This Advent, long-term Habitat supporter and teacher Sharon Long reflects on her recent Habitat experience in Malawi and why she chooses joy.
The theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
I have that quote stuck to my computer in work because sometimes, when I have a class of 30 teenagers in front of me and it’s after lunch and they really want to go home and don’t really care about their exam preparation, I have to choose joy. Joy is not my default setting.
In the summer of 2016, when I had the privilege to travel to Malawi with Habitat for Humanity, I witnessed a whole different type of joy.
I watched as people living in extreme poverty CHOSE joy. Chose it in the midst of illness, chose joy in the midst of homelessness, and chose joy in the midst of grief and loss.
It puts my choosing to be joyful on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in November into perspective.
On the way home on the plane I felt the need to put down some thoughts and this poem flowed out:
Salima Village Dust
The air is still as we land in this unique place,
The night hides the many intricacies of that first car journey,
Yet we are clearly somewhere very special,
Its poignancy not fully revealed to us that first night.
The journey to Salima is peppered with sleep,
The road long, hot and sticky in the bus.
The windows reveal sights yet shield us from them.
Africa in its rawness and full vibrancy.
Our belongings seem alien in the hotel's freshly painted rooms,
New and unfamiliar to all of us.
We are told things, what to expect, but know nothing yet.
Everything waiting to be unearthed in the Salima village dust.
We are welcomed like we deserve it,
Aware in our own minds that we fall short,
The touch of a friend more familiar than anything so far encountered,
So valued by those owning so little yet giving so much.
We work, we play, we exist in this place, We chat, exchange smiles, handshakes.
We understand what it means to them...
Do they understand what it means to us?
Feeling useful, loved, precious?
We see things we haven't witnessed before,
Seem strange to our western eyes,
Is it us who need to readjust?
The smiles, contentedness and joy indicate that it may be.
Friendships forged and connections made,
We watch the dances and songs in awe.
Hard to say goodbye to the Salima dust,
Harder still to leave the faces as what they are now: photographs and memories.
The memories have to be more,
Not just a fleeting thought now and again,
We captured the faces in the pictures,
Now we need to capture as many hearts as we can with their stories.
I was changed and couldn’t shake the feeling of joy I had experienced on that building site: taking videos of Austin, the village chief’s son, doing back flips, hearing the kids shouting the names of the girls on the team, making nsima for lunch with our homeowner.
Pure joy. That was what God wanted when He sent Jesus – for us to experience pure joy. We complicate it but, really, that’s it. In a nutshell. Jesus should be our joy. Our friends in Malawi believe in more for themselves, they hope for a brighter future:
“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” 1 Peter 1:8
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13
So that’s what I am hoping for this Christmas – to experience the pure joy God intended us to experience when He sent His Son. I wish that for you too.
Read more Advent Reflections here.