She said, “Keep coming back, and you’ll know joy.” He wanted to vomit a rainbow of resentment, bitterness, and loathing all over her faux-leather boots. He already knew about joy. It was horrible stuff. Christians kept trying to rip it out of their hearts to share with him. Desmond’s mom had used it to suds up her dishwater. Joy was his high school classmate’s untamed little sister. He knew joy. He knew too that it wasn’t hiding in a drug store basement amongst a bunch of drunks.
But Desmond kept coming back. He was out of options, and Christmas was three weeks away. First his mom would start in, “Desmond, we decided not to serve alcohol this year because, well, we just thought it’d be a nice change.” Then his brother, Dan, “The Mumbler,” would start up. “We decided not to have alcohol because you drink it all before we’ve had a chance at it.” Every year the same play acted out. The same tragic-comedy. “It was a theater of the absurd,” he said to a sponsor.
There was the other stuff too, that’d convinced him to attend a meeting. It seemed no matter how hard he went at it, he couldn’t get arrested. He couldn’t get institutionalized. He couldn’t get dead. He’d tried. Instead, he woke up last Sunday, like countless Sundays before, staring up at a crack in the ceiling. But this particular Sunday, Desmond realized he was just one more cliche. One more hung-over twenty-something, but now, tired of being sick and tired. So he walked into a meeting of the nodding heads club and sat down. He pulled down the bill of his cap to hide his face. He pretended not to listen. Tuesday he’d talked for the first time. Yesterday, he walked out of a meeting and there it was. There was a new monkey on Desmond’s back named, “Joy.”
It wasn’t what he’d expected. He didn’t fall to his knees and cry. He didn’t sing out loud. He didn’t form a face-splitting smile. He was just satisfied. He was sober. That was enough. He was ordinary. Ordinary was enough.
His wife weathered the early days of his recovery. She stood firm amidst the volcanic eruptions of loathing, self-pity, and grandiosity. That was enough. Later, his son’s birth defect might’ve killed him at any time. But, he’d been given a son. He believed he didn’t deserve a son. There was clarity in that. After all he’d done, he said at a meeting, God wasn’t obligated to give him anything, let alone a son. If he lived or died it was enough that Desmond had known him. Held him. Smelt his fresh-washed hair. Laughed at the boy laughing at him. All of it was enough.
Every night he read to the child from the Bible. Desmond’s favorite verse to recite to the boy was, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)
Sobriety freed Desmond for this kind of earthly joy. The Lord bringing him into His grace and peace freed Desmond to live in heavenly joy too. In sobriety, he was shown that Christian joy isn’t stuffed into a person’s heart like cotton used to plug up an aspirin bottle. Why shove a pearl into an open sewer, after all? Joy was and remained the love of God shown him through Jesus Christ. Godly joy, heavenly joy, satisfied his hunger and thirst for permanence, for certainty, for earthly comfort when he’d been thrown deep down into pain again. Christian joy, he believed, was the unchanging satisfaction given by God’s Word of grace: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
The Lord knew Desmond, called him by name. But Desmond also knew he was still, despite outward appearances, the same man he used to be. He just couldn’t help himself. Still, the greatest temptations and afflictions he endured were the ones that happened after he got sober. It hurt worse when he could feel the pain. But he knew there was no escaping from it into a bottle of whiskey.
When he walked into a church, that didn’t change. The vocations of husband, father, and pastor didn’t divert the flood of pain that, at times, drowned him in hopelessness. They often added to the pain, those crosses the Lord had laid on Desmond. But that was the way of it. “We love as we are loved by the Lord,” he said, “and in that is our joy,” even as he was haunted by earthly joys that had never satisfied him.
In spite of himself, Desmond was satisfied. He’d heard the words that brought him joy again and again, “Keep coming back, it works.” He’d received God’s promise to him, “You are mine, I have called you by name.” In all this, at rock bottom, was God’s promise that Desmond would follow Jesus through suffering and death, and in this way – His Calvary Way – come by and by into the kingdom of God.
Earthly joy had its moments. He knew that was true. But it was temporary. And for him, it often grew anew out of the stinking compost of self-destruction. Heavenly joy was unconfined. The world considered it a dead thing. A useless artifact from a primitive culture. But Godly, Christ-created joy that burst from “death’s strong bands”, that joy would keep Desmond and all believers in Christ in God’s grace today and forever even, in the words of an old hymn, “when steeples are falling.”
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.