All Good Gifts

This is one of my favorite spaces in the church, not because it’s the sanctuary, the place I get to hold you hostage to listen to what’s on my mind each week. It’s something older and deeper than that. It’s something more than that. See, this, my friends, is our cafetorium. Cafetorium is a drab and unimaginative word that describes a space that functions as a cafeteria and an auditorium. Since we convert this place to be both of those things, I like to think of it as our cafetorium.

Even saying the word, I am reminded of being again in second grade and that day in the cafetorium, when we entered and some of the older children were up on the stage. There they were with musical instruments. The plan for that day was to show the younger kids some of the instruments. We could see what they did and we could hear how they sounded. And then we could make a decision about which instruments we’d like to study that year in music.

There might have been other instruments on that stage, and I might have even heard them, too. But all I remember from that day…were the drums. And not just any drums. A group of the older kids played “Wipeout”—a wonderful instrumental piece from a sadly waning genre of surf rock. Naturally these third, fourth, and fifth graders were playing an elementary brass arrangement of the iconic song…but…then came the drum solo.

The breath in the instant when the solo began seemed to leave my body and I could not catch it again. I was giddy with a feeling in my belly that I had never felt before. The perfect measures of rhythm echoed inside of me and I almost squealed with delight. That feeling stayed with me the rest of the day, all the way on the bus at the end of the day, until I burst through the door and my mother heard what every parent of a seven-year-old dreams one day of hearing: “Mom, I want to play the drums!”

And joy can be like that. We can have an experience so alive, so new and wonderful, that it takes our breath away, that we want to burst through doors, out into the streets to proclaim the new things we’ve found. The wonder of that kind of joy, maybe the reason it is joy at all, is that we can’t make, we can’t really give it, it comes unbidden, un-asked-for. And I know that as I grew older, as I saw more of the world, I experienced this kind of joy, unbridled, unmediated, less and less. Only later in life have I come to understand, to really value, what it was that overtook me that day—that quality of breathlessness, of incomprehensible awe at something that was acting on me in a way I cannot predict or have no way even to expect. That was joy. But sometimes joy is confused with other experiences.

Maybe its confused with happiness. One writer says about this that, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”[1] Of course, the implication from this, Frederick Buechner’s writing, is that there is no easy way to know how joy is given. But it probably involves something beyond only ourselves. And like many things in life, I had to learn this, as usual, the hard way. Because as it turns out, there’s only one way to learn the drums: the hard way.

See, I eventually convinced my parents that having a drum set of my very own was what would really bring me joy. But nothing, no matter how hard I tried with those drums, could ever help me recapture that first, fleeting way that joy suffused in me. I took the message I received about the effect that joy had on me, and I wanted to recapture, recreate it for myself. I wanted there to be a 1:1 ratio between what I felt that day and what I might get out of learning the drums. But it wouldn’t come, no matter how hard I beat those drums. I do suspect practicing might have helped.

Other writers are even more precise about the difference between joy and experiences we mistake for joy. In his work on the subject, C.S. Lewis describes a sensation much like those the fine drum solo brought on. Lewis’s words: “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again….I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”[2] Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

And I don’t think I ever understood that distinction as well as when I came here to this island, to this place where we are surrounded by some of the most pleasant environments on earth. When people ask me how I’m doing, I find myself saying things like, “Well how bad can I be if I can get into the ocean from a world class beach whenever I want.” Or I make a joke about it being winter, and the temperature possibly dipping into a measurement in the 60s. I’m guessing I’m not alone in noticing how pleasant it is here on this island.

And as we have discussed before, that was the way many here experienced life for centuries, when the economy was a production to use economy, when people raised or grew what would sustain them, their families, their neighbors, their leaders, and that was that. I am not going to romanticize a past that surely had a lot of its own problems, especially a past I did not live, but reliable sources tell us that at least the way people worked at that time to provide for their family during the time when people cultivated all they needed for themselves, those times were filled with many of the pleasant things in life, like celebrations of peace that lasted for months at a time.

It was only at the urging or demands of the Western incursion onto this island that the production to profit economy took hold. And a major attenuation arose from the meaning and significance of production. From that time forward, labor was something you did for money. Then money could buy you and your family what they need from the marketplace, a marketplace where the prices were controlled by others. People grew less and less for themselves and their family. They grew for someone else. And the bounty of foods that used to be grown to feed and nourish a family was replaced in time by and large by efforts to grow one single crop: sugar cane, a crop that yielded an additive, a condiment, something to make things sweeter, more palatable, rather than tasting how the food really was. The harvest of this one crop, this crop rooted in excess, concerned with sweetening life for some and embittering life for others, held no celebration except for those who profited from that reaping.

If you’ve been here the past few weeks, you’ve been with us on this journey through this community’s stated purpose, its hope. This community’s mission is to boldly grow compassion, justice, and joy. We spoke some about compassion and justice. We learned a little through the lens of music and theater about the ways that we might experience both of these in our community, in ourselves. We come now to the question of joy. How do we boldly grow joy?

Up until now, we’ve looked at joy as something that kind of sneaks up on us, something we couldn’t see coming. But the challenge we face here, like in any community, is to grow joy. And that almost seems at odds with the quotes we’ve ready, right? Joy is as elusive as the one that bequeaths it. And if we think about “growing” joy like it’s a cash crop, like it’s something someone else can grow and we can taste the sweetness, we are wrong. Take a look at what we’ve done.

