Tidings of comfort and joy can be found in pews
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2011 - Joy Sunday: That's what Rev. Leslie Limbaugh of Third Baptist Church in Grand Center and many Christians call, the third Sunday of Advent, which was this week.
Catholics call it Gaudate (Latin for Joy) Sunday.
Episcopalians call it Rose Sunday because priests put aside Advent's penitential purple vestments and wear rose ones.
A scripture reading in most Christian churches on this day is St. Paul's letter that begins "Rejoice Always" from First Thessalonians 5:16-24. And God's will is explored in the Gospel reading: The Angel Gabriel asks the unmarried, teenage Mary if she is willing to bear the Messiah. She agrees without question because it's God's will for her. Joy builds over the next weeks for the great feasts of Christmas and Epiphany.
Frozen Chosen and Pickle Juice
Joy is sometimes not apparent among glum people leaving church services. Seat-sore attendees sometimes describe themselves, only half in jest, as being "the Frozen Chosen" after listening to pastors thunder on about sin, fire and brimstone. Rare is the artist who presents the Mayflower Pilgrims as smiling, much less laughing.
"I've heard people ask why people come out of church looking like they put their faces in pickle juice," said Bishop Robert Hermann of the St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese. He's known for entwining his joyful childhood stories of growing up in a large Missouri farm family during the Great Depression into his Gospel homilies.
While most faithful know that Jesus wept at the death of a friend, fewer see the humor in Jesus' stories about human foibles. At least some of that humor is lost because of cultural and language differences.
"So many Christians, because of a strict upbringing or some other reason, have thought joy is something one ought not think about or expect," said the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His office is in its world headquarters in Kirkwood, but he answered questions via email from Berlin where he was speaking last week.
"Others would love to experience more joy but are plagued by difficulties,'' he said. "I believe the Bible as God's word is intrinsically powerful, doing and creating what it says. And the Bible talks in a profound way about joy."
Harrison says it is too bad that people don't know that the Bible can make you laugh.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit writer known for his humor about Jesus and the saints, said, "A lighthearted sprit is an essential element of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life in general." Martin, who aims to keep St. Louis University graduates and their families laughing as he gives the commencement address next May, is cultural editor of America Magazine, the Jesuit weekly.
Martin points out that many theologians have found value in joy:
- Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican theologian, praised playfulness because it leads to relaxation.
- Teresa of Avila thought that "A sad nun is a bad nun."
- The 14th Persian Muslim mystic Hafiz wrote: "What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts, It is the glorious sound of a soul waking up."
- And Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that "laughter is the closest thing to God's grace."
Praise the Lord Anyway
Joyful people look outward and don't dwell on the small stuff, pastors say. They aren't whiners; they savor the wine God provides.
Hermann recalls a dreary, rainy day when he was stuck in traffic behind a car with a bumper sticker placed carefully over a large dent. "I was struggling with a lot of issues when I read the bumper sticker that said, 'Praise the Lord, Anyway.' That's what joy is about, we praise the Lord no matter and feel content about that," he said.
Hermann said he is impressed by people who can laugh and smile and have a joyful demeanor, despite being in dire circumstances far worse that any dented car.
"Even when someone is suffering from cancer, I have seen them filled with joy," Hermann said. "As [New York television preacher] Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say, 'There is a great waste of suffering in the world when people don't offer the suffering up to God. If they embrace their suffering, it can bring them peace.' "
Limbaugh has been in hospital rooms with her Third Baptist Church members when they received news of a fatal disease. Nothing that could be called happiness is in that room, but joy often seeps in, she said.
"After a horrible diagnosis, another family member may come in and they start remembering good times, joyful things, sometimes silly things," Limbaugh said. "So in the midst of suffering, we see joy."
She also finds joy bubbling forth when people find contentment in doing for others, such as building houses for the homeless, collecting food for a pantry, or even holding a dance marathon -- as happened at Washington University recently -- to raise money for sick children. Good works take individuals out of themselves and elevate routine actions to things of joy, she said.
Hermann emphasizes that joy does not come from material possessions, while others described seeing joy and delight on the faces of slum residents in Kenya and South America and earthquake survivors in Haiti or Japan.
Joy can come from observing the beauty of nature, as Harrison found when he flew over the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. A few years ago the Lutheran leader was disappointed that so little was written about Christian joy that he wrote "A Little Book on Joy - The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News Word." Published two years ago, its 21-page afterword guides the reader on 90 days worth of Scripture passages about joy that might brighten the new year.
"The response to the book has been quite a joyous surprise," Harrison said.
For 40 years David Peters, a Washington University mechanical engineering professor, has started the new year by reading the first pages of Genesis and has continued daily readings of the Bible through the end of December. To have a fresh look each year, Peters collects passages around a single theme. One year he sought out biblical humor. His jots grew into stacks, then took over his office.
