Comfort and Joy
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
When one of my favorite comedians, Stephen Colbert, was interviewed recently on television by Oprah Winfrey, I learned some things about Mr. Colbert that I had not known before, including his experience with a tragic loss.
The youngest of 11 children, he was only 10 years old when his father and two older brothers, ages 15 and 18 were killed in the crash of a commercial airliner in North Carolina. He told Oprah that he hadn’t known how to grieve at the time, and really did not experience the full impact of his grief until he was 18 years old and a college student living away from home. Then he was overwhelmed with sadness and went through the most difficult period of his life.
But now, 30 years later, the heaviness of his grief has dissipated considerably and he describes himself as being filled with joy. Perhaps those who are currently feeling intense grief can take Mr. Colbert’s experience as a sign pointing to their own hope-filled future beyond intense grief.
But back to the interview: Mr. Colbert and Oprah spent the remainder of their time together talking about joy, which both agreed is not the same thing as happiness. Indeed Colbert expressed his opinion that “happiness is overrated,” and Oprah agreed But, said Colbert, one can experience joy even when just being “sad with the people you love, because that’s real!”
I personally identify with that experience! I almost always experience joy when I am participating in a memorial service for a loved one who has recently died, even when happiness if not a word I would use to describe my feelings in that situation. More often than not I sense that same joy also in others who are in attendance so that the joy in the room becomes a shared joy, a joy that exists side by side with the profound sorrow that we also share in that moment.
Sometimes joy and sorrow may not exist side by side but now and then. Joy, in this case is mostly something that “comes and goes.” Sister Miriam Therese Winter recognizes this in the popular song she wrote in the 1960s entitled “Joy is like the Rain.” Notice the first stanza especially where the “pane” can also be seen as metaphor for personal “pain!”
I saw rain drops on my window, Joy is like the rain.
Laughter runs across my pane,
slips away and comes again.
Joy is like the rain.
I saw clouds upon a mountain, Joy is like a cloud.
Sometimes silver, sometimes gray,
always sun not far away.
Joy is like a cloud.
I saw Christ in wind and thunder, Joy is tried by storm.
Christ asleep within my boat,
whipped by wind, yet still afloat,
Joy is tried by storm.
I saw rain drops on a river, Joy is like the rain.
Bit by bit the river grows,
'til all at once it overflows.
Joy is like the rain.
The point is that whether joy occurs side by side with sorrow, or whether joy and sorrow alternate, joy is always God’s gift to us in every time of sorrow, if we are ready to accept and welcome it. In fact, in the interview mentioned above, Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey agreed that joy is the surest evidence and most infallible sign of the presence of God. Composer Gordon Light must have had this same conviction and experience when he wrote these words is his contemporary song entitled “Joy Comes with the Dawn:”
Joy comes with the dawn;
joy comes with the morning sun;
joy springs from the tomb
and scatters the night with her song,
joy comes with the dawn.
- Weeping may come;
weeping may come in the night,
when dark shadows cloud our sight.
- Sorrow will turn,
sorrow will turn into song,
and God’s laughter makes us strong.
- We will rejoice,
we will rejoice and give praise
to the One who gives us grace.
Again, we are discovering the meaning and presence and power of joy, not happiness, which if Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey have it right, is overrated! Perhaps that is why the words that are translated as “happy” or “happiness” appear in the Bible only about 30 times, while the words translated as “joy” appear more than 300 times!
So my prayer for all who grieve is simply this: may God grant you comfort AND JOY!