The Gift of Joy – Br. Curtis Almquist
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your
gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not
worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and
supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made
known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in
Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 4-7
This morning I made a quick scan of the front section of The Boston Globe and New York Times, and there’s a topic that gets no press. Not this morning. Probably not most mornings. That missing topic is “joy.” A good many of the other “spiritual gifts” get press on a fairly regular basis. Most every day there’s talk about love and peace, patience, discipline or self-control, hope and faith, healing and reconciliation… but when was the last time you had some conversation or read some newsworthy article about joy? My sense is that the theme of joy is something of a rare commodity. To have joy or – as we would say in slang – to do joy, is to rejoice. In our lesson just read, St. Paul commends us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” In case you didn’t hear him or didn’t believe him, he repeats himself: “again I say, Rejoice.” There’s something here that’s new and fresh to draw out of the treasury God’s provision: the gift of joy, to know the capacity to rejoice in life.
To rejoice is to have a deep sense of delight. The Greek word literally means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” For the heart to feel very well. That’s what it is to have joy: to rejoice the heart. And why might it be – if you agree with me that this can be something of a rare commodity, an untapped spiritual gift – why is that so about this thing called joy? Why so rare? Well, several things have occurred to me.
Firstly, joy takes time. Joy is not fast food. Joy comes, I would say, as a by-product of living a savored life, of having time and taking time to “smell the flowers,” as we used to say. Joy needs time. There is this old monastic insight about living a joy-filled life. Take time, take at least some time each day, to do one thing at-a-time. Take time, take at least some time each day, if you are walking, just to walk. Take time, take at least some time, if you are looking to just look. If you are listening, just to listen. If you are sipping iced tea or watering the plants or petting the dog, to do just that. Do one thing at-a-time, and do that as often as you can. Take the time to let the fragrances and aromas of life penetrate to the deepest part of your being, where they can be savored.iI think we call this “being there.” I don’t think it has so much to do with the pace of life as much as it does with the intentionality with which we live our life. It’s to presume that each moment is pregnant with God’s real presence and provision and promise. Look for it; wait for it; savor it. Don’t just visit life; life needs time to be lived abundantly.
Secondly, it seems to me that joy requires acceptance. Joy requires our saying “yes” to life, to the life we’ve been given, to the hand we’ve been dealt. Probably many of us have woken up one day to discover that the script we’ve been handed in the play of life is not the part we thought we were trying out for. It seems to me that joy requires a deep willingness to accept how little of our life is actually within our own control. It’s an acknowledgment and an acceptance that God will be God: that it is God’s world on God’s time and that we are God’s creatures and that God is at work according to God’s good pleasure.iiJoy requires our saying yes to life – the life we live as individuals, as members of a family, as members of a parish, as members of various professional or volunteer circles. Joy presumes our living with an intentionality to accept the good gifts of life that actually are there, not to live life in a state of rejection or resentment for what is not there or no longer there. Life brings arrivals and changes and departures, and that’s life – the changes and chances of life.iii
To rejoice is to say yes to what is there. I would say that without that quality of acceptance of what is there, those unmet desires of the future will never become present, can never become present. Without that quality of acceptance and thankfulness, those unmet desires will always be elusive. In God’s good plan, there is a reason why today is not tomorrow. In some deep sense we need the provisions of today to prepare us to receive the promises of tomorrow. It seems to me that joy requires a posture of acceptance, of saying “yes” to life: not the life we could have had or feel we should have had, but of saying “yes” to God for the life that God has given us… which is the only place where there is life for us.
Thirdly, it seems to me that joy requires desire. I was talking with someone not long ago on this topic of joy. There was absolutely no joy in their life, they were saying. Well I asked them whether they wanted to know joy? – Well, they had never thought of it quite that way… about wanting to know joy. Do you want to be joyful? Joy is a gift, it’s a spiritual gift. And, generally speaking, if you want to receive a gift, don’t keep your hands in your pockets. Joy is a gift from God, and if you want to receive that gift, open your heart and open your hands to receive it. Ask God for the gift of joy. (I think it’s what we might call an “under-utilized petition.”) If you want the gift of joy, ask God for the gift.
