Following Jesus

discipleship • the inner life • prayer
community of goods • faith • repentance

Following Jesus

Can You Be Happy All the Time?

June 9, 2017 by

When an old friend stopped by to see my eighty-two-year-old grandma on an icy evening a couple years ago, she told our family that they’d be visiting in her apartment. An hour later, the two of them burst in our door like guilty schoolgirls, grinning impishly. They had snuck out of the house and gone for a walk. “But Gramma, that’s crazy,” we objected, “the roads are solid ice!” She was unrepentant: “We wanted to see the first skunk cabbage – and look! We found it!” With a flourish, Gramma whisked a frostbitten, smelly shoot from her pocket, and then shook with laughter as we all held our noses in disgust.

Gramma was a widow for almost all the time I knew her – my grandpa died eighteen years ago – so I sometimes wondered why her contagious joy was so constant. My dad used to throw his hands up to cover his eyes when she came beaming in – “Whoa, Mom, that’s a serious power-grin!” When someone asked my grandpa what it was that convinced him so many years ago that Gramma was the one to be his life partner, he said it was her constant exuberant joy that won his heart. Brought on by the promise of another day, a beautiful melody, a sunset, or one of my dad’s interminable puns, her smile was persistently there, always.

George and Vonnie Burleson and friends at the Woodcrest Bruderhof, 1964
George and Vonnie Burleson at the Woodcrest Bruderhof, 1964

To teenage me, it looked slightly exhausting. I knew that her life wasn’t all easy. How could she have such perpetual enthusiasm and joy? But in the months since her death last November, I’ve realized that Gramma was simply living out one of Jesus’ commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).

So we’re supposed to be ecstatic the whole time? It sounds great, but I sure don’t do well at sustaining an attitude of rejoicing. Now, when bummed about first-year teaching frustrations or irked by intrusive neighbors, I remember Gramma’s unbeatable humor and zest for life, and can only hope to follow her example. Her joy wasn’t superficial; it welled out of her deep faith in Jesus and her life commitment to serving those around her.

Last year, one of my aunts took Gramma on a canoeing outing that could’ve been disastrous. Having paddled to the far side of a large Adirondack lake, they glided up to a partly submerged log, a kind of natural dock from which they planned to portage to a second lake. Knowing that her weight and unreliable balance would make the process risky at best, Gramma started chuckling even before they came to a stop. She barely managed to roll out of the canoe onto the log, then lay back, helplessly shaking with her famous belly laugh. My poor aunt had to drag her up the bank, guffawing all the way.

Gramma Vonnie on top of Bear mountain
Gramma Vonnie on top of Bear Mountain

There was no holding Gramma back; even in her eighties, she managed incredible exploits with feisty purpose and joy. She always joined family games of croquet or bocce, and often came from behind to win, to my little sisters’ annoyance. When a ten-year-old grandson jokingly suggested she take his bike for a spin, she climbed on and coasted down a hill, gently tipping over at the bottom, breathless with laughter. Her all-terrain wheelchair was, to her, a symbol of defeat, and if she caught sight of my dad pulling it out before a hike, she would take off down the driveway on foot, cane tapping.

Gramma loved mountains – she grew up near Yosemite and hiked and camped there often – so she jumped at any chance to climb one. Fitness wasn’t really part of her agenda; rather, she gloried in every detail of God’s creation: the play of sun and shadows over the ridges, the dainty tendrils of red columbine, a worm-eaten acorn. Along with the views and the exhilaration of conquering another peak, she enjoyed being able to modestly brag about her weekend exploits to her doily-crocheting peers. Last year, Gramma wrote to a friend:

When I stop to consider what it is that strengthens and upholds me as a widow and knowing that I have not the strength that I used to have – it is surely reading from the Bible or writings of others that give inner strength and clarity. It is also very strengthening to just sit quietly in nature and drink in, in some small way, the manifold wonders of creation.

Gramma rejoiced in every moment. No matter what was going on around her (always a lot, in our house), her joy was a given. Shaking silently, her hand over her mouth, at something my dad had muttered or beaming at my stormy-faced eighth-grade sister, she wordlessly urged us to pursue the unshakeable joy that sustained her. Actually, it’s a command.


About the author

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin works as an editor for the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, and lives at the Fox Hill Community, with her...

Read Biography
View All Authors

What is the Voices Blog?

Voices is a blog by Bruderhof members, covering topics important to us and to you.

What is the Bruderhof? We're an intentional Christian community with locations worldwide. We try to love our neighbor and share everything, so that peace and justice become a reality.

Find out more about the Bruderhof.

Keep Up-To-Date

Sign up for a weekly email from the Bruderhof

Another Life Is Possible - 100 years of life together at the Bruderhof

In Pictures

Follow us on Instagram for snapshots of Bruderhof life

Recommended Readings

View All

You Might Also Like

View All Articles
View All Articles
  • Very impressive!

    Joel Westbrook
  • Thank you for the boost to my joy in faith. What a wonderful story; it has lifted my (currently lowered) spirits! I will try to be like your Gramma and find joy in every situation - it'll be my quest from now on!

    Judith Scollard
  • Shana! YOU are such a gift. Thank you for sharing your Gramma with us in this beautifully written piece. I'm so proud of and grateful for you. Keep going. I love how you're growing and taking us all along with you for the ride!

    Krystal Frazier