We talked about compassion. Compassion is the like the soil, the earth where things can grow. Without that, there’s nothing. It takes the right chemistry, the right amount of nutrients to make a place that is hospitable for starting new, exciting life. Let the idea the practices of cultivation that overtook this island go from your mind, though, and listen instead.

Hear the babble of the gently flowing water that keeps new nutrients flowing to each plant in a lo’i, where kalo plants grow. Feel how compassion is that perfect balance of mud and water that holds what can come in place, that supports it. Sense how this earth, this compassion, keeps the plant safe and stable as it grows.

And like we said about justice, the ground, the earth, is not justice. What can grow in that lo’i, where the kalo is nurtured and where it reaches out to a life-giving sun with its heart-shaped leaves? The plant collects now both nutrients from the earth where it is grounded safely and yet it stretches toward the sun, and in that reaching it makes additional, vital nutrients for its growth with those structures and the cellular biology it inherits from its forebears. Justice is like that, friends. Rooted in compassion for one another, for the world, the call of justice stretches us out of where we might be comfortable, cozy, but it brings new life, new ways of getting energy, not because it wants to. Because it must. That’s what it does. Until it is time for the harvest.

But we all know that a kalo plant is different than some crops. One of the parts of the plant that is harvested, that is treasured, is the root, where there dwells a sibling, a brother, of the very old and powerful forces said to have created this land, nurtured first by a tear from our sibling’s mother, and grown in the most precious compassion, until it is time to know, to meet, to experience true joy. The harvesting of a kalo plant is believed to be a kind of birth, a sharing, and a reminder of the ways that we are all linked to one another. All siblings, all fed, all safe. And joy is like that, friends.

Too often, too many stories talk about the fruits of a harvest, like grapes or strawberries, being the ultimate gift. But for the kalo plant, the great gift isn’t some sweet thing to enjoy, bursting into the mouth, filled with sugars. No, poi, that comes after work, and work, and work with the roots of the kalo plant, that is the final fruit.

Patient planting and nurturing—compassion.

Tending to the growing structures that bring nutrients from the sun—justice.

And then tenderly taking our relative in our hands, working, laboring long, and creating together a truly sustaining, filling, rib-sticking food dense and nutritious—that is the lesson of joy.

Joy can come in a surprise, passing through our bodies, lighting our very breath on fire, and that kind of joy is beautiful and is a gift. But we can’t just make that joy. We can’t just grow that joy. There is the other joy: the planting in compassion, the nurturing with justice, and the harvest of joy.

The holiday that approaches shortly, if we look back far enough, is less about the incursion of Puritan lives into a new world, is less about breaking bread with our neighbors and saying thanks, than it ever was about the joy that comes at harvest time, where we celebrate all siblings, all fed, all safe. All good gifts.

We are so blessed, so honored, to have with us our siblings who are doing the work, the dedicated work, to provide care, consistent, loving support, to all of those who need it. All good gifts.

We are so blessed, so honored, by the voices of our choir today, who shared a very old song of freedom, a song about the way to follow stars fixed in the heavens when the world spins and spins seemingly so far from justice. The shape of the plow in the song we heard is a reference to the big dipper, which pointed the way to freedom for so many who knew nothing of compassion from captors, who knew nothing of justice from a society, but who wondered at the possibility of joy, the joy of freedom after a lifetime of forced harvesting. All good gifts.

And we are so blessed here together, to stand by one another’s side in the rain-kissed lo’i, by my side, and labor there, urged not by profit motive or personal gain, but by the work we know will grow justice in this hurting world, day by day, until we begin to taste the fullness of what it means to be a family, a sibling to all the members of our human family, to the lives of this aina, to the beating hearts we hold in our hands.

Well, it’s often around these times when I recall a Christmas many years ago. I was hosting my parents in my small apartment in New York City. That particular Christmas morning fell on a Monday, and I had a commitment at church that I had to attend to, so I snuck out really, really early that morning. After spending the morning at church, I was able to get back home before the sun had really come up yet and I suspected my parents might not have even realized I was gone. But when I returned, I was shocked to see my father sitting up in bed looking out the window—wide awake. His mouth was actually gaping open a little bit. I guessed something was going on, so instead of what might have been a more customary, “Merry Christmas,” I said, “What’s up?”

He turned to me to answer, and just as he prepared to speak, I heard it. Boom boom boom boom!!!!

And in that moment it was painfully obvious, that my five-year-old neighbor, had gotten drums for Christmas that morning. And that five-year-old was filled with Christmas joy!

When we remember our siblings, who have been marginalized for far too long, and when we root ourselves in compassion, practice justice, and give of our selves so that these dedicated professionals to care for more and more of our human family, that’s how the joy gets in.

When we embrace that we have only this time to do the work we have to do in the world, the joy that can emanate from the work we do can shine like the sun on places in this world that have only known darkness, have never seen the light, that’s how the joy gets in.

When we honor those millions and millions of lives, whose work and whose tears led to each of our own precious lives by caring for others, by laboring for justice, and witnessing the harvest that comes of it, that’s how the joy gets in.

And when we march to the beat of our own drum, breathless with the joy of new rhythms, the joy doesn’t only get in. That’s how joy gets out.

So beat your drum till you wake up the world.

Let them hear from you.

Let them hear joy from you.

Let them hear joy from us.

And may it be ever so.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955), 15-16.


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