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"Joy" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on August 16, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Jennifer Gleichauf

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Psalm 30




One of the surprising things about the work and reading I’ve done around anti-racism is how frequently the topic of Black joy comes up.  Many of the thought leaders I’ve read or listened to, regularly bring up the great capacity for joy in the Black community.  At first, this surprised me, because these discussions about joy happen alongside discussions of systematic oppression and some of the worst stories of human suffering.   But there it is – alongside learning about chattel slavery and civil rights movements and lynchings and white supremacy, there are also stories of incredible, tangible joy in the Black community.  The kind of joy which leads to dancing vigorously, singing boldly and laughing loudly.  It’s the kind of joy which is not reliant on one’s external circumstances.  And as I have heard this talk about Black joy, more and more, I’ve come to understand that this great joy is inextricably linked to great sorrow – that there is a link between joy and sorrow when they are known deeply. 


This idea is confirmed in Psalm 30.  The Psalmist talks about God turning their mourning into dancing and their weeping into joy.  Sometimes people hear that as a promise that if we follow God, God will turn our whole lives into one big dancing joy – that there will be no more mourning or weeping.  But, the psalm doesn’t say God turns our mourning into dancing and then we will never mourn again, or turns our weeping into joy and we will never weep again.  A better reading of the Psalm understands that when we are in relationship with God, our sorrow will come to know joy and the inverse is also true, our joy will come to know sorrow. 


Because the joy which Psalm 30 talks about is not the same as the fleeting feeling of happiness.  Real joy is not about our daily response to the external circumstances in our lives.  Just as real sorrow is not the same as the fleeting feeling of sadness.  Sorrow is the deep understanding of what has been lost, not only by us as individuals, but collectively.  Sorrow is the knowing of all that is broken and battered and painful in the world.  And similarly, joy is the deep understanding of all that is possible and beautiful and available to us in the world.


Rob Bell spoke about this in a program he did called an Introduction to Joy.  In it he describes meeting the Dali Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Going into the meeting, he expected it to be heavy and serious.  He imagined these men, who have seen some of the worst in humanity and who are leaders in the world for serious issues, would be serious, heavy men.  But instead, they greeted each other with hugs and actually tickled each other and giggled.  And then went on to share a great deal of laughter. Instead of feeling like a heavy, serious meeting, Bell experienced them as having an incredible lightness of spirit and he realized,


“There is a lightness that comes from ignorance, indifference, and naiveite.  There is a lightness that doesn’t acknowledge the sorrow, anguish, pain and heartbreak of life. Then, there is that thing that happens when you move from lightness into the heaviness of life.  You experience your first dark night of the soul. It’s like being held under by a wave, it’s like suffocating, it’s like being pulled into a vortex.  We generally resort to images and metaphors to explain these experiences.  We brush up against that existential shudder that sends a cold shudder down our spine.  We lose our taste for life.  There is that heaviness that makes us wonder what the point of any of this is.  There is that heaviness.  But watching the two of them (Bishop Tutu and the Dali Lama he says) I have this moment of “ohhh.”  (and realize) if you go all the way into the heaviness apparently, you come out the other side into some sort of lightness on the other side of heaviness....A lightness that does not come from ignorance, indifference or naivete, but is fully informed how this thing can stomp on your heart and choke the life right out of you. And what happened is all that heaviness, alerted it to the sacred, precious, vapor-like nature of this experience that we’re having.  And this lightness says, “yeah I know, I know how dark it can get, I know how painful it can get, yeah, that’s why I’m going to enjoy it so much while I have it.  This is why joy is not threatened by pain, angst, loss, betrayal.  Joy wraps its arms around the full spectrum of the human experience.  Joy never denies; it never represses; it never avoids.  When we bring each other long lists of all that’s wrong with the world, joy never says “no that’s not how it is”  Joy says, “yeah, uh-huh, yeah, yeah, and that can happen and that can happen and that did happen and that could get even worse, yeah, yeah ,that’s why we’re enjoying it so much right now, cause we know how fragile it can be and how it can go south on you so fast.”[1]


These men, the Dali Lama and Bishop Tutu, know sorrow.  They know the sorrow of this world in profound ways – in their own lives and in the lives of the people they lead.  They have seen the worst of the world.  They have lost things and people.  They have known grief and betrayal and suffering.  They have lived in and through great sorrow.


