Sunday in the Park
I am reminded this morning of a quote that is often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” While it cannot be verified that Saint Francis was the one who actually uttered those words first, it seems plausible to me that the patron saint of animals, birds and the environment would have made exactly such a statement. When surrounded by such beauty one does not need words to understand the creation story or that passage in Luke’s gospel that begins, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” In the presence of blue sky and the green grass and the song bird, few, if any words are necessary to speak of God’s goodness.
I have been thinking a lot lately about joy. There is so much suffering and pain and brokenness confronting us in our world that it is easy to overlook any sense of joy that we might encounter. As I have reflected on the concept of joy, I have realized how very little we speak of it, especially in the church. Once a year, on the third Sunday in Advent, we light the candle of joy and say some words in a litany about it. And of course, Christmas wouldn’t be the same if at some point we didn’t sing Joy to the World. And we do, every Sunday print in our worship guide as a part of the prayer section: Joys and Concerns of the Congregation. But most Sunday’s our concern list far outweighs our joy list. In a sense we seem almost timid to share our joys with one another.
Have you ever tried to define joy? As the lectionary group can attest to, it’s not easy to do. Any attempt falls short of describing that moment when joy entered one’s heart. At best, our attempts to define joy are partial, incomplete and lacking. And yet, I would imagine that all of us have, at some point in our lives, felt what we would consider to be real joy. I know I have and still I feel a sense of incompetence to try and define it or talk about it.
But I raise it today because I fully believe that joy is to be a part of a life of faith. Galatians 5:22 reads: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” I love that ending. There is no law against joy. In the church we talk openly about love, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and even a bit about self-control. But I’m realizing that the word joy is fairly absent with a few exceptions that I have already named.
So how does a preacher preach on joy? She doesn’t. She simply asks her congregation to share with one another their experiences of when they felt a sense of joy. Find a partner and each of you share a story or a place in life where you find joy. And after you do that, take a moment to write on your piece of ribbon, where you experience joy.
Joy is happiness, but it’s more than happiness. Peace and contentment are a part of joy. But joy it seems goes even deeper. Or as someone said, “joy is peace and contentment turned up in volume.” It is fulfillment after great efforts. It is suddenly realizing that I feel hopeful. As Suzanne Newton said, “It is a severe matter.” It is that feeling you have after you’ve come through difficulties. It is the presence of intense love. It comes and it goes. It is the fulfillment of a 15-year dream deferred. It is watching Robert McMillian celebrate his 90th birthday. It is seeing, as I saw yesterday, a dog hanging his head out of the car window and joyfully biting at the air. It is Sunday in the Park. It is those moments when in the midst of sorrow and sadness we feel in our souls a sustaining life force.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book about his conversion from atheism to theism and from theism to Christianity. The book, Surprised by Joy, describes the events surrounding his accidental discovery of and consequent search for the phenomenon he labeled “Joy.” The simple title he chose to describe his religious and spiritual experience is a profound invitation to all of us seeking a life of faith. It is the invitation to be surprised by joy.
And so I say to each of us: Preach joy, and if necessary, use words. For there is no law against joy!