In 2016 I was privileged to travel to Australia to help out a very close friend, who in return arranged for me an amazing tour of the continent’s “red centre”; that vast, arid and sparsely populated region that we think of when we call up images of Australia from childhood episodes of “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”. It was the trip of a lifetime. I hiked along the dry riverbed from Alice Springs to Telegraph Creek, toured Uluru – you may know it by the European name “Ayers Rock” – with a guide from the Ananga people who described the role Uluru plays in their spiritual life; and climbed the steep walls of Watarrka Canyon to look down on the arid red clay spreading out stark and dry in every direction. And I learned an amazing fact. Under that arid landscape lies the Great Artesian Basin, the largest underground freshwater resource in the world, containing nearly 16 trillion gallons of water. Bottle-brush trees that grow in that area start out as a single closed-up trunk pushing upward as its taproot pushes downward, and then, suddenly opening up and spreading its branches as soon as the taproot breaks through into the underground reservoir. A person left alone in that vast desert could quickly die of dehydration, just a meter or two away from enough water to fill Lake Huron – twice. For many of us, the spiritual landscape of late 2023 is similarly arid, stark, dry and deadly. At best, we look at the world and our community and see how much need exists, and how inadequate are our individual efforts to meet that need. In the face of the world’s suffering, how can we truly rejoice?
A menopausal woman becomes pregnant for the first time. She is accustomed to barrenness, even though it grieves her the grief is at least familiar. This new possibility comes fraught with fears. The baby may miscarry, turning her joy into a devastating loss worse than simply continuing barrenness. The baby may live, and she might die, leaving it to face the world alone at far too young an age. Fear comes between her and the joy that she deserves. An unmarried maiden becomes pregnant. She bows in obedience to God, saying “Let it be unto me according to your word.” But even in obedience she has reason to be afraid. Her betrothed husband may repudiate her. She may have to face childbirth and childrearing alone and in disgrace, without the support of her family or her community. These are the real consequences of premarital pregnancy in many cultures, and those consequences are very reasonably to be feared. And yet, when those two women come together as kinswomen with a common experience, joy breaks out. The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Blessings for her young cousin erupt from Elizabeth’s lips, and Mary responds in the words of the Magnificat: My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
The fact is, like the artesian basin that gives water in the Australian desert, a great reservoir of joy resides deep inside the community of God’s people, if only we can reach it. It is the manifestation of the “living water” of Jesus’ promise in John 4:7-15. It is the inevitable effect of Jesus’ being here, in the midst of us, as he is whenever “two or three are gathered together in his name.” (Matthew 18:20) Mary and Elizabeth tap into that same reservoir of joy when they come together. And yet, I would speculate that many of us, sitting here in God’s house and surrounded by many more than just two or three gathered together in God’s name, are feeling cut off from that reservoir, and perhaps wondering if they are the only ones missing out on God’s promised joy. In sorrow, in weariness, in grief, in anxiety, joy can seem far away, and impossible.
I invite all of us to take a moment to focus our compassion on our fellow-children of God who feel bereft in this time of rejoicing, who look at the burdens weighing them down, and ask how they can be expected to feel joyful.
But joy is not a feeling. Happiness or unhappiness, loneliness or comfort, worry or confidence, these are feelings. They are fleeting, situational, and largely outside of our control. Joy is not a feeling that happens to us when the circumstances are right. Like the agapé love that Paul writes about in the epistles, love that is acted out deliberately regardless of whether you like or dislike the recipient, joy is something we choose. And we can choose to hold joy in happiness and sorrow both, in comfort and in distress, in certainty and in anxiety.
About fifteen years ago I was blessed to see a beautiful example of joy being held alongside sorrow and fear. An athletic teenager involved in both martial arts and dance was suddenly struck by arthritis that not only terminated her involvement in those passions, but left her in near constant pain, unable to walk without crutches. At the darkest time during those months her mother noticed that, without the girl’s having mentioned it to anyone, she had changed her computer’s lock screen. Beside a picture of ballerina Veronica Tennant the lock screen displayed Psalm 30’s words of rejoicing: “Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing.”
