Finding joy

“It is hard to talk about joy. … When my leg hurts I can talk about it. I have a lot of words to describe how much it hurts. When it doesn’t hurt I don’t think about it. When I am well I don’t talk about it. My language is limited. My language is much more elaborate for anxiety than for joy.” – Henri Nouwen, “Following Jesus”

As I sat in my office praying this morning, there were birds singing in the trees outside of my window. I love watching birds, though I wouldn’t call myself a birdwatcher. I’m fascinated by them because they are such an exuberant demonstration of life busting out everywhere.

The birds outside are constantly active, sometimes flying from branch to branch in search of tasty insects, sometimes sitting still while singing to other birds of their kind, sometimes darting swiftly up into the sky and disappearing from sight.

They seem unconcerned about wars and pandemics and paying bills and high gas prices. Their only concern is the shadow of a hawk passing overhead, at which point they all erupt in warnings to each other until the threat passes. Then it’s back to eating and singing and flying.

Have you ever held a bird in your hands? Most of them are very small and ridiculously vulnerable, yet, they thrive in God’s garden. I project onto them the feelings that I think Adam and Eve must’ve had when they first walked Eden together. Wonder. Peace. Contentment. And covering everything, joy.

When Jesus was speaking to his disciples about how much God loves them, he added:

“I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” – John 15:11

The Scriptures promise us joy, but like Henri Nouwen, I find myself focusing more often on pain and trouble. My neck is hurting this morning, my left arm is sore from a vaccination shot, I have concerns about friends and family members who are immersed in various difficult problems, and sometimes all those troubles are overwhelming, both for the people who I see suffering and for me as I witness and sometimes participate in their struggles.

I think I’ve developed a habit of ruminating on the troubles around me to the exclusion of the joy that is also around me. I think I’ve become so focused on my own troubles that I’ve ignored the less obvious signs of joy in the world, as well as the reasons for joy in my own life.

I’m not suggesting that we pretend that troubles aren’t surrounding us. They are. I’m not suggesting that we pretend that pain and suffering aren’t much of a big deal. It is.

What I’m suggesting, and what I think God wants from us as a response to trouble, is to look for joy and allow God’s joy permission to seep into the cracks and fissures of our hearts. We need to somehow acknowledge that in the midst of great hardship there is still love, human kindness, brotherly decency, hope, and the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit who wraps us in God’s love.

But where hurt and trouble just seem to appear without warning, it might be that we have to search for joy. I don’t think we have to search very hard to find it; God has filled our world with sources of joy. But perhaps the trick is to be open to finding it. Open to receiving it. Perhaps joy comes when I’m not so strongly locked up by hardship or worry that I’m willing to allow my heart to be touched by the Holy Spirit, who has filled the earth with God’s joy.

Photo credit: Stan Wojick

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