My current series of messages is about outcomes of a personal nature.
Outcomes reflect the changes in our thinking expressed by the changes in our behavior. Many of us have taken the need for clean air, clean water and a reduced reliance on landfills to alter our behavior about recycling. What we heard in the past about these activities being beneficial to the earth, sky and future generations altered our thinking and how we behave. Recycling is an outcome of the environmentalists advocacy.
When I write about outcomes of a personal nature, however, my focus is on character, my own. If we are to truly have an impact in this world, if only concerning our immediate family, friends and colleagues, then I believe wholeheartedly that the example we preach must be practiced and that very openly so that others can hold us accountable for what we say and do.
With this in mind I am following a list of what I term to be outcomes, which I have borrowed from a gifted writer-theologian we know as the Apostle Paul. He considered nine attributes to be essential for the spirit-filled life, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No one would likely object to the items on this list being representative of other people’s behavior. The challenge is to make them our own.
Last week I offered my thoughts on what we mean by love, the kind which is unconditional, self-sacrificing and life-giving. This week the topic is joy.
Joy is one of those exquisite words which defy our best efforts at precision definition. We simply know it when we feel it.
The Greek word the Apostle Paul used in his letter to his spiritual children living in what is now modern day Turkey was chara. It is related to the word we translate as grace (charis) and both have a common root meaning cheerful or calmly happy. This should tip us off that joy is not synonymous with happiness, which has a tendency towards being rather expressive as in taking the form of exuberance. The Greeks used it in salutations, wishing someone a serene happiness. Our banal way of saying this is “Have a nice day.”
William Wordsworth began one of his more popular poems with the phrase “Surprised by joy”. He did not reveal what caused the surprise, only his impulse to turn and share it someone special, who – sadly – was not there. His brief moment of euphoria was offset by the realization that the one he wanted to share it with, his “heat’s best treasure” (his daughter) was dead. In the midst of Wordsworth’s actual grief, however, joy found him.
C.S. Lewis subsequently borrowed the phrase to use as the title of his memoir emphasizing his spiritual journey atheism to faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Lewis also wrote of grief (his mother’s death), a sense of isolation (being unloved by an emotionally distant father), and emptiness (an abandonment of a traditional concept of faith at the behest of an atheistic tutor). But in the midst of despair came a sensation Lewis called joy, which in turn prompted a search for a sustained experience that defied his best efforts until he found it residing in a permanent relationship with the Divine.
But does joy only come to us as a surprise? Paul’s letter would indicate otherwise.
Even with what little is revealed here as far as the backstory for both Wordsworth and Lewis, the perception of joy in the lives of these two men accompanies other sensitivities, namely the capacity to experience grief and a forlorn hope. The presence of this type of emotional pain indicates – to my way of thinking – a heart embracing what is beautiful and what is morally good. In the absence of such factors we become desensitized and incapable of knowing joy, only its painful counterpart.
Of course no one could have been more surprised by joy than the lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night just outside of Bethlehem. They experienced fright first, when confronted by an angelic specter, who counseled them “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy (chara) that will be for all people.” This occurred just prior to the sky being filled with an angelic fanfare from a spectral choir, who exuberantly proclaimed a more raucous message of peace and goodwill.
Maybe joy does resound in our presence once in a great while.