When I learned to read I quickly became a little predictable. You see, we had this book that my parents got every once in a while and every time they would get it I would find myself rifling through the pages until I got to a certain section. It was either “Humor in Uniform”, “Life in these United States” or “The Best Medicine”. The publication was called The Reader’s Digest and I went straight for the joke sections. I remember going to my grandparents house and seeing their Sunday paper and going straight for the comics section (as long as my PaPaw was done with his puzzles). For a while I feel like I was almost obsessed with reading “The Far Side” or “Hogarth the Horrible” or “Get Fuzzy”. So yesterday, the superlatives at a teacher’s meeting for the end of the school year really didn’t come as too much of a surprise. That’s right, yours truly was awarded the Staff Comedian. Someone even asked if I was given the award because they were laughing with me or at me…? My response, “Yes”.
But I treasure this award…truly. I see laughter as a reflection of joy and I hold joy in the utmost regard when it comes to the life of faith. When the apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, you know the things in our life we see as a result of the living presence of God within us, it goes a little like this, “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-23 The first one on the list makes a lot of sense. After all, God is love. But the second one? Joy?!? It’s that important that it gets picked second. There is a story in the Old Testament where the people of Israel are overcome with grief and guilt. They had finished rebuilding the temple wall and in the process had discovered anew the law. After hearing it read the people began to weep because of how far they had fallen, but this is the response: “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep…Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!” – Nehemiah 8:9-10 The joy of the Lord is your strength!
Laughter to me is a natural reflection of joy. I remember my wife and I reading about the biology of laughter some time ago. Evidently laughter, true laughter, is an almost involuntary response when your brain gets surprised…literally tickled. It’s our bodies way of showing us there is a new way to see the things around us and sometimes it can even be silly or absurd or flat out funny. Laughter is a reflection of learning and a way of showing us the joy to be found in and through the world around us. Maybe it might not be the best literal medicine (my money is on ibuprofen), but it does make life a little more livable. And if God’s joy is our strength and a reflection of the presence of God in our lives, then let’s find more things to smile, laugh and be joyful about each day.
Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.