How do you talk about joy in times like these and not sound like a traveling salesman with a bottle of snake oil up his sleeve?
Recently, I received word that Robert Gittelson, the cofounder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, had died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Over the next seven days, the prolific 63-year-old comedian and actor, Robin Williams, committed suicide, and revered screen legend, Lauren Bacall, passed away at the age of 89.
Track back a few weeks, reports of three separate senseless deaths of black men at the hands of police officers rocked the nation:
1. Eric Garner, 43, was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street in Staten Island when two police officers approached him and attempted to arrest him. Mr. Garner put his hands up, but Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner, an asthmatic, in a chokehold—which the NYPD has banned—and wrestled him to the ground. He continued to apply the chokehold even after Garner warned that he couldn’t breathe multiple times. Garner died.
2. John Crawford, 22, was in an Ohio Walmart speaking on a cell phone with the mother of his children while holding a toy rifle that he’d picked up from a nearby shelf. A shopper got concerned and called the police. According to reports, police demanded that he drop the weapon. Crawford allegedly said, “It’s not real.” They shot him. He screamed and cried, according to the woman on the cell phone. Then he died.
3. Michael Brown, 18, was a few days from entering his freshman year in college when he was gunned down by a police officer while walking home from a convenience store. Eyewitnesses and police have offered disputing accounts.
Over the same period, the nation was glued to news of missionary doctors entering the United States to receive treatment for the Ebola virus. Then, this week, the U.S. manufacturer of the experimental Ebola antibody said they had run out of the drug.
CNN aired dramatic footage from one of its reporters embedded on an Iraqi military helicopter mission that dropped boxes of food and water and rescued desperate Yazidi Iraqis hiding on a mountaintop to flee persecution by the Sunni militant group, ISIS.
Oh, did I mention that House Republicans voted to sue President Obama for not enforcing part of the Affordable Care Act that they tried to prevent earlier? Meanwhile, the president announced plans for executive action on immigration reform despite the most inactive Congress in modern American history.
So … to think of joy right now, reminds me of snake oil.
When we planned to focus this issue of Faith in Action on the spiritual discipline of joy we had no idea how challenging that call would be.
When I think of joy, I think of women in sundresses running through fields of daisies, blankets and baskets brimming with great food and wine in tow. I think of babies laughing and little girls playing hopscotch and little boys playing marbles.
But perhaps none of that is joy after all. Perhaps what my youth group leader told me years ago is true. Those are images of happiness. They are fleeting. Joy runs deeper.
Joy is like the deepest leagues of the ocean. Though hurricanes rage above, it stands still. Joy is like the sun and the moon: No matter what happens on earth, they are constant. They rise and rise and rise again.
Joy smiles—period. It is almost sly, smiling in the face of disaster, as if it knows a secret.
Or, does joy smile in the face of disasters as a non-violent weapon wielded against the lie that all is lost?
Joy’s smile states simply, with the only energy it can muster in the face of this fallen world: All is not lost. This is not the end of the story. And though the world rages around me and may threaten my very being, I am whole and complete because God is.
Maybe that’s where Paul’s charge to the Philippians comes from. This man who endured persecution, shipwreck, poverty, and Roman oppression said, unequivocally: Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Perhaps joy brings peace because joy lives in the deep…and God is in the deep. So, on this day when news cycles rage and injustices beg to be engaged, in the middle of hurricanes raging, I feel a smile forming in the deep waters of my soul.
Peace is coming.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.