Good morning. My name is Nature Johnston and I serve as the priest at Episcopal Church of the Nativity. I was delighted when Sherri Helms asked me to speak to you today because I have come to know many of you over the years. And because of my respect for Koinonia. Your community is a beacon for social justice and activism as well as for progressive spirituality.
Today we’re talking about joy as part of your Advent run-up to Christmas. Can we be joyful first thing in the morning, even before coffee? To answer that, I would like to offer you a typology of joy that lands it squarely in the spiritual life.
But first, I’d like to mention an experience I once had in line at the grocery store. That seems to be one of the places where I get most spiritual insights. That and my car.
I was at the end of a long line. At the front was a woman with the unmistakably disheveled look of many people for whom day-to-day survival is just not a given. She was on food stamps. And she had more items in her cart than she could afford.
The clerk was very kindly helping her calculate those items that exceeded her limit. If you’ve ever been in this particular line, you know this can take a while. People in line grew impatient. They shifted their weight; looked around for a shorter line to get into; most of them were frowning. Except for the man immediately behind the woman.
The clerk pulled out those items she could not afford; the lady paid, then moved her cart aside and disappeared momentarily. The man next in line quietly took the items the clerk had set aside and added them to his purchase: a pound of sugar; a head of lettuce; some toothpaste.
The clerk realized what he was doing and said, “You don’t have to do that.” The man mumbled something like, “No, I just forgot I needed them.” Then the clerk said to those in line, loudly: “Look, the man is buying these for the lady. Look.” And the mood in the line changed. It softened. People quit frowning and smiled. They looked at each other. They quit looking at their watches.
The man’s extra purchases went into a separate bag which he dropped into the woman’s still abandoned cart as he left the store. She didn’t see. She didn’t know. She may not have ever known.
Joy is a state of being. It is like ballast – which is a term from the nautical world. Ballast is the material in a ship or submarine that helps maintain stability. Do you know what sort of stuff makes up ballast? It’s rocks or gravel. Most ships nowadays have ballast tanks in the lowest part of their hulls that are filled with water.
In order words, ballast has absolutely nothing to do with the purpose of the ship. It isn’t cargo. It isn’t fuel. But it’s always there. A ship cannot stay upright in water without some sort of ballast.
Joy is our ballast. It is that spiritual “heft” that keeps us upright in the waters of life. Even when life isn’t going well. Like when a loved one dies. Or your health breaks. Or your finances crater.
To suggest that anyone could be joyful about such things is, well, sadistic. But that’s the point. Nothing causes us joy. Nothing takes our joy away. Joy is. We can enhance how deeply we live in joy just as we can with any other part of our spirituality, like being God-centered rather than self-centered; being people of forgiveness rather than resentment; being those who live more and more fully in union with the Divine Life.
Granted none of us is going to be filled with joy when life is bad. When life is bad we are baffled, angry, depressed, afraid. And we should be, but not for long. Bad things are transitory. Good things are transitory. And like those, feelings are transitory. Things change. But not joy. It is on a completely different level of our being.
There are two conditions somewhat like joy that are not spiritual. For one thing, they are contingent, meaning they are dependent upon some cause. For another thing, they fluctuate and are highly subject to change.
The first of these is pleasure. Pleasure is dependent upon something happening to our bodies or in our brains. Pleasure belongs to the physical realm of our being. A warm bath is pleasurable; a good meal is pleasurable. Even a crappy meal can be pleasurable if it relieves hunger.
Pleasure is physical but also cognitive. It can arise from what we think. We take pleasure in seeing a beautiful sunset or hearing a favorite piece of music. We take pleasure in a job well done or in the success of someone we love. The stimuli of pleasure are external to us – sunset; music; success. How we react is a result of how we think about the stimuli. Have we learned to appreciate it, whether in school or by life lessons? I have never learned to appreciate opera. It does not give me pleasure. It is a bunch of ladies screaming. Sorry. I know that doesn’t speak well of me but there it is.
Pleasure is fleeting and cannot be sustained. Eating may be pleasurable, but you just have to quit at some point. Pleasure belongs to the physical realm of mind and body.
The second condition related to joy is happiness. Happiness is a feeling, like anger or fear. Feelings belong to the psychological realm of our being. When someone gives us a gift it makes us happy. When someone gives us a compliment, we’re happy. We associate laughter with happiness. A happy baby will laugh. A good joke will make us laugh and make us happy, but for a moment.
