enduring force of Love at humanity’s center. This isn’t sappy Hallmark card love or the first fire of romantic attraction we’re talking about; this Love is something that endures, is tough as nails when it needs to be and, in turn, as vulnerable as a newborn when it needs to be.

Love is something that rises against anti-Semitism and hate and bigotry of any kind, that points the way toward truth and reason when people are otherwise lost and distracted. Love is being able to simultaneously hold two complex ideas at once: that all humanity is to be loved and respected even as some of humanity needs to be checked for its transgressions.

Love can be understood no matter what your theological or philosophical bent: it’s something that asks us to become more than self-focused, even as it lifts up the imperative that we must love our individual selves enough to allow our gifts and skills and talents to come forward and be shared. Love is not enough on its own; it’s a flame, yes, even a fire sometimes, but it’s how we use that fire that creates change, even, and perhaps especially, when we are not even sure we have it in us—even when life has brought us illness, loss, confusion, depression, or any of the things that can rock our worlds and leave us in a state of despair.

Thus, the opposite of the light we talk about during Hanukkah is not dark. Dark can be, and often is, good. In the dark, we can rest. In the dark, we can reflect and think. In the dark, senses beyond our sight are heightened. In the dark, we can feel like we’re wrapped in the darkness of space itself of which we are a part, connected to a larger universe, one of planets and stars and questions beyond our own understanding.

No, dark is not the opposite of the Hanukkah light.

The opposite of that light is despair.

Despair is what fights against the light of love. It is sometimes at the root of hate, but despair is also what hate tries to invoke in us. It is what we must most resist within ourselves. We turn away from despair and light our love lamps. If I love, I cannot live in despair. If I love, I keep the lamp lit, not just for myself, but for others. Choose not despair this holiday season. Choose the dark for rest and renewal, reflection. And choose the light of the ages for truth, wisdom, perseverance, unity, freedom, compassion—the list of what this light can bring is practically endless, as long as we are here to keep the lamp lit.

It gives me JOY to hear Love speaking, to follow Love’s ways, to listen for Love, to be LOVE.

I want to be ready to choose joy.

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