I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
I’ve noticed something this September in my Sunday visitations, various gatherings with clergy and lay leaders throughout the diocese, one-on-one conversations, and the wondrous celebration of ordination and consecration of Bishop Paula Clark in the Diocese of Chicago–a palpable spirit of joy in our churches.
In some instances, the joy is exuberant, as was certainly the case in Chicago; in others, it is more subdued, but no less real. At times, the joy is a direct correlation of a happy event; at others, a welcome respite from grief or fatigue that remains, but no longer has the final word.
How to account for this joy, I find myself wondering. While it is not universal, there is a noticeable energy among us for which I give thanks.
For many, I suspect, the joy is the result of being together, and having the freedom to enjoy social events and simple human interactions that we once took for granted. Although Covid 19 is still present and causing many to suffer, we don’t have to live with the same levels of fear and extreme caution that defined our lives for nearly two years. Worshiping God with one another once again in our sacred spaces can bring us to tears.
Joy, we know, is not the same as optimism or cheerfulness. It goes deeper than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. It comes to us, often in unlikely times and places, giving us hope, even as we face real challenges and struggles. “Happiness,” wrote the late Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.”1
The Scriptures speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear, underscoring the fact that joy is a gift. They also describe what is surely the most costly joy of all, that we can experience on the other side of what the 23rd Psalm describes as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Jesus spoke of the way of the cross as the way of life. It is the joy of having made it through the hardest things, forever marked by them, but with our hope and love intact.
That’s what we saw on Bishop Paula Clark’s face during her consecration on September 17th–the joy of having come through the loneliest valley to the other side. She bears the marks of suffering, yet she is still Paula, only wiser now, clearer about what is most important, and without fear, for she knows that nothing can separate her, or anyone of us, from the love of God revealed to us in Jesus.
I have seen that same joy on many of your faces here in the Diocese of Washington; I’ve felt it in our midst and as we continue on the path God has set before us. And I say to you what I said to Bishop Paula and the Diocese of Chicago on Saturday: shield your joy.
Protect, cherish, and nurture joy in one another. Make space for it. Where it is lacking, pray for the gift to be given you, so that it might continue to be, or become once again, a defining characteristic of your ministry. For without it, the church is a dreary place, and life itself becomes a routine of daily obligations. Remember that Jesus came–he lived, died, and rose from the dead–so that our joy may be complete.
The presence of joy in Christian community is, I daresay, one of the most accurate indicators of vitality and of what is possible in its future–far more so than size, money in the bank, or programmatic sophistication. That joy is Jesus’ promise, and gift. Don’t miss out on the chance to experience and share it in your congregation.
13. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs, (HarperOne, 1993) 57-8.