“It is pleasing to the dear God whenever thou rejoicest or laughest from the bottom of thy heart.” –Martin Luther
“The size of a man’s understanding might be justly measured by his mirth.” -Samuel Johnson
Light shines on the righteous, and joy on the upright in heart. Psalm 97:11
Her favorite question to ask is, “What’s your most embarrassing story?” or, if you see her more often, “Any embarrassing moments lately?” I’m perpetually lacking in such stories–the fear of mortification keeps me in the shallow end of life’s pool–so when the question comes to me, I shake my head. I have no such stories to offer. Unfazed, she goes down the line of strangers or friends, until she’s found a juicy one.
As the teller divulges their most awkward moments, pink-faced and hesitant, looking as if they have no idea how they were persuaded to do so but doing it all the same, Annie sits in rapt attention. She asks questions, squeezes out every uncomfortable detail, until finally, the storyteller is warmly congratulated with hearty laughs and exclamations, and given thanks but also sympathy, because inevitably Annie’s got a similar story, and oftener than not, one that’s infinitely worse.
If stories were duels, Annie’s would be left standing. Every. Time.
And she has hundreds.
They are told with relish, fanfare, and sometimes props. Like fine wine, they ripen and better with age. I’ve heard some dozens of times; others pop out of the clear blue air like bumblebees on the wind, spreading their pollen of laughter, snorting, and tears. For these, a How come I’ve never heard that one? will hobble and hiccup out of my mouth, where it’s met with a spritely twinkle of the eye, a mischievous grin, a squeal of glee. There are tales you’d swear must be a fiction–if it weren’t for the person doing the telling. Annie’s no liar; an embellisher, maybe, but her embellishments are never false, only the mark of a true artist. She knows how to spotlight the right facial expressions, sound effects, and reenactments for optimal effect. The result is brilliant. And after every story I’m left to ponder just this: that if I am wading in life’s shallow end, floaties securely fastened, then Annie’s doing flips off the diving board.
Neatly put, if it’s equally amazing and embarrassing, it’s happened to her. Gloriously.
Surely not, you may think. Has she–oh, I don’t know–set her arm on fire in a crowded restaurant?
Why, yes. Yes she has. And if you’re wondering if goose-down coats smell rancid when burnt, the answer is yes. Also, if you forget to stop, drop, and roll, snow banks make excellent fire retardant.
I rest my case.
But that’s not all. Annie’s pool of mirth runs deep. She’ll take any dare:
“Dare me to do a handstand in the 40 degree lake with my clothes on?”
“Do you dare me?”
Children flock to her. Women trip over themselves to get a word with her. Our husbands shake their heads in mock-bewilderment at her, but turn to hide their smiles.
I’ve seen cashiers and waiters grin, homeless teenagers laugh, strippers giggle, even the stodgiest, most stoic faces crack smiles in her presence.
If there is one word to sum up Annie, it is:
It’s a joy that’s contagious. For in a world that looks for happiness under every rock and tree, chases fleeting moments of pleasure only to be left empty-handed when the purse has worn out, the relationship has ended, the accolade given to another,
True joy is electric.
It shimmers. It shocks. It is lightning to weary souls. It is sunbeam and star-shine; glitter and spotlight. We are drawn to it, like the moth to the flame, not knowing its power, only struck by its presence.
Wholly apart from silliness for the sake of silliness, temporary pleasure, or that hard-to-pin definition of happiness, joy finds its stores in a deeper well, one that many times has tapped into a spring that finds both joy and sorrow intermixed. As with all God’s many ironies, joy is often found hand-in-hand with sorrow, because it is with sorrow that joy can be seen in relief.
Sorrow is the purifying fire; joy is the gold.
Annie’s joy is just that, precisely because she’s been through the furnace of mourning. Been through, and come out, filled up with the solid gold of her Father’s joy. For, for all of her embarrassing, gut-splitting stories, she has just as many heart-breaking ones. Stories of substance abuse, and insecurity. Stories of absent and abusive fathers. The tragic death of her brother. Abortion. A prodigal child. A failed marriage. Molestation. Rape.
Any one of these stories has the ability to eat away, to strip off every last layer of joy, and yet, they have done quite the opposite. Once placed in the able hands of her God, He did for Annie what He did for David: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent…” (Psalm 30:11-12). God did for her what He promises all of us: his bestowal of “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Is. 61:3).
God took the spotlight off the ashes, the mourning, the despair, and He placed it on joy. He placed it on…
Joy is a three-ring circus, and God himself is the opening act, the main event, the grand finale.
As Margaret Feinberg points out in her new book, Fight Back With Joy, in which she chronicles her quest to find joy in the midst of a terrifying battle with cancer, from the very beginning of time, from the start of the show, God has taken joy in his handiwork. He saw that his creation was good, and he “delighted” in it. In Psalm 65:8, the psalmist sings, “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.”
Unbelievably, “for the joy set before him,” Jesus, the main attraction, endured the cross (Heb. 12:2).
And, so too will it be in the grand finale, when the final act is finished and the curtain of eternity is drawn for the encore. “Yet we have this assurance: Those who belong to God shall live again. Their bodies shall rise again! Those who dwell in the dust shall awake and sing for joy! For God’s light of life will fall like dew upon them!” (Is. 26:19).
He is joy. And joy is our “heritage, purpose, and destiny,” for, as Margaret says, “we are created for joy.”
Joy–it’s a three-ring circus, and God is every act. Like Annie, God spotlights the right places in His story–those amazing feats; His death-defying act–making it one you never tire of hearing, brilliant and glorious. Under His circus tent of joy, light shines on the gold, and the rest is swallowed up in darkness.
My spectacular friend, Annie, knows this, just as she knows Him. She skips under His tents and signs up for the high dive. She splashes and jumps, kicks and flips, gives not one thought to whether she strikes a figure in her bathing suit, or whether mascara is running down her face. She delights. If God has provided a pool of joy, she’s diving in. No swim cap, no floaties.
Maybe it’s about time I took a lap in the deep end.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.