Joy in a Shadow
Over the last few years I’ve been realizing that I have a real coping problem.
I numb joy. The longer I live here, the more joy I encounter, and the more intense and destructive my coping has become. I knew I had some coping problems, but in the last week I have had light after light going off, and I’m truly excited about how what I have learned will change my life and alter the way I lead JUSTembrace into the future!
Before I got to this place of unhealthily coping with joy, I had one coping tool – tears. I cry about everything good and beautiful in my life and even in the lives of others. At weddings, while babysitting, in an intimate conversation with a friend, while retelling a story of my most meaningful moments – all of these and many more, illicit tears.
The truth is, I thought that the reality that joy brought me to tears was a badge of honor; a sign of spiritual maturity or the mark of depth. I somehow thought it made me special.
There’s no doubt that I am wired for and called into the painful places in life, and that I love meeting people in their pain, identifying with their suffering and dignifying their humanity and experience.
My friend Jordan said it this way: “Sher, you’re all about the death of Christ, but you don’t get the resurrection.”
Ouch. But true.
In a culture where we hide from pain, we avoid the ugly, we spend our lives hiding from the inevitable – I have not found a lack of opportunity to highlight and celebrate the beautiful brokenness in and around us. However – Joy has never been grafted into my lifestyle well.
In truth, I’m not a lot of fun.
I realize that might seem like a strange thing for a girl who’s chosen a life of throwing parties, but it’s painfully true.
I don’t like to joke, I don’t like to dance, I’m rarely lighthearted and I’m never, ever care-free. I don’t even like to watch other people dance.
I never stop thinking and my heart is always fully engaged in everything I’m doing. I am continually a mile below the surface, even if I’m just walking down the street to get tacos on my lunch break. Over the last two years I have realized that I am quite literally Debbie Downer.
Although, while I am not fun, I still have an eye for beauty. I can find reasons to celebrate life and be joyful in the darkest of places and circumstances. This is where those tears come in. The very idea of any other expression of joy terrifies me.
So of course, I kept digging.
What I realized made so much sense. I hope that others who read this and struggle with joy might find a little nugget of self awareness in this revelation.
For me, Joy is in a shadow.
When I was 8 years old and my family lost my older sister, joy went into hiding. There’s no doubt our family was filled with uninhibited joy before that tragic loss. Even though my parents brought their own challenges into their marriage and therefore into our lives growing up, there was always ample joy. Once one of the members of our 5 person family was gone, celebration seemed impossible at best and like betrayal at worst.
As this began to dawn on me, I couldn’t help but consider how impressionable an 8 year old is. I believe that I was re-wired at that young age until eventually all I knew was how to experience joy through grief.
You see, there was still joy. We didn’t stop celebrating altogether (in fact, I am certain my family taught me to appreciate beauty in all things, especially the hidden things) but we were compelled to grieve in our celebrations. We didn’t sit down to the kitchen table as a family of 4 for a meal for years. A formerly very musical family, we are just now, in my adulthood, beginning to sing together again. Birthdays, holidays, family vacations, nightly dinner as well as many other simple celebrations in the life of a family were covered in a shroud of deep sorrow and loss.
So here I am – 33 years old, and unable to sit with joy or find expression for it beyond tears.
This is not the end of my story.
As I began to process this, my counselor said; “Sher, your community needs to experience joy too.” That is compelling. I do not want to live my life, and lead JUSTembrace only in the application of the death and suffering of Christ. I want to live in the fullness of the Gospel – which is not complete without the resurrection and the future hope of eternal restoration!
This holiday season, I want to steep in joy. I will try to learn how to celebrate in new ways. I will try to stop numbing my joy and start sitting in it, celebrating and rejoicing with the community of friends I am so blessed with, as they remind me to continue through Christ’s death into the glory of his resurrection and the hope of his return!
For those of you who have been journeying with JUSTembrace over the years, thank you for sitting in the pain with us. Thank you for grieving with us and remaining present as we have processed the horrors of systemic injustice and inequality. Thank you for having the courage to follow Christ to the cross, and not numbing the pain. Please join me in this new season of removing joy from the shadows. Pray for us, that we will be guided by the Holy Spirit into this new life. Pray that we find healthy ways to celebrate as a community that do not compartmentalize the pain and the joy – and that we can grow in having a holistic rhythm of sorrow, grief, joy and celebration as the life of our community dictates.
I will be praying for you as well; that those who are also unable to tap into the essence of Joy without the pain of loss or trauma or fear forcing their joy into a shadow – that our growth as a community can serve as a prompting out of those shadows.
For further reflection, I highly recommend this sermon. After a full week of processing everything I’ve just written, my pastor preached this sermon. It reveals a core lie that has greatly contributed to the shadows that keep me from the fullness of the power of God. It’s fantastic. I know I will listen to it a dozen times before the year is over as I take on this new vision of living in the fullness of joy!