In yesterday's Sunday School class, I was introduced to Marva Dawn's book "Truly the Church" (a study of Romans 12). As the teacher read to us, I was struck by Dawn's premise that Christians should be full of hilarity, a concept she draws from the phrase in verse 8 which in the context of spiritual gifts states: "if (one's gift) is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." I've always interpreted this phrase as meaning one shouldn't give up on being merciful and become grumpy with the task. Since mercy is reaching out to those in pain or difficulty, it can be wearisome, taking its toll on the one extending mercy, like taking out the daily trash, only more so. So I assumed Paul was saying, "Hey, don't complain, just keep at it!"
But Dawn states that the idea of cheerfulness here comes from the Greek word which is also the root for our English word "Hilarious." And that this hilarity is anchored in the deep, deep conviction that a Good and Powerful God is in control. Instead of seeing the mercy-giver as one who is obediently plugging along, the picture that comes to mind is being rescued by someone strong and ebullient.
"Yes, little lady," says the huge giant of a man, his hands full of calluses, his clothes a little worn, his eyes twinkling underneath a threadbare flannel cap. The weather-worn face glows in the morning sun as he reaches down to pick me up from where I lie. I grimace. My ankle is probably swollen, maybe even broken. I've been out-of-doors since yesterday afternoon and feel weak and shaky. "We'll get you out of that trouble you're in and back to the farmhouse in a jiffy. The missus'll cook ya up some grits and eggs and bacon and hot coffee (probably put in a little brandy) and maybe a piece of pie. You hold on tight, now. Ever'thing's gonna be jus' fine."
I wonder how often my image of God includes that of hearty, confident joy as he willingly extends His limitless mercy. At Christmas, I am prone to imagine angels singing their joyful tidings like the Canterbury Cathedral Chorus, with rounded vowels and close harmonies that echo and reverberate off the stone and stained glass. Powerfully ethereal, it touches my heart. But if I think hearty, I need to go back to Whoopi Goldberg and the chorus of nuns bringing down the house with their rendition of Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.
There are many flavors of joy. But when things seem desperate, we want to be saved by someone who is strong and confident. We want to piggy-back onto a profound confidence that "all is well, and all manner of things will be well" (the familiar refrain of Julian of Norwich). When we're in need of mercy, we want to be rescued by a hearty God, full of power and a deep-seated joy.