The older three tinies went blueberry picking with a family friend this weekend. They all went out into the sunshine and two hours later, me and baby Maggie picked them up at the farm. Each bucket was a metaphor for each child’s personality. Anne’s gigantic bucket was filled with perfectly round and ripe berries, nary a stick or a leaf to be seen, rules were followed. Her hat was still on her head, her clothes were clean, her smile bright. Joseph’s basket was spilling over with perfect berries mixed in with the sticks and the green tart ones, he kept up in his own way. Evelynn came dragging a tiny empty bucket, her curly hair twice its usual size with heat, sweaty and barefoot with her shirt stained navy blue because she ate her entire bucket and already had a tummy ache. (That’s why she’s not in the picture: she was already crawling into the minivan, moaning.)
Oh, they make me laugh. We piled into the minivan and took turns popping blueberries into Maggie’s wide-open mouth all the way home. If they were falling down on the job, she would squawk in demand and point right at the bucket, “Mo’! Mo’! Mo’!” Maggie’s personality is becoming more pronounced this summer – she’s delightful but determined, smart and vocal. We all sang along to the Hamilton soundtrack (I admit, I’m the mum who is quick with the “skip” button for the songs with naughty words though) with the windows down.
I turned on the news as I was cooking supper and of course within a few moments we were reminded again of real issues, real suffering, politics, world affairs, all of the reasons why even this ordinary joy can feel foolish.
There is so much beauty. There is so much ugliness. There is so much grief. There is so much hope.
I know I’m not alone in this: we are all carrying each other’s pain this summer, it seems. It feels as if the world is burning down and we feel powerless to help and so we grieve and we get angry and we post things on Facebook, we march and we protest and we gather and we tell politicians what the problem really is, we watch the news and we cry and yell about things and then we look around our daily lives and wonder, am I doing enough to fix it? and is it a betrayal to not feel sad all the time? to not be in despair over the state of the world?
Here’s the thing about Christian joy – it isn’t stupid.
I know, I know. We would never say that out loud. But some part of us wonders if the joyful ones are just a bit … fake. Or if they’re disengaged with reality or if they are naive. Perhaps they stick their heads in the sand. Perhaps they are just a bit dumb about how hard it is in this life, about the heartbreak and the sorrow, about the evil and injustice. Joy must be a bit blind to reality, right?
I get it and I’ve felt that, too. After all, I wrote a whole chapter in my book about reclaiming lament as a response to those very things. Learning to obey the sadness has been a transformative thing for me.
I can’t escape joy. I can’t escape the exhortations of joy, the call to joy, the prayer for joy, the yearning for joy in Scripture and in the Spirit and in the Christian tradition. Joy! Laughter, song, dance, life, goodness, hope overflowing.
Joy isn’t emotionally or spiritually or intellectually dishonest. Christian joy doesn’t mean that we are sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “it’s fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine” while running past the gutters of broken dreams and weeping people, eyes averted.
Joy isn’t denial of grief or pretending happiness.
Now, now I know this: joy is the affirmation of the truest thing in this life.
Joy is born, not from pretending everything is fine, but from holding both hope and truth together. The Christian can stand in that liminal space, the place of grief, even there with joy. Why? Because joy is the affirmation of the thing that is truer than any trouble, any affliction: the affirmation that Love wins. Jesus is as good as we hope, it’s all worth it, and all will be redeemed.
We can – and should – make room for joy and defend the simple pleasures and celebrations, the very things that seem too small or too ordinary or too humble to stack up against suffering. Because that’s the point, they are seeds we are sowing into our own lives, our children’s lives, our community’s life, our world. And I seem to remember some sort of a story about what God can do with one seed planted in good ground…
(To be honest, I have learned this over this summer in many ways and most of my learning has been far from public eyes. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, there are moments in our lives to remember that this is a story I’m living right now, not a story I’m writing – not yet anyway.)
Almost all of our theology – and therefore our practical lives – has its roots in what we believe about the nature and character of God. It all tracks back. And really, if we want to know what God looks like, we can look to Jesus. That’s what the Bible tells us. Jesus was meant to clarify, to answer the questions, to clean up the dirty window through which we kept trying to behold the holy. Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”
So I didn’t learn how to practice joy until I learned to practice grief, and I didn’t learn how to do either one of those things well until I learned that God can be trusted.
