If you had to name someone in your life who embodies joy, who would it be? For me, it was one of my mentors. He seemed to live almost constantly with a deep, deep joy. You could hear it in his bold laughter, see it in his easily smiling eyes, and notice it creep into his voice as he was encouraging whoever happened to be nearby. Joy, for David, was a way of life.
But this way of life didn't just happen to him. He cultivated it. He practiced it. He diligently maintained daily and weekly rituals that rooted him his own belovedness in the eyes of God.
Willie James Jennings, a theology professor at Yale, says, "Joy...is a work that can become a state that can become a way of life."
What does it mean for joy to be a work? Most of us think of joy simply as an emotion, or even better, at its apex, a way of life. However, most people who experience joy as a way of life first cultivate it as a work. In fact, one of the most popular ways to use the word "joy" in the New Testament of the Christian scriptures is as a command: Rejoice! There's a deep wisdom here: dedicating ourselves to practices of celebration, gratitude, and rejoicing actually transforms us into joyful people over time.
In a remarkable (seemingly impossible!) command to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul says, "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." To someone who doesn't know Paul, this could sound like pie in the sky thinking, turning a blind eye to the suffering of life, and glibly saying "life is great!" no matter what's actually going on. But, in fact, it's quite the opposite of burying your head in the sand. "Rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances" means looking the forces of despair square in the face and singing.
Jennings says that the work of Joy is an act of resistance against all the forces of despair: violence, war, debt, death...all of the things that can cause us to think life in this world is not worth living. Cultivating joy is an act of resistance to any person, event, or system that would have us believe that death has the final word on our lives. That's what this season of Easter is all about.
Do you have practices that could cultivate this joyful resistance? Here are some ideas for you to riff on:
- We have stories of despair posted all over our feeds, in the news, and peppering our conversations. Perhaps as a practice of resistance, you could set a reminder on your phone for 8am, 12pm and 6pm to consciously stop and celebrate one thing from the previous 24 hours.
- Maybe, in a world that tells you you're alone and solely responsible for your own flourishing, you could pursue a friendship or a mentorship with someone you know who oozes joy out of every spiritual pore.
- Maybe you need to resist the breakneck pace of our economy that would have you believe you are not a human but rather a means of production. Perhaps you could schedule time to take a 20 minute walk around one square block. I'll bet, going that slow, you'll notice poppies, or people, or murals that bring you joy.
My prayer for you is that the work of joy in these practices of resistance become a state, which, in turn, become your way of life.