I am coming out of 2016 feeling weary. Christmas, in many ways, didn't feel like Christmas this year. So when I went to do my morning scripture reading and then my centering prayer, I found that the word I reflected on during my prayer was "joy." It's one of the words we most associate with the Christmas season and, yet, it is one that I saw the least in people as I went about my day, working in stores during the holidays, I saw a heaviness in those I came across. And 2017 is less than a week away.
Yet, this morning, as I sat in stillness and silence, joy kept welling up within me as the word I was to focus on over the next year. It was also something I prayed for over many of the people that I know who are struggling (in marriages, with health issues, with depression).
Joy is not happiness. Many make the mistake of thinking the two as the same, but they are not. Happiness is momentary and fleeting. Happiness is most often hinged on something good happening to someone, or in celebration, or in getting something new (such as a car or house). Joy is not happiness because it can be found in sorrow, in loss, and in turmoil because joy is rooted in a hope beyond our circumstances. Joy is not circumstantial.
The Greek word for joy is chara and it means: gladness, a source of joy. Chara is connected to another Greek word xara, which means to extend favor, lean towards, as well as to be aware of grace and favor. These are not rooted or connected to circumstances but to God. Unlike circumstances, God is never changing.
This is why Paul writes in Romans, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer" (12:12). Many would look at that statement and think Paul had lost his mind for even adding that middle section to that sentence. We can understand to "be joyful in hope" and even to be "faithful in prayer," but very few of us would sign off on "patient in affliction." The word Paul used for patient is hupomone and it means "endurance" or "steadfastness." Anyone who has ever run a marathon of any length understands those words because if one has not built up one's endurance, one cannot find the stamina to continue on and make it across the finish line. It means that, when we are in the midst of suffering, we are to realize that it is but for a time and that, even as we are hurting, there is also joy to be found.
Nineteen years ago, when my mother was dying of cancer, I found myself exhausted and weary day after day after day as my sister and I helped my father to take care of her. The days were long and tiring. It is hard to watch anyone suffer through their struggle with cancer. It's hard to watch the person you know and love so deeply in agony at times with each breath or slight movement. There are times when my only prayer was that God would relieve her suffering and let her die. Not an easy prayer to pray, especially when one selfishly wants to keep that loved one with them. It was during this time that I found my greatest consolation in the Psalms.
The Psalms are brutally raw and honest. They taught me to take everything before God. Like the Psalmists, I was honest before God: taking my hopes, my hurts, my hates and my hallelujahs to Him. There were times when I begged Him for her healing, when I begged Him to take her to Him, and times when I poured out my anger at Him for making her go through all of this. Yet, through all of it, I learned the truth of, "When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy" (Psalm 94:19).
My mother did not want to die. She fought to make it from one holiday to the next so that she could still be here to celebrate with her family. My mother confided to me that she prayed desperately to God that she would see each, so that she could still be here with us. By that December, she entered hospice. Each day could be the day. I knew she was fighting to make it to Christmas, but the fight was becoming too much for her. She needed to let go, so I begged God to make it easier on her. That night, she suddenly said, "I can see it. The colors are so vivid and the light is so bright." Some might claim that this was merely the effect of morphine in her system causing a hallucination, but I knew better. The hallucinations she had were never positive ones. No, God was giving her a glimpse of the world to come. For a brief moment, He, in His tenderness, had lowered the veil to let her see, so that she would not be afraid, that she would be able to let go finally. That was the truth of God's "consolation bringing me joy" in that moment. Even as I write about it now, tears of loss and joy roll down my cheeks.
Shalom is found in understanding that sorrow and joy are connected and necessary. Shalom is wholeness. We will never have wholeness when we try to disconnect the two (as shown in the insightful Pixar film Inside Out).
Joy is also a choice. We must choose joy. Henri Nouwen wrote, "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."
Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is something we must choose to walk in even when our circumstances would have us choose otherwise. It's not just in the birth of a baby, but in the death of someone we love whose suffering has now ended. I was reminded of this because the day we left for Ukraine to adopt our son was also the day my mother died on. God in His grace was reminding me that both are a part of life. Birth, life, death, rebirth is more than just a physical cycle we see in nature but a spiritual one that our Creator uses the seasons to remind us of. Understanding that is what enables us to "count it all joy" when we are in the valleys of our lives, when we are in the deserts and the wilderness. It is a reminder that, in the midst of darkness, light will come again. It's also a reminder that we are to be light and joy to those who are broken and lonely and hurting and in desperate need of a kind word, a smile, or a hug. May those who are hurting, as Paul said, "Come to you with joy, by God's will, and in your company be refreshed" (Romans 15:32). I pray for that refreshment for those who are coming out of 2016 weary and worn, battered and bruised.
May 2017 be filled with God's ever glorious joy. May His joy fill us with wonder even in the midst of our worries, love in the midst of loneliness, hope in the midst of hurting, and trust in the midst of the storm. May we all know a joy that is deeper than understanding, greater than ourselves and our circumstances, and is a reminder that God takes great delight in us.
Joy is my word for 2017.
Take time before the new year and pray. Seek God and listen to His voice. What will your one word be for the new year?