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This is either a contrived act of joy or a beach cricket slip cordon is convinced they have their man late in the day

Joy and prayer are a woven piece of fabric which gives us resilience in faith. The task of sewing them together is made daunting by the unfriendly climate we live in.

‘Rejoice always and pray without ceasing’ exhorts the Apostle Paul of believers (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17)


If only.


Most of us perceive our culture as drifting helplessly away from the moorings that Paul directs us to. Joy is unfashionable. Peace and love remain an integrated part of our lexicon but we have become too cynical, ironic and knowing to permit joy pride of place in our shared life. The words ‘Oh, joy’ in conversation usually mean the opposite. We are too pragmatic and understated to express it and settle instead for its poorer cousin, happiness. There is nothing wrong with happiness. We all wish to find it, but it feels evanescent when we get there, like trying to hold on to a cloud on a mountain walk. Joy, by contrast, expresses something about origins and destiny. We have come from God and we shall return to him, affording us a deep poise and assurance which comes from knowing his inexorable power and inescapable love.


It is tempting to think this is merely a matter of genetic predisposition; that joy is either coded into our personality or not. After all, there are people in life who make Tigger look a depressive with their irrepressible bounce and others who make Eeyore look like Tigger himself with their crushing gloom, but this is not how St. Paul sees it. Joy is not a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is a fruit. In other words, it can become more and more evident in the life of a believer who seeks God, like a flower unfolding in the spring rain. If this feels unreachable to us, it is because we have made it so hard for one another. Human mood is infectiousness. A culture which enshrines dissatisfaction like ours, promoting anger as a peculiar virtue before which we must submit, makes us catch the wrong mood.

We find it difficult to reflect on the maturity of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It is hard to know our effect on others: the footprints we make always lie behind us, preventing us from making a true audit of our impact. Perhaps this is just as well. Part of the romance of the world to come is that we should find that day a true sense of what we have contributed to it. If we knew too much in advance it might make us self-regarding or discouraged. Or - more likely - both.


Occasionally we come across people who are too prescriptive about joy. They won’t permit other people to feel depressed, cajoling and shaming them into a better mood. Those who are intolerant of the joyless will not change them with words: this is like turning round and admiring your own footprints. Like so many of the good things of the Gospel, joy is taught wordlessly and caught by others like a spore borne on the wind.


St. Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing is another sobering challenge. There is mounting evidence that the digital revolution, which ours is the first generation to experience, changes the way we think, seeding a shallower outlook on life, hindering us from giving anything much attention for long. It is perhaps too early to be sure of this, but I think we all have the anecdotal evidence to hand. Prayer has never been easy but the environment may be harder than ever. The ageless temptation before us is the one to self-absorption, where the only praying we do is for God to bail us out of a hole.


Like joy, which is a fruit to be nurtured in our lives, prayer is a habit which is developed by patient attention to the needs of others. When we feel cut off from this lifeblood of intercession, it is easy to allow guilt to overcome us. Yet the mystery of prayer is that it emerges from the heartbeat of God himself. Where we are speechless, the promise of scripture is that God shall open our lips and fill our mouth with praise. We should ask him to fill us with prayer if we are out of sorts. This is his promise, his privilege.


Ultimately, joy and prayer are a woven piece of fabric. Prayerless lives are not joyful because they lack worship; joyless lives are not prayerful because they lack resilience. As Nehemiah said: the joy of the Lord is your strength.



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