Jesus promised his disciples three things-that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.
The Gospel of Luke
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
-Jesus (see John 15:11)
From Acts 16:
They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
Singing in prison
Here’s a mystery: I’ve known people who from outward appearances have everything life could offer, all measures of success met, yet they seem unhappy. Often that unhappiness is contagious. I’ve known people smitten with major, multiple, coincident life challenges, modern-day Job’s, illustrations of the maxim that life is not fair. Yet they seem to navigate life with equanimity and hope. What’s up with that? Specifically, what leads people who are beset with trials to exude joy?
One of the best books I’ve read recently: The Book of Joy. It chronicles a week in which Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama hung out in Nepal. Wouldn’t you like an invite to that gathering? A journalist noted their exchanges. What comes through loud and clear is that these two spiritual giants enjoy each other’s company. They each have encountered suffering and persecution enough to make me wilt. Through it all, they exude joy. They seem to be having a blast.
I thought about that book when I read a favorite story from the Acts of the Apostles, a book we’re invited to read this Easter season (see assignments for this week below) The story, also included above, tells about Paul and Silas thrown in the slammer, victims of unjust political and religious persecution. Just imagine what a first century prison was like. And how do Paul and Silas handle their time? Luke records that they sing and praise God. The other prisoners listen to them. What was the secret to that kind of joy, which had nothing to do with circumstances?
I came up with these three observations about the roots of joy, based on this book, and based on observing folks I’ve known and admired who seem joyful amid difficulty.
Joy grows from a sense of gratitude. These two spiritual leaders say that gratitude allows us to savor life and recognize that much of our good fortune in life comes from others. They propose a gratitude practice by which at the end of the day, one thinks of three things from the day for which one is grateful, and then one writes about those three things in a journal. Worth a try.
Joy grows from a sense of acceptance. When the Dalai Lama was asked how he coped with decades of exile from beloved homeland, he spoke of acceptance. His practice comes from an ancient Indian teacher who said that when you experience some tragic situation, if there’s no way to overcome the tragedy, there is no use in worrying too much. If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? The journalist noted: This was not denial of pain and suffering but a shift in perspective. I note, with caution: Easier said than done. But I take seriously the witness of this spiritual leader who has been through the mill and found ways to speak of acceptance. It’s Serenity Prayer mindset.
Joy grows from a sense of hope. In a chapter on despair, Desmond Tutu notes all the good reasons to dispense with hope. He knew them well. He says that one must note positive things happening in the world, bearing a sense of proportion and wider perspective. He says that hope is quite different from optimism, which is superficial and liable to become pessimism when circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper. He says: “I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless…to choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that in time, the storm will pass.”
This week, think of someone in your life who exudes joy. It need not be exuberant or flashy. It might be quite quiet. If you have opportunity, ask that person where joy came from, Be your own journalist, crafting your own book of joy.
Then ask God for the gift of joy. St. Paul, often accused of crankiness, actually knew a lot about joy (Read his letter to the Philippians, written from prison, a letter in which every other word seems to be joy or rejoice.) In his letter to the Galatians, he describes joy as a gift of the spirit. Lord knows, our church, our world could use that gift. I could use more of it in my life. How about you?
Good Book Club readings this week:
- MONDAY, April 30: Acts 14:1-20.
- TUESDAY, May 1 Acts 14:21-28.
- WEDNESDAY, May 2 Acts 15:1-21.
- THURSDAY, May 3: Acts 15:22-35.
- FRIDAY, May 4: Acts 15:36-41.
- SATURDAY, May 5: Acts 16:1-15.
- SUNDAY, May 6: Acts 16:16-40.
(Take the Easter season to read the Acts of the Apostles, bit by bit each day. We’ll link the assignments for each day each week.)
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