How Is Your Joy? What About in the Face of Death?
What does joy look like? A joyful spirit produces a kind of inner peace and contentment. Telling of his own experience while imprisoned, the apostle Paul wrote, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
Paul’s attitude, under conditions that were not very joyful, reveals one of the great paradoxes and best-kept secrets of the good news: We can have joy, in spite of external circumstances, even in times of great difficulty. And Paul’s experience is not unique.
Consider the prophet Habakkuk, who, foreseeing the impending Babylonian invasion and devastation of Judah, wrote,
Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Or Job, who in the midst of overwhelming loss and grief, proclaimed: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.”
Scripture teaches that joy is the possession of those who know God and know themselves as He made them, called them and destined them. It is a blessing that many, perhaps, most of us have had an occasion to be intensely conscious of. For me, it was after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2001. For someone dear to me, it came at life’s terminus.
The oldest of three brothers, Clyde Bowden was the son of working-class parents. His mother was a domestic worker for a wealthy Long Island family. His father was that family’s yacht captain by day and a rum-running skipper by night. Together they provided a comfortable living for the boys, even during the Depression. However, his father’s double life and charming but volatile temperament created marital instability that ended in a divorce when Clyde was a teenager.
Feeling displaced and adrift, Clyde joined the Navy and later the Army, hoping to find a center of meaning and significance. It was during his stint in the Army that he found that center in a WAC named Melrose, the woman who would be his wife.
Together they raised two daughters, one of whom would become my wife. Over the next 30 years, Clyde’s career took him from the Army to the Augusta Police Department to the Georgia Forestry Commission, where he became the chief arson investigator for the state.
Despite the challenges of his upbringing, Clyde became a respected and honorable public official, faithful husband and loving father. At the same time, there was a measure of restless discontent that grew over time, as in someone who, nearing the completion of a puzzle, realizes there aren’t enough pieces to fill all the gaps.
After his wife died, his restlessness exhibited itself in a series of unwise financial decisions and activities. Of most concern was a pattern of hazardous driving, boating and DIY projects. The more he was challenged about these, the further he pushed to prove that he was as capable at age 85 as he was at 35. He would later admit that he was being foolish, trying to relive his youth (to find what was lost, or never found, in his understanding of self?). However, one day he pushed a little too far, breaking his hip as he fell from a ladder after working on his boat.
Over the next nine months, Clyde endured a series of painful operations that exposed him to MRSA, a dangerously antibiotic-resistant form of staph infection. It eventually took his life.
A man of simple faith, Clyde, like many Christians, believed in the promises of the Cross without much thought about the demands of the Yoke. But during his long forced shutdown, Clyde had time to think — about himself, things done and things left undone. Then one day, he had an epiphany about all three.
About himself, he realized he had been stubbornly independent, overly sensitive and too easily offended. About things done, he had been unforgiving, holding grudges against certain people. About things undone, he had never expressed his love, in words, to anyone other than Melrose. He also realized that these things had isolated him from others (especially from those he loved and who loved him) and from God — relationships that, according to C. S. Lewis’s definition of joy, satisfy a “desire which itself is more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
Determined to change, Clyde spent the last two months of life letting go of his pride, his grievances and his self-consciousness. From his hospital bed, he called every friend and family member he could reach to tell them how much he loved them and his regret for not doing so earlier. With my ear pressed to the cell phone, I teared up as he expressed his love for me in a voice that betrayed an unbridled passion — a joy, really — I had never witnessed in him before.
Nearing his time of death, a dozen family members surrounded his bed with prayers and hymns. After the last hymn, I led in the litany of Last Rites.
Throughout the liturgical calls and responses, Clyde remained silent and motionless, until I recited the line from the Book of Common Prayer, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Clyde.” At that point, Clyde jerked up, let out a loud groan and collapsed, passing from life to the life of complete, inexpressible and glorious joy for which he was created.