Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joy: the radical rebellion

Photo by Paucal/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Does God laugh?"

My friend's 4-year-old daughter recently posed this question to her, which -- as my friend puts it -- led to a "rather profound inquiry into what sort of things God would (and wouldn't) laugh at. One of the clear distinctions she made was that God laughs with people, not at people. Also, God likes it when we're being silly."

God laughs with people, not at people. And God likes it when we're being silly. No wonder my friend calls her daughter a little theologian. With a simple three-word question, the child hit on a deep truth about God that we as harried, stressed adults too often forget: that God created us with joy, from joy, for joy.

Not ready to accept wise words from a preschool theologian? Maybe you'll listen to C.S. Lewis instead: "Joy is the serious business of heaven." God did not create a world of pain and suffering and then say, "You know what? I'm going to stick some humans in here and watch them squirm." Rather, God created paradise -- an abundantly exuberant playground packed with infinite variety, texture, colors, and sensations, a world designed to delight. As such we have voices to sing, hands to clap, feet to dance, hearts to leap, and Thin Mints to devour. What's not to love??

What I have learned, however, is that joy is not necessarily a given in our lives. The more we slip into easy pessimism, the more joy becomes a choice. This distinction is captured crystal-clear in this translation of Romans 5:11 from the King James Version of the Bible: "And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement."

We joy in God. Joy as vivifying verb. Joy as animating action. Joy as intentional summons of a gift we've already received yet have forgotten. As Henri J.M. Nouwen writes, "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

The choice becomes easier once you remember joy's effects. Just the mental image of God laughing fills me with a lightness and peace that too often gets squashed under accumulated fear, anger, and general grouchiness. Imagine then how a life lived constantly with joy and in joy would affect others around it. To be joyful is to rebel against the cynicism and meanness of vision that too often, too easily, dominates our worldview, and in such moments our choice of joy becomes radical.

May all our radical actions be born of belly laughter, slow-spreading smiles, and astonished gasps. May we come to know the profound comfort of laughing with the God whom we delight.


Prayer #308: Silly for Joy

God of heel clicks and high fives, keep me so silly for joy that I can't see straight.

Because when I am downtrodden, joy props me up.

When I am flattened, joy re-inflates me.

When I am beaten, joy wipes my brow and hands me water.

When I am proud, joy grounds me in wonder bigger than myself.

When I am uncertain, joy reminds me I am worthy.

And when all I am is joyful, joy cheers loudest of all.

Amen.