Last spring, upon the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a book called, "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine.1 The book in itself is helpful enough, vignettes about the struggles of parenting paired with some interesting sociological analysis. But the best part of the book is 10 pages in her final chapter on the distinction she makes in her title, between fun, or happiness, and JOY. "We live in an age when we’re told," Senior writes, "that striving for happiness is paramount. Our right to pursue it is enshrined in our nation’s founding document; it’s the subject of innumerable self-help books and television shows. Happiness is the focus of a burgeoning field of academia, called positive psychology, which studies what makes the good life and all-around flourishing possible. Happiness, we are told, is achievable. When we’re surrounded by so much material prosperity, as we are today [more broadly], it is our prerogative – our due, even our destiny to attain it."2
Today’s text is a moment of destiny. We’ve been walking with the people for a few weeks now. Back in I Samuel 8 on June 7, the Israelites looked at other nations around, ones with armies and power, and wanted a king like them. First comes Saul, who did his best but could not follow God, which ended in his rejection. God then has the prophet Samuel anoint David, the young son of Jesse, the unexpected one. David learns as he grows, steps out, with God’s help, and slays the giant Goliath. The fight with the Philistines continues, and eventually Saul and his son Jonathan, a dear friend of David’s, are killed. There is no joy in his coronation – David grieves over his mentor and his friend.
Just before this, right on the heels of him being anointed king of all Israel, David defeats the Philistines, restores all of Israel’s territory. Then it is time to bring back the ark. The ark is a box that according to earlier texts contains the tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Its presence means to the people that God is with them. Moses addresses the ark as God in Numbers 10, it is mentioned a handful of times as leading the people through those 40 years of wandering after their time as slaves in Egypt. It is the ark that leads the procession around Jericho as the Israelites charge into the city, reclaiming the land for their own, the fulfillment of God’s everlasting covenant.3
And as the procession begins, a deep joy breaks out. Because it wasn’t just about this moment. David has been through an extraordinary range of emotions by this point – the unexpected anointing, conflict with Saul, euphoria of triumph over Goliath. He has seen his role grow, often through the pain of others close to him. He has consolidated power and won a great victory. It has been quite a journey. But even more so for the people, who have yearned for a king, who have watched and waited, decades of conflict. The ark, as we learn from I Samuel chapters 4-7, was brought out by the Israelites early on in a battle against the Philistines. The Philistines steal it on the battlefield and, after it wreaks havoc among them, then try and give it back. It ends up hidden away for 20 years.
But NOW it is time for the ark to come home. After 20 years of the very presence of God being hidden away, it returns, triumphantly, in what must have been the most amazing celebration. Thirty thousand men go out to retrieve it and they come, with it on a new cart, back into the city, Jerusalem, the newly named ‘city of David,’ into the tent that would become the temple. And David dances, and this is the language I love, and ALL the HOUSE OF ISRAEL were dancing before the Lord WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT, a cast of thousands, a great liturgy, a celebration of God’s power and claim upon them. This is unbridled, unrestrained JOY, after all they have been through, catharsis, with the people and their leader giving in to an act of celebration. The procession continues, offerings given, and more dancing, their King dancing with ALL HIS MIGHT, the Hebrew is closer to his totality, his everything. Seeds of discontent are sown in verse 16, as Michal watches with skepticism, foreshadowing the continued complexity of David’s character, as well as the risky relationship between God and power.
It is this amazing dancing that got me thinking about JOY. The distinction Senior makes between happiness and joy is something worth toying with a bit. While the lines between the two aren’t always clear, it seems to me that happiness is more about pursuing one’s pleasure or finding one’s bliss. A psychiatrist Senior interviews says that happiness tends to be more solitary, that joy is something that is impossible to experience alone.4 One thing I’d add is that when we talk about happiness, it is that feeling in itself that is our goal. The end goal – look at the way we talk about it, about how to ‘find the way to make ourselves happy’ – the end goal is about us. But joy is deeper, and is about being connected – in its essence is about sharing. We experience joy in relationship, with others, and God. It’s also deeply tied up with sadness and suffering – this is a lot of what the people are feeling, I think, in their amazing dance with the ark. They know what it means to feel that God is not present with them. They know what it’s like to feel alone. But as they bring the ark back to Jerusalem, the joy they feel that pours out of them as they dance with all their might is the joy that comes when you are celebrating something that you, at least part of you, doesn’t think is ever going to happen. "Joy," George Valliant writes, "is grief inside out."
This joy, big and full, requires RISK. For better or for worse, David, as a character, seems free of this kind of impulse control, free of restraints. In cases like this it is extraordinary, and seems to have had quite an effect upon the people. This lack of restraint also causes problems, as we’ll see in others parts of this story, soon. But here, this kind of joy requires us risking relationship, risking service, risking opening yourself up, being willing to step out and DANCE for God. I don’t know about you, but the people I have known who are most joyful have found a way to begin to get free of worrying what others think. The people I know who are the most joyful understand something about suffering, which helps them understand something about the things that MATTER in life and the many things we get caught up seeking – our own comfort, time for ourselves, the possessions and status and achievement that we are told will make us happy – but that don’t, when it gets down to it, matter at all.
The world tries to squeeze it out of us. For whatever reason we tend to think that joy is beneath us, not serious, not something adults do, certainly not something Presbyterian adults do. We tend to be cynical, to look for what’s wrong first, to prove others wrong or knock others down, to squeeze it out of our kids, even, when the smallest ones around us seem to truly get something about joy the rest of us lose as we get older pretty quickly. Did you look around at the faces watching fireworks on the Fourth of July? I think this is part of the reason we love sports so much, too, the access it gives to unbridled celebration.
I think of Mack and Dorothy. On the day of her diagnosis they called me to come over and we wept. But every day after that when I’d walk in their house and ask how today was, Dorothy would be in her same chair, and she’d give a big ‘thumbs up.’ That doesn’t mean there weren’t really hard days as the cancer took over her lungs. But it was her way of saying that she had decided. Thumbs up as, from her chair, she walked her husband through her particular way of washing the kitchen floor or making certain dishes for dinner, knowing he’d need to know how to do them himself soon. Thumbs up out the car window as she’d head to chemo. Thumbs up to the hospital, to hospice as her body failed. Even when she couldn’t speak anymore, she’d wave her thumb at me. Because she had chosen joy to the end.
I think of the people of the Grace Baptist Church. Many of you know the Durham Nativity School, their good work educating young boys and taking care of families in our community. The school has been renting space in the church for years. The building isn’t perfect, but the church lets them make their home there for the amount of rent the school can pay. The neighborhood around the church is changing, and they have been losing members for years, about 35 members now. But those 35 members have quite a physical asset, a full city block, probably about 10 blocks from downtown. The tax value is over $2.5 million. But a few weeks ago they made a move of joy, of freedom from the world and for God’s future, and voted unanimously to sell it all to the Nativity School for…11 dollars.
I hope you have some time this summer, time away with people you love, time that makes you happy. But even more than that, I pray you will be on the way to finding joy. Deep joy, that is not for you, but rooted in relationship, in being FOR OTHERS, all in response to the grace of a God that called the people out of Egypt, claimed them, and shaped them into a people, often despite themselves or their king, who danced in celebration as the ark came home. This same God claims us in love, and calls us out. To live in joy, and spread it all around.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior, (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), p 4.
2. Senior, 240.
3. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. By Paul Achtemeier, (New York: Harpercollins, 1985), p 70.
4. Senior, 242, George Valliant is that psychiatrist.