I have been thinking a lot lately about the place of joy in ministry.
A couple years ago, at a daytime homeless shelter in Tacoma, I knew a man by the name of Dakota. Despite the rather bleak reality of homelessness, Dakota was usually very happy and bright and joyful. He would come up to me, slap me on the back, and say something like: “How ya doin’, brotha?” And I would answer, and if I answered positively, he would say, “Good, good!” in a way that really communicated that he was happy for me. If I was worried about some developing situation in the shelter or if we in the shelter had been dealt bad news that day, he would respond with something like: “It’ll get better, brotha…it’ll get better.” And he actually believed that, despite whatever buffet of “facts” such-and-such a source had placed at our feet.
I don’t want to hold up the model of the person who is in dire straits and retains a joyful attitude as though to say that all people in dire straits should do the same. I think that would be wrong and not just a bit inhumane, but I do want to say that when someone who has been handed a hard card has been genuinely given the grace or whatever you want to call it to be able to still have a perspective on joy in the midst of badness then that person is amazing.
Three days ago I was attempting to summit one of the higher mountains in my region of the United States. When I reached the summit, I was greet by about a dozen teenage boys rough-housing with one another on top of the mountain. I couldn’t tell if they had any supervision, and, although I suspect that they have grown up around these mountains for much of their lives and they may know what they are doing, it scared me – quite a bit. The last thing I wanted to witness was a boy falling off of a mountain or down a mountain or anything of that nature. I would certainly help – but witness it? – I would rather not. So, after a time, I hurried my way off of the summit, and in my hurry, I managed to twist my knee hard, to roll it a direction that it wasn’t supposed to go. It was going to start locking up on me. At that time, a friendly woman asked me what the matter was. I told her, and she expressed some concern, knowing that there wasn’t anything that anyone could really do about it – I’d have to hike for three hours to the trailhead with a knee that was locking up. She expressed some more concern, and I wanted to somehow just dispel the worry around it. Dakota somehow came to mind, and I said, “Even in pain, there’s joy somewhere. That’s life.” And she just looked at me and smiled. Of course, it was at that moment that nothing to say came to mind, so I shrugged and dragged my increasingly burdensome leg along the ledges and she moved ahead and out of sight. Eventually the unaccompanied but well-seasoned group of teenagers passed me. And it was evident that all was well.
In the Gospels, fear itself is so often the enemy. Fear drives people to do the cruelest and dumbest things. It drove Herod to become a murdering maniac. It drives the Pharisees to persecute Jesus, kind and gentle, meek and mild. It drives wars and rumors of wars. It drives people off of mountaintop experiences into knee-twisted pain. And, to say the very least, all of that is very sad and heartbreaking. But fear never really gets the last word. Joy is the trump card in this life. Herod, a king in this world, passes away while the king of this world, Jesus, lives on forever, moving our hearts and informing our minds. The Pharisees succeeded in removing Jesus with the cross, but Jesus came back, and comes back again and again, anytime two or three are gathered to do his will in his name. The evils of this world are very serious, yes, but somehow (grace perhaps?) people do pull through and changes of heart and mind are always possible. And even this hapless hiker can find hope and consolation by having a conversation with one of God’s beloved children, in this case another hiker.
There’s something to be said about having joy, about the spiritual discipline of celebration. Life isn’t all death and decay. Life is the Light in the World. That’s joyful news.