What gives you joy? Can you make a list? Have you ever tried to make a list of what gives you joy? As I was thinking about writing this series I came to the realization that the week we are going to spend reflecting on joy was going to be the most difficult for me to write about.
It’s not that I don’t have joy in my life, I have plenty, but this year. 2020? How on earth am I going to find seven days worth of joyful things to write about in a creative way. If I wanted to be banal I could write about how in the midst of everything around her Mary was overcome with joy at the birth of Jesus. Or maybe I could write about the promise of eternal joy we will experience in heaven.
The truth is, in a year like 2020, it has been hard for me to find joy. I imagine that might be true for a lot of you who are reading this. In fact, many of the triggers in our lives that provide us with joy have been largely absent. Vacations, family gatherings, holidays, and last minute plans with friends have all been eliminated this year.
What do we do this Advent season when joy seems in short supply? My advice is to start whistling.
Read – Acts 16:22-30
Paul and Silas find themselves in prison in Macedonia after the conversion of a Greek Slave woman. Her masters were not happy that she was no longer willing to help them as a “fortune-teller”. So they grabbed Paul and Silas and brought them to the authorities. They were beaten and thrown in jail.
The text says that Paul and Silas were singing and praying around midnight. Not sad songs and prayers, but praises to God. These were joyful songs and prayers. I’m sure the prisoners and guards thought they were nuts. But all of a sudden an earthquake.
The doors of every cell were opened and the chains that bound every prisoner’s chains were released at once. Somehow in the confusion Paul and Silas managed to convince all of the prisoners to remain in their cells and not escape. The guard woke up, saw the door open and drew his sword to kill himself.
Paul yelled for him to stop, “We are all here!” On the spot the jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?”
My Grandfather Abington was a whistler. He whistled just about all day everyday as he worked in the garden, or at church, or on his morning walk, or as he was heading into the grocery store. If I close my eyes I can hear him whistling right now. Almost all of the songs he would whistle were hymns that many of you would be very familiar with.
I tried and tried to learn how to whistle, so I went to the master himself and asked him to teach me how to whistle. By that point he had been whistling so long he couldn’t remember how he learned. So, he tried to explain it like anyone else and he said, “Put your lips together and blow!” I blew and blew and eventually I picked it up.
I thought it was just something he did, some habit he had picked up along the way. Maybe from the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which came out in 1937 when my grandfather was 8 years old. You’ve heard the song that Snow White sings in that movie, “Just whistle while you work, and cheerfully together we can tidy up the place”.
But his whistling was not a habit he learned from a movie. The origin of his whistling had roots in a much darker place. Roger Lewis Abington was one of 9 children born just 3 weeks after the Black Tuesday stock market crash in 1929 that would push the United States economy into the Great Depression.
His childhood was hard and made harder by a mother who was verbally abusive to him. Little Roger lay in his bed one night and realized that he always felt happy when he whistled. So he decided as a little boy that anytime he felt sad, or scared, or worried he would whistle a tune and he could find some small amount of joy in his life.
He whistled through college, graduate school, and a doctorate of ministry. He whistled when his three biological daughters were born and growing up. He whistled the night a teenage girl in their town showed up in the middle of the night with no where to go and he and my grandmother became her foster parents.
He whistled as his girls had children of their own. He whistled through his two open heart surgeries. He whistled when one of his beloved grandsons was killed in an automobile accident. He whistled when my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He whistled at Christmas, during summer visits, at graduations, and weddings. He whistled as great-grandchildren were born and when we would talk on the phone.
He whistled as he put books away in the assisted living facility where he and my grandmother had to move when they could no longer care for themselves. And he whistled long after his mind had been stolen by Alzheimer’s disease.
Whistling had become so much a part of who he was that even Alzheimer’s couldn’t take it away.
The story of Paul and Silas shows us that joy, the joy we celebrate this time of year, is not something earthly. Their freedom from jail that night should be a metaphor for us here in 2020. They sang, they prayed. Perhaps it was because they had faith that was stronger than anyone I’ve ever met. But, maybe, just maybe, they knew what my grandfather knew. Singing praise to God was a way to extract joy from any situation.
At my grandfather’s funeral in April of 2018, my dad shared this story about my grandfather’s whistling with us. One by one the truth that Paul and Silas knew in a prison cell in Macedonia was realized almost 2,000 years later in the sanctuary of Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Jackson, TN.
In the midst of our pain and sadness my Dad concluded his funeral sermon and began to whistle the tune to Amazing Grace. And one by one everyone in that sanctuary began to whistle. Tears streaming down our faces, not from sadness, but from joy.
How can you find joy in a year like this?
Put your lips together and blow.
Sing – Joy to the World
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.