Training in Joy

· Advent,Theology,Joy

I tend to write a lot about suffering. I do this because few of us know how to respond well to suffering people. And we need to be trained in compassion, or suffering well with others.

This means that I don’t talk a lot about joy. To be clear, I do think God’s intended state for humanity is a constant experience of joy. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, followers of Jesus are given instructions to do certain things not just sometimes but always. We should give thanks no matter what we’re going through. We should never stop praying. And we should always rejoice.

If that seems like a tall order, consider how scripture describes the behaviour of the rest of creation. Rocks cry out! Mountains sing! Trees clap! And we humans are invited to participate in that mighty chorus.

During treatment for brain cancer, I joined a local brain cancer support group. Few of us had the same type of brain cancer. And some of us were less articulate than others. Each meeting began with a check-in time. Member by member, we would go around our circle and share how we were doing in body, mind, and spirit. One person who rarely spoke suffered from both a loss of memory and a poor connection between her thoughts and her ability to speak. She and her husband identified as Christian. I could always count on her to say this, slowly and methodically:

Every day I wake up and slowly put my feet on the floor. I stand up and look out my window. And I say, “This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

The first time I heard this from her I was nothing less than contemptuous. “That cancer must have hit her mind hard,” I thought. I was undergoing the profound discouragement of suffering from cancer. Her words sounded like some kind of Christianized positive psychotherapy. Kind of like when my brain surgeon told me to imagine little Pac-Mans eating up the tumour ghosts in my brain. I’m not proud to admit that I dismissed her as senile. Her brain damage had led her to repetition while I was fighting tooth and nail against any compromise of my intellectual capacities!

But she continued to say this month after month, meeting after meeting. Slowly, I began to see this as more than just a pattern that relied on a little nugget of remembered experience. There was a resilience in her; she was actively resisting a distressed response to the experience of her growing losses. Every day she was grateful for the day. Every day joy was the first thought on her mind. I don’t know if she ever lamented. But if she did, she began it with a sense of connection to God and God’s time. I could see joy in her weak smile and hear it in her soft whispers. She was convinced that whatever was left of her was something worthwhile, something loved by God.

I think she wore me down. Over the course of months, I began to admire her. She had what I didn’t. So, I began to speak more about joy even when I couldn’t attribute it to anything worth rejoicing. I rejoiced, I suppose, just because I had another day. Another of God’s days. Speaking a word of joy even when I didn’t feel joyful helped train me to be joyful. Always.

I’m still a work in progress. But I have a brain cancer patient who always rejoiced to thank for it.