Advent Week 3: Joy by Lisa Crow
During the third week of Advent, we light the pink candle for Joy as well as the purple Hope and Faith candles. (This is also the week that Catholic celebrations allow for dessert with dinner as we throw off the mourning of past weeks and celebrate fully. I just absolutely love that celebration means many desserts). We remember this week the joy that was declared and experienced at the birth of Jesus.
As a child, I always found it funny that we would spend time trying to build joy. That seemed to be the topic of many conversations in the church; how to have joy. For me, the anticipation of time with family, presents, Christmas lights, and the absolute excitement of reading the story of Jesus’ birth left me wondering how anyone could feel anything but living joy the entire season. All of that changed for me the year my aunt died. One day she seemed ok and the next she was in the ICU struggling to breathe and live. We waited, and prayed, and hoped for six weeks before she went to be with Jesus. That year, as we scraped together the trappings of Christmas, every little thing reminding us of the bitter loss. I finally understood why Christmas can be such a hard time for people; why everything can seem so vapid and silly. Although I knew that I should cultivate joy because there is joy in Jesus, my heart just wouldn’t follow. I suddenly understood that I needed to find joy, but I had no clue how. All of the things that had once brought me such happiness and excitement began to sting and bring deep sorrow. The lights were too bright, the laughter was jarring, the presents seemed silly, and even reading the story of Jesus’ birth left me grieving for Mary and the loss that was to come. Everyone said the first year after a loss is the hardest, so we struggled through. That year, due to her grief, my grandmother's dementia accelerated and she eventually needed daily help. We watched my grandmother grapple with the news of her daughter’s death as if it was fresh all year. The following Christmas was harder still. My grandmother, now deeper into dementia, struggled repeatedly with the fact that my aunt was not coming. This was followed by her embarrassment and sorrow when she came back to herself. My heart was in pieces. Even now, thinking of this repeated cycle, steals my breath. But then, something strange happened. As we acknowledged our grief and hers, as we shared it, as it rose up like a tangible beast, so too did the joy. Our shared stories, our sorrow, our laughter, and our relief that none of us were trying to forget became a buoy in the uncertain water of grief. We were in it together, side by side. I praise God that the people in my family were there to teach me something amazing. We can have joy in our grief and pain. Joy is not happiness, and we must not confuse it for lesser emotions. Joy is worship. Joy is produced when we are able to be our true selves and experience acceptance. This is why joy is only found in God, because He is the only one who knows us completely and still draws near. It is a characteristic that He has taught to his children, to accept and to be present in people’s lives.
So how do we cultivate joy? I think the first step is to stop thinking of cultivating joy as something that is only done personally. Joy is a communal experience. Joy is something that we teach, and share, and give back. I know that, with the pandemic, it is hard to be together physically, but there are a plethora of ways we can share and be together without sharing the same air. So, make that Zoom or phone call. Write that note, send that gift, bake those cookies, reach out to one another. Seek the things that bring you to a place of joy and worship, and then invite others to enjoy them with you. Teach each other joy and revel in your labor. Think creatively. Worship is not always easy. It often takes intense labor. But, let me encourage you to put both hands to the plow and put your back into it. Fight for joy, because it is a privilege and a gift to Gods people. And, it’s something that God has called us to and equipped us for. I certainly need you to teach me about your joy, and I think you need me too. While I have experienced happiness, thrill, excitement, interest and fun, I know that joy is something deeper for me. For me, joy is brought about in the place of belonging and sharing. Joy brings comfort and knowing that what we are living the way God intended. Joy is obedience, and openness and togetherness.
