Finding your joy

Where do you find your joy?  Several weeks ago, a trusted colleague and I were on a walk, and she asked me that question.  It sounds so simple, but the question is as enigmatic as the answer: Where do you find your joy?  It evokes hiddenness, and search, and it begs the prior question, “What is joy?”

I’ve been preoccupied with both the question and the answer, and when I read the Gospel lesson appointed for today, I read it with new eyes.  Today we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it seems to me that the parable is, in its essence, a response to my friend’s question: Where do you find your joy?

“A man had two sons.”  That is the beginning, and it is important.  We’ll have reason to consider both sons, but the parable initially launches into an account of the younger.  His joy clearly isn’t found at home.  He asks his living father for an inheritance that isn’t due until the father dies, and that he, as a second son in an age of primogeniture, isn’t even due at all.  It’s difficult to imagine a more abject rejection of his origin and source.  Whatever joy the second son is searching for, it isn’t there.  And so, given everything by his father, he sets out on his search for joy elsewhere. 

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

The younger son searches long and hard, both with regard to miles traveled and stones overturned.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that he, “traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”  Other translations say, “reckless living,” “riotous living,” or “extravagant living.”[i]  We are left to imagine all the many ways in which this younger son sought to find his joy.  I actually think it would be a mistake to consider the younger son a debaucherous heathen, one who partied hard and burned out fast.  Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates the verse to say, “Undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.”[ii]  That reads to me more as if this young man is like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, someone on a genuine quest for life’s joy, and so tries it all, material and immaterial—things, and people, and experiences—and uses all of them up only to find them, and himself, empty.  We are given no indication of how long this process takes.  I don’t think it takes one crazy summer.  Maybe it takes half a lifetime.  All that is to say, I suspect by the time the younger son finds himself in the pigsty he is no longer so young.  And, I suspect the rock bottom he hits is a lot like that experienced by many of us when the search for our joy in wine, wealth, recognition, and other people comes up dry.

Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, where we discover that the older son has been on a parallel search for his joy during the entirety of his younger brother’s distant sojourn.  The elder brother’s search has taken him no farther than his father’s fields, but it has been no less furtive.  Whereas the younger has sought joy in what the world could do or be for him, the elder son has believed that joy is to be found in the validation and approval of others (and especially of his father), in his dogged observance of propriety, and in the subconsciously smug self-justification that comes with being able to believe that he is better than his kid brother.  And has he become joyous?  No.  He has merely become bitter.[iii]

Where do you find your joy?  Both sons have searched in desperation, and their search has been exhaustive.  Between the two of them, they’ve searched everywhere.  And their search has resulted in emptiness for one and bitterness for the other.  Ironically and tragically, they are much farther from joy than they were at the quest’s beginning.

St. Brendan the Navigator searching for the Isle of the Blessed

I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to Ireland, an island dotted by churches and monuments dedicated to St. Brendan.  Brendan was a searcher.  His wanderlust was relentless.  He was as restless as the younger son in today’s parable.  He was as agitated as the elder son.  In the great medieval epic, The Voyages of St. Brendan the Navigator, Brendan sets out to find his joy.  He points his curragh westward and sets sail from Ireland in search of the Isle of the Blessed, the place of eternal joy.  For eons, interpreters have variously claimed that the Isle of the Blessed is mythical, or perhaps that it was actually Newfoundland and the historic Brendan miraculously made it to the New World.  But the careful reader of The Voyages will notice that mid-journey Brendan turns his curragh around, back to the east, so that when the Isle of the Blessed is finally reached, it is almost certainly Ireland, his origin.  In other words, the source from which Brendan traveled to find his joy is the source to which he returns and ultimately discovers it.

Analogously, in The Prodigal Son the younger son wakes up in the pigsty and, Luke says, “comes to himself” and determines to go home.  Only then does he find himself in his father’s arms.  The elder son, too, brooding on the front stoop at parable’s end, is invited to cross the threshold into the feast.  He only needs to take the step.

Where do you find your joy?  Have you found it?  Or, do you yet strive; is your appetite insatiable; are you agitated and resentful?  Is your search leaving you empty?  Do you sense that you are actually moving, day by day, farther from joy? 

Our search for joy is frustrated because we—like the two sons in the parable, like Brendan the Navigator—both look in the wrong places and search for the wrong thing. 

