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The Hills are Clothed with Joy – 12/11/2011

Jumping up and down, up and down, up and down. Falling over and rolling around and jumping back up again. Colliding with the brightly-colored vinyl of the wall and the floor and smiling and giggling all the way. This was me and my three-year-old, recently, as we played together inside of one of those big inflatable houses you see at country fairs and the like. It was a lovely moment, one that prompted my daughter to exclaim, unprompted, “I am having so much fun!” She is the resident truth-teller of our household, always so open and honest about her experience, and I heartily agreed with her: I was having fun too. And knowing that I had promised to speak to you about happiness this morning, I found myself thinking about why it was fun. Jumping up and down with wild abandon is pretty great. But getting to join my child in the experience was really what made me happy, and sometimes in life, happiness can seem like a very rare thing.

There is an old story about the quest for happiness that Paulo Coelho tells in his famous novel, the Alchemist. A young man sets out to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. He finds his teacher in a castle that is filled with artwork and activity and all sorts of people and wondrous things. The young man explains his quest and the wise fellow tells him to take some time to walk about his palace and experience what it has to offer, but he also gives him a spoon filled with oil, and tells him to be sure not to spill any of it on his tour.

A while later, the young man returns with all of the oil still in the spoon. The wise man asks him about his walk – what beautiful things he saw, what interesting people he met. The young man sheepishly admits that he didn’t see or experience anything on his walk, other than the constant effort of holding the spoon steady and perfectly balanced. So the wise man sends him back out into the castle again, and bids him to pay attention to all that his house has to offer.

When the young man returns a second time, he has so much to tell his teacher: the things he saw! The people he encountered! But when the man asks that he show him the spoon, both of them see that he has lost all of the oil it was holding. With this, the wise man tells the seeker: “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

The image is striking, as though we are all going through life looking around, trying to take in the majesty of existence but then, having to draw our attention back to the spoon full of oil that each one of us carries. Perhaps some of you can relate, I confess that I can, to feeling some tension in life between the things that you want to enjoy and experience and the things that you need to get done.

There’s a quotation about happiness that I have seen attributed to John Lennon, and it goes like this:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

          It seems too good, really, particularly coming from the child who would grow up to sing that “Happiness is a warm gun.” But whether or not John Lennon’s mother actually did tell him that happiness is the key to life, our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tells us much the same thing. Hosea Ballou, probably the most influential American Universalist of the 19th century, described this as a “universal doctrine of holiness and happiness.” He explained that it is the fundamental nature of humanity to seek to be happy, and that this is as it should be – it is the pursuit of happiness that will lead to the attainment of a finer world for all people. In fact, it was his position that the will and aim of God was joy for everyone. God wants you to be happy.

          I do not, cannot claim to know the mind of some being unknowable and impossible to prove. The will I am talking about is the pattern I find woven into the cloth of the universe, the direction pointed to by a sprouting seedling, by the tides of the ocean, by the glow of the moon. The world that we are all a part of, this incredibly generous earth, hanging in the cold vastness of space, is enough. We have what we need here, to live, to be free, and to be joyful together. The fundamental circumstances of life on earth are good.

          Psalm 65 speaks to the potential for happiness woven into the wonder of the natural world. Addressing God, the psalmist speaks:

          You take care of the earth and irrigate it…

          Saturating its furrows,

          Leveling its ridges,

          You soften it with showers,

          You bless its growth.

          You crown the year with Your bounty…

          The hills are clothed with joy.

          The meadows are clothed with flocks,

          The valleys mantled with grain;

          They raise a shout, they break into song.

          The mystical Inuit poet Uvavnuk is said to have described her own encounter with the Divine in nature with a song later translated into the following words:

The great sea moves me, sets me adrift.

It moves me like algae on stones in running brook water.

The vault of heaven moves me.

Mighty weather storms through my soul.

It carries me with it.

