“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… with joy and singing” (Isa. 35).
- How could you experience more joy? I’m not one of those Advent grinches who complains about celebrating Christmas too early. Still, this week as sweet and well-meaning people have wished me “happy holidays,” I’ve been surprised by my internal reaction. Something in my heart silently exclaims, “Advent is not a happy holiday. I’m longing for the second coming of Christ, for the Realm of God!” Usually I keep this thought to myself.
On the third Sunday of Advent, Christians light the wreath’s pink candle and wear rose colored vestments. We call this Gaudete Sunday. It comes from the first Latin word in the traditional introit which means “rejoice,” as in, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.” This Sunday’s theme is joy.
At the end of a full day of interviews to be the dean of Grace Cathedral, the gathered committee asked me if I had any questions. I don’t know where it came from but I asked, “Is Grace a joyful place?” I immediately saw that I had made a mistake. Everyone looked uncomfortable and shifted in their seats. Finally someone said weakly, “We want to be joyful.” Well, that is a good place to start, because in a sense today joy is under siege and no one seems to notice or care about what we are losing.
In 1830 Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun, the first penny press newspaper. What he really invented was an idea that had a power than no one would understand for nearly a century. Before that time publishers regarded readers as their customers and wrote articles to convince them to buy the paper. Day on the other hand made money from advertisers by selling the attention of his readers.
We are familiar with this business model from radio and television but twenty years ago we were not sure about how companies like Google were going to make money on the Internet. That question has been definitively settled. The largest and fastest growing companies make their money off our attention. During these two decades from almost nothing Apple ($1.22 Tr) became a trillion dollar company with Google ($929.53 Bn) getting close to this level of value. Right now Facebook’s market cap is $553.55 Bn. To put this in context ExxonMobil’s market cap is $292 billion. Getting your attention is that much more valuable than what literally fuels the economy. Facebook has 2 billion users who on average are on their products for 50 minutes a day.
In Silicon Valley entrepreneurs describe new technologies as neutral. They say that it just depends on how you use them. But this is not true. The technology is designed to be used in particular ways and for long periods of time, to get and hold our attention. Those CEO’s in their t-shirts and jeans are selling an addictive product like nicotine. Today everyone carries a little slot machine that we check compulsively, not even stopping to drive, or to navigate city crosswalks. It’s called a cell phone.
We still do not really understand this massive social change. The generation that grew up with this technology seems to be suffering more from anxiety and depression. In 2015 Common Sense Media said that teenagers consume media for 9 hours per day. Two problems in particular seem to be arising. First, human beings were made for complex interpersonal interactions that cannot be replicated by hitting a simple “like” button on our phone. As social animals we yearn to be in each other’s company. Second, we also need solitude. Psychologists say we need time alone, without someone else’s voice speaking to us, in order to prepare for when we are with people.
Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism is about this phenomena and has a few recommendations. These include: being intentional about how we use technology so that we’re not just drawn into a vortex of nothingness as we mindlessly click link after link. He says to use technology to increase interpersonal time. He recommends scheduling solitude and taking our leisure more seriously.
- Changing your relation to technology may leave you more open for joy. But Jesus offers something so much more profound and transformative. For Jesus joy lies at the very center of reality. According to him we are connected to it in such a personal way that it is always a kind of home for us. We are constantly invited to return to God who loves us. If you have experienced joy you know what Jesus means.
This weekend as massive ocean swells shook the coast and rolled small boulders up and down the sand, I found myself out in the water with another surfer. We had somehow made it through the crushing waves of the impact zone and sat together in the deep, cold water feeling glad that we survived. I would never have guessed it but out there in the colorless fog and elemental forces I felt a profound joy in this stranger’s company.
C. S. Lewis’ biography is really a story of how he sought out joy. He wonders if, “all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.” And discovers that all these moments: by a mountain lake, at breakfast with a loved one, on a long walk through fields, or in a great cathedral, share something in common – they are moments when we become conscious of God’s presence. We go beyond ourselves and meet something which in Lewis’ words refuses to identify itself with any object of the senses, or social need, or any state of our own minds and “proclaims itself sheerly objective.” He says, “we have a root in… utter reality. And that is why we experience joy.”
John the Baptist asks Jesus from prison, “are you the one?” On the basis of my own encounters with joy I believe Jesus is the one. Jesus offers an interesting reply to John’s disciples. He does not say, “I am the Messiah, or I am the one who will help you realize your heart’s greatest desire.” Instead Jesus refers to one of the greatest poems about joy in history.
The prophet Isaiah writes, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing… They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God” (Isa. 35). The blind, deaf, people with weak hands and feeble knees will discover new capacities.
We all know what it means to have a “fearful heart.” We can imagine a prisoner going before the parole board, a family broken up at the border and still not reunited, a parent whose poverty exposes her children to dangerous chemicals, or a person suffering from domestic violence.
Henry Nouwen (1932-1996) taught at my seminary just before I got there. He used to say that happiness depends on our circumstances, but joy lies deeper in us. He explains that, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away.” This is the reason we can still experience joy even in the face of heartbreak, injustice and sorrow – because God is present even when things go horribly wrong.
Jesus’ message to John is that the expressions of joy we find in Isaiah are being fulfilled already. Joy is not something we have to wait around for. It is the gift we can receive right now. St. Augustine (354-403) defines a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Jesus teaches us to live that vision which sees the world as the ultimate gift of a loving father.
The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) saw many philosophers basing their ethics on the idea that life should be respected. But he offered an alternative. He said that gratitude is a more fundamental basis for understanding reality. We should begin by experiencing our life and the life of every other being as a gift. It is another way of saying that joy is at the heart of everything.
- The picture we share of God changes over time. It can make a deeper intimacy with God more possible or more distant. This week the older members of my clergy group talked about how much they missed the affectionate language that characterized the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. They talked about their disappointment with the factual, clinical ways we describe God today.
Although sometimes it seemed stiff, that old way of praying joined together the rational and factual with the passion and feeling which are also part of human experience. It was not afraid to refer to God in emotional ways. It spoke of God’s “favor and goodness towards us” (83), that God’s “property is always to have mercy” (80) and “fatherly goodness,” (81) that God is gracious and tender towards us (80).
How could we experience more joy? How might we more deeply embrace the life in God that Jesus shows us? This may be the most important question of our time. Do not forget that your attention is more valuable than oil and do not squander it. Make time to be in the presence of real people. Be intentional about cultivating a life of prayer that has room for solitude.
Let your longing for joy and your experiences of it teach you something about our condition. You are rooted in utter reality and unconditionally loved by God whose affection we have only begun to imagine. So rejoice always, again I say rejoice!
 Tim Wu discusses this in his book The Attention Merchants. A great deal of what follows on digital technology comes from, Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (NY: Penguin, 2019) 215.
 During these two decades Microsoft is now valued at 1.18 Tr) with Amazon (873.07) getting close to this level of value. Kara Swisher, “There Is a Reason Tech Isn’t Safe,” The New York Times, 13 December 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/opinion/uber-silicon-valley.html?searchResultPosition=1
 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (NY: Penguin, 2019) 103-15.
 Ibid., 131ff.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955) 170.
 Ibid., 220.
 Matthew Boulton, “Visible Joy: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Three,” SALT, 10 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/10/visible-joy-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-three
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 The Doctrine of Creation. Tr. A. T. MacKay, T. H. L. Parker, H. Knight, H. A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T & T Clark, 1961) 327ff.
 Page numbers refer to: The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (NY: Oxford University Press, 1952).