Early in my ministry I had books of canned sermon illustrations. You could look up any topic and find a story, joke or charming anecdote. For example, JOY: Jesus and Moses were playing golf….
Thank God I rid myself of all those books. They were terrible. Thank God I learned real life was richer, fuller, funnier and more poignant.
Last weekend, I spoke at the Soul Spa Women’s Retreat about soul tending. At one point as I stood to speak, it registered to me that in the crowded room four of my sermon illustrations were present. They did not all know each other. Some were from different times and seasons of my life. Yet, there they were.
Four women who all lost sons: one during pregnancy having to make gut wrenching choices; one lost a five month old infant; one lost a son in the military and the other lost two sons, one as a teen in a car accident and later her only other child in a boating accident.
No one could ever say which loss was hardest or worst. All were unbearable, unspeakable, untimely and unfair.
No one could ever find words to address the depth of their losses, reminiscent of the scripture Rachel is weeping for her children and she cannot be consoled. (Rachel’s weeping is cited twice in scripture, Jeremiah 31 and Matthew 2)
And yet here they were, these women, Betty, Donna, Kathy and Nicole, all in the room. Each of them has been an illustration in my sermons because of a quality each of them has. Joy. Joy infused with radiance, faith and fruitful lives.
They are sermon illustrations because each of them is a real life miracle of resilience, healing and resurrection.
Betty was the one who advised that I look at a new book out called The Book of Joy. The book was born of a week of conversation when Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to the home of the Dalai Lama on the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Both men survived decades of exile and soul crushing oppression yet both are filled with joy.
Their conversation led them to identify eight pillars of joy. Four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor and acceptance. Four are qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.
These women who lost five sons between them embody those qualities.
I do not know how they did it. I do not know which came first, their qualities or their losses. All I know is they bring me hope. They are living, breathing stories of joy despite the deepest pain I can imagine.
In faith circles we believe in miracles. We just don’t expect to see them in person.
I saw four of my miracles on Saturday, all in the same room, shining.
My adult daughter has a few tattoos. Moms don’t always approve of tattoos because we are from a different generation and I think we remember fondly that smooth, untouched baby skin we gave birth to. My favorite tattoo that my daughter has is just one word, lower case letters with a period. joy.
If we could all have tattoos like that on our skin and more importantly on our souls and hearts, we’d have everything.
Joy period. Joy in spite of trouble. Joy in spite of exile, oppression and the deepest losses.
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, a wife, the mother of three tattooed adult children, Mimosa/Mocha to Keller and Pace and breast cancer survivor.
This blog is in memory of Gabriel, Holton, Chris, Adam and Christopher.