Joy

Many people who know me might not immediately associate ‘joy’ with one of my commonly displayed characteristics. I prefer my own description of myself as “optimistically cynical:” that I remain grounded in hope for the transformation my Christian faith proclaims yet also remaining grounded in the simple reality that humankind is broken and, without intervention, will decide to choose the option(s) in front of it that lead to more pain and suffering.

For Martin Luther, he talked about this tension in the theology of simul justus et peccator – simultaneously saint and sinner, being freed in the grace of Jesus Christ while remaining disposed to sin. John Calvin focused on the matter in the theology of total depravity – that regardless of outward actions, there remains an inward distortion within human beings toward the sinful, broken nature that is inherent to humanity. Looking beyond the Christian tradition, the Buddha describes human life as “suffering.”

I’m not exactly surrounded by happy, cheery, positive people in this area.

Perhaps that is what makes joy so delicious, so memorable, so pleasing.

It’s like an emotive high, the equivalent of empty calories in one’s favorite sweet treat. (Jelly donuts, anyone?)

“Joy is the rarest and most infrequent thing in the world. We already have enough fanatical seriousness, enthusiasm, and humorless zeal in the world. But joy? This shows us that the perception of the living God is rare. When we have found God our Saviour – or when he has found us – we will rejoice in him.” – Karl Barth

20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, one of the preeminent Christian theologians and intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church movement – the group that resisted Hitler’s Third Reich – knows a thing or two about this rare, infrequent joy.

I chose the quote above as the focusing text because it changes my thinking of the purpose of the Christian life.

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question in Mark, about the first commandment, with the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” He tacks on the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and then proclaims that, “there is no other commandment greater than these.”

I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be comforting there, but when I read it, I just see a lot of work.

Don’t get me wrong – that work is good, important, sacred work. Hard work. Beautiful work.

But maybe it’s just my personality (an ENTJ on the Myers-Briggs, in case you were wondering – and you probably weren’t) to immediately attempt to build a strategy out of instruction. Maybe I’m among the few who read the commands to love and immediately feel a sense of dread and obligation.

And a bit of cynicism, let’s be honest.

Of course, I am inspired by the idea that the work can be joyful – nay, that it ought be joy-filled.

Someone once asked me what the point of doing something good for someone else was. I was confused by the question.

“Well, isn’t the point just that you feel good about doing it? Isn’t that selfish?”

I still remain confused, no more by the question or answer, but because of its simplicity and arrogance.

Another quote commonly attributed to Barth is, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” I think of this when I am faced with the joyful response of someone who has received a true and precious gift.

Once, during a summer leading service trips with the teenagers in the youth groups at the church I served, we were working on a home in need of major repairs in a regional urban hub in central California.

Well, actually, major repairs doesn’t quite describe the situation. Even though our project for this homeowner was to replace stairs on a deck with a ramp for physical accessibility purposes, I worried all through the week that the roof was going to collapse into the home. There were points along the walls where one could easily look inside between gaps in the siding and obvious lack of interior finishing.

What’s the point, I would ask myself. This is sisyphean.

At midweek, the homeowner came outside to offer us ice water under the hot, hot sun of the midsummer’s day. The homeowner asked where we were all from, and we responded with our towns – which, from our workgroup, ranged from 100-500 miles away.

The homeowner paused, looked off into the distance. We were all silent and starting to look at each other with that question, “Uh, now what?”

Looking back at us with tears streaming down, the homeowner said, “Just a moment, I’ll be right back” and went inside. After a brief pause, the homeowner came back outside with a small, store-bought birthday cake.

“This is supposed to be for my grandson later today, but we just have to have a party right here, right now,” they said. “I can’t believe that you all would come so far just to build a ramp on the side of my falling-down house.”

“I’m just so amazed at what God can do! I don’t know how to thank you, but do you all like cake? Let’s eat this cake.”

I think of that moment still now, all these years later, to remind myself: joy doesn’t always show itself in a hyperactive, expressive demonstration of energy. It isn’t always a monumental display against a glorious backdrop. It isn’t always a triumphant display up the Rocky Steps.

Sometimes it’s cake, on a dusty porch, near what otherwise could be seen as an example of Sisyphus’ stone, with an individual who is overwhelmed at your mere presence and simple work and has nothing else to offer but water and cake.

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Daniel Ross-Jones

Rev. Daniel Ross-Jones is a United Church of Christ pastor and nonprofit organizational leadership professional based in Silicon Valley.

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