Today's posting on noticing joy is offered to us by a guest, Sue Magrath. For more information about Sue, please see her brief bio at the end of the post or you can visit her website at Sacred Mountain Ministries.
“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psalm 16:11 (NIV)
When I think about joy, I am taken back to Sunday school and church camp, where we sang so lustily, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart . . . .” And if I’m being honest, I sometimes wonder where that joy went. Gone are the days of that youthful innocence and enthusiasm. Life now is far more complicated and full of too many commitments, too much worry and too much cynicism to find it easy to tap into that childhood joy. It seems that experiences of joy are few and far between, despite Paul’s invitation to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Face it; we are a “nose to the grindstone” culture, and there just isn’t time for the luxury of joy! But I see another insidious obstacle to joy in the American ethos, even in the church. That obstacle is entitlement.
Our expectations get in the way. Our minimum requirements for a satisfactory life are a roof over our heads, food in our belly, at least one car in the garage, a decent job, a church that fills our spiritual needs, etc. Our prayers could often be described as a shopping list of all the things we expect God to provide. And when this is what we expect, joy only occurs when our life exceeds expectation. This leaves very little opportunity for us to be surprised by grace. We are so focused on maintaining the status quo that we have little time for reflection or contemplation. We are no longer awake to what Brother David Steindl-Rast calls superfluous grace. Awareness of the blessings of life requires mindfulness, the practice of noticing and being present to the world around us. I wonder what would happen if we lived with the same attitude as the mystics, whose main spiritual practice is that of letting go. Letting go of expectations, attachments, ego, and certainty. Surely, once we stripped all of that away, we would discover that the only true essential to life is breath. All else is grace.
And when everything around you is divine gift, gratitude is the natural human response, and from gratitude, joy. When we approach all of creation with holy wonder, awakening to God’s surprising presence, we enter into the cathedral of awe, a place of true worship that we might call joy. With eyes wide open and ears tuned to the music of angels, we see and hear God everywhere.
When my kids were little, I remember times when I had the opportunity to watch them play from a distance, a moment apart from all the tasks of motherhood, and I would feel such gratitude and joy for these little people whom God placed in my care. It’s still that way for me when we have the good fortune to be together now that they’re adults. They are my treasure, and they give me great joy. Maybe we need to apply the distance principle to all of the abundant gifts of life. Stopping to breath and to notice, to disengage ourselves from the automatic daily grooves we fall into so that we can see how truly blessed we are. This requires time set apart, something that God built into our relationship from the beginning and called Sabbath.
Call me crazy, but when God said, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” I don’t recall any mention of, “Go to church so you can host coffee hour, act as usher or sound technician, and attend at least one meeting immediately after worship.” I doubt that most of us jump out of bed on Sunday morning thinking about the holiness of all we have to do that day. Maybe not even clergy. Often, I think the most holy thing we do on Sundays is to take a nap! What if, sometimes, instead of making our Sabbath an opportunity for more obligations, we did something radical, like spend time in creation or enjoy our families or make love with our spouse? Or follow the siren song of the angels and see where it takes you. Open your eyes to the orange and yellow flash of a tanager flitting through the woods, and find joy. Listen to the laughter of children, and discover joy. Feel wet sand squishing up between your toes, and be swept away by joy. Lose yourself in the windy, wildness of God, and be lifted into joy. Allow yourself to be surprised by grace, and you will truly rejoice in the Lord!
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in Leavenworth, WA. She is passionate about writing, spiritual formation and clergy wellness. Sue also spent 14 years as a mental health counselor.