Joy to the World

[Creative non-fiction, 1767 words]

I watched Disney movies as a child. I’ve never counted how many. Dozens? Hundreds? Million Dollar Duck, Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Absent Minded Professor. I guess this says something about my outlook on life. My youthful understanding of joy came from the movie Pollyanna[1] and her “glad game”. Pollyanna always tried to find something in a bad situation to be glad about. This started because, as the daughter of a missionary in Africa, she had asked for a doll to be sent in the next shipment from the church. What she received were a pair of crutches. That is when her father invented the glad game. She was glad that she didn’t need the crutches. Earnest child that I was, I saw the benefit of that outlook and resolved to live my life the same way. It worked well for a long time. Of course, I did become more sophisticated as a teenager and thought Three Dog Night had the right idea, “Joy to the world, All the boys and girls, now, Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me”[2]. Happiness was so abundant that I could drink it down!

There are obvious flaws in my early philosophies of joy. The glad game doesn’t work with everything. Well… I couldn’t make it work with everything. And I came to think of the refrain from “Joy to the World” as a happy drunkard’s view of the world: simple at best, false most likely. This was a time when I left the Catholic church. It was not a sad time, it was a time filled with questing, finding, losing, gaining, and expanding. I ended up becoming Presbyterian, but that’s a story for another time. During a conversation early in my relationship with my pastor, we spoke during bible study about prayer and faith. He replied to a comment I made about “Joy to the World”, saying, “Don’t you think God can speak through Three Dog Night?” I was startled by his answer. He was grinning, so maybe he was joking? How many pastors know the lyrics to Three Dog Night songs? I’m also certain any other pastor would not think the lyrics inspired by God. I decided he wasn’t joking and I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating what he said. My own question is now, “What else is God trying to communicate with those words? What is his message for me?”

I don’t remember when in my searches I learned about this, but the mathematician Blaise Pascal kept sewn inside his jacket a paper with these words.

This year of grace 1654, 

Monday, 23rd November…

From about half past ten in the evening until half 

past midnight: 


God of Abraham, 

GOD of Isaac, 

God of Jacob, 

not of philosophers and scholars. 

CERTAINTY, heart-felt, JOY, JOY, God of Jesus Christ,

Thy God is my God…

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…

Now here’s a mystery. It sounds like the ramblings of a madman to me, but it’s PASCAL for God’s sake. There must be meaning in what he wrote. I want that FIRE, that JOY!

I’m a scientist, not as brilliant as Pascal of course, but still a seeker of answers. I wanted to use the scientific method on joy. Find it. Measure it. Test it. Deconstruct it. Reconstruct it. My first stop was the bible. I understand that there are eight hundred “happy texts” [3] in the bible. I started looking, but lost interest quickly. Eight hundred passages is a lot to read. The other problem, in case you’ve never considered it, was that I discovered the Bible does not lend itself to the scientific method. I had to find some other way to learn about joy.

The week before Easter I drove to downtown Baltimore, to Fells Point. It’s a fine place for eating and drinking, and the “joys” of everyday life. It also is home to an excellent Polish market called Sophia’s (this is indeed a shameless endorsement; it’s on Aliceanna St.). Sophia’s is inconvenient for me to get to. As it’s in downtown Fells Point, it’s perfect for the residents to visit, but if you’re coming from the suburbs, traffic is a big problem and parking is difficult to find. I restrict my visits to Christmas and Easter. I buy yummies for the feast like kielbasa, sauerkraut, Polish cookies, mushrooms, and other things to make the food delicious. This year I drove in on a lovely spring day, windows down, wind making my hair wild. The feel of the wind in my hair and on my face made me feel wild. I bought my food and did a crazy thing! I walked around Fells Point instead of going directly home. Such cheekiness! I felt loose, no looming deadlines or connections. I took pictures and shared my delinquency on facebook. My parking meter was running out of time, so I hopped in the car and drove home, good music playing loudly, the smell of fresh bread from the bread factory blowing in the window as my hair was blowing out. Man, I felt good! I looked up at the robin’s egg blue sky and thought, “This! This is joy! I can’t explain it, but I now understand Pascal! But,” I thought, bewildered, “I’ve been here before. How could I forget?” That day downtown I’d had JOY! And I’d had it before.

