I remember summer evenings riding around my hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in my older brother’s very old car. A ’39 Oldsmobile, complete with running boards, was an inheritance from our grandmother Marshall. Thankfully, our parents did not know how many times I rode on the outside of the car, precariously perched on those running boards. We careened around neighborhoods and various haunts visiting friends and seeing who else was out on the town. At 25 cents a gallon, why not drive that lumbering vehicle all over? Not surprising, we did not have a specific destination; it was improvisation at its best. Looking back, I can truly say it was a joyride.
The Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University recently convened about 150 persons from all over the world to talk about joy as an expression of faith and work. Willie James Jennings, professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, stressed that joy is a work, not a sentiment. It is a work of resistance against fear and death. He said he learned this from his ancestors who were sharecropping “people of the earth.” His family decided to “work hard at joy” as a way of renouncing despair, expressing their faith by “dancing just above the line of surviving.”
Other scholars shared their reflection on joy as virtue, as fruit of the spirit, as journey rather than destiny, as something one receives rather than achieves, although intent matters. We probed the question of whether joy can be isolated from suffering; it is far from giddy. Joy often has proximity to sorrow, and grace allows the two to co-exist. Hebrews describes the life of Jesus as having the telos of joy: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame . . .” (12:2b). Joy was the fruit of faithfulness, not the focus of his pursuit.
“Gratitude – even in the exigencies of life – becomes the fuel for joy.”
Gratitude – even in the exigencies of life – becomes the fuel for joy. When we stop focusing on our own performance and relinquish control, joy may surprise us. Gratitude, like other virtues, is a habit acquired across time through intentional practices. Set in a transcendent narrative, giving thanks is a constructive way to find coordinates to navigate life toward the joy God grants each of us.
The work of joy is communal, as Jesus taught us. What he had learned from his Abba, he shared. His own life became the demonstration plot for how we are to live. His chief desire was for his joy to be in us “and that [our] joy may be complete” (John 15:11). This would only happen through the thick ties of relationship. It is the Spirit who makes it possible to feel the depths of our human experience. The Spirit makes us present to one another and to ourselves.
A peloton is a pack of bicycle riders who make the journey together, similar to birds that fly in formation. They draft off one another while the leader takes the brunt of the wind. The riders must be exquisitely attuned to one another as they ride closely together to conserve energy; they exchange places as needed, and all benefit from this communal enterprise. Human thriving occurs as we accompany one another toward our eschatological future.
“A joyful life opens up the human imagination to what God desires for the world.”
Joy is available in the good gifts of God’s creation and, as Mary Oliver writes, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather it is a lavish gift that draws us toward our true home in God. Joy makes us more human and more holy, a “response to what should be, offering an alternative vision,” in the words of Pam Ebstyne King of Fuller Seminary. Not surprising, joy and justice are closely related.
When we genuinely pursue the common good with all the energy and vision we can summon, not only is a community transformed, but so are those who give themselves to the joyful work of justice. It is not only good for humanity, but God as well! As the beloved hymn For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table intones
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
A joyful life opens up the human imagination to what God desires for the world. No wonder it is a wellspring for human flourishing. Joy occurs as we seek to follow the pathway of Jesus, one who embraced the ultimate joy ride.