By Lisa Graham McMinn
One of my daughters spent six months as an intern in Malawi where she saw pain, suffering and injustice, and also joy. Megan Anna wrote:
“I have been reflecting on how in a world of cynicism, skepticism, hopelessness, and busyness one of the greatest testimonies to the life that is in Christ is joy. I’ve come here to experience all of Malawi—every Cherry Plum Soda, every hug, the small children with wide eyes, the crumbling ceilings, morning tea, the many times I choke on the word injustice because I had heard myself say it and think it so much and it doesn’t come near to doing justice to the injustices around me. But there are also nightly chats, when Grace makes a joke and we spend the night laughing. All of it—the pain and the joy—this is what I’ve come for, and it’s spectacular, part of the mystery of God’s creative hand. Mostly what I find here is joy. I’ve shared about the pain and suffering I’ve seen, but this is not my primary experience. Joy and celebration resound, and strong enough to get me through the questions of poverty, racism and injustice and keep me afloat. I used to live as if the greatest testimony was justice, but one can grow weary and bitter wrestling with the injustices in the world if they do not have joy and thankfulness as their starting point.”
Joy and suffering are paradoxical. Once all other options have been exhausted, in suffering we might finally experience the sufficiency of God’s grace as we look to God as the ultimate source of shalom and rest. Maybe most of us don’t think we’ve exhausted our options yet. We still think we’re in control, and maybe that’s why joy in the midst of suffering is hard for us.
On choosing joy, Henri Nouwen says:
“The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”
Pronouncing words has an effect on us. When I sit with people in spiritual direction they sometimes speak a phrase that changes how they see a thing. We hold that newly spoken thought, letting it seep in. When we can say, “I choose joy. I am content,” we begin to create a willingness and desire to pursue contentment in spite of our circumstances. We can live in anticipation that all creation will return from whence it came--into the arms of God--and accept the gift of existence with joy, recognizing the moment-by-moment beauty and wonder of life.
I need reminding of that sometimes. Along with Megan Anna’s Malawian teachers, the words of Julian of Norwich remind me of others throughout time who worked to embrace this hard truth: “All will be well, all manner of things shall be well.”
People who live into hard things with grace develop a kind of fortitude, a mellowness of heart, which is a way of being that is openly receptive to God so that our lives lean toward a posture of grace, thanksgiving, blessing and goodness.
A mellow heart lets go of the need for control and looks for the good that might come from the unexpected. The mellow-hearted become ever more preoccupied with the goodness and mercy of God, eagerly looking to partner with God to bring mercy and justice to others. Mellowness of heart comes from learning to yield preoccupation with myself in favor of a vision of the goodness of God, and to see my soul as part of an interconnected whole held by God. From such a posture we can better embrace what God allows, even when it is that which we most want to avoid.
Prayer might become, Dear Coherent Mercy, may it be so.
1 As quoted in The Contented Soul, by Lisa McMinn (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), p. 59-60.
After 20 years as sociology professor Lisa became a Writer in Residence at George Fox University, and now meanders the woods and tends goats, hens, gardens, and sometimes bees. When she’s not outside she's likely savoring her current course in The Living School (affiliated with Richard Rohr’s Center for Contemplative Action), reading, writing, making goat-milk soap, or listening to the nudges of God with one of her spiritual directees. Lisa is a contemplative Quaker who seeks to see each storied life as part of a bigger story—all of them held together by God. She and her husband live on Fern Creek, a small farm a few miles outside of Newberg, Oregon. Connect with Lisa more at https://www.ferncreekfarm.com/