There is but one joy, and it is found in but one place.  The quest reaches its destination when we turn around like Brendan; when we “come to ourselves” like the younger son; when we cross the threshold as we hope the elder son will do at parable’s end.  Joy is found when we cease our striving, and shed our appetites, and loosen the grip of our grudges, and give up our need for validation. 

My favorite image in all of Holy Scripture is that of the father in Jesus’ parable running down the path to embrace his shocked and prodigal son, to shower his son with the love that was always his and has always been of infinitely more value than any material thing.  It is the love that is free and unconditional.  That love is the son’s true inheritance.  It is the inheritance of us all, and it awaits us, ready to embrace us if we will but come to ourselves, turn around, cross the threshold.

In other words, joy is found when we let go and fall into the embrace of the love of God who is our source and who has been with us all along.  Because that love is joy, the only joy, and it awaits us as relief, and release, and empowering energy, and the essence of our true identity. 

The lectionary does us a disservice today by omitting the two brief parables that come just before The Prodigal Son: the Parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep.  In those stories, Jesus reveals to us the character of God’s own joy, the joy that comes from setting all else aside to find us, and restore us, and embrace us.  We are stupefied at the realization that the One who places the stars in the heavens and knits the tapestry of time finds joy in us and wants his joy to be our own. Where do you find your joy?  It is right here.  Turn around. 


[ii] Ibid

[iii] As an aside, every time I preach or teach this parable—and today will be no exception—someone reaches out to me angry and resentful that the elder brother is treated so shoddily at the end, and the parishioner’s anger and resentment mirrors almost exactly that of the elder brother himself.  That’s telling.  It reveals to us that we intuitively, or at least eventually, understand that our joy cannot be found in the things pursued by the younger brother, but we cling to the idea that we can gain validation through our hard work, or justify our worth by comparison to others.  All I can say is that Jesus says otherwise, and if we share in the elder brother’s resentment, it means we aren’t yet ready to set this parable aside.  It needs to work on us some more.

Ukraine and Christian Hope

Perhaps the most famous words of history written in the past fifty years are the first fourteen pages of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  Tuchman opens her brilliant tome with a description of the funeral procession of King Edward VII of England in 1910.  In the parade are emperors and kings, dressed in pomp and circumstance.  The roadside is lined with legions of people who pay their respects to the king.  Tuchman’s description is exquisite, but for the reader it is also fatalistic.  Each sentence drips with sad irony, because while all those gathered, from monarchs to paupers, believe they are mourning the death of an individual, they are actually, without realizing it, mourning the death of their world.  Unknowingly, they all stood at the very end of what historians would later call the “Century of Peace.”[i]  Four short years after that funeral procession, the First World War would erupt, the globe would descend into a morass of violence, and all that had been known would go down to the grave.

Within the past two weeks, we have similarly witnessed the beginning of the end of the world we have known for three generations.  A global power has, for the first time in almost a century, become an aggressor in Europe.  An eighty-year peace has been broken.  It was a conflicted peace, an uneasy peace, a fragile peace, then by those with short memories a neglected peace, and now it is a shattered peace.

What is happening in Ukraine is an existential threat not only to the Ukrainian people—and it is surely that—but to all people.  Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces on ready alert, announcing, that “anyone who tries to interfere with us…must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”[ii] 

Professor Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University starkly explains, “Mr. Putin’s unusually explicit rhetoric has sent a clear message to the West: Stay out of my attack on a third party or risk nuclear conflict.”[iii]  For anyone my age or older, there is trauma in the memory of nuclear drills, huddling under desks with the spoken assurance—never truly believed even by my school-age self—that a thin layer of plywood would provide protection against nuclear holocaust.  The generation before me remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis.  My own generation vividly recalls the television movie “The Day After.” 

The violence of the aggressor, whenever and wherever it occurs, is always an affront to the Incarnate God of goodness and grace.  This very day, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”[iv]  Jerusalem stands in for the whole world that cannot seem to help itself choosing war over peace and trampling underfoot those who would speak words of justice and reconciliation.

A pregnant woman being evacuated from the Mariupol maternity hospital attack

Today, in the midst of all such violence, it is the universal existential threat coupled with the localized brutality of Vladimir Putin’s actions these past weeks that has us on our heels.  What Putin and his military brass (not, we should take care to note, the Russian people as a whole) are inflicting on the Ukrainian people with increasing abandon is scarcely believable.  The World Health Organization reported that, as of Thursday, the Russian military had attacked twenty-four health facilities[v], including a maternity hospital in Mariupol.  Mariupol’s deputy mayor announced that Russian airstrikes are also deliberately targeting civilian food and water lines, and that small children are dying of dehydration.[vi]

Like you, I struggle to make sense of the psyche of a man who would brutalize another nation and threaten the whole world.  Long-time Houston community leader and former Baker-Ripley CEO Angela Blanchard posted this past week, “I will never live long enough to fathom a drive to dominate so strong [that] you destroy what you wish to own.  All the beauty we create.  All the children we birth.  The fields we cultivate.  The art we make.  All fodder for [this] furious…man with his weapons and perverted ambition, screaming ‘mine!’ And those that do what he commands, cranking up the machinery of war, pursuing his goals, though it costs them everything.  The sheer and utter gruesome waste of it.”

So, what should we do?  Cower in fear?  Wring our hands in resignation?  Strap on the saber and go to war ourselves? 

We are disciples of Jesus.  We are those who have died to the ways of the world and been reborn in baptism.  That is the essence of our identity, and thus the questions for us must be, “As Christians, what can we do?  What does it look like to respond in faith to such violent aggression?”   


Almost a century ago, two theologically-titanic brothers, H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, debated the Christian response to violent aggression in public and in print when in 1932 another violently-aggressive world power, Imperial Japan, invaded Chinese Manchuria and perpetrated brutal and indiscriminate violence on the Chinese.[vii]  Each brother wrote with raw honesty and an empathy for the beleaguered Chinese that jumps from the page.  Richard wrote first, publishing an essay in The Christian Century entitled, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.”  Richard Niebuhr passionately argued that the appropriate Christian response to aggression was prayerful inaction, a mournful witness that includes Christians everywhere repenting of our own complicity with sin and violence and trusting that God is at work redeeming history, even when we cannot readily detect God’s action.  Richard called for a resigned patience, but of a “patience that is full of hope based on faith.”[viii]  

Richard Niebuhr’s was a robust pacifism, founded in his deep faith, but his brother Reinhold could not abide it.  In the very next issue of The Christian Century, Reinhold published a rebuttal entitled, “Must We Do Nothing?”  Reinhold argued that our faith actually compels our action, even while recognizing that any act we take is never pure, that there are always self-interested and mixed motives lurking in our attempts to act in faith, including in our actions to counter aggression and restore peace.  Even so, Reinhold says we must act, even while acknowledging at every step our own need for redemption, in order to side with the weak against the strong and restore peace on the far side of conflict.

Thank God for both Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, because only by wedding their thoughts together do we fully grasp a Christian way forward in today’s broken world. 

With Richard, we acknowledge in hope that the God who set the stars in motion is still a God who acts in history, a God at work behind the scenes in ways that we cannot detect or understand.  It is this God to whom we pray, for our own redemption and for the redemption of those who are on the receiving end of an unhinged man’s violence.  I believe in that God, of power and justice, and our prayer to that God is not idle play.

With Reinhold, we acknowledge that sometimes we are the tangible instruments of God’s grace, Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  When the vulnerable are mercilessly attacked by the strong, Christians must respond, moving readily and decisively in the world, even and admittedly with feet of clay, so that goodness and peace have a chance against evil and violence.

As individual Christians, we can respond in both these ways, trusting that God is bigger than we are and praying daily that God’s redeeming will be done and acting in support of the Ukrainian people both monetarily and by engaging our own leaders and encouraging them to thread the needle by robustly supporting Ukraine in its self-defense with materiel and intelligence, while also constantly working all channels of diplomacy with Russia to forestall a much larger and more universally-damaging conflict, both now and in the future. 

As the gathered Body of Christ, today we also respond in both ways.  We adorn the altar of God, we pray, we sing, and we offer through our collection today our tangible, humanitarian gifts for peace.  We do all of this in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those on the receiving end of aggression.  We fervently trust, with St. Paul, that God’s power, working in us—working in our Ukrainian sisters and brothers—can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.[ix]  And we hope for that day to end all days, not with the push of a button, but upon the return of the Lord, when small and petty men are no more, when threat washes away like the tide, and when the love of God reigns.  Come, Lord Jesus, come![x]



[iii] Ibid

[iv] Luke 13:34





[ix] Ephesians 3:20; BCP pg. 102

[x] Revelation 22:20