A monthly reflection from Emilie M. Townes, Vanderbilt Divinity School dean.
Our family has been dealing with the deaths of three of our elders over a five-month period in the last months of 2020. Their passing would have been hard without a pandemic raging around us, but the pandemic made it more so because in the case of two of our elders, we were not able to be with them as they made their transition because of COVID-19 safety precautions in their nursing home. Living through and continuing to live through this loss has got me thinking about the precious little time we are actually here on this side of the Jordan. And that the pace of life, even in a time of physical distancing and masking, can go at breakneck speed. Our living pace is such that we can miss each other and/or moments in creation like the color purple. And this can leave us with a deficit of what we can cherish as memories or draw on as past experience. Sometimes, these experiences and memories are the only things that give us a pathway to live through hard times or keep us from being mean as snakes.
It would be a shame if we missed the stuff of living as we negotiate our way past the coronavirus to the other side of its pandemic. I don’t think it will be what we usually call a return to normal. I really think that the life we knew before March 2020 is not what we will go back to. My hope is that we will have learned some things that help us to be better people and build a more just society. For me, I understand better and better the difference between happiness and joy. My periods of deep mourning also lead me to dig deep into my innards and find not only grieving but also spaces of joy sequestered there. My newest ancestors were each original design people—they made a positive difference in peoples’ lives and lived long and full lives touching folks even as they drew their last breath. Until the illnesses that took them at the end of their lives, they lived lives of great joy.
So, rather than looking for happy, I am looking for joy. Happy helps me see that a more robust future is possible; joy gives me the fire and insight to refuse to give up on making that future real. Happy gives me a lens into hope for the world; joy pulls me, gooses me into not settling for far too little in my life and witness. Joy helps me stretch into the ministry and scholarship that God calls all of us to, to celebrate the spiritual gifts we’ve been given, to walk around in them, to sit down and play with the holy sand that God has given us.
Joy—that takes like and turns it into love, takes care and turns into passion, takes concern and turns it into commitment.
Joy–it’s what gets god up doing a standing ovation in creation.