Overwhelmed with Joy

Overwhelmed with joy! Will you say that with me? Overwhelmed with joy! Our scripture reading this evening says that the Magi were what? They were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was. I love that turn of phrase, “overwhelmed with joy.”

I love maybe even more the more literal translation of the King James Bible. It says, “They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Say that with me – they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. It feels good just to say it, right? Joy in the mouth.

Slightly different emphases in those two translations. “Overwhelmed with joy” sounds like a flood of joy has risen up around you and swept you away. You were taken captive. You lost control. Joy is active, we are rushing down its river. “Rejoiced with exceeding great joy” puts us back in control. We decide that we’re going to glow in the dark, and our light will be joy. We sing, we shout, we high five, we unlock the bands around our hearts and let them free, let then rum around in the yard and jump up on the company. It’s a party and we’re letting joy hang loose.

So, that’s an interesting question right there that God offers us just by reading two different translations: What is the nature of joy? Is joy a choice we make, an action of our hearts? Or is joy way bigger than our will – an ocean we’re floating on that can lie flat and still or that can toss us about ecstatically, depending on the weather? Or is it a little of both?

Maybe the question about the joy is this: Is joy something you earn? Or is joy a kind of grace? Do you earn joy by following a star on a long, long journey? Or is joy just what happens when you see the baby for the first time – a free gift that you can’t plan for, can’t force, can’t explain? Which leads us head-on into an even bigger question – an existential question: Where is your joy?

Where’s my joy? Where’s my joy? Whew. That’s a big one. When was the last time you were overwhelmed by joy? Say it with me: overwhelmed by joy! When was the last time you rejoiced with exceeding great joy? Say it! Rejoiced with exceeding great joy! When have you felt that in your life?

I remember being three-years old and walking with my aunt and cousins down the street. I’d been staying with them a few days and it had been kinda stressful and I asked, “Where are we going?” You know how when you’re three, you never really have any idea of what’s going on. And my aunt said to me, “We’re going to your house. Your baby sister is here!” The next thing I remember, my aunt was hollering my name from way behind me, “JEFFREY MANSFIELD come back here this instant and hold my hand, don’t you run in the street!” “But I’m excited to see the baby!” I said. Obviously! You know how when you’re three-years old and grownups don’t ever seem to really understand anything. I had been so overwhelmed with joy, I had just started running for home, to see the baby I had been hearing about since I was two and a half. And there was nothing inside of me that could understand why such a joy should walk calmly down the street holding auntie’s hand.

Twenty-three years later, I was hiking up Mt Katahdin in Maine. It was the end of my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I had dreamed about hiking the trail since college, begun planning in earnest more than a year before, and started hiking five months earlier on Springer Mountain in Georgia. After hiking 2,200 miles up and down every hill and mountain along the way, I was climbing the final peak – Katahdin in Maine.

And this hadn’t just been a physical journey for me, it had been something like a Magi journey, a spiritual journey. I had planned the trip as a way to prepare myself for going to seminary which would begin in a month. In a way, my arrival at Katahdin marked the arrival into my whole future, and my calling. I was stepping from one world into another – and that’s a very holy thing. So, as I was racing up this incredibly steep and high mountain, I was already beginning to anticipate what it would feel like to stand on the marker at the top.

But when I got there, there was a line. A bunch of day hikers who had woken up at 6 AM to begin hiking had gotten there ahead of me. And they were lined up, waiting for a turn to get their picture taken at the sign at the top of the mountain. So, I had to wait. It was a group with a lot of middle school kids in it, so they took their sweet time. This was not the way I had pictured it climbing up the mountain! But when my turn finally came, my aggravation blew away in a big gust of mountain wind, and the joy showed up. It was worth waiting in line for.

My guess is that’s there’s more joy in the world than we let ourselves feel. My guess is that there’s more joy in the world than we really have the time or the attention for. My guess is that we could make more room for joy. Joy ain’t easy. It’s easy to feel annoyed. It’s easy to feel frustrated. It’s easy to feel outraged. For me anyway. Maybe for you too? But joy? That’s a harder emotion to come by. Once it gets going, it’s floods the whole house – from cellar to rafters! But much of the time you turn the tap and the pipes just bang and grunt.

That’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much. Poetry fills the well. It forces us to pay attention. It asks us to show up with our hearts open. Not every poem will grab a hold of you, but then all of a sudden, totally unexpectedly, there’s a poem that opens up like a happy crack in the earth and swallows you joy-whole, all of a sudden there’s a poem that you want everyone you know to read, because if the world feels it too, your own joy would get bigger. Actually, you could replace the words “poetry” and “poem” with a lot of other words. Church and worship? Music and opera? Love and relationship? Poetry is a door I open to let joy in and to let joy out. What’s your door?

One night over the Christmas break I was reading one of my favorite poets, Robert Bly, and I found this poem. It’s called The Fat Old Couple Whirling Around:

The drum says that the night we die will be a long night.

It says the children have time to play. Tell the grownups

They can pull the curtains around the bed tonight.

 

The old man wants to know how the war ended.

The young girl wants her breasts to cause the sun to rise.

The thinker wants to keep misunderstanding alive.

 

It’s all right if the earthly monk is buried near the altar.

