Joys of Discipleship

A friend asked me the other day how I find joy as a disciple of Christ and I asked if I could think on it for a bit, to which he replied in the affirmative and here’s my answer, in blog form. I’ve thought about joy and feeling joy in my worship and discipleship quite a bit over the years (sparked initially by the famed verse that “Adam fell that man might be and men are that they might have joy” and a talk, I believe by then-Elder Nelson, about finding joy in our keeping of the Sabbath and other commandments).

Defining joy seems like the only way to begin. Joy strikes me as different than happiness. Not necessarily in the way we often distinguish those two feelings (joy as divine and eternal whereas happiness, or more frequently pleasure, is worldly and fleeting), but more in the composition of the feeling. Joy is a more complex emotion than happiness. Joy may manifest as a pure, ecstatic, uncontained happiness (like watching Speed Racer or seeing the Millennium Falcon fly through Jakku in The Force Awakens or seeing Cec after a long day at work). But joy also can be a deeper, slower feeling of contentment. A sense that everything is just right. The kind of quiet goodness that may be less often expressed or sought after, but is perhaps more valuable. Joy leaves room for sorrow and devastation. It isn’t those feelings, but it’s not chased away by them. Though perhaps above all, joy demands to be shared, to be experienced with others, to bring others in, to reach out and embrace. Joy demands that we commune together.  

Five actions encompass the different ways that I tend to find joy in my personal discipleship. They’re somewhat interconnected, but I think distinct enough to go through one by one.

1. Learning

Study and learning is remarkably rewarding for me. I interact with most things first on some sort of intellectual or conceptual level and studying and learning definitely facilitates that. I find that to really be a disciple of Christ I need to learn things (not necessarily know things, but the act of learning and studying in pursuit of knowledge, however incomplete, is a pursuit that I find joyful).

Not everyone loves to study and learn, but as a naturally quite curious person, I love to learn and discover new perspectives and insights and find them enriching. The act of reading and re-reading and having my ideas challenged and new twists on old stories that I’ve read countless times is thrilling and joyful in a way that few things are. I love to learn.

2. Sharing

But as I mentioned above, joy is not content in isolation. The joy of learning something new is doubled when it is shared. This act of sharing helps me build a community of discipleship that collectively strengthens me. I love to have people to share thoughts and ideas with and sharing them enriches my own initial understanding and brings new light to me—again, helping me learn.

Teaching is one way to facilitate this sharing and luckily, Cec and I are Gospel Doctrine teachers in our ward. We get to share our insights with others frequently and I love it. I love to bounce ideas back and forth and to enlarge the perspectives of others. A couple of weeks ago, we taught about Esther and shared that during the Jewish festival of Purim, it is customary to boo and jeer whenever Haman is mentioned or comes on stage and I invited the class to follow that custom during our lesson. At one point, I mentioned Haman and a hearty chorus of boo’s rang out from the class and I experienced true joy right then and there.

3. Feasting

Joy seeks depth—joy is a feast. Connected to learning and sharing, I find joy in digging into and feasting on the word. I enjoy the depth of detail associated with the idea of feasting. I like to think of the digging into different ideas as feasting—feasting is the depth that comes after learning, as I sit with ideas and ruminate on them, ponder, write, wrestle—all of that is feasting for me.

I love to lose myself in the details, in the moment of discovery—swallowing every syllable and detail. To feast is to savor. And for me, to savor is joy.

4. Communing

Communion brings me joy. My word of the year is communion and I detailed more in a previous post what exactly I hope to do with that. Communion is the collision of learning, sharing, and feasting. Yet communion is more than that—it’s a state of being. It may be temporary, and in fact often is. But communion—with God, with the Divine, with my family, with other disciples, with film & books—brings joy.

I feel that I can recognize the humanity of discipleship in communion. Humanity and seeing the best of it brings my joy. I believe in the goodness of people and communion reminds me of that belief and gives my hope and from that hope I find joy.

5. Appreciating

The last piece of my personal discipleship that brings me joy is somewhat of a catch-all—appreciating. I strive to appreciate all the weirdnesses of life and the funkiness that surrounds my Mormon journey. As I was thinking about this post, I watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian which I find hilarious and insightful. I was struck by the final song of the film “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, which is sung as Brian and others hang on crosses. It seems to me that we can always stop and appreciate some of what surrounds us (I know the song is somewhat or entirely mocking some of the overly optimistic nature of believers, but ya know).

Even if I cannot quite do or understand everything I wish to, I can appreciate small moments of fun. Or even when I am frustrated by the slowness or corporate nature or any other element of the community I worship in, I can appreciate ironies or dark humor of what happens around me, laugh and therein find some joy.

