2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.
from James 1, NRSV
This is not my favorite week of Advent this year. I’m just putting that out there… I can explain to you theologically, psychologically, and emotionally what “joy” vs “happiness” entails. But existentially, I have to tell you it’s a little harder to experience joy right now.
I have been mulling over what joy means to me in my present reality. Sometimes I get it… and many times, I don’t. As I finish writing this blog post, I’ve completed my third round of chemo, and am high on steroids and pre-medications. The “crash” is coming! But even in anticipation of some hard chemo-impact days this weekend, I can still know joy. It’s real. It exists. Today, joy flickers bravely in the middle of my treatments.
As a chaplain, I’ve walked with folks through some pretty grim or scary moments. Baptizing the tiny 30 week preemie in the NICU. Listening to a family as they wrestle with doubts, praying for a miracle. Accompanying a doctor who has to give “bad news.” Standing in the trauma room… and afterward… supporting staff who tried and tried, but could not reverse the effects of multiple gunshot wounds.
When I left the ICU or trauma room on those bleak nights, I often stopped to seek out a moment of beauty or wonder. Something to remind me that life goes beyond the four walls of our hospital life. That there is a Divine Presence and Encourager walking through all of it — ALL of it — with me. God never disappoints… Joy springs up in the most unusual places.
One of my contract chaplain jobs was working a double overnight shift a few nights a week. Hospitals are busy places, even at night. You learn the rhythm of the various departments and staff members with their tasks. Nighttime staff is a breed apart. We are making it work with limited staffing. And you never know what you will find in the back hallways of a hospital…
One evening, I was headed back to the chaplains’ office to do some charting. I heard a man singing as I rounded the corner. The tile floors and concrete walls made a nice echo chamber. He was mopping the floors and singing into his mop handle.
Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was a good friend of mine…
He stopped singing and we laughed. It just bubbled up. In the moment, there was a sense of lightness and joy!
I harmonized with him on the chorus:
Joy to the world – all the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea.
Joy to you and me!
His co-workers heard the commotion and came to investigate. They joined in our laughter. We talked in generalities about life, and how the evening had gone so far. It was clear that in the moment, all of us were lifted up and the cares of the moment were eased.
Joy is like that. Joy speaks to the moment. Joy inhabits our praises. Joy lives in the middle of a downpour. Joy surprises you like wild blackberries growing on the side of the road. Joy doesn’t erase what we are experiencing, but it brings a measure of contentment and peace. Many times, joy dwells so deep in the human heart that can be inexpressible. Joy is powered by the Holy Spirit, and though it may whimper, is never extinguished.
Joy is there in the land of tears, too. In the impossible places. In the darkest moments for human beings. In the doubts that plague our minds. As David wrote in Psalm 30, “weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
The poet and wise woman Mary Oliver wrote about joy. I have come to treasure her words in this Advent season:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, be very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Mary Oliver’s “Don’t Hesitate” from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
So yes… in this moment… as the effects of the chemo begin to cause body aches and pains… I can still say I know joy. Step by stumbling step, joy walks with me and invests extravagantly in my well-being.
“Joy is not made to be a crumb.”