Where Is the Joy?

by Martin Thielen

March 1, 2022

“Rejoice Always.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16

“We must risk delight.”
Jack Gilbert

Years ago, during a time of brutal professional and personal struggle, a concerned colleague asked me, “Where is the joy?” After two years of living through a pandemic, that seems an appropriate question to ask today. Which reminds me of a story.

Let’s Kill It

A little boy ran into his house one afternoon in near hysteria. He announced to his mom that his pet turtle had rolled over and died. He was inconsolable. When his father came home, he gathered up the tearful boy in his arms. As they sat in front of the dead turtle, the father suggested they could have a funeral for the turtle. Everyone could wear black, there would be a processional, and they could read from the Bible—just like a real funeral. Not only that, the father added, they could bury the turtle in the little tin box they kept the candy in. At this point the boy stopped crying and listened intently. “Then,” chimed in the mother, “we can have a party afterwards. Wouldn’t that be nice?” The boy smiled.

Encouraged, the father went on, “Yes, and we’ll have your friends over for the funeral, and we can even have ice cream at the party after the funeral.” By now the boy was grinning from ear to ear. But then, suddenly, to the surprise of everyone, the turtle rolled back on his legs and began slowly moving away. The boy looked startled and then exclaimed, “Oh, daddy, let’s kill it.”

One could make a strong case that people of faith enjoy funerals more than weddings. We love to talk about pain, suffering, trials, sacrifice, grief, and death. And that’s certainly not all bad. It’s imperative that we take suffering seriously, especially after two years of living through a pandemic. But I’ve been wondering lately: Where is the joy?

Always Lent and Never Easter

A few weeks ago, before it left Netflix, I watched an old film called Chocolat. It’s a delightful story about a small French village during the year 1959. The prevailing religious spirit of the town could be described as joyless Christianity where it’s always Lent and never Easter. The local parish promotes a repressive spirit of self-denial, abstinence from worldly pleasures, suspicion of outsiders, and puritanical rigidity. Then a mysterious woman shows up and opens a chocolate shop. Unlike the local residents, she exudes life, love, color, laughter, sensuality, joy, beauty, pleasure, and grace. Eventually, after many obstacles, her joyful spirit transforms the town.

The movie comes to a climax on Easter Sunday. Father Pere Henri, the new young priest in the village, stands before his congregation and delivers his brief homily:

Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord’s divine transformation? Not really, no. I don’t want to talk about his divinity. I’d rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life here on earth. His kindness, his tolerance. Listen, here’s what I think. I think that we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.

The voice-over narrator says, “It was certainly not the most fiery sermon Pere Henri would ever preach, nor the most eloquent. But the parishioners felt a new sensation that day, a lightening of the spirit.” In the final scene of the movie, during a community-wide Easter celebration, the camera shifts to the statue (of the village’s founder) at the center of town, right next to the church. The lens focuses on his face. His harsh frown magically transforms into a smile.

I think it’s time for believers to smile again. I’m not talking about some kind of Pollyanna faith that ignores suffering. But I am advocating a faith that embraces joy, pleasure, laughter, beauty, and gratitude—even in the midst of painful challenges.

A Lesson in Joy from a Disabled Storyteller

Years ago, I listened to a disabled storyteller named Kevin Kling speak at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Kevin was born with a disabled arm. Then, as an adult, he suffered a horrific motorcycle accident that disfigured his face and destroyed his good arm. Several months later, after multiple surgeries, Kevin felt discouraged and depressed. One of his many complications is that he had no taste at all. As a result, he barely ate and was becoming malnourished.

Then one day Kevin’s girlfriend offered him a slice of her apple. He declined but she persisted. He finally took a bite, and for the first time in months, he could taste again. As he savored the sweet and sour juices of the apple, he began to cry uncontrollably. Not tears of sadness but tears of joy. At that moment, for the first time since his awful accident, he felt grateful to be alive. He spontaneously began to pray, “Thank you, God, that I am still alive! Thank you that I can taste, feel, love, laugh, and cry. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” It was a turning point in Kevin’s recovery. To this day, in spite of serious disabilities, Kevin rejects bitterness. Instead, he continues to embrace joy and gratitude for life, love, laughter, taste, music, friends, and beauty.

Jesus at the Party

We see this spirit of joy in the life of Jesus. For example, Jesus loved to go to parties. He especially enjoyed festivals and weddings, which abound in food, laughter, music, and dancing. In fact, Jesus’s first miracle was done at a wedding in the town of Cana, when he changed water into wine. Unfortunately, since then, many of his followers have been working nonstop to change joyful wine back into joyless water.

A children’s Sunday school teacher once asked her children, “What is your favorite Bible story?” A six-year-old girl said her favorite was the story of Jesus changing water into wine at the marriage feast in Cana. “What did you learn from the story?” the teacher inquired. The child answered: “When you have a wedding, it’s a good idea to have Jesus at your party.”

A New Addition to the Apostles’ Creed

In her recent article, “More than Pain,” Debie Thomas talks about the Apostles’ Creed. Every Sunday morning, she, along with millions of other believers around the world, affirms that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” She notes that this line of the creed is true and important. It’s significant that we belong to a God who understands suffering and enters our pain. But she adds, “Left unamplified, it can imply that Jesus came to earth only to suffer and die. Didn’t he also come to live? To embody life and life more abundant?” She then says, “I wish the creed included a few more lines. As in:

I believe in Jesus, who squealed with joy on Mary’s lap, climbed trees with his preschool classmates, and learned to swim when he was five years old. I believe in Jesus, who whittled wooden sparrows in his father’s workshop, played pranks on his younger siblings, and laughed with his friends until tears coursed down his cheeks. I believe in Jesus, who hiked mountains, camped out on beaches, read poetry, considered the lilies, gazed at the stars, cherished fresh bread, savored good wine, experienced crushes, and fell in love. I believe in Jesus, who told the best stories. I believe in Jesus, who played hide-and-seek with children. I believe in Jesus, who sang around campfires. I believe in Jesus who lived.  (“More than Pain,” The Christian Century, February 9, 2022, p. 35)

That’s a creed I would enjoy reciting. I’m so weary of Christian fundamentalists who preach a gospel of anger, fear, and chronic negativity. I’m also weary of Christian liberals who, in their righteous woke indignation, have lost their sense of humor. And I’m especially weary of my own mainline tribe’s endless narrative of decline, schism, and impending doom. We have a huge deficit of joy these days. We need to reclaim it.

Can a Lady Who Dances Go to Heaven?

You may have heard of John Hyde, an early missionary to India. John was known for his serious, stern, and sober approach to life. One day a woman asked him, “Reverend Hyde, do you think a lady who dances can go to heaven?” A big smile broke out across his face. He replied, “I do not see how a lady can go to heaven unless she dances.”

Which reminds me of my favorite hymn, “Lord of the Dance” (see below), which was adapted from the nineteenth-century Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” But long before Sydney Carter wrote the lyrics back in 1963, David said, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11 NRSV).

May that be true in your life, and in mine. Amen.


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