Morning Zephyrs! Julie here. What word would you choose to sum up the photo montage below?
I’m currently spending a ridiculous proportion of my waking hours editing footage together for our online holiday club sessions next week – which is where I’ve sourced all these wonderful smiling faces! For me, they capture something which is at the very heart of everything that Zephaniah is – even virtual socially-distanced Zephaniah! And that something is joy.
It’s easy to under-value joy. It doesn’t feed people, or clothe them, or give them somewhere to live, or teach them new skills. But time and time again, through the work that we do, I am struck by just how transformational joy is and by just how very much the world thirsts for it.
The Bible has a surprising amount to say about joy – I say surprising because it’s not something I often hear talked about, preached about or discussed in Christian circles (though that could be my fault – I’m not always good at listening…). It’s the second of the listed fruits of the spirit in Galatians, between love and peace; Proverbs tells us “a joyful heart is good medicine”; and, of course, in Zephaniah 3:17, we hear how God rejoices (feels and shows great joy) over us with singing.
I wonder if one of the reasons joy is so easily under-valued is because we misunderstand it, we so often see it portrayed without nuance or depth (think Joy in Inside Out – bit annoying, right?). Joy isn’t about empty platitudes or choosing to be happy in spite of our burdens; it’s not about embracing vacuous motivational memes or pressuring ourselves to always think positively. True joy, I think, is stronger than that, it’s a spiritual discipline that, at its best, is rooted more deeply than trauma or fear or uncertainty, and that deep-rootedness means it can sustain us through dark times.
Those deep roots of joy anchor themselves in the soil of connection. They grow initially in our relationship with God, as we come to understand the joy he takes in us and in all of his creation. And as our connection with God moves us to connect more strongly with his world, we find joy in our relationships with each other. Joy in one another is found when we feel most connected, when we feel accepted in a way that enables us to take down our defences and embrace who we are. One of my most vibrant experiences of that kind of joy was a night with friends in a Northumbrian bunkhouse, when we unintentionally stayed up all night, laughing until the sun came up.
Joy is vital because it is strong enough to sustain us through the dark times. Relationships – with God and with each other – that are forged with deep roots of shared joy are strong enough to support us when things go wrong. The Bible is clear that suffering and joy go hand in hand. “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” (Psalm 126: 5-6)
At Zephaniah, this relationship of joy and sorrow entwined couldn’t be clearer. There is a vulnerability shared by both joy and sadness that means we are welcome in times of both. Taking the Zephaniah sense of joy into schools, churches and communities, sharing fun and laughter, singing and stories, means we can, naturally and in turn, share the sad times, spending time with classes of bereaved children, taking part in funerals, being a shoulder to cry on in the staff room or headteacher’s office. Those deep roots of joy sustain us – and each other – in troubled times.
What a privilege it is that we are able to do that through our work. “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (Philemon 1:7). Give thanks to God that we are able to refresh the hearts of his people.
We are only able to do what we do because we, in turn, are supported by others, by those who sustain us, who connect with us, who share their own joy with us, who give their time and their money, who cover us in prayer. Give thanks for all those who enable us to spread God’s joy and reflect him to those around us.
Lockdown has been hard in so many ways; not least because it has enforced disconnection from each other. But looking at the smiling faces I shared at the beginning – laughter that has come naturally to so many while preparing resources to reach out and shine virtual light into dark corners – has encouraged me. Because light and joy – those deep-rooted sustaining holy attributes – have not been stopped by lockdown. They simply find new ways to shine on.
In John 10, Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” When we take that gift from him and pass it on to others, we are doing God’s work. What a wonderful thing that is.
This is the most joyful thing I could think of sharing – have a watch and give yourselves a joy top-up…
May your days be joyful, Zephyrs!