Christmas Wonders- Joy

Did you know that maintaining inner joy is teeth-gritting, knuckle-whitening soul work?  I did not, until recent years. I suffocated the truth about joy with some squirrely thinking.   As a Jesus follower, joy should bubble up in us like one of those filters you see in backyard ponds, always keeping emotional algae from scumming up our words and behavior, keeping our outlook on life hopeful, expectant.

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand my role in keeping power going to the bubbler.  As great Christian writer and philosopher, Henry Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us.  We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”    I’ve figured out that choosing joy is about the same as swimming against a current.

We used to create whirlpools in our large, above ground pool.  Everyone swam in one direction until we formed a vortex strong enough to carry us around in circles on our floaties.  I loved the total body workout of swimming against our man-made eddy, kicking and stroking as hard as I could while dodging all the other swimmers enjoying the easy ride.   I think that might be a more accurate understanding of what’s involved in living joy-filled.

In John 15:11 Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”   What “things” is He speaking about?  Verses 1-10 of the same chapter are Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches.  The profound and beautiful word picture here of us being in Christ like branches on a vine, is important to understanding joy.  The truth about joy is that it is utterly dependent upon the depth and richness of our intimacy with Christ.  Only Christ can motivate and empower us to do the work of choosing joy day by day, minute by minute.

Joy and it’s first cousin, hope, are the bridges that carry us across the divides created by the contradictions between God’s promises and our current realities.

  • Joy carries us through brokenness- Christmas exposes broken relationships.  Last year you decorated a tree with a spouse. This year you can’t muster up a tree due to divorce or death.  You weep when you remember the Christmases you enjoyed when your children were young.  Now, there is separation between you and your adult offspring for any number of painful reasons. You wish with all your heart you could go back in time and just re-live one of those golden days from the past.

Maybe one of your loved ones or close friends are fighting and losing an addiction battle or eating their Christmas Day dinner in a prison cafeteria.  Whatever the brokenness in your relationships, joy is still an option, but you must choose it.  Psalm 5:11 says, “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.”   What an incredible picture the psalmist word paints for us.  I see us choosing to push closer to the Father, singing joyful songs, while God spreads a shield of protection over us and ultimately gives us the power to rejoice.   Notice, though, that this cycle starts by us deciding to take refuge in God, running to Him with praise even when our hearts are breaking.

  • Joy confronts sickness and disease- Your place of contradiction might be what you believe the Bible says about healing and your current health.  My husband is experiencing the painful effects of a teenaged motorcycle accident.  His shoulder and knee did not receive proper care at the time and they are currently creating quite a ruckus.  Putting on a shirt or climbing stairs are adventures in various pain levels.  We believe God is healing Ken whether it be supernaturally or by the hands of medical professionals, but today he just hurts.  Almost everything he does causes pain.  Nevertheless, I watch him choose joy in a number of ways.  He focuses his prayers on the healings of others.  He continues to serve long hours in his ministries and his insurance clients, through the pain.  He avoids complaining and self-pity at all costs.

 

I know that I am most tempted to float along with life’s current when I’m sick or in pain.  Joy gets roughly shoved somewhere in the background while self-absorption fights its way to the front of my conscious thought and emotion.  This is when we must drink deeply of the wine of God’s presence, promises and provisions, here in the “not yet,” part of waiting for healing.

 

Paul speaks eloquently about joy amidst pain in 1 Peter 1:6-9.  I urge you to read the whole passage but here are some pertinent highlights:

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. “

I know from an earthly perspective, Ken and I both feel like he’s been suffering for quite a long time.  Heaven’s perspective is a longer view. We can find tremendous joy in the knowledge that this life is but a shadow of what will be.  These bodies are not the finished product.  Deliberately embracing an eternal perspective is work, but so worth it if you are in God’s waiting room, looking for the fulfillment of His promises concerning healing.

Meanwhile, Jesus is our dear shepherd, comforting and leading us through the pain-filled now, beside still waters where our souls are restored and joy can bubble up freely.

Joy pushes back against lack- What are you lacking?  Are your finances upside down?  Do you need employment, friendships, a home, a church?  Wherever you feel things are coming up short is right where Jesus wants to meet you.  I am repeatedly encouraged by the joy of the Macedonian Christians whom Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 8.  The pagan world around them oppressed them to such a degree that they lived in brutal poverty.  The Greek word here literally means “down-to-the-depth poverty.”

In the midst of their extreme trial, Paul points out the joy of the Macedonians as he writes his letter to the Corinthians.  Persecution did not take away their joy nor did poverty remove their generosity.

While you wait for God to move you from lack to the land of promise, you can live in joy.  The Israelites are a strong cautionary tale of what can happen to those who complain and wallow in self-pity during a time of lack.

During downward turns, Ken and I choose to be generous with whatever resources we do possess, the same as when we are given much. Joy is found in sacrifice, we’ve discovered.  It also seems to well up within us when we consider spending our resources of time and energy on those who are in greater need than ourselves. Finally, we choose to be thankful for everything we’ve been given while continuing to believe for needs not yet filled.