Trembling with joy.[i]

So I say, following Hosea Ballou, that God wants us to be happy. Notice I do not say that God wants us to have lots of money or other stuff. There are preachers out there who have made tidy livings for themselves telling anyone who will listen that God’s great plan for them is that they should be rich. And if you ever hear me tell you that God wants you to be rich, I expect you all to vote me out of this pulpit. It is not the will of heaven that anyone should be rich, any more than it is Divine judgment that far more people should be poor. The circumstances of our society have been arrived at and are constantly reinforced by human choices and human decisions. And this is where it becomes so critical that we pay attention to what we are striving for when we seek to be happy. Because the society in which we live is all too ready to help us confuse buying things and having things with being happy, as though real and lasting joy were a thing that could be attained by wealth. The pursuit of happiness becomes a hollow and selfish chase for impermanent things and pleasures that will only distract us briefly from the void of guilt, shame, and meaninglessness.

Hosea Ballou, and Unitarian Universalism more generally, has an understanding of what it means to be happy that is larger than this. He wrote, “The objector will say, to admit that our happiness is the great object of all we do destroys the purity of religion, and reduces the whole to nothing but selfishness.  To which, I reply [that if we act] for [our] own happiness, if [we] seek it in the heavenly system of universal benevolence, knowing that [our] own happiness is connected with the happiness of [our] fellow-[people], which induces [us] to do justly and to deal mercifully with all…, [we are] not more selfish than [we] ought to be.”[ii]

There is a story that appears in two slightly different forms, one in the Jewish tradition and one in the Muslim tradition. In both of them, someone sees an old man planting a fruit tree and asks him, “How long will it be before this tree bears fruit?”

“A great many years,” replies the man.

“And do you think that you will somehow live long enough to see that day come to pass?” asks the nosey passer-by. The two versions of this story have slightly different answers here. In the Muslim version, from Iran, the old man says that he doesn’t mind if he won’t live to enjoy the tree himself – other people will get to enjoy eating its fruit and resting under its shade after he has gone. In the Jewish tale, the answer is similar, but a little more specific. “When I was born into this world,” says the man planting the tree, “I found many trees had already been planted by my parents and grandparents. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for the generations who will follow me.”[iii]

That sense of reciprocity actually has some small parallel in the chemistry of our own bodies. The hormone oxytocin is associated with a feeling of wellbeing and empathy. And some research has shown that the influence of oxytocin appears to make human beings more trusting and more generous towards others. So in this very specific and limited way, the better when feel, the more good will we have toward others.[iv]

None of this is to say that being happy is easy; in fact, it only makes sense that it should be challenging if, as our faith teaches us, our individual happiness is bound up inextricably with the happiness of others. The expectation of others that we should be happy – or rather, that we should not show the signs of our grief, our fear, our anger, our suffering in polite company – that expectation can be a terrible thing to carry. In order to be fully ourselves and reach and explore the possibilities of life that can lead to enduring happiness, we need places where we can share what is true in us, even when it is not easy or convenient. It is one of the goals of this congregation is to be such a place.

The persistent absence of gladness and joy is a strong sign that something is deeply wrong, and that powerful change is needed. Sometimes it means that we need to change something in the way we are living, the choices we are making, the relationships that we depend on. Sometimes it points to the presence of a system of oppression that we and others need liberating from. The author and activist bell hooks speaks of watching her mother endure a harsh and painful relationship with her critical and controlling father, and how watching her mother live trapped in a world where she was always focused on everyone else’s happiness with no one to think about hers showed bell a way that she was determined not to live as an adult.[v] Sometimes the change that is needed is something we can affect on our own, but often we need help. Sometimes we need help from a friend of loved one, or from a counselor or other professional. And sometimes the help we need is the help of a community that is willing to share our plight and join our struggle to change the world. One of the highest goals of this congregation is to be such a community.

Joy is the direction in which our hearts are perpetually being pulled. It is the possibility that has been placed before us, and which is always there: not that we should always be happy, but that the means to find happiness for ourselves and for everyone else are always available. Just as the mystery and wonder that suffuses the whole of creation is likewise always available to us. Our work, as individuals and as a community, is to respond to that wonder by uncovering the ways in which our happiness depends upon our connections to others, and to work to accomplish the change that those connections call out for. Because that is what will make us truly happy. And that, after all, is what living is about.



[i] Uvavnuk, as quoted in Barbara Tedlock’s The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, Bantam, 2005.

[ii] Hosea Ballou, The Treatise on Atonement

[iii] A version of this story appears in the Talmud, where the questioner is Honi Ha-Ma’agel. The version from Iran is a folktale, a rendition of which can be found in Ayat Jamilah by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane.

[v] In her book Communion: The Female Search for Love, William Morrow, 2002

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