This is my third Advent post for 2013. The third week of Advent celebrates the idea of joy and how it comes to us not from the world but from God, and often in the midst of great difficulty.
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Since I became a Stephen Minister, I have tried to make sure we had a box of tissues on the table during our meetings. Most of the time, the box is already there, but occasionally I have to go in search of one...just in case.
You see, I'm a crier. Always have been. I rarely get through a church service without reaching for a tissue during some prayer request or hymn or sermon, and I knew that during Stephen Ministry meetings, I would need those tissues.
Stephen Ministers help people through extremely difficult situations, and during our meetings, we discuss the care we're providing through peer supervision. We ask questions about how to improve our care, ask about resources that are available to help our care receivers with specific problems, and share how we're coping with the caring situation. We also have a time of continuing education, which includes all sorts of tear-inducing activities, such as role-playing difficult conversations, watching training videos from hospice, or studying subjects like spiritual gifts and forgiveness.
Of course we need tissues. Every. Single. Meeting.
What surprised me most (though it shouldn't have) was the amount of laughter in our meetings. Several people who've walked past our meetings at church have wondered aloud what we laugh about given how serious our ministry is. After all, when you're caring for someone who's dying or going through a nasty divorce or coping with a loved one who's an addict or caring for a parent with dementia, what could you possibly have to laugh about?
Turns out, quite a lot of joy surrounds our ministry to those who are suffering. And if you think about it, joy ought to be a part of it.
Our laughter flows from two different sources. First of all (and by far the most plentiful) is the self-deprecating laughter. We are flawed human beings, every single one of us, and Stephen Ministers have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, doubt ourselves, and wonder if we're doing any good for our care receivers. We confess those screw-ups that happen sometimes no matter how careful we are, and we receive kind, sympathetic, absolving laughter. At least several of us have made the same mistake, and the universe didn't come to an end.
During our role-play sessions, we say things one should never say to people in pain, we go completely blank and have no idea how to respond, we break character. We drop our guard and expose our weaknesses, and honestly, there's nothing more cathartic or more educational than screwing up in a safe environment surrounded by people who love you and know...know in their bones...that because of your flaws you are chosen by God, His child, to be useful to others.
Feeling safe in the company of others, even in difficult circumstances, leads to support, forgiveness, learning, and abundant joy.
The second source of our laughter comes from seeing God at work in our lives and the lives of our care receivers. When you put your arm around people who are suffering and allow God's love to flow through you to them, you will see results. You see Christ's healing work take place in bodies, minds, and souls. You witness beauty and goodness and light in the ugliest, darkest places.
But you don't just witness it. You are a part of it, a part of God's love and light on earth.
I dare you not to bubble over with joy at that privilege. I dare you not to laugh when, even in the midst of suffering, God shows up and sheds love all over everything like a golden retriever shedding fur. You can't escape it.
You don't want to.
Happiness can be bought. A peppermint mocha makes me happy, a new stamp set, a warm pair of gloves, my golden retriever (fur and all). But joy? True, unfiltered, unfettered joy? That comes when we let love flow through us to others, and this joy, like hope and peace, is found in the most unlikely of places.
The third Sunday in Advent, we light the joy candle and acknowledge that the source of our joy is the Light of the World. Jesus brought this joy into the world, and we are His beneficiaries.
Joy to the world! Thanks be to God for this unspeakable gift!