Joy by the Good Lord

Several years ago, when I was a younger pastor, I drove an older parishioner to a medical appointment. The only other person in the waiting room started a conversation with me. It turned out that he, too, was a pastor. I don’t remember the particulars of our discussion except his proverb: “Happiness comes by the work of our hands, joy by the Good Lord.”

Happiness comes from certain things I buy: a book of poems, a set of Frisbees for disc golf, fresh produce from the farmers market. I feel like I’ve earned the happiness I feel on a family vacation at the beach or when turning on Netflix at the end of a busy Sunday.

Joy feels unearned and comes unbidden. Joy is the grace given by hearing the belly laugh of my daughter or watching sunsets over the water, by receiving a surprise phone call from a dear friend or coming around the bend in the wooded trail to find a doe drinking across the creek.

Happiness comes by the work of our hands, joy by the Good Lord.

In his book, “The Cross Examen,” Roger Gench claimed that “joy is a shared reality, entailing mutuality.” If joy is grace received, then it follows that it is shared among friends, family, even strangers in a waiting room — especially if we locate the source of joy as the Fount of Every Blessing.

In calling that favorite hymn to mind, I am painfully aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has prohibited the joy of singing together in the sanctuary. But while I lament this reality, I do recognize that new formats of worship have shared unexpected grace.

After the killing of George Floyd by the police, the white congregation I serve reached out to a historically Black church in our neighborhood. We had partnered in a few activities in the past. Their pastor had an idea: “I would like for our churches to pray together.”

After a pause, he added, “To pray every week.”

Members of both churches dialed into a Sunday afternoon conference call and we have prayed together over the phone every week, sharing our joys and concerns. One of their deacons opens our time with song. He sings spirituals: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Go Down, Moses.”

Willie Jennings explained joy as resistance to despair. Spirituals were an instrument of resistance in the Antebellum South — lyrics used as codes between slaves about escaping along the underground railroad.

Members of the church I serve work with partners in our community for racial justice and equity. Come Sunday afternoon, we dial into our prayer meeting. The deacon’s baritone sounds like a deep bell. Recently, after he offered the song “Kumbayah,” his pastor declared, “It don’t get any better than that!”

A chorus of Amens rang out over the line.

Happiness comes by the work of our hands, joy by the Good Lord. O Lord, kumbayah. Come by here.