Joy is being actively, fully alive in the world and in the relationships where God has placed us, fully appreciative of how God has gifted us with relationships. “Fully alive” means feeling real sorrow as well as real happiness. “Fully alive” means feeling our fears – but not letting fear block the happiness that we feel at the same time. Joy is an active response to our relationship with God.
Exodus 17 tells us that when the People of God were on their way out of the wilderness of Sin, they suffered painfully from thirst until God showed Moses how to provide them with living water encysted in the rock. On their own, they wouldn’t have found the water. John 4 tells us that the Samaritan woman, on her way out of a different wilderness of sin, joylessly suffered her neighbours’ snubs, until Jesus showed her the joy of living water. My Ananga guide at Uluru showed me how to find the depressions in the clay where a hollow reed, pressed down into the apparently dry soil, could be used to draw up pure sweet drinking water – and I would never have guessed that without being shown. Sometimes, people find deep abiding joy on their own, or by God’s sole guidance. Far more often, God calls us to be ministers of joy, to offer to another, like a cup of clear water, the joy we have stewarded in ourselves. How many of our neighbours are thirsting for a joy that we could be holding for them. If we are called to be ministers of joy, then we need to get good at joyfulness. And how do you get good at anything? Practice, practice, practice. We need to become skilled at recognizing joy. Where happiness might tempt us to take pride in our own good management, joy is found in that little nagging truth that God’s provenance contributes more to our successes than we ourselves do. Where negativity might tempt us to wallow, joy is found in St Paul’s urging that we should “give thanks in all circumstances”. St Paul isn’t talking about the rather trite Thanksgiving Day exercise of going around the table and everyone naming one thing they are thankful for. He says clearly “give thanks in ALL circumstances,” and that is neither trite, nor easy. If you are more skilled at negativity than at thankfulness, you might try comparing your situation favourably to Victorian times when the social safety net comprised workhouses and child labour, and the crime rate soared above what we see on our very safe streets today; or if, like the heroine of the Pollyanna books, thinking about how much worse things could be exacerbates your negativity, you could try Pollyanna’s “Glad Game” of finding something to be thankful for in every situation. Corrie Ten Boom, author of the autobiographical book “The Hiding Place”, was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was held in a crowded cell with flea-infested mattresses covering the floor. Inspired by the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 she thanked God for the flea infestation, which kept the punitive – but flea-avoidant guards – from entering the cell.
Just recognizing joy is not enough. We also need to nurture joy, to sustain it, to develop the skill of holding joy while experiencing sorrow, or waiting, or pain. Especially, we need to practice holding joy while experiencing deep sincere compassion for another person’s grief or pain. Happiness cannot coexist with suffering; the allure of happiness can tempt us to distance ourselves from people who are suffering. But joy is found in our connection to other people, and joy can not only endure, but sanctify pain; it can encourage the sufferer and be their source of hope. This experience, of joy without the happiness, is like the desert experience we recount in the children’s stories: “so many strange and wonderful things have happened to God’s people in the desert, that we just need to have a little of it in our church.” Desert times are times of waiting, times of hope that is not yet fulfilled, times when we participate in the “groaning of creation” where God is bringing about the new heaven and the new earth, God has given us citizenship in the new Jerusalem, even though it is not yet. The voice in the desert that calls “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” also calls “All flesh is grass: they last no longer than the flowers of the field.” And yet, in the face of that hard reality, that negative reality, Isaiah urges God’s people to rejoice in the heights, proclaiming the good news of God’s coming.
May this Advent season be for all of us, a time for practicing joy. May this coming Christmas be a deep experience of joy: for you, for your families and friends and everyone you know, and for the neighbours and newcomers and strangers whom you do not know – yet. May you hold joy for one another. May you be architects of the connectedness between all people, that channels God’s gift of joy. May you be courageous in compassion and confident in every trial. For, just as you find joy in your relationship with God, God finds joy and delight in you.