Peters, who is an elder at Grace and Peace Presbyterian Church, said that humor often sharpened the Bible writers' points -- beginning with what he calls the dysfunctional families in Genesis. He found one of his favorite Bible jokes in Paul's letter to the Galatians 5:12 (parental alert, Paul didn't write for kids). In describing a ritual circumcision celebration in Galatia, Paul wrote, "I wish that those people who are commanding you to be circumcised would be cut off completely!"
He found one of his favorite Jesus jokes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:3): Matthew writes that Jesus asked, "How can you say 'Hey, I think I see a little speck in your eye,' when you have a log sticking out of your own eye?"
Peters, who has written several engineering books, transformed his notes into a 400-page book "The Many Faces of Biblical Humor," which a university publisher issued in 2007.
Martin, the Jesuit priest, said he got strange looks from some people when he suggested a book about religious jokes. But he said people enjoyed hearing that Pope John XXIII was "a scream" with self-effacing humor often directed at his wide girth and short stature.
Martin said that New York Archbishop Tim Dolan, a St. Louis native, is one of his favorite men of mirth and that Martin Luther also spun amusing jokes. Martin wrote about all them in "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life," published recently by Harper One.
Since the book came out, Martin said he's picked up a few "darn,-I-wish-I'd-known-that" ideas. A biblical scholar recently told Martin that Jesus was joking when he called his apostles John and James the "sons of thunder." The thunder was their very pushy mom who is quoted as asking if her sons were to sit next to Jesus at a banquet.
"It's Jesus' joke about a pushy mother," Martin said with a hearty laugh.
None of these three authors -- Harrison, Peters or Martin -- knew about each other's books until this interview but all had read "The Humor of Christ" written a half century ago by the late Elton Trueblood, a former Quaker chaplain at Stanford and Harvard universities. All say there are not enough books about mirth, joy and humor.
Sharing the Joy
The Rev. Mark Williams, pastor of Grace Methodist Church in the West End, said he welcomes these books about biblical humor.
"Humor is a great anxiety and fear reliever," he said.
This time of year services are joyful, but a lightness of spirit is good year around, Williams said.
"The real source of joy is ultimately having a perspective beyond this world and beyond our short years that we Christians, Jews and others who know God, are part of something really big, and it is good," he said.
The Rev. David Greenhaw, president and professor of preaching and worship at Eden Seminary in Webster Groves, teaches his students that recalling joy is also important at funerals. He suggests that they ask the bereaved what the deceased did on Christmas or other special occasions.
Out tumble stories and generally laughter, Greenhaw said. Sometimes, he add bits of those memories to solemn eulogies. At one funeral he injected the line, "Of course, we all could smell Arthur's cigar, it smelled awful." The bereaved laughed with gratitude bordering on joy as they recalled that happy memory of their beloved.
Helping Others Brings Joy
Joy can flourish when communities of generous people see God's will for them as loving others, the pastors said. Using humor to step back from stress and being humble enough to know that no one is indispensible relieves stress, too.
"When someone is in a crisis, the church community is very important, it's a way that God is manifest to (those suffering)," said the Rev. Teresa Danieley, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church across from Tower Grove Park as she prepared the church for the Rose Sunday nativity pageant.
The parish delights in the birth of members' children and sign up to provide meals for the first week or so after the mother and infant leave the hospital. This Advent the parish "giving tree" is the vehicle to provide essentials for a parish family in a financial crisis because of an illness and overwhelming medical bills.
"No amount of personal spirituality is going to get individuals through a crisis, but when the whole community is holding them up as a family in prayer and also helping out practically. That's where the joy and peace come," Danieley said. "People have the sense of belonging and feeling cared for."
The Rev. Carol Trissell, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis on South Broadway, is fond of assuring her members, mostly gay, lesbian and transgendered Christians and their families and friends, that God must have a sense of humor because of all the nutty circumstances that happen to most people. She finds that a sense of humor is a gift to enduring bigotry, persecution and other lumps in life's road.
Scholars point that the Old Testament associates joy with harvest, marriage and childbirth. The Christmas story is full of joy because it celebrates the long-awaited Messiah. Paul's letters link joy to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but he also introduced the idea of the joy of suffering. Some of his most joyous writing was done when Paul was imprisoned, associating his suffering with Jesus' suffering.
Hermann, the Catholic bishop, said, "Joy is not happiness. Joy brings peace and contentment in the midst of difficult circumstances. Happiness comes to us in positive circumstances. The Christian life is about joy because we have hope and we have faith that we are never alone and that we are loved just as we are."
Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has covered religion for years.