Where is Joy?

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” ~ Luke 1:46.

Sometimes I’m walking down a trail, the sun is out, there’s a slight breeze, the mountains stand in silence, a few alpine flowers—yellow, orange, and blue—grace a meadow—and joy just appears and says hello. “My soul magnifies the Lord” and I say to myself, “Life is good.” And just as quickly, joy recedes into the wind, and I labor up the next pass.

Joy is a mystery. It just shows up unexpectedly, out of nowhere, truly a gift from our Creator. C.S. Lewis said, “Joy can never be induced, cranked up, or made to happen. It’s something that finds us.”

What is joy? Where does it hide?

In the Fall of 1999, I remember standing on a grassy knoll dotted with cedar trees and gravestones, Vincent Cemetery, not too far from the geographic center of the United States. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there were fields of wheat stubble. I was there with family and friends to say good-bye to my father and lay him to rest.

I choked back the tears as my cousins carried Dad’s casket and carefully placed it on the stand over his grave. How would I go on? Who would I call when the car broke down and I needed advice? Who would listen to me without interruption? Dad was a silent cheerleader who was always there, a rock in my life.

The pastor prayed, “God, we come to you today…” I heard a car speeding up the dirt road, dust clouds swirling behind it. The car stopped across from the cemetery in a vacant field and a young middle-aged man stepped out with an older woman. They looked vaguely familiar to me, but I did not recognize them. I was surprised when they crossed the dirt road and walked towards our small gathering.

The pastor continued his prayer while the man and the elderly woman approached. “Who are they?” I thought. Then it dawned on me. It was Parker Sewell, one of my best friends from high school and his mom Peggy. Growing up our families spent every Thanksgiving together; Parker and I anchored the left side of our defense in football. I had not seen Parker since his own father’s funeral, where I saw my dad cry for the first time, several years ago. Now, here was Parker, eight hours from home, in the middle of vast, vacant country, at my father’s funeral.

As the pastor continued his prayer, Parker and I nodded in silent communication, as if to say, “We got this. We can do this.” Before every down, over twenty years ago, when we played together as high school teammates, we would assure one another that we could handle whatever the other team sent our way. But this game on the grassy knoll felt more real. Tears of joy and gratitude flowed as I stood above my father’s grave. We were going to be all right.

Joe Albright says Barbara Brown Taylor describes the experience of joy as “almost irreverent.” She writes, “Joy has never had very much to do with what is going on in the world at the time. This is what makes it different from happiness, or pleasure, or fun. All those depend on positive conditions… The only condition for joy is the presence of God… which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, or in an intensive care waiting room… it is a gift…”

Joy is the presence of hope, of peace, of love. It is the light which continues to grow within us and the world despite difficult circumstances. Joy is a mystery. It is a gift that arrives unannounced, mends our souls, and leads us to sing. So much of our Christmas Story is about Joy.

Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” (Luke 1:46-47). The angels appear to the shepherds in the field and say, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” (Luke 2:10). When the wisemen follow the star and it stops over Bethlehem, they are “overwhelmed with joy” (see Matthew 2:10).

When was the last time we were “overwhelmed with joy”? Have we been “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis wrote?

Joy can find us when a child is born, when we see the beauty in a flower, when we follow a star, when we walk down a path, when we find ourselves waiting in an emergency room, when we’re standing above the final resting place of those we love, and when the sun rises and when the sun sets. “May our souls magnify the Lord” and may Joy this Advent and Christmas Season surprise us. Amen.

May Hope, Peace, and Joy flow from you,