“No! I don’t want to be a flower girl! I want to be a duck!” announced my then three-year-old Hannah defiantly.
My husband, always the mischievous influence, pronounced, “Then you shall be cousin Laina’s flower duck.” He then started coaching her on how to waddle, stop and wiggle her imaginary tail feathers and reach into her barrel of monkeys to toss her best flower petal substitute on hand.
More than a dozen years into our marriage at the time, I wasn’t surprised by the direction this was taking. I married into a family that loves to have fun with one another; who takes every chance they have at family gatherings to embrace life’s challenges and absurdities and turn them into joyful moments. Yet I suspected that a line was being crossed with this one. After all, you ideally get just one shot at a wedding ceremony, and … well, really? A duck? As I watched the scene unfold, I shook my head, telling him, “She is going to kill you. Laina is going to kill you.”
But true to her Hippe heritage, Laina and her husband-to-be embraced the madness and even presented Hannah with a duck costume at the rehearsal dinner. Disguised as a flower girl at the wedding, Hannah dutifully dropped her petals down the aisle, and those of us in the know had to suppress giggles when she occasionally stopped to wiggle her imaginary tail feathers.
If there were any questions about how our new in-law would fit into the family, they were put to rest at the reception when Laina and Todd made their grand entrance in hazmat suits (she’s an environmental engineer). They then proceeded to kick off the celebration with a silly string fight. A joyful beginning of life together.
Joy shows up in unexpected places. At the end of last year, I met with one of the spiritual pillars of our community. This woman has intentionally lived for decades in the most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood in our city in order to sacrificially minister. I knew she was facing some difficult challenges, but I was surprised by her response when I asked her how I could pray for her. She said, “The joy of the Lord is my strength (Neh. 8:10). Pray that I will continue to find my joy in the Lord.”
When I have faced life’s hardships, joy is not at the top of my go-to list of places to turn for strength. In fact, it’s quite often lost somewhere at the bottom. But, as I’ve been reflecting on my friend’s request, I have been challenged to look at the role that joy plays in my life.
Just a cursory look at Scripture shows that joy plays a critical role in the life of faith. It is a reaction to salvation (e.g., Luke 15, John 4:36, Rom. 4:7). It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Joy characterized the early days of the church (Acts 2:46). Joy in these contexts makes sense to me.
What doesn’t make sense is some of the other places where joy shows up: As a command to be obeyed (2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16); in the middle of heartache (2 Cor. 6:10); in extreme poverty and hardship (2 Cor. 8:2); in the face of losing everything and suffering imprisonment (Heb. 10:34); as a response while facing death (Phil. 2:17). What does it really mean for there to be joy in these dark spaces of life?
Laina and Todd are now 10 years into their marriage and have their own daughters, ages three and six. Laina survived breast cancer. We were all devastated when the news came that the cancer had returned, only this time in Laina’s brain and lungs. In a few short months, we have witnessed many losses in their lives: her hair (again), her taste for food, her career (as she’s unable to work), his career in ministry (because they need to have a living wage and benefits), the certainty of not watching her own children grow up and get married … the list goes on and on.
But what we have also seen is a resilience born from that foundation of joy laid so many years ago. As extended family, we grab every moment we can with them. I have watched and learned as they intentionally infuse these moments with joy: birthday celebrations, Easter hunts, raucous meals, recitals, spontaneous play productions, wonderfully messy crafts, fun outings.
How different it was when cancer hit my family when I was a child, and joy was nowhere to be found.
And as we dance with their daughters in the living room, we join in a sacred work to build a reservoir of joy into their experience: a God-given strength that they will need in the times ahead. This is not a cheap, counterfeit joy born of denial. Nor is it a manufactured attempt to portray the Christian faith as all sunshine and roses. Rather, I am learning that it is a God-given gift of grace that allows us to courageously stare down the brokenness of life and say, “You won’t have the final word.” It is a defiant stand against the shadow of death, saying, “You won’t prematurely take life away from this home.” Joy in this season is an intentional, hard-fought choice of faith, and some days bring a more difficult choice than others.
Because their marriage was founded on the joy of the Lord, they have the strength to enter seasons of lament with hope, choosing to follow the example of their Savior, enduring these hardships well for the joy set before them (Heb. 12:2). And all the while, they are teaching their children, and us, to do the same.