Deep Joy and Deep Trouble

[This post is part of a conversation on the new book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by James Martin, SJ, at the Patheos Book Club.]

This is the day that God has made;

Let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

 

Rejoice in God always; again I will say rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)

Each day as I begin my sunrise walk, I repeat the words of the Psalmist: “This is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.”  Then, as I continue my affirmation, I ask, “What adventure or surprise will come my way today?  Let me be aware and open to it.”  There are lots of ways to begin the day, but I have found that this affirmation awakens me to possibilities and positive responses to the day’s events.  It sets the day in motion as an opportunity for adventure, growth, and creativity regardless of the burdens I am facing at the time.

James Martin’s Between Heaven and Earth takes a similar path to everyday living.  Joy and humor enable us to experience life with a sense of graceful acceptance and letting go.  These oft-neglected spiritual virtues liberate us from superficial self-concern and remind us that we are not the center of the universe – the events of our lives are important, but not all-important; in fact, some of our preoccupations are down-right humorous when we see them from a different perspective!  A little humor frees us from perfectionism and the tyranny of schedules and “urgent” events.  A sense of humor opens us to our own holiness – after all, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly!

Now, I must admit that experiencing deep and authentic joy is a challenge for most of us.  It might have been for the Psalmist and the apostle Paul as well.   After all, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from some form of house arrest or imprisonment.  His future was uncertain.  He didn’t know when or if he would be released.  He didn’t know if he would ever see this beloved community again.  There is nothing superficial about deep joy.  It comes in the midst of a hard-fought, often difficult life.  It sustains us when our plans have been dashed into pieces and we are trying to create something new when the old ways have failed us.

I know this first-hand.  In the past year, I have witnessed the death of my brother and one of my closest life-long friends of over forty years.  My best friend is experiencing a recurrence of life-threatening cancer.  A number of other friends are facing incurable cancers. Like most boomers, I have discovered mortality first hand, and it is painful.  In the course of the past year, I transitioned from a position that brought me great joy and success into a time of professional wilderness in which there are many pathways but no certainty or security.  More than once, I have struggled with feelings of failure and discouragement.  I often feel disheartened as I ponder my professional future. Yet, I have been sustained by spiritual practices that have revived my spirit and opened me to new possibilities.  Like the Philippians, I have discovered deep joy amid deep trouble.  I have found humor in my failures and have discovered that the “ones that got away” might not have been so good after all.  I have found a blessing in a schedule that allows me to give talks and retreats all over North America, write every day, and spend time with my toddler grandson nearly every week.  This has been a joy beyond calculation.  I am grateful for this unexpected and unchosen respite in my professional life, especially when I play with words and laugh and learn with my grandson.

In the Philippians, Paul gives us some practices of joy, aimed at refreshing our spirits and giving hope to the marginalized and fragile Philippian house church:

Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Joy comes as a grace; but embracing joy involves intentionality.  It involves a lifestyle of prayer, gratitude, gentleness, blessing, and affirmative thinking.  It involves cultivating a perspective that joins letting go and acceptance with intentionality and justice-seeking.  It involves opening to God everywhere, seeing the big picture, and yet discovering divinity in the details of life.

It involves nurturing positive self-talk and the use of affirmations that feed our spirits with healthy soul food rather than worry, fear, or greed.  “Think about these things….” Paul counsels, and then later in chapter four, Paul presents us with two joy-filled and life-changing affirmations:

I can do all things with Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to God’s riches

in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)

Confident in God’s working in our lives, we can be light-hearted, despite the deep trouble of life.  We can sing and pray despite life’s limitations.  This is no denial of life’s suffering but placing it in the context of God’s unceasing care and presentation of pathways toward growth and creativity.  Joyfully in touch with a deeper perspective, we will discover that is “well with our souls” in every season of life.  (For more on Philippians, see my Philippians: An Interactive Study, Energion Books.)

I want to conclude with a hymn that got me through a time of professional crisis over a decade ago.  This hymn still gives me hope and lightness of spirit in the context of personal and professional setbacks.

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul–

How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Saviour liveth;

What tho’ the darkness gather round?

Songs in the night he giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;

I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smooths,

Since first I learned to love it;

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

A fountain ever springing;

All things are mine since I am his–

How can I keep from singing?

The following words were added by Doris Plenn in 1950, and were popularized by Pete Seegar in response to the excessive governmental intrusions of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

 

Life is difficult, but as we open to its wonders and beauty, we will rejoice, laugh often, and share good news with others.

 

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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