Sometimes joy feels so contrary to our circumstances that we wonder if we should even be feeling it all. It can sneak up on us, like the end of a summer day or a thunderstorm at the beach, but it can also delight us and surprise us.
Three years ago my dad died. He had struggled with chronic illness for ten years, and despite all the doctor’s visits, weeks on life support, and prayers for healing; his life came to a close on a Wednesday afternoon in a hospice, in a town in Northern BC.
The events of the days before and the days after his death are all blurred and a bit jumbled in my head, but I remember the oranges, yellows, and violets of the sunsets as they filled his room and the warm embrace of the friends who gathered by his bedside to usher him into eternity. I can still hear the rhythmic sounds of the oxygen machine, sustaining his last breaths. These were painful days. We made phone calls and had family meetings, bracing for the storm that was about to fall on the members of my family who were about to be left behind.
And yet, as painful as the days were, there were small, but palpable bursts of joy. We read scripture, shared stories, laughed until we cried, and sang hymns. We were caught in the riptide of joy in the face of sadness and pain.
Joy became my anthem and my act of rebellion to fight off the waves of hopelessness that were beating against me and my family.
In the weeks and months after my dad’s death life was overwhelming. There was a sort of reshuffling of roles as we adapted to a life without my dad. As we packed up his expansive collection of neckties, his beloved books, and his anthology of classical music, we became well acquainted with the tension of grief over losing a future with my dad, and experiencing joy because we had been a family who had known laughter and the delight of each other’s company.
As I watched my dad decline in the years before his death, I never expected joy to show up. I couldn’t see a way in which joy would worm its way into some of the darkest days I have ever experienced, but it did and joy became my anthem and my act of rebellion to fight off the waves of hopelessness that were beating against me and my family.
Sometimes we don’t like joy, it requires too much vulnerability. It opens us up to the criticism of others when we dare to smile and open our hearts in the midst of seasons of darkness. It is too hard to say life is difficult and unfair and to acknowledge the beauty of a sunset, or the wonder found in the sight of mountains. But we need to rebel against the forces that would cause us to be quiet. Scripture tells us the “Joy of the Lord” will be our strength, it will be His joy that carries us through the dark night, from mourning to dancing.
Modern psychology tells us we cannot selectively numb emotions. In order to feel one emotion, we must feel them all. In other words, in order to experience joy, we must experience grief. I might even go out on a limb and hypothesize that the deeper we engage with one emotion the deeper we engage with all of them. The deeper my experience with grief the brighter the pops and colours of joy appeared. These bursts of joy became my strength and often carried me through the fog of this new chapter in my life.
Joy can be a hard thing to cultivate. We will all walk through deep valleys of loss and pain, sometimes these valleys will seem endless. There will be days when we will feel as though we are covered with the stench and marks of death. But even in those days, joy will eventually appear. Joy will appear because it is a fruit of the Spirit. It is a marker of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One of God’s gifts to us. His joy will set us apart from a mourning world who mourns with no hope.
Joy is the strength that reminds my family to gather around the dinner table, despite my dad’s absence. It is the strength that helps me carry on in the face of a new fatherless chapter. It is the butterflies in my chest when we recite the Creed every Sunday and declare that God is for us, has saved us, and will reunite us.