I forced Erin to take piano lessons for a very good reason: because my mother forced me. In the course of her compulsory years at the keyboard, she learned to play Ode to Joy, also known as Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The tune is the fourth and final movement of the Symphony Number 9 in D Minor written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and for many years, it was only song she remembered from her forced piano lessons. Before she left for college, every now and then Erin would wander into the living room, pull over a chair from the nearby table (the neglected piano is now missing its bench), and begin to play. It’s been many years since I’ve sung hymns with any regularity, but I would automatically began to whisper along as she played. I would stop after the last line of the first verse because that is all I can remember without butchering the words, but that last line is the prayer that often stays on my lips for quite a while after the song has ended.
Please give me immortal gladness. Please let me feel the light of day even in the worst moments of my journey. But I always have a little voice (not my prayer voice), that adds, But really, please don’t give me bad moments in my journey. Keep it nice and easy, if you don’t mind.
I heard Pam Cope speak last Saturday morning. Pam has written a book, Jantsen’s Gift, that you should order immediately after you read this post. Pam was thrown into the pit of grief after many years of standing on the edge of the pit hoping that she would never have to enter it. Don’t we all do that? “Lord,” we pray, “keep us safe, keep us well, bless us with your joy and purpose.” Pam got every bit of this stripped away from her. And she doesn’t sugarcoat it. In the middle of her darkest days of grief, she didn’t walk around with a smile plastered on and she gave up searching for a silver lining. Joy was absent. There seemed to be no hope.
This season, we wait for a Messiah who said these words to His disciples at the Last Supper: These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11) It was an interesting setting to be speaking of joy. The Last Supper was the prelude to three days of immeasurable suffering for everyone reclining around the table. The suffering was a prelude to Resurrection morning joy. But would the joy have showed up with the same intensity if there had not been previous days of agony? Pam found (and still finds) joy in the darkest, toughest, most hopeless places on earth. This truth is spinning around in my head these days. I know it’s Christmas and this is probably not the kind of Advent post you were expecting. But I’m putting all of this together this season and realizing that the baby in the manger came to earth to suffer because that’s the only means by which the joy could come. That’s the gift we sing about.
Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony between 1817 and 1822, years after he had endured his mother’s and alcoholic father’s deaths, failed loves, and a worsening hearing impairment that would eventually leave him deaf. “We mortals with immortal minds are only born for sufferings and joys,” Beethoven said,” and one could almost say that the most excellent receive joy through sufferings.”
I have spent most of my life staring down into the pit and praying I don’t end up in it, but people like Pam don’t fear the pit because they’ve been there. In fact, they climb down into it with those who are suffering because (and this is what I’m trying to comprehend) they find joy down there, and a Light that illuminates the heart. I don’t look for paths down into the pit to join those who are suffering, nor do I want my own suffering to land me there. I can’t imagine I would find joy in a dark place. But what I hear from people like Pam and what I see from the life of Jesus is this: Suffering makes for a gladness that transcends our mortality and gives us the ability to sing an authentic ode to joy.
Touch a Life Foundation was born out of Pam’s grief. Read the stories and you will see the joy that has come from the suffering. As Pam says in her book, “I was born for this.” I think, perhaps, we all were.