In my description of the purpose of my blogs, I write that “everything I know about God gets put to the test by my experiences in the real world, and everything I experience in the real world affects how I understand God to be present to us”. As a chaplain, I have a test for my theological beliefs: whatever I believe is something that I would not be embarrassed to say to someone who is in crisis and sees no hope for the future.

The post I wrote on 4/29 could on the surface look like it might fail my own test, and so I want to write some more about the idea that the source of the joy that sustains us comes not from the good we see in the world or ourselves, but from God. And from that I concluded that we can decide to be joyful. I see joy as the result of entrusting ourselves and our future to God, rather than an emotional response to a happy experience.

How might this sound to someone who is suffering from depression, who lives with chronic pain or a terminal illness, someone who is watching their child die, or someone who is in a destructive setting of abuse, violence, starvation, or oppression, or has lost everything they own?

This question came to me with renewed urgency as I considered the Austrian woman who recently was freed from the basement where her father had held her imprisoned for more than 23 years. During those years she was repeatedly raped by her father. She gave birth to 7 children, one of whom died, and three were taken away from her to live upstairs with her father, where they were molested, too.

The descriptions are so horrifying that it is well-nigh impossible to imagine what it can have been like to be her. And yet that is the test that I feel my faith must pass – that I could speak about it without embarrassment, even to a woman in her circumstances. Please understand that this is a hypothetical exercise – when as a chaplain I visit a person in distress, my theology is usually not the topic of discussion. In a pastoral visit, we usually talk about how the person I’m with creates meaning based on his or her experiences.

I hope it is apparent that the joy I am talking about finding in God is not the funny-ha-ha kind, but the fruit-of-the-Spirit kind. I am talking about the kind of joy that is like a safety-net underneath the emotions a person may be aware of at a given time. I am talking about what I experienced when my beloved grandmother – who embodied unconditional love – died. Walking out of the hospital room in which her body lay was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I was overcome with grief during her funeral service. But then, when I walked out of the church afterwards, I was struck by the sudden insight that I had not seen my grandmother for the last time. Even as I continued to mourn my grandmother’s death, there was that deep assurance underneath – I will see her again some day! I could call it joy, or perhaps hope is a better word for that Fruit of the Spirit?

I think of the week I spent about a year and a half ago between the time when the doctor found a lump in my breast and the ultrasound that revealed it – thankfully – to be something completely benign. It was at once the scariest week of my life and the most joyful week of my life. Facing the prospect of losing my health and considering the hardships my young daughters and husband would face – it was torture! And at the same moment that tears were filling my eyes and fear gripping my gut, I was seeing the beauty of life with a crisp clarity unlike anything I had ever known: I could almost touch the essence of my husband and our love, the Life bursting in and around my daughters, the fulfillment I was fortunate to feel in my core in being a chaplain and spiritual director! It was all so precious to me, and the most mysterious part was the sense that cancer and illness and death could not possibly touch the essence, the life, the core of me and them. I knew at a very deep level that something like cancer couldn’t make any of these things less precious, less vibrant, less amazing. I could hardly hold it together to sing my daughters to sleep, and yet I was safely floating on the vast ocean of God’s Light and Love.

The deep joy I felt was a gift – it was grace – not something I can claim credit for. And yet I talked earlier about a decision to be joyful, as if it were my choice, as if it were something over which I have control… In that amazingly paradoxical way of faith, there is some truth to the choice aspect, too. The truth in that statement arises out of having fought my way to believe it was possible to experience that deeper Fruit-of-the-Spirit-Joy. I already had decided that the world would be unacceptably unjust if oppression, suffering, pain, illness, and death were the final word – if they got to define the value of a life.

This is the story of that fight: In looking precisely at the points of greatest suffering – of starvation, deprivation, unseasonal death -I initially was terribly depressed. But I wrestled and wrestled and wrestled with the meaninglessness of that image of the world. The words from Jeremy Irons’ character in “The Mission” have echoed in my soul since I first saw the movie as a teenager: As a Jesuit priest, he watches some of the brothers take weapons in hand to try to save a mission in the jungle from being destroyed. The mission was created as a safe haven in Christ for men and women to be safe from slave catchers. The Jeremy Irons character decides not to defend the mission, but to stay there, even if he is sure that he and anyone else who stays there will be killed. He will not abandon the men and women who came to the Mission. These are his words to his religious superior as he defies the order to leave: “If might is right… then love has no place in the world. It may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that.”

My struggle in the face of suffering was much like the Jeremy Irons line: If a person with power not only can make people suffer at will, but also gets to define that person’s life, then I can’t find the desire to be alive in this world. I may very well be wrong, but I’m not sure how I would deal with the suffering in the world if death or suffering do define a life.

The fruit of my wrestling ultimately became a KNOWING in my heart that God would not create a life that could have no hope of joy or meaning, even in desperate circumstances. Because God is a God of love, and because Jesus suffered pain and death in the ultimate demonstration of love, I decided there has to be more to Life than those external physical circumstances. 

So I fought, long and hard, to find how life might be meaningful and joyful, even in the face of suffering. Ultimately I have found a way to understand and conceive of joy in the midst of suffering. In part it arose from hearing the wisdom of patients and family members in crisis, in part it came from God’s free gifts of joy even in the midst of pain. And yet another part was my own persistence – my need to understand. That is the sense in which I speak of a decision to be joyful: the choice to believe that joy is possible, and if I don’t know how, I won’t quit until I do. Perhaps “commitment” or “drivenness” are better words than “decision”?  

This is also one of the areas where I feel most strongly the absence of preaching and teaching of theology in liberal Quaker Meetings. The fact is that the insight that I had to work so hard to arrive at, is a pretty basic tenet of Christian theology. Through Jesus death and resurrection, life and love conquered death and darkness forever. An important part of my insight came from the Bible and Christian preaching and teaching, and most of what I learned in that respect, I heard from other Quaker groups and other faith groups, not my liberal Quaker Meetings. 

And so I am back to the starting place of my previous post: When in my Meeting/Church do we talk about finding our joy in God? Is there a place in my Meeting/Church for accompanying others as they struggle to find hope, joy, and purpose when meaninglessness and suffering threaten? For those who don’t relate to traditional Christian theology, what is your source of hope and life, and how do you speak of it to someone who suffers?