I was bracing myself for my first annual meeting with my new church. Annual meetings in the past had not been pretty. But what I experienced caught me off guard. What surprised me was a predominate spirit of joy and hope. But that spirit should not surprise me.
Joy and hope were dominant notes in the early church. Those notes sounded loud in a culture where religion was marked by determined destiny and stoic spirituality. They rang out with clarion clarity, cutting through the despair, sadness and pessimism that marked first century religious options. In fact, the Greek word for joy (chara) is absent from writings in the ancient world. That is until Christians wrote about what they experienced.
Those first followers of Jesus permeated joy. Their message began with “good tidings of great joy.” They experienced it when Jesus bid his disciples farewell, promising his peace and full joy. “I have spoken these things” said Jesus, “so that my joy may be in in you, and that your joy may be made full.”
Joy is tricky to track. Joy is not always apparent. It is easily missed, especially when we hurt. Joy does not happen because of the absence of hardship, or by denying hard realities, or by a fake smile that covers real sadness. Joy happens in spite of all that. Joy is a higher reality that Jesus began and that his followers in all times have experienced and proclaimed.
And the good news is that no matter what your circumstance, no mater what your history, you can, as CS Lewis discovered, be “surprised by joy.” It happens when our pain meets God’s joy, just like the psalmist expressed: “You turned my morning into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:11).
Richard Rohr writes that “pain that is not transformed will be transmitted.” The hurts we have experienced will hurt others unless they are transformed by the healing hope and joy found in God’s presence. And because God is always present, joy can be chosen. Frankly, nothing less will do.
Leonard Sweet, in his recent, excellent book, “Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God who is Already There” writes that people who have experienced God’s joy and hope are “looking less for an emotion that is based on an earthy, human foundation than a joy beyond the natural joys that come from friends and food, from beauty and beer, from dancing and drama. Beyond all those pleasures there is a joy free from the cages of circumstance, or morality, of control, of individual fate.”
Last week I shared the joy and hope of a community rising. It surprised me in a good, hopeful way, but I should not be surprised. Joy is one of God’s great attributes. God exists in great joy. Jesus calls us into his joy. And the Spirit brings joy. And I think I just heard an echo of God’s joy among those with ears to hear, and it felt freeing.