Intentionality of Joy
“These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” —John 15:11
EARLY IN THIS SEASON OF ADVENT, my daughter brought home a new addition to our Christmas decorations. It was a cheerful wooden plank that proclaimed: JOY to the world. It was only about 8” wide but it stood about 4’ tall; so we chose to hang it on a narrow piece of wall in the great room where we walk by dozens of times a day. To my surprise I began to notice that every time I passed the image, a little lilt of happiness bubbled up inside. After a while I mentioned it to others in the household—and yes, the same thing was happening to them. Joy was begetting joy that often broke forth into full fledged smiling.
As Spirit often does, this began weeks of my reflecting on the nature of joy among us. There are hundreds of essays, articles, sermons that speak meaningfully and powerfully to the concept of joy. We know that Jesus said he came to teach us so our joy might be full like his ( John 15:11). We know that joy is a by-product of living aligned with God’s heart and purposes. It is a proof of the puddin’ that we are on the right track spiritually (Galatians 5:22-23). We know that in some mysterious way, joy is not bounded by circumstances. Joy and suffering can co-abide.
What has struck me personally this year is the need to be intentional about joy.
Simply having the word “joy” in my decor, shifts my attention to gratefulness and lifts me out of the hum of the ordinary. It infuses the content of the moment with a melody of goodness that sometimes get muted in my day. We tend to think that we aren’t influenced by our surroundings. It doesn’t matter what movies we see, what posters we hang, what images and sounds we absorb. But I know experientially that the words, the songs, the images I choose to live with have power to shape me. And choosing joy is an act of intentionality.
I have also been especially conscious that joy needs the spaciousness of being present where we are in each moment. And each moment is partial. It is okay—even necessary—to let joy rise in that incompleteness. To give ourselves permission to feel the joy of a positive step—even though the entire problem is not solved. Or justice is not complete. Or everyone in the world is not experiencing the same moment. We actually live in a culture that is structured to extinguish joy. The pattern of media is to either ignore positive steps or to immediately fill the space with folks who disagree. Or to erase the joy of the accomplishment by covering the subject with discussions of its shortcomings and problems. It is no wonder that our country is bubbling with anger and frustration in the midst of so much goodness. Corporately we are never given the space to be joyful in our partialness. And we Quakers are tempted to do the same thing. In our passion for social justice, we too erase the faithfulness of folks past and present because it is partial. We tend to disallow the joy of the present because of the sins of the past. Just as joy and suffering co-abide; joy and the humility of repentance also can co-abide. It is important to celebrate despite the inadequacy of this present moment.
There seem to be two corollaries to standing as a witness in the midst of a joy-bereft culture. One is the concept from African American poet, Toi Derricotte: joy is an act of resistance. We are living in a powerful flood of propaganda that is designed to stir up angst, anger and division. That propaganda doesn’t really care if we are on the side of good or bad, right or wrong, religious or amoral. As long as it can enwrap us in fear, anger, disrespect that destroys the bonds of trust and cooperation, it has succeeded. Cultivating joy personally and corporately is indeed a powerful act of resistance to tsunami of interpersonal destruction. It is a Jesus-act that overcomes evil.
The second is to re-image corporate worship. In the midst of a culture that makes group joy rare, we have the spaciousness of worship to joy-together in the love and goodness of God. It is letting ourselves share together the amazing daily fact that God-among-us is present, perceptible and practical. It is letting joy build upon joy. It is more like a party than a wake. Joy doesn’t make us deaf to the voice of God; rather it puts us on the same frequency with God’s heart. It is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to become people who are recognizable by their deeply compassionate joy.