Joy in the Presence

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of Twelfth Month, 2021


Speaker: Donne Hayden


Scripture: Psalm 16:11, NIV; Matthew 2:9-10; & Luke 1:28-29






Some of you may know the experience of being filled up, flooded with – something, accompanied by joy several degrees beyond happiness. Joy that springs from a deeper (or perhaps higher) source; joy that evokes tears and laughter at the same time; joy that renders you incoherent or completely speechless. And in the midst of this joy, a sense that you are in the presence of Something Greater. Call it the Presence of God or the Light or the Mystery or whatever speaks to you, because it doesn’t matter what words you use. The experience is beyond words.


Once, years ago, standing in Kroger’s parking lot here in Richmond, I was stopped cold by a sunset so beautiful I felt privileged to see it, as though a great gift of color and light had been given to me personally. Joy rose up in me; I was too small to contain it; I was brim-full, overflowing with an awareness of Divine Presence. I stood weeping for joy, oblivious to people passing by me going to their cars. (They probably thought the white-haired woman staring at the sky and sobbing was crazy.)


The Psalmist knew the experience hundreds of years ago when he wrote to God: “you will fill me with joy in your presence . . ." (Psalm 16:11, NIV) Edna St. Vincent Millay knew the experience in her poem, “God’s World”:


Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;

My soul is all but out of me…

Quaker William Leddra knew it the day he died, March 14, 1661, when he was hanged in Massachusetts for being a Quaker. That day he wrote:


The sweet influences of the Morning Star like a flood,

distilling into my habitation,

have so filled me with the joy of the Lord

in the beauty of holiness

that my spirit is as if

it did not inhabit a tabernacle of clay,

but is wholly swallowed up in the beauty of eternity

from whence it had its being....

As the flowing of the ocean

doth fill every creek and branch

and then retires again toward its own being and fullness,

leaving a savor behind, so doth the life and power of God

flow into our hearts,

making us partakers of the Divine nature.

Contemporary Friend, Barry Crossno, General Secretary of Friends General Conference, knows it, and describes it beautifully:


Sometimes I reflect on the moment

that I first felt God deeply in my heart.

I was so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

Honestly, I cried. No, I didn’t cry, I sobbed.

Sometimes, when I pray or meditate

and the presence sweeps over me,

tears run down my face.

I can’t help it. I’m just so grateful to feel the presence.

The world is suddenly Technicolor.

I can feel the air vibrating with all the possibilities of the creation.

It’s a miracle to live in those brief flashes when it happens.1

Lest we believe, however, that only religious or devout souls know this experience, listen to the story of Paul Vasquez, also known as “the Double Rainbow Man,” who recorded on video a time when his world was “suddenly Technicolor.” Vasquez was born in 1963 in East L.A. but as a young man, he moved to the mountains to work as a firefighter. He married, had children, divorced, and eventually settled in a mobile home on the side of a hill outside Yosemite National Park, where he lived simply, growing his own food and, according to CNN, cultivating marijuana plants.


In January 2010, Paul looked out his window just as a double-rainbow appeared, arcing across the valley below. This wasn’t the first time it had happened that morning, and Paul began filming the emergence of the rainbow as it took perfect form before him. On the video we hear his voice: “A double rainbow, man, a double rainbow! Wow! Oh Wow. Oh God. Oh Wow. Oh Wow. What does it mean? Oh God…” And we hear him weep-laughing as he continues filming the rainbow, still saying “Oh wow,” etc. A few days later, he posted the video on YouTube. In the past 11 years, it has had 50 million views.


The nakedness of the “double-rainbow” man’s experience is almost too much to watch. Some people laugh at it, thinking he must be high on something. But for those who have experienced joy in the Divine Presence, it’s pretty clear the man was having a religious experience. In an interview later, Paul maintained that he had taken no drugs that day, but he had been seeing rainbows so often that morning, he sent an email to a friend saying he felt like Noah. “When I sent that email,” he said, “my house filled with colors, and that’s when the double rainbow started,” and “I recognized I was in the presence of God.” As for what came out of his mouth, “That wasn’t me; something was flowing through me; God was speaking through and to me.” Not eloquent, not smooth, but authentic, deeply felt and intensely joyous.


Oddly and wondrously, the most ordinary things can evoke such joy in us, especially things in nature: a fall day, a colorful sunset, the light of the morning star, a rainbow. And joy seems to attend the birth of any child, an “ordinary miracle” if there ever was one. Who here has been moved to tears of joy by the birth of a child?


Now multiply that joy exponentially ~ such joy as must have accompanied the birth, the arrival on the planet, of the child named Jesus who became known as the Christ, the one who brought such an important message to humanity. Imagine being the person or persons helping to deliver that child. Joy beyond words must have seized those who were in or near “the room where it happened.”


We have only one account of the scene surrounding that birth. In the Gospel of Luke, we are told the child was born in a stable and laid in a manger, an unverifiable detail, emphasizing the humble origin of Jesus, born to simple people without wealth or influence enough to secure a room in an inn. But much is omitted or skipped over in Luke’s account.


For instance, (and to digress), I’ve been wondering who was there “in the room where it happened” when the birth occurred, wherever it was.


“According to Leviticus 12:1-8, because of the bleeding associated with childbirth, a woman is ceremonially unclean after giving birth, just as she is unclean during her menstrual period,”2 and women kept themselves apart from their husbands and family at those times. After giving birth, “The uncleanness is for seven days if she bears a boy (vs. 2), and for fourteen days if she bears a girl (vs. 5).”3 (Luke includes the detail of the child Jesus being circumcised on the eighth day, according to custom.)


Even today, among practicing Jews, fathers are not permitted in the delivery room and new parents must avoid physical contact until “at least a week after all postpartum bleeding has ceased”4 (which may be up to a month). As a good Jewish man, Joseph would have been prohibited from participating in the birth with all its uncleanness, and as a good Jewish woman, Mary would have been horrified and humiliated if he did. So, who delivered the baby?


In Luke’s account, if Mary went into labor while she and Joseph were traveling, perhaps that was why she ended up in a stable. Perhaps Joseph did have a room in the inn, but Mary was banished to the stable for the unclean business of giving birth. Perhaps the wife of the innkeeper or a local Jewish midwife helped her. Or other women travelers also staying in the stable because they were menstruating …


Mary either birthed the child alone among the sheep, goats and donkeys, or she was helped by other women to welcome her son into the world. (Just like at the tomb, the women were the first to know … :~) Can you imagine the joy in that room?


We can’t know who exactly was “in the room (or stable) where it happened” when Jesus was born, but I am convinced that the Divine Presence was there in full force, hovering near for weeks or months, before, during and after, spreading over hillsides and villages, pervasively welling up in people as puzzling and inexplicable joy. Luke’s account has a nice touch when the angels appear to shepherds, announcing “We bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” Indeed. What a time that must have been!


I am convinced, too, that such moments of joy continue to occur constantly somewhere in the world, wherever someone is tuned in to receive the transmission. I am convinced that the message Jesus brought and taught is that the Divine Presence is with us, among us, and within us, always, and that the Kingdom of God is chock full of JOY.


May you know uncontainable joy, this year