When my aunt was dying, she had lost her voice because she had to be intubated for so long. It was difficult to figure out what she was trying to communicate when she tried to mouth words. Her last day on earth was wracked with unending pain. But, through the pain, she asked me to sing. She said that, when we sang together, it helped ease the pain. So we sang for hours! Every time she was in pain, she would begin to sing. I would scramble to figure out what song she was singing and then join in. One of her favorite songs was “10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman. In fact, it was the last song we ever sang together. She fell back to sleep before we got to the last verse. That last verse says, “And on that day when my strength is failing, the end draws near and my time has come, still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore. Bless the Lord oh my soul, oh my soul worship His holy name. Sing like never before oh my soul, worship His holy name.” I couldn’t sing it, I was lost in my grief and it was too much. At that moment, I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder. He had kept the family and the nurses out of the room until we were done. Weeks later, looking down the barrel of a hard Christmas, the worship team started singing “10,000 Reasons,” and I didn’t think I would be able get the words out. How could I worship in that moment? That’s when the same hand landed on my shoulder. With my dad’s hand on my shoulder, we sang together. And, it was in that moment, that I realized an important truth. Joy is not the absence of sorrow. Joy is worship and can exist alongside every other emotion. Joy is not happiness or excitement, it is so much deeper. Joy is being known, and being together, and worshiping God deeply in it all. But I had to choose joy in that moment. I had to make my voice work and I tell my soul to sing. It started slowly and felt stilted; my soul was rusty. But I had an escort! With my dad’s hand on my shoulder, my husband’s hand in mine, and the voices of my church lifted high, I was able to walk into the throne room with them and find joy in my soul.
The song “10,000 Reasons” was modeled after Psalm 103. In that Psalm, David says “Bless the Lord oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” David is not just blessing the Lord, he is instructing his soul (and ours) how to bless the Lord. He follows the first verse by speaking of God’s great works and His eternal nature. He instructs the angels and the people to bless the Lord and then, finally, instructs himself one more time to join in. Worship does not always spring up naturally in us. It sometimes needs to be built it in our hearts. In fact, we often we need others to spur along the process in us. We do this in a way that the Psalmist instructs us; we remember God’s great works, we remember His holy nature, and we join in with all of creation (including our brothers and sisters) to worship. May your voice in worship spur on my joy and may mine do likewise.
So, as we think about cultivating joy this year, let’s direct our hearts towards God and the celebration of Him coming. But let’s not do it alone! Joy can (and should) be experienced individually with God. But, we can also experience joy when we live in unity with one another. And I firmly believe that we need each other to open up the store rooms of our hearts to let joy sweep in and clear the cobwebs that sin, death and sorrow have built. Joy does not steal our sorrow, but it changes it. Joy has the power to change our sorrow into something powerful worship of God. It has the power to cultivate the stark realization that God knows our pain and that He does not turn away. He opens His arms and brings his people near to lean into that sorrow and give it a voice. This means that joy will not always look like laughter; although it can. It will not always look like exuberance; although it can. Sometimes joy is in the tears, and in the sorrow and in the presence of one another. That hand on my shoulder, the tissue pressed into my hand, the quiet understanding, the needed hug. God has given us hands and feet and voices to care for and cultivate joy with one another. Let’s pursue that together!
Scripture reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Thing Remembered: The joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus
When you hear the word joy, what do you think of?
What are some things that give you joy?
Did you hear the word joy in the songs?
What’s the news that is great joy for all people?
Why would Jesus’ birth be news of great joy?
Do you feel joy?
What steals your joy?
How can we view the things that steal our joy in light of the birth of Christ?
Joy to the World
Angels We Have Heard on High
Children’s craft: Fill clear plain ornaments with fake snow (styrofoam, glitter, cotton balls) paint (with stencil) or write “JOY” on the front in red marker or red paint. Have the children write Luke 2:10&11 on a strip of paper and slip that into the ornament with the snow.
Adult craft: Print the sheet music to your favorite hymn (or worship song) and paste it to a plain wooden ornament. Paint or glue a small wreath to the front. Write the word JOY in the middle of the wreath.
Closing Prayer: O, Lord we beg thee, incline thy ear to our prayers and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of thy visitation. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen