Untakeable, Unshakable Joy

So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:22)

This great promise comes from the lips of Jesus Himself. So many people in our world do try to take our joy from us. They try, in a thousand different ways, to make us feel that God does not love us, that Jesus has rejected us, or that, for whatever reason, we “cannot” be “real” Christians. It is primarily homophobic Christians who do this. However, many people who have emphatically rejected the Christian faith can be just as fierce in their assertions that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people somehow have no business being Christians.

But, Jesus makes it clear that those who place their trust in God’s love, as revealed in Him, have a joy that absolutely no one can ever take away from them.

I will never forget what I was doing when I received the call from the nursing home informing me that my mother had just passed away. I was sitting at my computer, reading a death threat. On a blog on which I frequently comment, a disagreement had erupted between me and a man who had rejected Christianity. He’d left a comment, that particular morning, warning me he intended to track me down and “deal with” me in the direst possible manner.

Imagine how my experience of hearing about my mother’s death was enhanced in coming while a threat against my life was right before my eyes. I don’t think it’s too hard to understand why, though I have forgiven it, I will never be able to forget it.

When we try to share our faith with others in the GLBT community, we are often viciously attacked for it. I have spoken with many other gay and lesbian Christians who recount experiences quite similar to my own. We must learn to weather these attacks not only solidly, but graciously. It is crucial to our witness that we be able to “turn the other cheek” and respond not with more anger or hatred, but with forgiveness, understanding and love.

Initially, I must confess that I didn’t react to the death threat in a way that radiated joy. Numb with grief from the death of my mother – who’d wasted away with Alzheimer’s never able to be reconciled with my revelation that I was a lesbian – I was bitter and angry, myself. The last battle with dementia leaves a person befuddled, frightened and filled with rage. I had been estranged from my parents at the time Mom had succumbed to the dementia, and hadn’t even been told of it – had never been given the chance to help her come to terms with news that would have been hard for any parent to hear. Every day, as she wasted away, was yet another reminder that no matter what I said to her now, she wouldn’t understand me, and when she died, it hit me with full force that the chance was gone forever.

But joy is not dependent upon the random events of our lives, as happiness is. Through this storm in my life, I knew that God hadn’t changed, and that the love my parents sometimes found it so hard to show existed in God independent of human virtue or understanding. Joy is the quiet, often subtle assurance of that love – and the confidence that it is, indeed, everlasting. All human love, even the best of it, is but a pale reflection of that. It was that joy, that quiet but constant assurance that saw me through the storm.

Joy is the knowledge of God’s love – and God’s love is an emphatic “yes” to life and to us as God’s children. It is a “yes” to the triumph of love over hate, of life over death and of hope over despair. Love builds on itself; it perpetuates itself – while hate, though it may burn fearsomely for a time, ultimately burns itself out. We know that God loves us because we are – we exist – when we might not have been. Love is God’s enthusiastic “It is good!” to creation, and joy is our assurance of that love, irrefutably attested to by every beat of our hearts.

God wills not death for us, but life, and life everlasting. What may seem like the “no” of death will inevitably emerge as the “yes” that cannot be denied. For no one – no one – can override the “yes” of God. I know that somewhere, somehow, my mother knows all about who I am, and that she loves me in a sense that transcends explanation. Mothers are perhaps the ultimate embodiment, in our ordinary human life, of God’s “yes,” and of that eternal love.

In the course of his bitter comments on that blog, the man who’d attacked me then recounted some of the experiences that had soured him on Christianity. Among them was the fact that after his longtime partner died, the partner’s former pastor – who had rejected him in life – dealt him perhaps the ultimate insult in death. This so-called man of God actually dumped his ashes into a toilet and flushed them down. Anyone who could not be moved to tears by this would have to have a heart of stone, and as I read of that and some of his other ordeals, I found my own sense of resentment toward him melting away.

God didn’t make you to be heterosexual; God made you to love God – and so that God could love you. God imagined you eons before you were ever born. God very literally loved you into existence. Quite simply and truly, that is the Gospel.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone (whosoever) believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Really, what part of “whosoever” don’t those you would throw us out of the Church understand? This magazine continually asks that question, but – from the naysayers – never receives an answer. We get our answer not from the naysayers, but from God.

God created us not for destruction, but for eternal, loving life with “Him.” If you don’t believe me, just look at what “He” says in John 3:17. Contrary to the repeated assertions of our self-appointed enemies, the word “gospel” doesn’t mean “bad news.” It means “good news.” Jesus came “so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:24) How have so many so-called followers of His managed to turn that wondrous message into a bummer? If you’re for God, then God is for you. Period. What do you have to do to get in? You have to want to get in. That’s it – period, finito, end of discussion.

Why do some in our community react with murderous anger when we tell them that God loves them? Because they’ve allowed their self-proclaimed foes to take their joy from them. But that was their foes’ will, and never God’s. Jesus makes clear that it is God’s will that our joy be everlasting.

Can someone who flushes another human being’s ashes down a toilet in any sense be said to have the joy of God’s love in Christ within him? It wasn’t enough for this “pastor” that a gay man – one who’d loved God all his life – had been shut out of the Church, or that he died a despairing death, or that his body had been burned to ashes. He had to be washed down into the very bowels of the earth, as close to Hell as his self-proclaimed judge could send him. How, indeed, can anyone learn of the joy God wills for each of us from that? To what sort of faith does such an act give testimony?

Can you regain the joy you may have lost? Of course you can. It rightfully belongs to you in the first place. Remember, Jesus said that no one should be able to take it from you. No one has God’s permission to do that, and no amount of self-assured self-righteousness can ever confer such permission upon them. I know it all sounds suspiciously easy. The best-kept secret in Christendom is that it really is just that easy.

Those who do not have that joy in them try to take it from others. Misery loves company. But spreading misery brings nothing but more misery. Joy, on the other hand, is born of God’s own generosity, and it breeds more of the same. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Again, joy and mere happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is a transitory and conditional thing. But joy is unconditional. It is always there, even if it is often under the surface. Joy does not depend on us; it depends only on God. It is a ray of God’s own goodness within us. It is as constant, dependable and ever-faithful as God “Himself.” As a matter of fact, joy is the very seed of eternal life within us. Water your joy with worship, Scripture study and fellowship. Nourish it dearly. Your salvation depends not upon the cultish self-idolatry of anti-gay crusaders, but solely upon the grace of God.

What, then, is sin? Sin is not loving other people. Worse, it is not loving God. How bitterly ironic that those who wish to drive us out of the Church – supposedly to keep us from sinning – would actually lead us into sin. Those who despair of God’s love try their utmost to make others miserable – and in this lies the real sin.

In the end, the man who’d threatened me ended up offering an olive-branch. I was happy and relieved to accept it. Had I remained angry at him, not only would it not have done him any good, it would have injured me – perhaps even more gravely than it would have hurt him. As it was, we ended up discussing our mutual love for the great state of Minnesota, the Scandinavian heritage we hold in common, and the beauty of many of the old Lutheran churches back in our ancestors’ native Norway. I hope that someday, he will visit some of those great old churches, and that when he enters, he will be aware of the infinitely loving and accepting presence of God.

Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are about – you guessed it – joy. They celebrate God’s boundless generosity to us. With every bite of turkey, with every visit with family and friends, please remember that. This holiday season – my first without my mother – I will spend with friends who share that joy, and who nurture the God-given spirit within me. May each and every one of you find that joy with someone special who shares it, and may you have the greatest possible Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.