And then, lastly, it seems to me that joy requires endurance. Particularly in the New Testament, so much of the writing about joy is in the context of suffering. Why is it that we hear so much about “the joy of the cross of Christ”?ivWhy is it with the annunciation to Mary and to Elizabeth, they first know fear and then they know joy? It’s the same with Joseph: first fear, then joy. And it’s the same with the shepherds: first fear, then joy. And much later, it’s the same with the women at the tomb joy comes out of fear, of all things?! Why is it that Jesus says in the beatitudes you are set up to be blessed when “people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and defame you on Jesus’ account? Rejoice in that day,” he says, “and leap for joy”?vHow curious. Why is it that Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Very truly I tell you… you will have pain… but your pain will turn into joy”?viHow is it that St. Paul could write from prison to the Philippians, as he was about to be executed, commending us to “rejoice always ”?vii
That’s because there is some paradox here about joy. (Our English word “paradox” comes from the Greek, paradoxa: para = other; doxa = glory, “other glory”, i.e., God’s glory being manifest in a way other than we would have imagined.) It seems that there is some direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. That the extent to which we have known suffering, so we can know joy. It doesn’t mean that we should go looking for suffering; there’s surely enough of it to go around without looking for it. Suffering has a way of finding us. (I think that has something to do with the cross of Christ….) Nor does it mean to deny suffering. It seems that there is some direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. (It’s not a de jure principle: first you get suffering and then you get joy… like first you eat your vegetables and then you get dessert. No, it’s not a de jure principle. Rather I sense it’s simply de facto. It’s de facto: this seems to simply be the way it is. There is something about our suffering in life – what we would not have chosen but cannot avoid – there is something about our suffering, when we say “yes” to God, when we show ourselves ready to bear our suffering before God, that opens the door for transformation, for consecration. The Psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”viiiThere is something about facing the dark night that allows us to see the dawning of joy.
Back in my high school years I set off to be a competitive swimmer. Several weeks into my first season I was a broken man. I think every muscle in my body hurt. My neck hurt. My shoulders hurt. My arms hurt. My back hurt. My thighs hurt. My calves hurt. I was at my end and I was sure that I would fail and never make the team. And I remember, in my youthful desolation, pouring out my heart to one of the wise old men on the swim team – I think he was 18 years old. And I told him of the absolute despair of my heart and the pain of my body. I remember that he listened patiently, and then he asked, “Do your feet hurt.” “What!?” I asked. He said again, “Do your feet hurt?” “Well,” I said, “no, at least my feet don’t hurt.” He said, “They will!” He said, “You’re getting in shape!” This is what it takes.” Well, I was in ecstasy. Everything still hurt in my body, but my heart soared to the heavens. I was right where I belonged. My suffering was not for naught. That this slight, momentary affliction was preparing me for something more and something wonderful.ixAnd I made it! I was suddenly full of ecstatic joy!
Joy is a mystery. It’s as mysterious as our suffering. And, I think, it’s as boundless as our suffering. Somehow, in God’s economy, the one is creating the space for the other. Do you recall Jesus’ parting prayer for us (for you!) in John’s Gospel: “Holy Father, protect them… that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. …Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”x
Go ahead: “ do joy.” (Try it, you’ll like it!) And if you can’t do it, ask God for it. (It’s a gift God’s Spirit is waiting to give out.) And if you still cannot rejoice, if you can’t reach to receive the joy that is there waiting for you, ask for some help. Joy will not spare you of suffering, nor did it Jesus. We are not spared the cross; we’re shared the cross… but also the joy that follows. Joy will give you a place in your heart to be well, to be passionately alive, even amidst the changes and chances and sufferings of your life. If you know something already about suffering – and I would imagine that all of you, in your life and ministry, are very acquainted with suffering – then you are at least half-way there. You’re “set-ups” to unwrap the gift of joy. Truly. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace….”xi
i St. Paul uses the images of “fragrance” and “aroma” in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17
ii St. Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12‑13)
iii A beautiful collect from Compline reads: “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP, p. 133)
iv See, e.g., John 16:19-23; Romans 12:9-13; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 13:9; Philippians 1:18-21; Hebrews 12:1-2; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-14
v Luke 6:22-23
vi We hear Jesus say: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:20‑22)
vii Philippians 4:4-9
viii Psalm 30:6
ix St. Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16‑18)
x Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” (John 17:13)
xi Romans 15:13
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I have just celebrated my 88th birthday, and I can say that the Joy of the Lord is still my strength! Thanks for this good sermon. When I was a young child, being taught at church, one of my favorites was a chorus all of us little ones knew and loved. It was ” I have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart; down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart today.” In spite of many crisis times, I have experienced that joy which comes only with knowing our Lord Christ. Bless you, dear Brother Curtis. REW
Br. Curtis, reading this again was uplifting. I thoroughly enjoy the comments. Your readers know so well how to respond in ways which give grace, blessing and joy to the rest of us. Thanks to you and to them.
I am thinking that gratitude–gratefulness–is also part of this quest for joy. Being aware of God’s blessings (both little and big) is surely part of experiencing joy.
I was at dinner with friends last night and thought suddenly how happy I was. In that moment I had passed from wanting things that I will never have, and being at peace with my life exactly how it was. I felt joy, contentment and a real glow. It is an active decision to not look for tomorrow to be better and to savour the joys of the present day. Otherwise all our time on earth is spent in longing. Your reflection Br. Curtis captured this much more eloquently that I could in my little response, but I was interested in the timing of this reflection coming up today – God works in mischievous ways!
Thank you. I printed this and put it aside for weeks and read it one of our first summer-like days after a long, cold winter. I’m coming around to this joy thing in a slow, deliberate PTSD kind of way. In my evangelical childhood, joy was the secret weapon to bring people to Jesus. There wasn’t much room for other thoughts and emotions, and questions were shamed as “not enough faith”. I never got the joy thing and still consider it more of a straight jacket and equate the Apostle Paul with outward style before substance and organizational management over wellness.
For years I have focused on growth through vemod (Swedish for melancholy, literally “courage to face pain”), and in healing grace through woundedness. Or as you put it once: Our own brokenness – be it our lack of self-sufficiency, our sense of inadequacy or incompleteness, our own character flaws, even our despair – whatever our brokenness becomes the portal in our own soul where God breaks through to us.
It wasn’t planned but after I read this I went out jogging with my 11 year old son. He’s overweight and struggling with his bipolar mother, and I was confounded to run outside after being lulled by a treadmill over the winter. The sun was blinding, I almost stubbed my toe, felt slightly embarrassed over wearing tight 80s shorts since my gym bag had been stolen and, worst of all, was shocked that the ground wasn’t rolling up underneath me. I thought of joy, of living in the moment and felt that sweat burn my eyes and my disappointment over my ex in forgetting to make dinner for the boys and then buying one an IPhone as to compensate. My son and I ran together, and then mostly walked. I told him I was proud and savored him and the moment. Is this vemod or is it joy? Call it what you will, we both felt alive together on a beautiful day, and it is good.
Great story. Thanks for sharing it.
I really needed and very much appreciate this meditation. I have been through many years of pain and deep suffering. So much of my life a mystery and dark fragments not connecting that are hard to understand.
Recently I have felt more acceptance and have begun to feel just a tinge of joy. I have worried that I have had so much suffering that I might not be able to experience joy. Good to know that I must have a great capacity. Just need to ask for more help and for the gift of joy. This helps me to understand more. I’m a huge fan of SSJE. Thank you so much for sharing your word each day!
I feel that this meditation names something previously unnamed at least in me. I realize I am living mostly in regret or with anxiety about the future and rarely living fully in the present with genuine acceptance of what is. Also, there is the fear of suffering lurking somewhere just below consciousness. So my joy is mostly unclaimed. Thank you for this eloquent message about the path to be taken to claim our joy. My prayer is that I might live into the truth that is shared here in this message. The joy evident in this meditation and others of the Lenten calendar are an inspiration to claim this gift. May the Holy Spirit bring us all into that truth and joy.