Like pleasure, happiness is fleeting and contingent. Both are dependent upon something happening to us or on something that we do.
By now you can probably see the progression of this typology: physical, psychological, spiritual; corresponding to pleasure, happiness, and joy. Some of us, including me, may be uncomfortable with this kind of compartmentalizing. It comes from a psychological model and other models are fine. This just happens to be what I am most familiar with. Also, there’s some overlap here among these three types. But no typology is foolproof, even the well-regarded scientific ones. Mammals are classified as those that bear live offspring, but then you have the platypus – a mammal that lays eggs!
Suffice it to say that as Human, we are multi-valent, multi-dimensional beings with the positive energies of pleasure, happiness and joy flowing all around us, in us and through us. But I would like to characterize joy as the ballast of our lives. It is not dependent on external stimuli but resides in us quite apart from anything we do or experience. Joy is not temporary or changeable because it is a state of being. It is spiritual.
Given that joy belongs to the world of spirit, how do we cultivate more of it in our lives? We don’t become more joyful by eating more – that’s pleasure; or by laughing more – that’s happiness. You don’t need to spend more hours watching Comedy Central to be joy-filled. What you do need are the tools with which you are already familiar as members of a spiritual community. There are two in particular: intention and attention.
Intention has been given a bad rap in the Western world. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s wrong. Very wrong. Let’s just get rid of that. We should say, “The road to heaven, or enlightenment, or unity is the path of intention.” And the first step on that path is to set your intention.
When you sit down to meditate or pray, set your intention to be present, still and quiet. Your mind will wonder – that’s what it is designed to do. But once you have set an intention to enter silence, it is easier to return to it.
An intention is something that is bigger than me. It is something that supersedes my ego. I intend to meditate but because I fail so miserably at it while still pursuing it that I can see the intention is bigger than me. I have to return to it; accept it; yield myself to it. There is the notion of surrender here. Set your intention and then surrender your energy to it.
This is a way of living life, not fighting it. The Christian spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says he’s spent a good deal of his life pushing the river. He doesn’t need to push the river. He gets that now. If your energy is constantly at odds with life – pushing, resisting, disapproving – then your life is your enemy. You are your enemy. Jesus had something to say about our enemy. What was that? “Love your enemy.” Love your life. Love yourself. You can set an intention on these things and live into them through surrender and acceptance.
Here’s a simple case study. Let’s say you want to lose weight. For most of us this is not easy. It is a fight fraught with failure and disappointment. And it can lead to horrendous self-loathing. The mental tapes taunt us. “You cannot do this,” they say, along with a lot of other negative self-messages. When you surrender to and accept your intention, the self-message becomes, “You will do better tomorrow.” “You can do it.” “Keep going.”
And the result will be joy: a form of spiritual ballast that keeps us buoyed and stable.
That’s intention. Then there’s attention, as in “pay attention.” We know this better as wakefulness or mindfulness. “Wake up,” the Buddha said. “Wake up,” Jesus said. Eckhart Tolle, a contemporary spiritual master, says we are asleep to the Now.
He says there is nothing apart from the Now. There is no past. Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now. Spiritual masters of every religious tradition have said this. Sufis are the mystics of Islam and they teach: “The Sufi is the child of time present.” Their great poet Rumi said, “Past and future veil God from our sight; burn up both of them with fire.” Likewise the 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than Time.” 
Be awake, like the man in the grocery store line behind the woman on food stamps. By my reckoning he paid no more than ten dollars to help that woman. Who among us, assuming all of us have some excess money, would not offer ten bucks to help someone in need? It’s not a lot of money! Any of us would do it. If we’re awake.
And look what happened when all of us in line witnessed what he did because of his wakefulness. We all smiled. We all relaxed and let go of our tension and whatever was driving our impatience. Not only was that man awake and in the Now, he brought all of us into it as well.
And that’s joy. Being awake to the present moment; being in the Now; is a massive cultivator of joy. Here’s another simple case study. The Zen master Rinzai would take his students’ attention away from time by raising a finger and asking: “What, at his moment, is lacking?” Nothing! Nothing is lacking. 
To know that is to be in a state of joy.
Joy is a state of being. It is a spiritual state. We can cultivate joy through intention and attention, even while pleasure and happiness come and go. Joy remains. We can be joyful every day even before that first cup of coffee.
 Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, Namaste Publishing, Novato, CA, 1999, p.50
 Ibid., p.53
 Ibid., p.52