On Joy: Prayers & Reflections

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a 4-part series for Advent 2022 by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

God,

There is a space within us empty until filled with joy.

There is a child within us yearning to be free, laughing, 

living in the present.

God, take down the barriers that separate us from one another.

Spark joy in connection.

Our competitive urges are deep-seated, 

but there is no joy in winning at another’s expense. 

There is only joy in flourishing together.

There is joy when the hungry are filled, 

as Mary prophesied.

You bring joy as the poor are satisfied.

You bring joy as you make your favor known.

You bring joy as you reverse what needs to be reversed,

as you shift what needs to be shifted under our feet,

as you transform what needs to be transformed, 

so that everyone has enough.

Bring joy as the table is set and the feast laid out for everyone.

Bring joy as sustenance of all sorts is shared and not hoarded,

as we face the future bravely because we are held 

by you and by one another.

We will not let go, and we will not be let go of.

God, we thirst for moments of joy in these weary times. 

Our souls are parched for it.

Amen.

 

This is not an easy time to find joy. 

Sometimes it feels like we either turn away from the suffering in our world—and in our own lives—and do whatever it takes to be happy, or else we embrace the fullness of reality but forgo joy. 

Where is God in this? Surely God is not a God of escapism, nor of total unrelenting despair.

I see Mary navigating these tensions as she composes and sings her song, often known as the Magnificat, recorded in Luke 1:46-55. I hear joy in her voice. But it is not a naive joy. 

It is a prophetic call for God to scatter those who are proud, to bring rulers down from their thrones, to lift up the humble. It is a cry for God to fill the hungry and help God’s people in their time of need. It is a plea for mercy.

But it is also exuberant. My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. In Mary’s words I hear both suffering—or at least empathy for those who are suffering—and joy.

Activist and attorney Karen Walrond draws together some similar tensions in The Lightmaker’s Manifesto as she reflects on joy and activism. For Walrond, at its best activism involves individuals “answer[ing] a deeply held, personal call to make the world better”—and this “activism, rooted in meaning, helps to fulfill the activist’s purpose.” This deep, meaningful sense of purpose, in turn, leads to joy. 

Perhaps joy is best found indirectly. In this view, we aren’t necessarily trying to smile more, think more positive thoughts, or otherwise be more joyful. Instead, we’re trying to be attentive to God’s calling in our lives and follow this call as well as we can. 

We’re looking to do good and not evil in our world. We’re chasing meaning. We’re finding purpose. And in these things there will likely be, at some point, joy.

In a world that sometimes seems divided into cheery people who lack empathy and dour people who see what is wrong and work for change, Walrond reframes things. For Walrond, “joy and gratitude are the most important practices to cultivate in order to establish longevity in our marches toward justice.” And “bringing joy to the work…is one of the biggest secret ingredients to activism.”

I want that secret ingredient. I’m not sure how sustainable social change movements are without it. 

I’m also encouraged by Rebecca Solnit’s words: “Joy is itself an insurrectionary force against the dreariness and dullness and isolation of everyday life.” An insurrectionary force. A force with power. A force not to be underestimated. An essential force.

As we struggle, we remember the world we are struggling for: a world full of life, goodness, belovedness, connection, hope, joy. As Solnit writes, “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.” 

And this joy that sustains activism is experienced not in isolation but in community. As Cherríe Moraga explains, “If we are serious about a revolution—better—if we seriously believe there should be joy in our lives (real joy, not just ‘good times’), then we need one another…The real power, as you and I well know, is collective.”

We struggle together, and we celebrate together. We need one another. This is both a very serious thing and a joyful one. We find joy in communities united by a common sense of purpose. 

Joy and activism go hand in hand. May we learn how to hold them together. May we celebrate together—because celebration sustains us, and community sustains us. 

May we know the joy that comes through calling, through purpose. May we experience joy as insurrection against oppressive systems. May we know the God whose Spirit filled Mary with brimming-over joy.

Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, chaplain, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She has a BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. She regularly posts justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com; she can also be found on Facebook (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj). Her sermon on Ruth and Boaz was included in Sojourners’ collection of immigration sermons, El Camino.

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