A few days before Christmas, as I was walking from the parking ramp where I’d left my car to the hospital, I saw a patient transport vehicle leaving another parking garage. The driver hollered out the window, so I walked back to where they were, noticing the passenger in the front seat wanted to say hello. Her spouse was in a secured chair in the back. He had been a patient in our neuro ICU a number of years ago due to a stroke. His kids were young, he was young. A few years later, he’s now headed back to his residence where he receives attentive and diligent care.
Despite the tragic tone of all of these changes in their lives, they wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas. I peeked into the van, greeted each of them, and wished them the same. They had come to a new place in life.
On the third Sunday in Advent, another former patient who’d had a stroke showed up in church. He made a deliberate effort to offer the peace of Christ to me. This was such a beautiful thing. He looked great.
He had actually been a “fun” patient to visit in the hospital, which is quite rare given the units where I focus my ministry. I’m not sure I’d be a fun patient, either, so I should be mindful of that. This church member, though, was gracious, gentle, and hopeful in the midst of some very scary health episodes. During his hospitalization, he had welcomed my brief check-ins as he waited for the next test, or the next stage in his care. At one point, he was reading the newspaper and sipping coffee; that is another beautiful thing to see in the ICU.
Our ICU also had the blessed occasion of another former patient walking through the halls with his wife, greeting staff, watching for people who had cared for him when he was in no shape to be aware of anybody or much of anything. There were several times in his hospital course where he’d taken turns for the worst, only to survive them. And he had not only survived, but appeared to be thriving.
We don’t often see the later chapters in the lives of our patients. We do read obituaries, and occasionally get updates from one of the rehab centers. About a month and a half ago, a social worker specifically contacted the rehab center to send us some stories of patients recovering. We’d been through a tough patch of deaths or devastating injuries, and she thought we needed some good and hopeful news. It was a welcome dose of hope and joy.
By this time in January, most of us have stored our Christmas decorations and returned furniture to its rightful positions. We’ve likely also shifted from holiday joy to sober winter, even as Epiphany’s promise lights the darkness.
Apart from the giddy and PollyAnna types, I suspect we focus so much more on seriousness of faith and diligence of Christian practice than on tracking joy. Certainly, our world is in a serious place. For many of us, theology and life are serious and critical endeavors that call for diligence and care. That may lead us to being ever so cautious in practicing joy (and what is a “cautious joy” anyway?)
As one preacher I’d heard over Advent said about our Advent themes (perhaps it was peace?), these words like “joy,” “peace,” and “hope” are ever so much more than feelings. Joy, deep down, pervasive, foundational joy also takes hope and a sense of peace. Joy is not just the delight of a child hollering with excitement at a Christmas present, although that’s a pretty good dose of joy; it’s also the sense of fulfillment that the present is given in love, by someone who has a sense of what the toddler appreciates, and what may be a good tool for their entertainment or learning.
If joy is more than a feeling, what else might it be? How about something along the lines of an eschatological foundation that embraces not only a “certain knowledge that everything is true,” but also a wholehearted trust created in us by the Holy Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 21)? Joy rooted in faith.
A long time ago I read Christopher Reeves’ story, “Still Me.” I was, of course, quite taken by the handsome Superman whose accident led to quadriplegia. While I recall that the story seemed throughly secular, the claim that he and his wife came to hold was that he was still essentially who he was even though his disability changed so much of his life. If we could make similar claims, albeit as a solid spiritual acknowledgement that we are still children of God, as we always have been and will be. We are “still us,” image-bearers of God, blessed, redeemed, called, beloved. Our Ode to Joy resoundingly compels us to joy.
-Cynthia Joy Veldheer DeYoung