The prophet Ezekiel did his work during a time of great suffering for the people of Israel during the late 500s BCE. In the midst of his work the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and forced many leading citizens (including Ezekiel) into exile in Babylon. Ezekiel spoke to people trapped in suffering and violence, of families separated, homes lost, as one in the midst of those things himself.
If you’ve started The Book of Joy you might have noticed something that seems odd at first. The first topics tackled by these two wise men in their discussion are in fact suffering and struggle. In a book about joy.
As I refreshed my memory of the historical events behind our Hebrew scripture today (because I am not one with a good memory) I found myself reflecting on the similarities between the stories of so many wise spiritual leaders. Ezekiel spends quite a bit of time chastising the kingdom of Judah about their sinful behavior. He spends lots of time telling them that they’ve pretty much brought their suffering on themselves.
See this is what I love about the prophets, and about the Dalai Lama and Archbishop. There is always that “and yet.”
In the midst of suffering and exile Ezekiel suddenly launches into this beautiful poem of renewal and hope. Despite everything God is doing a new thing, God is still creating, growing, tending God’s garden (that’s us). Right there in the pit of despair there is this beautiful reminder of what joy looks like.
Because joy and happiness are not the same thing. Suffering destroys happiness, which is a response to outside stimulae. Joy however, joy flourishes in the strangest of places.
Which brings us back to the odd opening to the Book of Joy and the very first question asked to the Dalai Lama: “why are you not morose?”
It’s a fair question.
For Ezekiel. For the Dalai Lama. For Archbishop Tutu.
Why in the name of heaven are you not morose?
Ezekiel had the rough job of being a prophet in a land where no one wanted to hear hard truths (when do we ever). His government ignored him, confident that they knew what God wanted, and he was hauled off into exile by an invading army.
The Dalai Lama fled a violent Chinese takeover of his government as a very young man. In disguise he made the journey over the mountains into India and safety on foot, a long and dangerous trip still made by Tibetan children whose parents send them away for a chance at a life they could never have at home.
Archbishop Tutu grew up in apartheid South Africa where his skin color marked him out as second class. He endured violence, oppression, and suffering, and to this day his country struggles with the sins of the past and present.
Yet both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop laugh more than they do anything else. They hold each other’s hands and giggle like school children. They beam with joy, they tease one another with deep affection. There is something growing within them, and it isn’t despair.
Joy exists in the midst of the suffering and hardship they have experienced in their lives. It is the shoot plucked from the top of the mighty cedar, the little transplant that will grow into shelter for many. Ezekiel uses allegory and poetry in his song of hope because he isn’t just talking about a literal restored kingdom of Israel. He isn’t just talking about a restored Davidic kingdom.
If that’s all he was talking about it wouldn’t be all that good news. But the words he offers go far beyond a historical moment, or something that can be destroyed.
When asked why he wasn’t morose the Dalai Lama’s answer is complex. But for today we’ll concentrate on the first thing he points out about suffering: it is a universal human experience. It is something that binds us all together. Our suffering isn’t less compared to someone else’s, but our shared suffering, our shared humanity unites us. It assures us that we are not alone. And out of this reality grows compassion. And with compassion? Hope.
Ezekiel’s song of the tiny new thing that grows into a great sheltering tree were so formational for the people of Israel that Jesus alludes to them today in his teaching about the mustard seed. It is so universally true that it reaches through the centuries, and across the world to two elderly friends in India.
Both men pointed out that the root of joy is found in our relationships, and specifically “our expression of love and generosity to others.” Now there is a tree in which all the birds of the air may shelter and build their nests. Love and generosity toward others, the compassion that reminds us we are all in this together, this is the root of joy, this is the root of the Kingdom.
There are many reasons to be morose in our day. Families fleeing violence, poverty, and hopelessness people seeking asylum are being torn apart. Children kept in cages, not allowed to be hugged, or touched. For Jews and Christians, people whose sacred book commands love and welcome for the stranger and foreigner, it is horrific and shocking. For followers of the Lord who reprimanded his disciples for restraining children it is abhorrent. And it can also feel far away and impossible to change.
So much of religious teaching when you strip away all the complexity and the big words boils down to just that: love and generosity toward the other. And the strange and mysterious (and I would say Godly) thing about that is: when we concentrate not on our own happiness but on showing love and generosity to other people, joy grows. It grows like a weed, when we aren’t looking.
It grows like a little shoot God has plucked from God’s own life and planted sneakily in our lives.
It grows bigger, and bigger, fertilized by the simplest and hardest of things: love.
Why are you not morose?
Perhaps we are. And we few people will not change the whole course of human history. But we can, with our love, change the course of lives. And every one of those lives matter. Every one of those lives, even in the midst of their current suffering, is a gift.
The Dalai Lama points out that if he were not an exile living in a foreign land, forced to change traditional ways, forced out of isolation he would have likely never met the thousands of people he has come to enjoy. He would have never had the chance to teach joy, love, and compassion all over the world. He and the Archbishop of South Africa would have never had the chance to become firm friends and spiritual brothers.
Joy is a funny and resilient thing. It grows from the smallest shoot, plucked by the hand of God, and planted in our hearts.
We must water it with love of others, we must fertilize it with generosity and compassion.
This is the lesson of Ezekiel, of the Tibetan people in exile, of Desmond Tutu and the people of South Africa.
Someday, if we are wise, and generous, and love well some might say it is the story that we have left behind us as well.