It’s all right if the singer fails to turn up for her concert.

It’s good if the fat old couple keeps whirling around.

 

Let the parents sing over the cradle every night.

Let the pelicans go on living in their stickly nests.

Let the duck go on loving the mud around her feet.

 

It’s all right if the ant always remembers his way home.

It’s all right if Bach keeps reaching for the same note.

It’s all right if we knock the ladder away from the house.

 

Even if you are a puritan it would be all right

If you join the lovers in their ruined house tonight.

It’s good if you become a soul and then disappear.

 

And when I read that poem, I was overwhelmed with joy. I was overwhelmed by the beautiful journey from the long night when we die to the goodness of becoming a soul and disappearing. And I started to weep. So, I read it again! And I wept more. So, I went in the bedroom and sat on the bed, which my wife, Bonnie, was in. I had tears of joy streaming down my face. And I read her the poem. And she said, “Tell me why you like that poem so much.” And I said, “What do you think?” And we turned out the lights and talked until we fell asleep.

When have you been overwhelmed by joy? What was the door it crept in through or ran out of? Did you orchestrate the joy you felt—setting yourself up for perfect bliss? Or did the joy fall down on you from the sky like a grand piano? Did you like it? Did you like it? Do you want more? How can we make room, more opportunity, for joy in our lives?

Maybe the Magi’s story is a pathway for finding that great joy. First, these wise ones were astronomers and astrologers. They look up into the sky—they look up into heaven—with a mix of the left brain and the right brain, a mix of conscious rationality and unconscious mystery, a mix of science and magic. They aren’t only one kind of thing. They aren’t extremists. They’re balanced. They’re wise. I think this is about a way of seeing the world—not all good or all bad, not all material or all spiritual. They are faithful, and that means they’ve got their heads up. And they’re looking for anything that moves or blinks or shines up there.

They have open minds about the heavens. Maybe you could say they have an open mind about God. And that allows them to see something that nobody else saw. It allows them to see a star rising, and it allows them to understand that it’s a star about a baby, and a people, and a religion, hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t their baby, it wasn’t their people, it wasn’t their country, it wasn’t their religion. It was different than they were, but they allowed it to come through the door anyway. They let it into the house, even though it was a stranger. They said to it, “Make yourself at home,” and they must have meant it.

They paid attention, they allowed what they were experiencing in, and then they dedicated themselves to the long journey to honor what had been revealed to them. When I heard there was a baby in the house, I started running home! When it was time to get serious about seminary and my call to ministry, I spent a year planning a 2,200-mile hike. When I read the opening stanza of Bly’s poem:

The drum says that the night we die will be a long night.

It says the children have time to play. Tell the grownups

They can pull the curtains around the bed tonight.

 

I said to Bly’s poem, “OK, I’ll go where you go.” My heart slowed down. The night got quiet. I was ready.

Long journeys come in all different sizes and shapes. Some are journey of months and miles. Some are shorter distances, the block from auntie’s house to my house, the length of a single page of poetry. For some, the distance is all on the inside. The distance is inside of us: God feels far away. The world is cold. The lights are off, the bulbs are burnt, the fuse is blown. We’re tired and frightened and bruised. I know a man who was betrayed by someone he loved. He didn’t leave the house for a month. It was a longer journey than many I’ve walked. How do I know he was on a journey? Because he came back out of the house again. Something must have happened in there.

Long journeys aren’t always joyful. You don’t always want to go, but you realize, at some point, that you’ve got to go. Or that you want to go. Or that you don’t want to go, but something’s got to change, and it won’t change unless you risk the travel yourself. That’s what the Magi did. They said, “Well, this changes everything. It’s far away and risky. But we’re going.” Why’d they do it? I don’t know. It doesn’t always make sense why we decide to finally move. I guess the point is that they found a reason. Without movement, it’s hard to get where joy is. Aggravation and depression and fear and worry will come get you even if you’re hiding under the bed. But joy’s up on the roof somewhere. It’s down the road a ways. It’s a tiger in the grass at the edge of the forest outside town—its stalking you, but its not going to pounce, until you get real close.

Most importantly of all, toward the end of their journey, these three Magi, these learnéd ones, allowed everything they had ever known about stars up until that point to be thrown out the window. I mean tell me, really, how do you follow a star? How does a star stop over one specific house? That’s not how stars work! It doesn’t make any sense. And who better to know it than three astronomers? It was impossible. It shouldn’t have worked. They had certainly never seen anything like it before. It didn’t make any sense. They let it lead them anyway. 

Does joy always make sense? Do you want it to? Or do you want to feel joy even when the world is too ordinary for it to be expected? Do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery? Only when you win the lottery? Or do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery of waking up? Of eating breakfast? Of washing your dishes? Why should joy make sense? It’s better if joy is a little weird and unexpected.

And, so, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy. They rejoiced with exceeding great joy. They had earned it, sure. They earned it by paying attention, by opening the door, by accepting the quest. But when joy fell down on them like a star that makes no sense, like a poem leaping with images, like a three-year-old running down the middle of the street, like a baby born in a barn, I think that joy must have felt bigger than anything they could have planned. It must have felt like grace. It must have felt like all at once becoming a soul, and then disappearing into joy.

Amen.