A final thought—I think there are at least two large types of joy: the joy of possibility and discovery and the joy of accomplishment. For me, these two types are connected to thoughts from Bruce C. Hafen’s 1979 address “Love is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.” Hafen presents a taxonomy (that like all taxonomies is limited in its reductive nature, but helpful as a starting place) of faith in three broad stages, based around Hafen’s view of the world as two circles, one inside the other—the real inside of the ideal. Stage One is individuals that see the ideal as the real—there is no boundary between them. Stage Two individuals see only the gap between the real and ideal. Stage Three individuals strive to stand with one foot planted in the real and one in the ideal, to slowly but surely bring the real closer and closer to the ideal.

Joy must be found in recognizing and successfully identifying the gaps between the real and the ideal—there’s a comfort in that discovery and the possibility for things to be improved and the myriad ways that improvement may be accomplishment and the gap may be closed. Joy is also found in the successful closing or narrowing of that gap—I feel joy of accomplishment when I or others have worked hard to bring the real one step closer to the ideal.

Joy is a tricky emotion, but one that I think is worth pursuing and can bring great value to us in our pursuit of discipleship. After all, we are that we might have joy.

Year of Communion

My life in 2019 will be quite different from the life that has come before—I’m a father, potentially beginning a PhD program in the Fall, and still pretty new to this whole marriage gig. In part because of that and partially because I fell short on almost every one of my numerical goals for 2018 and still don’t have a sense of what’s reasonable or even good to strive for, I’m largely avoiding goals that describe the amounts of various actions.

Instead, I want to focus on the way I engage with things. My word of 2019 is communion and I hope to use that to guide my interaction with the films and television I watch, the books I read, and the miscellaneous other media I engage with, as well as to inspire my interactions with others around me.

PERSONAL

As I do that I hope to use my reading and watching and writing and listening to connect with others and to better understand the world around me. I want to watch everything, read everything, know everything. That desire sometimes results in a relentless pursuit of media consumption for consumption’s sake—an empty pursuit that may view films and books as items on a checklist. I know that I can never watch everything nor read everything, so to combat this voracious appetite, I want to deeply engage with everything that I read or watch this year. The quantity of experiences may decline, but I hope to truly find a state of communion as I engage with media this year. To savor each experience that I have. Sucking the marrow out of the bones of the experience, if you will.

I’m going to work to use any theatrical viewings as further communing experiences by going with friends I haven’t seen for a while or want/need to reconnect with. I am not great at keeping in touch with friends that live elsewhere and hope to improve somewhat with that this next year.

RELATIONAL

As I type this, I’m holding my newborn daughter (H) on my lap, while my wife sleeps in the other room. I want to ensure that throughout 2019 I commune with both of them together and individually. I want to strengthen our relationships as a family, to commune with Cec and be aware of her needs, as her husband, but also to be a father to our daughter—to hold her, talk to her, be with her, get to know her.

I know that life is busy and wild and will only get more so, but I don’t want to lose the small, quiet moments of communion in that busyness. I hope to treasure them and to truly revel in the small things. The soft, clear look in H’s eyes when she opens them or the way her fingers curl as she holds them near her mouth or how she furrows her brow and takes on the persona of a grumpy old man.

I want to set aside the cares of work and the world as much as I responsibly can when I come home to simply be with Cec and H. Communion is somewhat elusive, but I can be there for when it comes. I can be a willing participant, ready and available to commune when the moment comes. I hope to choose communion with my wife and daughter, as much as possible. We’ll see if I can remember this when I’m half-asleep and H wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming and refusing to calm down.

SPIRITUAL

Perhaps the thought that guided me to communion as my word for 2019 was connected to the study of the New Testament for Sunday school this next year. I want to focus on Christ and God and building a relationship with the Divine—I hope to commune with them. Cec and I were talking about Christ and why people are drawn to him. Much of my interaction with Christ is intellectual, which I think can be a type of communion, but only if I engage with it in certain ways.

I want to find more moments to commune with the Divine. As we go through the New Testament for studying, I hope to look to Christ to get a better understanding of who he is and what he teaches. As Cec and I read and study and teach in Gospel Doctrine, I want to draw attention to communion throughout scripture. Gina Colvin drew my attention to one of her faith community’s mottos that describes the attitude of communion that I hope to seek and establish:

As if around the table all humanity stands.

Hopefully we can build a sense of community in our class to create opportunities for communion among ourselves and with the Divine.

Another thing I plan on doing to find a state of communion with the Divine is to write more of my speculative profiles of the Divine—the three I have written have helped me feel a more emotional connection to the Divine. I plan to continue to use my writing to explore what I learn in my study and to find new access to the Divine.

Communion is a communal event and I hope that we can all find communion together. If you have thoughts on how to find communion with God or how we can commune together, please share. Here’s to 2019 being a year of communion, remembering that all humanity stands around the table.