So, full disclosure – I’m writing this blog the week before Thanksgiving due to some of our deadlines to record the Advent conversations we hope you are enjoying along with the blog. This pandemic has really affected how we live our lives for about 36 weeks now (but who’s counting, right?) and we are currently facing the worst spike in cases yet. The holidays are upon us. We are not going to get to see all the family we normally get to see. My son is not going to get to have the annual cousin sleepover that he looks forward to every year. My child’s teacher is sick and there are no substitutes available so we are the teachers this week. I am in the midst of planning a funeral for someone for whom Covid was a contributing factor to his death. I know you have many more hard things that you could add to this list. And I’m supposed to write about JOY?
YES! I AM WRITING ABOUT JOY!
It’s the third candle of the Advent Wreath. It’s a little special because it is pink, representing Gaudete Sunday, which means “Rejoice!” It’s an important reminder, especially when we can so quickly recite a long litany of all the things going wrong, reasons not to be happy.
And for me, that is the key to all of this – the difference between being happy and having joy. They are often considered synonyms, but I believe there is a deep, fundamental difference. Happiness is a feeling; it comes from external sources and is fleeting. I can be happy one minute, and when something bad happens I am no longer happy, but rather angry, sad, or hurt.
However, joy comes from deep within. It is a state of being that we cultivate over time. I believe that joy is from God. In Nehemiah, where we read the story of the rebuilding of the Temple after God’s people had faced horrible hardship and terror in exile, the Prophet Ezra says, as they dedicate the new Temple space, , “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
The joy of the LORD is your strength. Our strength comes from God’s joy, not our own fleeting happiness.
When I was in seminary, I got the incredible privilege of taking a class with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was at Emory University to write the final report for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We heard so many stories of the atrocities that happened against South Africans during the period of apartheid. And here was this man, who had lived much of it and heard even more stories – and he was so full of joy.
So, when The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World came out, I quickly picked it up. It chronicles a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu and it is so incredibly rich. I highly recommend it! Out of so many things underlined, highlighted, and tabbed in the book, this is one quote that really stood out to me:
Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,” the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, “save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
You see, I believe that joy is something that is cultivated from within, a gift from God that must be tended. It comes when you make peace with who you are and whose you are. And, because it is an inner resource within us, it allows us to hold all the other emotions at the same time – without losing our joy. Pain, anger, hardship, heartbreak, sadness, loneliness, vulnerability, confusion, fear don’t cease to exist. But they do not have the last word in our lives when we remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
My prayer for you this third week of Advent is that, in the midst of the anxiety, stress, and fear of this current global pandemic that is affecting how we even celebrate Christmas, you may discover this gift of joy within you.