Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
12-16-20 Journey to Joy
It’s a strange paradox that in the midst of one of the most challenging times of my life, I am experiencing a lot of joy. For weeks I would drive back and forth to the hospital and then the rehabilitation center to visit my husband Stuart after his surgery. Each day I would drive by a dolphin that had been carved out of the stump of a tree that had been taken down. I love dolphins. The way they move through the water seems so playful and fun, and their mouths seem to express a perpetual smile. They make me smile.
But this wooden dolphin was especially precious because it was made by someone who intentionally brought life from death. It was a symbol for me of what God does for us in Christ. It was a symbol reminding me of what God can do for us, even in the midst of crisis. Joy.
More recently my husband and I returned to the Schar Cancer Institute so that he could receive his first immunotherapy infusion. There in the most unlikely place was a woman playing Christmas songs on her harp, bringing music to our ears and joy to our hearts. Waiting is usually an inconvenience, but that day I hoped Stuart would not get called into his appointment until she was done playing. And that’s what happened. Joy.
Then on Sunday, “Joy” literally landed in front of our house as a dear soul carded our yard. This gift was a beautiful expression of love and thoughtfulness from a friend, but it was also a sign from God (a literal one at that) about joy in my life.
My twin sister visited us six weeks ago at the time of Stuart’s surgery. She said something that caught my attention. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like this: “You always say that you feel the depth of negative emotions, but I have noticed that you also experience a deeper sense of joy.”
I was surprised by this statement, and I’ve been thinking about it since. To have someone who has literally known me all of my life recognize joy made me wake up and pay attention. I believe God was speaking through her to help me realize to a greater degree God’s great work in my life.
Years ago I heard or read somewhere that joy and gratitude are the hallmark of the Christian life. I have remembered it all these years because it was a contrast and challenge to my basic temperament of melancholy and grumbling. It’s strange because I had a wonderful childhood and family, but I simply saw what was wrong before I saw what was good and right.
When I started walking with the Lord, I remember having a deep sense of joy due to an awareness of God’s presence like I had never known it. It was wonderful, a blessing to be sure. But there were difficult times as well, and the sense of joy would unravel due to experiences of grief and loss. Perhaps I was only experiencing happiness due to my circumstances, but I think it was more that. I wasn’t spiritually mature enough to hold in paradox the reality that we can feel grief and joy at the same time. I was still in the black-and-white way of thinking that is normal and characteristic of earlier stages of development.
My intentional journey toward joy came when I had my midlife crisis in my mid 30’s. There were struggles in my life that I have written about before, and some of them were very painful. But I remember well the day I awoke and named the truth about my experience. The statement about the hallmark of the Christian faith being joy and gratitude came to mind. At this time, I was a newly ordained pastor responsible not only for living the truth but for teaching and preaching the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the truth was that I had no joy, and this was a problem. It was the deep awareness of my spiritual malaise that launched me on the journey to joy.
In his kindness and sovereignty, the Lord enabled me to connect with a spiritual director who led me into new understandings of the spiritual life and new practices that helped me begin to shed the false beliefs and attitudes that were dragging me down and begin to experience again the joy of the Lord.
Along with the classic disciplines of reading and meditating on scripture, worship, prayer, and spiritual friendship, one of the most helpful practices has been examen. In her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun writes, “The examen is a practice for discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day.… The practice of examen includes a regular time of placing myself in the presence of God to ask the following two questions (possible ways of asking the questions are below): maybe I should include fewer examples?
- For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?
- When did I give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today?
- What was the most life-giving part of my day? What was the most life-thwarting part of my day?
- When today did I have the deepest sense of connection with God, others and myself? When today did I have the least sense of connection?
- Where was I aware of living out of the fruit of the Spirit? Where was there an absence of the fruit of the Spirit?
- Where did I experience ‘desolation’? Where did I find ‘consolation’?”
The Lord has used the practices of examen to help lead me to joy. It forced me to not only look at what was wrong and draining each day, but the practice helped me to choose to notice and remember what was good and right, and then to choose to rejoice and give thanks.
As I have shared before, my verse for this year (and really my life) has been 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” We can always rejoice, not because our circumstances are what we desire but because God is with us and has promised never to leave us. Praying without ceasing is about living in continual communion with and having an ongoing conversation with God throughout each day. And we can give thanks not for everything but in everything trusting in the love and goodness of God no matter what comes.
The shifts that have happened in my life have been slow and gradual—not dramatic. But they have been noticeable to others sometimes before they are noticeable to me. That was true years ago when I was serving in my first church and those shifts began to happen. And it happened again more recently when my sister visited.
God is certainly not done working on me yet, and those close to me know that better than any. The truth is, I’m still on that journey from grumbling to gratitude, from melancholy to joy. But the intentional practice of examen and gratitude have been extremely helpful in my journey to joy. That has been especially true in 2020, which has been an unusually difficult year.
Years ago I read Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal, which spoke to me and challenged me in many ways. He writes, “Gratitude claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift, a gift to be celebrated with joy. It must be lived with discipline, not just as spontaneous responses to the awareness of gifts received; it must be a conscious choice.”
Our joy and gratitude (or lack of it) are a reflection of our walk with Christ. Joy is not just what we sing about at Christmas. It is not just what we experience when all is well. Joy is rooted in Jesus and what he has done for us. Joy is a fruit of God’s Spirit that can be cultivated by intentional disciplines of examen and gratitude. And what’s more, we can experience joy in all the circumstances of our lives whatever they may be.
Joy! Joy! Joy!