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JOY, a holy longing

by Sharon Simpson


Have you tried to describe JOY? It’s difficult. If you’ve grown up in the church, you have heard that JOY and happiness are not the same. JOY is long-lasting and happiness is fleeting. JOY is based on principles and values. Happiness is based on circumstances and “things going right”. Our culture defines JOY as the most incredible level of happiness. How, then, is JOY defined?
Sometimes the English language or western culture doesn’t have all the words to express our complex feelings. There is a word used by the Baining people of Papua New Guinea that describes both the desire for houseguests to leave and the empty feeling that you have after they depart. The word is “awumbuk”. Do you know that feeling? The happiness of guests, the relief that they’ve left and the loneliness once they are gone? In this Christmas season, there will be many families who are feeling “awumbuk” as they gather to celebrate and leave each other to return to ordinary lives.

JOY is an emotion that is often sung about during this Christmas season – JOY to the World, the Lord is Come! It is the third advent Sunday – the affirmation and celebration of all that took place as we remember that Christ entered our world and our hearts.

CS Lewis, author of The Narnia Series titled his autobiography, “Surprised by JOY”. It aims to describe the spiritual search he experienced as he moved from atheism to theism to Christianity. Rather than a feeling of bliss, Lewis labels JOY as a deep longing. He sees the longing as a signpost to him along the way. The longing of JOY was pointing the way. His description echoes Augustine’s cry of the heart in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

Lewis says that JOY is a longing for something we have not yet seen. A homesickness for somewhere we have not yet been. He describes this longing as coming, not in waves or steady emotions, but in stabs that pierce a pang of longing and cause an ache for something other-wordly.

The idea of an emotion stabbing you is familiar to those who have experienced grief. There is not a senior who has escaped it. Unexpected and unpredictable, waves of grief can knock the wind out of you without warning. So can JOY. Let every heart prepare Him room… as you open your heart to God’s kingdom, preparing room for yearning, you open the space for deep longing, for God’s signposts in your life and for JOY to point the way for your restless heart.

Stabs of JOY happen as we gaze on the spectacular colours of the sunrise, or relish the honking of the Canadian geese overhead. They happen as we bend to kiss a newborn baby, as we hold the hand of a loved one while keeping vigil, as we drink in the smell of the forest after the rain. The stab of JOY pierces us as we place flowers on the grave of a loved one. We feel the stab of JOY as we fill a pew with generations of loved ones in a candlelit service on Christmas Eve. We are grateful for all that is happening while we long for all that is to come.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and in his JOY he went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Matthew 13:43
The kingdom of heaven is a mystery that Jesus tries to explain to us. It brings us JOY. It is like a mustard seed, a pearl, a child, a dragnet, yeast, a man who sowed good seed in his field, a king who arranged a marriage for his son. The kingdom of heaven is worth seeking and its JOY gives us great courage and capacity to persevere. We fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who, for the JOY set before him endured suffering and is now seated at the right hand of God.

Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

How will God’s kingdom come to you this Christmas season? May it come in stabs of JOY – piercing moments of deep longing for something other-wordly – as you see the beauty of creation, as you hear the music of the season, as you enjoy the circle of your loved ones and as you remember times past and loved ones with whom you once shared this precious celebration of our Saviour. Merry Christmas!

Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place in Abbotsford.