Choosing joy

November 17, 2021

A few months ago, about the time the Delta variant started surging, I found myself just dragging. All the hope of the spring with the newly found freedom of being vaccinated and the sense that the pandemic lifting was dashed. I was in an emotional and spiritual slump. So I started a little practice: I said to myself every morning: I am choosing to be happy today. Throughout the day, if I felt myself getting overwhelmed by it all, I would remind myself: I choose to be happy. And you know what, it worked! I felt a bit lighter. I was a little more positive with the people around me. I smiled more instead of grumping all over the place.

The news has been unrelentingly bad for quite some time. And it keeps coming at us. And the things that are happening are serious: Climate change. Natural disasters. Racial injustice. Shootings…so many shootings. A pandemic that won’t quit. We are called to heal a broken world, and right now that feels like a very heavy lift. It is hard to feel joyful in the daily circumstances of our lives. And yet, that is how Christians are known…by their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:13). These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit working within us.

Joy is not about how we are feeling in any given moment, or even a statement about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Rather, joy is a recognition that there is goodness in the world, God is indeed present with us in all the muck, and beauty still abounds. It is comes from a deep place of gratitude for life and the blessings, large and small, that we receive each and every day.

I can get caught up in what’s not right with the world, and miss seeing what is right. So my daily affirmation is to remind myself that the gift of a resurrection life is knowing that love wins and, to quote the song, “Life is worth the living because he lives.” It is choosing in which reality I am going to anchor my life: a God reality or a “this moment” reality.

Diana Butler Bass wrote a provocative article entitled “Take That, Covid” on the power of defiant joy. She named that the mainline protestant church is often a rather gloomy place. We are so focused on the sins that are bedeviling the world that we bypass gratitude for guilt, and when a pandemic is raging and taking so many lives, we perceive joy and gratitude as signs of privilege or being somehow inappropriate. Grief and lament have their place, but if that is all there is, how do we go on? There is serious work to be done for sure, but if there is no joy in the work, how do we keep on keeping on? What Diana Butler Bass names for herself, and what I would echo, is after months of being sad and alone, what I hunger for is joyful community. Maybe joy is what the world needs most right now. Maybe joy is the path to healing and liberation.

So here is what I want to suggest, church: Perhaps this season is one of rediscovering our joyful selves. I hear a lot of angst about who has not returned to Sunday worship and what we miss and wish we could go back to. But what if we give ourselves permission to simply name the loss, then let it go and turn toward giving thanks for who is here, for what God is doing? What if we focus on the possibilities, and loosen up and simply play more together? What if we trust that God is up to something in the world, that God is about life to the fullest, and that God longs for us to embrace it? What would a church look like that lived that reality? No one could possibly call that a gloomy church!

One other thing I have learned about joy: It is a practice, a muscle that you need to exercise. Remember, the kind of joy we’re talking about—the joy of the Lord that is our strength—is much more than a feeling. It is a way of being. So we need practices that help us cultivate and claim joy. A companion to me during the pandemic was “The Book of Joy,” which was a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—two men who have suffered great hardship in life but from whom joy radiates, and people are drawn to them because of it. The book describes the obstacles to joy such as fear, stress, and anxiety, which we have had so much of. But there are pillars of joy that can counteract those obstacles: perspective, humor, forgiveness, and gratitude, to name a few. The book concludes with a series of joy practices. Setting a morning intention is one that I learned and has been so helpful to shaping my day. There are many other practices to cultivate and claim joy. Paying attention to the small moments. Getting out into nature. Meditation. Doing something for someone else. The important thing is to practice so that we can be our joyful selves. When we are, the impact of that ripples out. It is a healing balm to a weary world.  

So a church that is practicing joy? That is a church I would want to be a part of. Let’s be that church!

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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