Apparently, I’m not the only one to forget. Isaiah says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!”[4] I don’t think it’s just an exhortation, I think it’s also a reminder. Can our thirst ever be slaked? Of course not, we have to drink water daily, so must we drink from our faith. Can we remember where the well is? Only sometimes, so we must be reminded. Interestingly, this chapter also contains one of the “happy texts” to which Pollyanna refers, “Yes, in joy you shall depart, in peace you shall be brought back…”[5] Isaiah knows we need to come back, to be reminded from where joy springs. I’ve been told on many occasions and by several different people that joy is our response to God’s grace. Grace is something I have a great deal of difficulty understanding. Or maybe my difficulty is actually in accepting it. I’m still wrestling with it, but one step on my path came from Revelation, “Here I stand, knocking at the door.”[6] I think God has already given us his love, or grace, and we just have to stop putzing around in our house and go open that door. Sometimes we get busy in our house and forget there’s someone at the door. That’s why Isaiah feels the need to remind us. “Joy is all the more powerful when it’s not expected.”[7] When Rev. Dr. Kovacs said this, I think he had a different meaning in mind, but to me the unexpected in this context is something that’s been forgotten and rediscovered. I forgot I had God’s grace. I was reminded, brought back in peace, and departed in joy.

While I was trying to mash joy into the scientific method silently and secretly in my head, my pastor spoke of the researcher and writer Brené Brown. She has been able to apply the scientific method to emotions. She writes about her research on vulnerability[8], and says “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.”  I would have expected her to say love, but no, it’s joy. I chewed on this for awhile and thought, maybe it’s because we keep forgetting we have God’s grace. That answer came easily, so I doubted my wisdom. I drifted through work that week, took joy in time with my children. “…the most vulnerable emotion…” bounced through my head. It was there when I tried to sleep. It was there when I woke up in the morning. It rode me all day long day after day. Why wouldn’t it leave me be! I just wanted a break from these dumb thoughts! I looked through my playlists to find something soothing, mellow, a calming stream of music. I chose K.D. Lang, Hymns from the 49th Parallel. KD Lang is Canadian and all the songs she sings on this album are by Canadian artists. In KD’s voice, these songs are hymns. Helpless written by Neil Young filled my car and I let my spine slip and loosen and let the song fill me. “… shadows in our eyes leaves us helpless, helpless, helpless.” And then I got it. We have to give ourselves up to joy. Let it fill us. We have to be willing to be filled with JOY and not just wanting that JOY. That means relinquishing control, or becoming helpless. That is when we are “most vulnerable”. Once we reach that point, joy can fill us.

I’m not a theologian or a philosopher, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I feel it in my bones like fire, and that tells me I’ve got something right. As a scientist, I can’t help but use the scientific method as my touch stone. I’ll keep refining these ideas. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I don’t like being helpless. I suppose no one does. I’m going to try to accept grace. Oh, and I still play the glad game (hey, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!). It keeps the despair out and now that I’m older and wiser (ha!) I think of it as a place holder for joy. So that I don’t forget, but if I do, I know I’ll be “brought back in peace”.

As for Three Dog Night, God isn’t just telling me to be joyful, he’s telling me we have to be able to give joy. If we can give, we can empty ourselves to be filled again. Here is a thought from Christian Wiman[9] that has been under my skin lately: “…if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived or have denied the reality of your life.” The reality of living has given me a deeper understanding of joy. I don’t just want that FIRE, I am willing to be filled with it.

[1] Pollyanna Eleanore H. Porter

[2] Joy to the World Three Dog Night, Naturally, 1970

[3] Pollyanna Eleanore H. Porter

[4]  Isaiah 55:1

[5] Isaiah 55:12

[6] Revelation 3:20

[7] Joy Comes With the Morning Rev. Dr. K. Kovacs, 27th March 2016

[8] Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead Brené Brown, (Avery, 2015)

[9] My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer Christian Wiman, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013)

[10] Featured image, American bullfrog partially submerged in pond, was taken by John Pontier


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