Made for Joy
There’s an incredibly popular Australian cartoon called “Bluey” that has become a favorite for many preschoolers and early elementary age kids and their parents. The show revolves around the Heeler family- mom Chili, dad Bandit, and their two children, Bingo, and Bluey. And they’re dogs- heelers, as their name implies. Ashe and I are both big fans, and we’ve seen every episode many times (in our defense, they’re only about 7 minutes long). There’s one particular episode I’ve been thinking about this week. In this episode the family has just returned from a store with a new piece of furniture in a box, ready to be assembled. And as mom and dad struggle to put together their new porch swing, the kids, Bingo and Bluey, are busy using their imaginations. The kids are using the boxes, bubble wrap, cardboard tubes, and packing peanuts to build a civilization. Side by side these two creation stories play out- the parents frustratedly attempting to follow the instructions that have no words to build this glider while the kids create and adapt the world they’re building.
After several mishaps, the parents pause and look out on their kids creating and playing in the yard. Chili says, “we made that.” And she and Bandit resolve to try again, this time without squabbling or letting frustration win. And as the sun sets, little Bingo uses some Styrofoam to pretend she’s on a spaceship and Bluey goes up and sits on the now-finished porch swing with her parents. As they rock peacefully and take in the last rays of daylight, Bandit says, “ahhh, this is heaven.”
The show doesn’t take itself too seriously and this particular story could be interpreted in a few ways. But I’ve been thinking about what we can take from it today as we enter into our stewardship season with a focus on being “together for joy.” The mom and dad are stressed out, uptight, getting frustrated with each other and with their task as they work towards assembling the porch swing. But Bluey and Bingo- they’re on an adventure! They’re having a blast, being creative, overcoming challenges, enjoying the game as they throw themselves into it completely. And it’s really only when mom and dad can take a deep breath, relax, remember what matters most, when they can absorb what is good and beautiful in front of them, that is when they can accomplish their task. That is when they can do it together, for joy. Together for the joy of having accomplished something. Together for the joy of observing their children and the world around them. Together for the joy of loving one another. And in doing their work together for joy, they’ve achieved (at least for the moment) a little bit of heaven. It’s probably the best part of parenting, and I think it’s also the very best of what church life can look like too. Anyway, Bluey is a great show and you should watch it.
Speaking of two creation stories, the first two chapters of Genesis offer us two similar yet distinct tellings of the creation story. In today’s readings we heard selections from each story. And we are reminded that all God made is good, that we have been gifted every good thing, that all we have and all we need is here as God plans for flourishing, goodness, and delight. The relationship we see between God and the people in the creation stories remind us that we are made to glorify and enjoy God forever. We are made to be in relationship with one another, with God, with all of creation. Brian McLaren says it this way, “The best thing in Genesis is not simply human beings, but the whole creation considered and enjoyed together, as a beautiful, integrated whole, and us a part. The poetry of Genesis describes the ‘very goodness’ that comes at the end of a long process of creation…when all the parts, including us, are working together as one whole. That harmonious whole is so good that the Creator takes a day off, as it were, just to enjoy it. That day of restful enjoyment tells us that the purpose of existence isn’t money or power or fame or security or anything less than this: to participate in the goodness and beauty and aliveness of creation. And so, we join the Creator in good and fruitful work…and in delightful enjoyment, play, and rest as well. So here we are, friends. Here we are. Alive!”
Sometimes in the midst of our busy lives it is easy to lose sight of who we are and equally important why we are. We get so tied up in our daily to-dos, in the business of living, that we feel very far away from the kind of delight, beauty, and meaning we find embedded in the Genesis story. Some weeks our hearts are so heavy we can barely stand upright, much less think about how we might be enjoying God and our lives. And yet- that seems to be what scripture tells us is a reason we were created. In John 10:10 Jesus tells us that he came to earth so we might have life, and have it to the full. In Psalm 16:9-11 we read, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Of course, living together for joy with God and with one another does not mean that our lives will be free of hardship and conflict. Unfortunately, loving God and following the path of Jesus offers no immunity to pain. But it does mean that we do not have to carry that pain alone- no, indeed, we were made to be in relationships with God and with others. We are invited to “cast [our] cares upon the Lord, for God cares for us.” Being together for joy means living into the best of the relationships we can have. Caring for one another, showing up, helping, serving. It’s the very best of church community life!
