“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
– Psalm 30:5b
“The people must sing”.
– Martin Luther; paraphrased by Eric Mataxas
The past three months, I feel like every time I turn on the news there is another story of sorrow. Devastation from multiple hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, shootings and bombs skyrocketing are the ongoing saga. I’ve had to limit my news consumption at times – not to ignore the pain of those affected but to protect myself from becoming enmeshed in the sadness. During this same season, I have had the immediate effect of a heavy heart from the situational distress of loved ones – job loss, health problems, relationship struggles etc. It all gets to be so overwhelming. I’m of the more melancholic kind, so I can easily lapse into despair if I let my focus be solely on the darkness of our days.
But during these past few months, I had an interesting experience that helped to turn my attention towards joy in the midst of mourning. While watching news coverage from hurricane ravaged Texas after Harvey swept through, I observed something notably wonderful. The news was highlighting interviews of people standing outside their once livable homes, now uninhabitable. The people choked back tears as they talked about their loss and hopelessness. I listened and wiped away a tear or two of my own. Then, during one interview while the heartbroken survivor spoke, I heard something in the background that I could not ignore. It was the sound of birds singing in the trees. Despite the state of even tree limbs missing or leaves blown to the next town, birds were singing – a chirpy joyous tune. It seemed ironic and even absurd to hear such sounds as the backdrop of such sad on -the-ground reporting. The people questioned how to find ways to move forward while the birds sang sweetly in the trees – a song of hope? I was listening to all of this via television over a thousand miles away from that scene and wondered if the people there could hear the song being sung feet away from them in real time. I was awestruck by the whole scene and then remembered a similar experience almost two decades ago.
I recalled living during the aftermath of 911. My housemate at the time and I turned to each other a day or so after the tragedy and noted to each other the silence outside. We huddled inside, glued to the TV, as most were those days; but we sensed the ubiquitous mourning by even nature. We commented to each other that the birds were noticeably silent and even the kids typically playing on our block were no where to be seen. Sadness definitely hung in the air, especially where I lived in the northeast, being so close to ground zero. Then another day or two later, my housemate and I turned to each other almost at the same time when we heard familiar sounds outside. We heard birds singing again. We both seemed to contagiously rejoice together with smiles and laughter. Amid, the ongoing mourning that continued to trudge on during those days as recovery efforts and investigative pleas had not yet subsided and wounds of loss were still so raw, the birds had an instinctual need to sing. Likewise, we heard the joyous sounds of children instinctually playing outside again. My observation of such phenomenon then and now proves to me that in the midst of mourning, joy can exist, must exist.
By joy, I am not implying disregard for sadness or overlooking obvious loss. Indeed, I am referring to something deep in the DNA of nature that wants to sing, play and rejoice because of something more deeply rooted than sorrow. I suppose this may be referred to as resilience but I do not want to categorize this instinctual response in simple psychological terms. Joy, for me as I observe its reality among humanity and nature at large, stems from something divine. In the midst of brokenness, God is there revealing our truest nature, proven by the expression of joy. The first Christmas occurred in this way. Jesus was born (God with us) in the midst of horrific realities. The gospel of Luke details how an angel appeared to shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth saying, “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2:10 – 11). Oh, it is worth mentioning that the angel first said, “Fear not…” (Luke 2:10a). Such preface acknowledges that fear was present but so was joy. The shepherds could have easily responded with either “Yeah, right” or “So what” but they didn’t. they joined in the rejoicing by going to see Jesus and then going to tell others about the miracle they witnessed.
I feel like I saw a miracle in that news reel. In the midst of despair, a joyous song can be sung – if the birds can do it after their habitat has been destroyed, then can’t we as humans? Such rejoicing is not diminishing the value of what was lost; it is about declaring, first, that the story was never meant to be like this and that, indubitably, restoration is possible. The coming of Jesus to earth (God in flesh) is the very act of God mourning with us and, more significantly, inviting us to be part of a new story, a new song. As another Christmas nears, it will no doubt be a challenge for those who have experienced difficult seasons of life this year, I pray that they and I, in a new, way, can experience joy as it was meant to be – as we were created to experience and express it. Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus quotes a seven-hundred-year old prophecy and declares that such reality is found in Him. Jesus said:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1 – 3a)
There are plenty of reasons to mourn; but because of Jesus, there is a reason to rejoice in the midst of that mourning. Let the birds’ singing remind us every morning that there is still a song of joy in our hearts wanting, needing to be sung.
- Photo of Steve Wasson by Joe Gough 2008
- Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World and Rediscovered God by Eric Mataxas
- The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey
- Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis