The birds wake me up early every morning in the spring. In particular, the song of the cardinal always brings a smile to my face as I rise to a new day. I think of a quote from Joan Walsh Anglund, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
On my walks through Cranbrook, I keep track of the geese with their baby goslings at the same time as I keep my distance, remembering a few years ago when I was attacked by protective parents for venturing too close. Observing the world come back to life brings renewed life to my spirit. A new song. Pure joy.
“Don’t postpone joy.” It’s the motto of a couple with whom Gary and I became acquainted several years ago. Wally told the story of how, not too many years before, he was working eighty hours a week in a very stressful job. He didn’t have a life. When a friend of theirs died at a young age, these words became the theme at her memorial service, “Don’t postpone joy.” In other words, enjoy life now. See the red bird right in front of you. Don’t wait until it is too late to fulfill your heart’s desire. Taking that wisdom to heart, Wally retired early, and he and Eileen have spent these last years traveling the world.
“Don’t postpone joy.” A dictionary will likely define joy as “an emotion of great delight and happiness caused by something exceptionally good.” Kind of like Easter joy. Somehow it just doesn’t ring true to me, though. Do we have to enjoy great wealth in order to experience joy? Do we have to quit our job, wait until everything is perfect in our life or travel to exotic lands to have joy? Do we even have to be happy to experience joy?
One of the most profound revelations in my life was the realization some years ago that for a Christian, joy is not related to happiness. In fact, Christian joy is very different from worldly happiness. Joy is a deep sense of wonder and oneness with God, creation, and others. Joy is recognizing the intrusion of God into our lives, even in the midst of pain. Joy is a splash of red in a dark world. Joy is our response to the fullness of life.
The Greek word for joy is chara. When we study how chara is used in the New Testament, we discover its richness.
- At the last supper in the gospel of John (16:22), Jesus comforts his disciples by saying, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
- James encourages his readers to see joy in all circumstances by writing at the very beginning of his letter (1:2), “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
- The author of Hebrews (12:1-2) sees joy in Jesus’ sufferings, “… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right and of the throne of God.”
It’s interestingly that chara is closely related to another key theological word, charis. Charis is translated as grace, the unmerited and unconditional love of God that takes root in human hearts. So chara: joy, results from charis: God’s grace. True joy is not based on human standards but is divine in origin. Joy is a gift of God.
There is yet another related word. If we put the Greek prefix eu in front of charis, we get eucharis: Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” When we read that Jesus gave thanks over the bread and the cup, the word is eucharis. Eucharist is the term that Catholics and some Protestant denominations use for holy communion. We shouldn’t postpone joy because joy, like the elements of communion, is foundational to life in Christ.
Joy is a surprising encounter with God, often coming at the least likely of times. I’ve learned much about Christian joy from C.S. Lewis. A most intriguing description of joy comes from his Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil named Screwtape writes to a junior devil named Wormwood. Keeping in mind that for Screwtape, the enemy is God, he describes the laughter of joy as similar to “that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us.” For a believer in God, however, joy is the exact opposite. Joy is a meaningful and surprising movement toward the divine, which is evident to those who believe but opaque to everyone else.
Another great C.S. Lewis quote is, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” We often experience the deepest joy when we suffer. Why was Jesus able to endure the cross? Why can we consider it joy when we face trials? Because it is precisely in the midst of profound sorrow that we discover God’s faithfulness and goodness. The meaningful acceleration of joy is not found by escaping from reality but by embracing the pain of the present with grace and thanksgiving.
Time after time we witness the rhythm of celestial experience by walking with others in their times of greatest need. We observe how people who are battered by the most awful circumstances find a deep sense of God’s care. We pray with those who are staring death in the face, yet they are often the ones to reach out to others. We see intense joy radiate from the most dire of situations when God is invited to be present.
Joy lets go of expectations and does not demand that things go the way we want them to go. Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” Don’t let anyone take your joy from you.
In the midst of the darkness of our world, joy cuts through grief and brings hope.
- A five-month-old baby found 22 hours after the Nepal earthquake covered in dust with minor bruising
- A 101 year-old-man found with only minor injuries a week after the earthquake
- Clergy taking to the streets in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, calling the community to prayer and dialogue in the wake of rioting after the death of Freddie Gray
- Mothers the world over doing whatever it takes to nurture, guide and pray for their children and grandchildren
- Graduates committed to using their gifts to make the world a better place
- Local churches reinventing themselves to be centers of outreach, witness and hope
If joy is light piercing the darkness…
If joy is a red bird singing in the dead of winter as well as in the rebirth of spring, not because it has an answer but because it has a song…
If joy is an everflowing stream underneath the tumultuous surface of life…
If joy (chara) is accepting God’s grace (charis) with thanksgiving (eucharis)…
If joy is not so much believing that circumstances will improve but trusting that whatever happens, we’ll find our way, with God’s help… then don’t postpone it!
Will you open your heart and spirit to be surprised by joy every day? Will you slow down enough to discover the hidden secrets of the meaningful acceleration of joy? Can you experience a quiet joy in the midst of chaos, knowing that God helps us to grow strong through our trials? Do you know that Jesus can give you joy every day, no matter what happens? Can you taste the joy of the celestial banquet in the sacrament of communion as well as the depth of human love? “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)