Br. Jonathan in the video and Br. Curtis in the sermon capture the paradoxical sense in which scripture and Jesus’ example instruct us to invest our sorrow, tears and suffering to reap the joy. On the 5th Sunday in Lent, we prayed Psalm 126 with its final two verses: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” Today, the passage from Hebrews tells us to persevere “looking to Jesus . . ., who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,. . . .” The joy we reap seems to be inversely proportional to the sorrow and suffering we endure. Jesus trusted the Father to transform His suffering into His joy and prayed [John 17:13] that His joy may be made complete in us.
There’s a dance-history problem with the fact that a couple of the words that mean “dance” can also mean “rejoice” (think, ‘tripudium’ in the Latin translations of Esther 8, for example) and with the fact that metaphors for joy in several languages imply or suggest dance as a response to joy.
In the Psalms and prophets, the contrasted pairing of joy and mourning are often concretized by a parallel contrast with weeping and dancing as outward physical manifestations of those inward states…almost their sacramental expressions, in fact.
So…maybe the proof by contrapositive is that we need more dancing. If I stop my feet from moving, when they want to respond to music, they get a little sad…even sulky, sometimes.
If I let them go, and let them take me with them?
I went through 17 surgeries in 7 years…after on of them II was so exhausted…coming home alone ..I fell on my bed and saw eternity…I will never forget it…amazingly beautiful…perfect peace. Had I had someone with me… it wouldn’t have happened…
I have always composed music, songs and instrumentals on guitar and piano…but during this time I began composing sacred and classical…many with Joy in the title…God led me to a wonderful Yamaha Grand Digital Piano…so now I have an orchestra at my fingertips…a dream come true (which is the title of one of my songs now posted on Youtube station…another gift from God and a great joy to me to see over 60 countries listening….amazing Grace!!! …
I am only an instrument….very little effort is needed…I listen to
and go to secret dwelling place of the most High…often it brings me to tears.
What a blessing to read this as I begin this, Advent III, with heavy heart over the Connecticut school tragedy. In that suffering, I am moved to hug all my kids, their kids, and their grandkids as well as every one of God’s children I meet today. And what joy there is in that. Thank you, Brother Curtis.
Oh, thank you for these words. And I praise God for them. Our family is dealing with the passing of my father-in -law from esophageal cancer and this was so helpful on so many levels.
Br. Curtis, your sermon is one I can read again and again. Alliene Vale wrote a catchy little song in 1971 which I find myself humming and singing
as I go about my work, “The joy of the Lord is my strength…He heals the broken hearted and they cry no more…”
Joy is a gift He gives, but we must receive it with open hearts and hands.
Thank you for this significant sermon. May the Lord bless you this day
and flood your being with His love, JOY, and peace. REW
Thank you, Curtis. I remember some years ago when I first heard you talk about saying “yes” to life. It was a new idea to me. Before then I had accepted life, but saying “yes” to life put an entirely different light on things. It was as if one hugged life and was glad to have all that one was given. You don’t hug without love, and you can’t love without joy.
Dear Brother Curtis:
Thank you for this morning’s gift of a little laughter – joy.
Days recently have been bleak but your words about desert only following my having eaten my meat and veg brought back my childhood. This was a practice that I inflicted on my children too.
The difficulty with being joyful is that it often gets buried, perhaps not by personal events, but by the pain of the world around us.
Thank you and blessings. Christina
I have thought a lot about joy, because I have experienced it. It isn’t the kind of emotion that lasts days and days (perhaps that’s happiness); joy seems to be more fleeting than that. Yes, I often find it in the midst of suffering, and at times like that I connect joy to the presence of God. Knowing the very real presence of God, regardless of what else is happening around me, gives me joy. And it is almost always accompanied by tears–tears of joy. It is also connected with grace, the knowledge that God has just blessed me in a mighty way, because of what he has done for me and also because of who he is and that he is in my life and in the world. All of that is the source of my joy.
Thank you for this very thoughtful piece. It made my day!