Sometimes being involved in a church is treated like an extracurricular activity along the same lines as playing tennis or volunteering somewhere. This isn’t just an add-on to regular life- being part of a church should be living into those promises, of navigating life together, of living together for joy. This place, these people, this moment should be a laboratory for learning how to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. This is the way to live into all God created us for. It starts here, in these bonds, these relationships.
It may seem strange to talk so much about joy and being created to glorify God and enjoy God. It may seem strange in these dark, heavy days when the world feels so violent and angry, where it takes courage to watch the news, or sometimes even to just leave the house. Abundant joy seems unlikely, much less the abundant joy of a community.
And yet, it is in that darkness when joy becomes the absolute most necessary, when the “together” part becomes the most necessary. In Nehemiah 8:10 we read, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” You see, the deep, abiding joy that we have because of God, the deep, abiding joy that we can share with one another, it is our strength for doing hard things, for facing the pain all around us. In Psalm 126 we read about a “harvest of joy.” “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” Sorrow and suffering are a fact of life, but joy will come! And it will feed our souls as we carry on. The community can come together in the face of hard, impossible things strengthened by the joy of the Lord and in so doing, transformation becomes possible.
Again, hear Brian McLaren’s words: “In light of the Genesis story, we would say that the possibility of this universe overflowed into actuality as God, the Creative Spirit, uttered the original joyful invitation: Let it be! And in response, what happened? Light. Time. Space. Matter. Motion. Sea. Stone. Fish. Sparrow. You. Me. Enjoying the unspeakable gift and privilege of being here, being alive.” Just like Bluey and Bingo, when strengthened by joy, we can imagine another world and begin to create it. Animated by the joy of the Lord, we too can “utter the joyful invitation” of “Let it be” and then get to work with God creating that future. That is what we were created for! To live together with God and with one another, together for joy.
And so it is that when we hear stories of churches gathering to do the impossible work of addressing the opioid crisis in their towns, of creating support groups for those who are caregivers for people with dementia, of helping to resettle refugees, of pouring themselves out not for their own comfort but to offer comfort to the suffering, that is where we will find those who have learned the truth about community, those are the people who have learned to plumb the depths of joy. It is in remembering what we were created for- glorifying and enjoying God, that we learn to live together for joy.
Let me give you an example. One Parish One Prisoner is a ministry based on Washington State that pairs people who are being released from prison with churches. The founder, Chris Hoke, realized that far too many people are condemned to going right back to prison because they are released back into the world without the proper know-how and support for rebuilding a life. After years in prison, these people don’t have the relationships or ability to reenter life in a way that will keep them out of trouble. The number one reason people get rearrested after release from prison is driving with a suspended license because getting their license again is very difficult, timely, and expensive.
So, One Prisoner One Parish created a structure to provide the necessary help. The church commits to helping the former inmate navigate the challenges of reentry- getting a valid license, getting a job, navigating insurance, getting IDs and other documents, providing transportation to meetings with their parole officers, etc. The point, as the founder says, is that someone must roll away the stone that keeps the resuscitated Lazarus in the tomb. These people leaving prison have been brought back to life, yet the hardships of post-prison life keep them in their tombs.
It sounds like hard work. Maybe even scary work. You’re sure to be disappointed sometimes. But one church that has participated has been transformed by the relationship they’ve developed with Julio, the former inmate that they have been caring for. Hoke says, “The near-retirement-age pastor, John, told me, ‘I haven’t felt this excited about my faith since I first said yes to Jesus as a young man! It feels like an adventure again!’” Pastor John and his church have learned what it means to be together for joy. Their faith and their energy as a church are renewed. They are strengthened by joy.
And that is what it comes down to. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the birds, the trees, the oceans, and us, God also created relationships. God also created joy. May we, the people of Pocket Presbyterian Church, seek to be together for joy. May we live into all that we were created to do and be. May we, with all of creation, sing alleluia and be strengthened for all we may face by the joy of the Lord. Amen.
 McLaren, B. We Make the Road by Walking. New York: Jericho Books (2014), p. 5-6.  Ibid. 3. One parish one prisoner: Every church a local resurrection community - The Presbyterian Outlook (pres-outlook.org)