Jesus is as good as we hope, and everything for which you are longing – love, joy, peace, justice, mercy, home, good work – is real because it rooted in God’s heart for us. Those are gifts from a good parent. God is against the evil and suffering in this world. He is not the origin of evil nor does God “use” evil as a means to justify some cosmic end.
This is why the Incarnation matters so much, why it matters that God took on flesh and dwelt among us. As the Message bible paraphrase says in John 1, “God moved into the neighbourhood.” The stories of Jesus were the material things and moments of our lives: bread, wheat, weddings, parties, work, all of it blessed by his very embrace and presence within them.
I couldn’t trust God if I suspected God was behind our deepest griefs and injustices. This is where the sovereignty conversations get interesting, I know. But I don’t blame God for much anymore.
I see God as the rescue from the injustices, not the cause of them.
I see God as the redeemer of the pain, not the origin of it.
I see sovereignty, not as hyper-control over the minute and painful details of the world, but as a faithful promise that all things will be restored, all things will be redeemed, all will be rescued.
So as the people of God, the ones whose citizenship lies in the Kingdom of God, we are part of the resistance, the overcoming of them, the redemption and hope in the midst of them because they are the antithesis of the character of God. Why? Because THAT is God’s heart. That is God’s nature.
Sovereignty is a promise – not a threat or a reason or an excuse. All will be held and that God is at work to bring redemption and reconciliation, and at the end of all things, we don’t escape from the goodness that pursues us, the life we are promised, the love that redeems.
Joy is born out of trust and hope and gratitude and faith in that coming Kingdom. We have a reason to rejoice. And it’s not denial or innocence or naivety or stupidity. Joy is the affirmation of the truest thing of all: redemption, restoration, reconciliation.
I have come to believe that it’s even more important to cultivate joy and happiness in these days of feeling out of control or like the world has gone mad. As Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
I don’t want to mistake despair for holiness in these days. it seems to my memory that the ones who had the most justification for despair often are the greatest parables of hope and joy.
These are the very days for the prophetic resistance of our joy, for the practice of the Kingdom of God right in the snarl of the Not-Yet.
In a way, it reminds me of stories my Granny used to tell me of the war years, how they made every effort to keep things as normal as possible to keep not only their own spirits up but because they believed it would demoralize the enemy, how even the regular ordinary beautiful things became not less important because of their suffering but even more important.
It’s resistance. It’s a resistance of the false and broken to embrace and practice the true and the whole. We are prophesying with our lives. In the face of poverty, we practice generosity. In the face of ugliness, we practice beauty. In the face of injustice, we practice justice and mercy. In the rhetoric of fear, we declare be not afraid! In the face of racism, we practice reconciliation. In the face of despair, we practice hope. In the face of ignorance, we practice wisdom and knowledge. We name it, we aren’t afraid of it, and then while the Not-Yet looks on in disbelief at our cheek, we set to work putting things as they are-and-will-be.
We are gardeners and farmers more than factory workers or brick producers for Pharaoh perhaps, cultivating and sowing seeds that will bear a mighty harvest, long after we are gone even.
So we are embodying a kingdom of blueberry fields rolling over hills, dotted with red barns. Of tired children who smell like sunshine. Of piles of fresh fruit. Of open-mouth baby kisses. Slip-n-slides in the backyard. Long walks and movie marathons. Friends who laugh at your jokes. Phone calls to pray for one another. Hydrangea bushes and trampolines. Hot coffee and sunrises, chilled wine and the sunset. Worn out books and damp beach towels hanging on the deck railing. Lemonade stands and Saturday sleep-ins. Posting Jimmy Fallon lip synch battles on Facebook and summer holiday snaps. Protests and open tables. Cooking good meals and planting magnolia trees. Painting bedrooms just the right shade of cream and knock-knock jokes. Regular homemade singing and poetry you like to read out loud. Freckles and pine trees. New languages and mountains. Salt water and rose gardens, Scripture and lavender in the sunshine. Being a healer, a bridge builder, a truth-teller, a peace maker, a joyful subversive, a celebration disciple, an expectant prophet who dares to show up as a light on a lamp stand, a city on a hill of this world.
I’ve come to believe that in the very midst of the burning dumpster fire of the Not-Yet the practice of cultivating joy and happiness, noticing the good and the beautiful and the true and the pure isn’t an act of betrayal of our solidarity but instead a very real act of prophesy and invitation to the Soon-Coming-And-Right-Now-Already of the Kingdom of God. We are sowing seeds of faithfulness to the way it will be, for the vision of the world we want to see come to pass, world without end.