Joy in a time of pandemic? Peace in a time of protest? It sounds crass after all the carnage, tens of thousands of deaths, an economy in shambles, children sent home from school, anxiety and low level depression abounding and Covid fatigue near universal, and uncertainty in the body politic. How can we talk about joy? It almost sounds like Marie Antoinette’s word to the poor of Paris, “let them eat cake.”
Words matter and so does the identity of the speaker. Paul’s words to the Philippians were sent from prison, house arrest, uncertain whether he would live or die, and yet he is joyful. Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice. How can you rejoice when your life is hemmed in by the injustice of others, or when you weep over the unnecessary deaths due to the COVID virus or family challenges?
I want to make a confession – I weep everyday for the virus, for how it has changed our children’s lives and for the thousands who have died, and our own uncertainty. I worry about my own mortality. I want to live to fulfill my vocation as a pastor, writer, teacher, father, husband, and most especially grandparent.
And yet I rejoice in my lamentation. I wake up with the affirmation “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Because tears and laughter alike witness to the fact that I can feel pain and joy at the same time, I can be empathetic, lament, and also be hopeful. I can share Christ’s tears over Jerusalem or today’s Washington DC.
Jesus is the suffering God, who knows the troubles we’ve seen, and Jesus is also the celebrant who rejoices in every soul that finds its way and every heart that beats with love.
Joy is not accidental or fleeting. It is not temporary fun or laughter at others’ expense. It is not just comfort after a good meal or the delight in your team winning. It is not induced by drug or drink. True joy comes from knowing God is with you and that God has a vision – a plan – for your life. That God is the energy of love that gets you up in the morning and challenges you to go further than you previously imagined.
God’s love envelopes us, God’s inspiration is constant, but we need to look for it, we need to open to it. William Blake noted, “if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is – infinite.” We would see God at work in our lives and the world and discover our role as God’s companions in healing the earth.
This joy is not denial. Jesus wept, Paul felt anguish, Mary of Magdalene mourned. If you don’t weep in this time, you are missing God’s call to care. Yet there is joy – the Joy of John Lewis with eyes on the prize, and committed to making good trouble, the joy of mother Teresa suffering from depression yet doing something beautiful for God, the joy of Martin Luther King recognizing people were out to get him and yet seeking the heal the soul of our nation, the joy of the woman at the soup kitchen who welcomes everyone as a beloved friend, knowing , “someday Jesus is coming down that line and I’m going to treat him real good.”
In today’s readings Paul gives us practices of Joy –
- Gratitude – “Now thank we all our God,” that great hymn was written in a time of pandemic, when the writer buried hundreds, including family members, and still felt the hand of God, touching his heart and giving him energy to love.
- Gentleness – the joy of going beyond incivility and treating everyone as Christ.
- Prayer – constantly and about everything, asking for God’s guidance each step of the way.
- Right thinking – Looking deeper, being optimistic, holding on to thoughts of kindness, recognizing that this is the day God has made, and we will rejoice and be glad in it. At such moments, how can we keep from singing?
As some of you know, I am the parent of a cancer survivor. When Matt was diagnosed with a serious cancer, I had no words, but I did have a chant – Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy….and then the chant changed to “Great is Thy Faithfulness” for I knew that God is with us and all will be well. These days, I still sing that prayer – as the world has turned upside down, as I worry about my health, and the survival of our nation. In joy, there is action and agency and the recognition that what I do can tip the balance from hate to love and death to life.
This is a deep down joy in our hearts. Joy that gives you a song in your heart. The joy of knowing that in life and death, God will supply your needs and you can do everything you need and have everything you need to respond to the challenges of life because our loving God is with you….and gives us joy for the journey and victory in the midst of strife.