But they have also held joy.  And they know how much beauty and delight and good and kindness and compassion and possibility there is in the world.  There are opportunities to love and be loved; to know kindness and experience healing; to make meaning and purpose of your life in good work; to be a part of something bigger than yourself in the cause of peace; to care for others, even those you’ll never meet. 


An author named Sonya Renee Taylor, recently said something that really stopped me in my tracks.  She was talking about how she works to embody joy, to really bring the feeling of joy into her body, and she said, “I am embodying joy, recognizing that sorrow is unavoidable.  But joy, should we choose to allow it, is also unavoidable.  It is available to us in equal and as impactful measure as that which is sorrow.”[2]


I was struck by this because I had never thought of joy this way.  I do think about sorrow as often unavoidable – death, loss, pain are all things we often can’t prevent or plan.  And those moments or experiences of sorrow typically do have a deep impact on our life – transforming us and changing the way we see the world.  But I had never thought of joy as unavoidable – that joy will come into our lives without our planning for it.  But it’s true – I don’t plan amazing sunsets or meeting the person who becomes my best friend or falling in love.  And the things which bring us joy, also have profound impacts on our lives – often equal to and as impactful as sorrow. 


In this time, there is much to feel sorrow about.  The corona virus has changed our lives in substantial ways. People have died.  People have lost loved ones and jobs and livelihoods.  There is a lot of fear.  There are no clear answers.  And there is a great movement for greater justice in our country for people of color and many of us are understanding the past and present in new ways – and we feel sorrow about how much damage has been done, how much hurt and pain exists.  And we feel so very polarized and at odds with one another as a country.  There is a great deal to feel sorrow about.


And it is actually really important that we not just try to rush out of the sorrow.  So often, we want to rush out of sorrow.  We want it to be over and done.  It is hard to sit in the pain and sadness.  We want a vaccine so it will all go back to “normal”. We want quick answers and fixes to systemic problems – maybe if we just rename a few things or take down a few statues we can make it stop.  We think if we just get the person we want elected, elected then everything will get better.  Just get us out of the sorrow.  And these quick fixes, well, they do work.  At least, they work for a moment.  Quick fixes to sorrow are the kinds of things that do let us feel happy for a bit or let us feel like we did something, or they give us an excuse to move on or at the least they let us say we tried. 


But scripture insists time and again that we need sorrow in order to have joy. Because scripture tells us that sorrow and joy are more than fleeting feelings – they are spiritual states of being, they are what underlie all our more fleeting feelings of happiness and sadness, anger and amusement.  And to have one, we need the other.  Each informs the other more deeply about how precious and fragile this gift of life is.  And so we need to sit with each of them when they come and try to learn what they have to teach us.  So, we need to sit with the sorrow of this time.  We need to let the sorrow of this time teach us what it has to teach us about what it is to fear death and being isolated and to better understand our history and accept hard truths about our present and know that none of it is going to be easily fixed. 


But there is joy in this time too.  There are virtual choirs and hearts on windows.  There are families finding new ways to support each other and a new generation of people taking to the streets to make change.  There is beautiful art being made and the natural world goes on – the trees and ducks and tomato plants are doing what they always do.  There are beautiful sunsets and phone calls with dear friends.  There is meaning to be made in work for peace and justice and love. 


And so we sit with that joy too.  And let it teach us what we need to know about the beauty and possibility of life.  And that while none of it may be easily fixed, there is joy and hope and love found in the trying.  


There is joy – unavoidable joy – available to all of us in an equal and as impactful measure as the sorrow.  May we find it and allow it to bring us together like sorrow so often does.  May our knowledge of joy and sorrow allow our mourning to become dancing and our weeping to become joy and all of it deepen our experience of the holy love which surrounds us always.  Amen.


[1] Bell, R. (2020, July 18). Introduction to Joy. Retrieved from


[2] Taylor, S. (2020, August 5). Oy Update: Unapologetically inhabiting my joy by the river. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from


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