The Discipline of Joy

The sun is shining with a warmth that can only mean spring this morning, and as I came out of my favorite coffee place with my favorite chai latte in hand, I was literally stopped in my tracks by joy. It’s a Monday, which is my day off each week, and I started it with OULA as I’ve been doing since the beginning of the year.

OULA started for me as an attempt to better care for my body, which always gets neglected in favor of momming and churching. While I like to workout, it’s hard to make it a priority when it’s running on a treadmill, swimming laps, or endless cycles on the elliptical. BORING.

But I love to dance, and since I am long past my clubbing days, the only place I’ve danced for a long time is in the living room with my kids. So when a parishioner started teaching a class subtitled “Dance Mania for the Soul” on my day off, at a time that’s not too early, I really had no excuse not to go.

I cried during the first class, partly because it had been a hard week at work and at home. But most of my tears were relief that I now had a place and a time to recover the joy I’d lost in my life.

When I was in college, straddling the increasing divide between my traditional Lutheran upbringing and the evangelical fervor that was sweeping my campus, my friends and I used to check in with each other regularly. It was part of what evangelical Christians call accountability groups. The first question every week was the same: “What did you allow to steal your joy?” While many things from those days in the evangelical movement have proven unhelpful to me, this question has stuck. What steals my joy?

As followers of Jesus, we have access to overwhelming joy, when we think about all that God has done on our behalf. We don’t have to worry about eternity, about whether we are good enough, about whether we are loved and known and seen. God has taken care of all of that through Jesus, and the result is a deep and abiding joy. This is why the Psalms say again and again “Happy are those who trust in the Lord!”

But the world around us (my evangelical friends might even call it the devil) is always trying to tamp down that joy, to steal it away and make us forget what is ours through Christ. The unfair criticisms we hear, the bombardment of advertisements meant to convince us we don’t have enough, the inner monologue that for many of us is consistently negative: all these steal our joy like a thief in the night. It is easy to forget the joy that is ours amidst busy lives, full of stress and disappointment.

The discipline of faith, of living as joyful disciples, is to turn our hearts and minds away from those things, bathing instead in the radiant love of the God who gave us everything.   So when joy knocked the breath out of me  this morning, it wasn’t just because God broke through to me like the sun shining with spring warmth. It was because, instead of sleeping in and watching mindless television this morning, I’d gotten up and gone to OULA.

As I moved in time with the music, I was reminded that my body is a gift, even if I don’t love every part of it. As I danced in sync with others, everyone putting their own spin on the choreographer, I was reminded how beautiful difference can be when we embrace it in community. As I stepped out into the sun, without my winter coat, I was reminded that the dead things of winter are coming back to life soon. As the barista handed me my chai with a musical flair, I was reminded that God comes to us in many ways.

Joy is all around me, and deep within, but it needs to be noticed and nurtured. It takes discipline to retain the joy of Christ, to keep my spirit soft and receptive to it in a hard world. Part of the discipline is OULA, part is prayer and meditation, part is a really good chai from a singing barista.

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