The Christmas song of the angels proclaiming great joy for all people is not just for December. It’s for the gritty, dirty every day messes of life, a “tiding of comfort and joy.”

 

 

 

  

Christmas Wonders- Hope

Hope can be a scary thing.  Dashed hopes are devastating.  Falling from the heights of our expectations is bruising, debilitating.  The next time, we aim lower, safer.  After numerous tumbles, some of us simply stop reaching for any stars lumbering through our days with low-slung outlooks.

When I re-entered the teaching field after many years gone, scoring a job taught me many lessons in humility and persistence.  I remember one interview with a school board where I could feel the chemistry bubbling between us.  The questions they asked revealed their excitement about me.  After three or four “Sorry, we wish you well,” rejections after other interviews, I could tell THIS was my job, my place, my peeps.

I left the interview lighthearted and grabbed the phone a few hours later with eager anticipation when I saw the call came from that school.  “Sharon, we all absolutely loved you and think you’d be great in the position!”  Oh, if only that sentence stopped there.  Instead, a “but,” followed the word position.  “….but after we interviewed you, we dealt with our budgetary issues and reached the conclusion that we can’t put anyone in that position this year.  We need to divide up the portfolio between our existing staff.  We’re so sorry, but we’d love to keep your name on file for next year.”

Yeah, file this.  Seriously, I barely made it to the end of the conversation without bawling.  Even when I got the job, I didn’t get the job.  I thought of all the money and time invested in countless college courses to re-activate my teaching certificate.  I thought about the ache in my heart every time I attended any event at my daughter’s high school, envious of every teacher I encountered.  My hopes hit the “B” for basement in the expectations elevator and plunged.  The thought of putting myself through more crushing interviews and rejections sounded horrible. I questioned whether I heard rightly from God at all.  Didn’t He lead me to return to teaching?  Apparently not.

I believe many Israelites, at the time of Christ’s birth, lived with the same questions, doubts and flagging expectations.  Hundreds and hundreds of years passed with no sign of the Messiah.  Worse yet, they lived beneath the soul- stomping, iron feet of the Roman empire, an empire committed to establishing their emperor as the one true deity throughout the known world.  For Jews at that time, believing Old Testament verses about the coming King presented some challenges.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor.” Genesis 49:10    

No Jewish king ruled over them, as in the days of old. Who even knew what happened to the legendary scepters of David and Solomon?  What they knew was heavy taxation and Roman laws that violated their Jewish customs and beliefs.  I wonder how many of them lived expecting their promised Messiah to appear any day?  I think people are people, wherever you go and I wonder if many of them gave lip service to the hope of a coming King without genuinely doing life in that truth.  Just like us.

Hope becomes a wonder more than a risk when we focus it on the One who loves us best.   Don’t equate His delays and His “No,” with failure and conclude that hope is too expensive.   We often make our hope a laser on one dream or request.  Whether it’s for healing, employment, financial provision, restored relationship, a home or anything else, it’s so important to remember that God is the only One who can sort us out properly.  He wants us to dream large and hope large within the brackets of His design for us.

Understanding the details of that design is where we often lose our hope.  We will never hear perfectly from God in this life.  So, even when we listen carefully to Him, stand on the Word and stretch out our faith, things will not always go as we desire.  Our hope for a specific outcome will shipwreck on the rocks of life in a fallen world at times.

How can we remain hope-filled and expectant after numerous disappointments?

  • Stay in the word. Let God teach and instruct you in His ways and you will become more skilled at seeing where his hand is moving and blessing.

“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.” Ps. 119:114

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Ps. 130:5

“Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior and my hope is in you all day long.”

Ps. 25:5

  • Accept God’s delays.  I believe I’ve missed some major breakthroughs simply because I chucked my hope too soon.  Why did the angels not appear to the people in Bethlehem but instead to bottom of society shepherds?  I think it’s because God moves in closer where he senses faith and hope.  Maybe he couldn’t find much of that in Bethlehem beyond Joseph and Mary.  Your delay in receiving an answer might ultimately end  in a “No.”  It could also end with “Yes!”

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow tih hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Romans 15:13

  • Accept God’s “No’s” as wisdom flowing from Perfect Love. God wants the best for us even more than we do for ourselves.  When He does not heal, grant us the job, pay off our debt, or restore a relationship we must press in and trust with all our might.  An old song says,

“God is too wise to be mistaken,

God is too good to be unkind.

So when you don’t understand,

when you can’t see the plan,

when we you can’t trace His hand,

trust His heart.” 

 

One of my favorite lines from any Christmas song is:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn……”

Friends, I don’t know what wearies your soul today but there is fresh hope available for those who will press in to the Father’s breast, lay their heads there and say, “Not my will but Yours be done.”  He will guide your dreams and activities towards the wonderful joys he has in store for you.

May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.” Psalm 33:22