When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Joy! (March 16, 2010)

There are tufts of green pressing up through the sidewalk cracks. It’s a different shade of green than the lawns which lie beyond it; those are carpeted with blades weary from their triumph over an onslaught of stubborn snow. This is a newborn green, stretching and yawning with enough force to move concrete, hungry for a patch of sky and a sunbeam’s kiss. Along the edges of well-manicured shrubs, daffodils wait breathlessly in the wings, impatient for their cue to release the strips of binding green which have folded them into buds. Soon the shrubs will be bordered with butter, yellow petals throwing back their heads and laughing freely in the wind. For now, the sidewalk stage greens with anticipation. The first scent of earth after a long winter lingers in the air. And there is joy...

I hear the remnants of rain on the streets before I open my eyes. It sprays up on the speeding tires of those who rush to work; I hear it gurgling along the gutters and down into mud already saturated with disintegrating snow. Waking up to rain is nearly as cozy as falling asleep to it. The spattering drizzle shakes free from its cloudy pen well into afternoon, and I go out to greet it in person; it touches light on my face and sprays up on my running shoes. By the time I step back into dry warmth, my clothes and shoes are soaked through, my smile still two miles back and lost in the magic of jogging to an Irish jig in the rain. A hot cup of tea and pajamas in the afternoon are really the only option after moments like that. And there is joy....

The air is thin and it’s hard to breathe. Pike’s Peak rises out of pine-coated foothills, its muscular crags flexing in the sun before disappearing up into layers of long-term snow. My lungs think I must be joking trying to run at such great heights; I push them on as the blue Colorado sky laughs down. It’s in lifting desperate eyes from the mud that I notice the curious posture of trees. A great and mighty wind must have swept through them in the night, a wind carrying shards of ice and sleet. It blew westward, depositing its frosty yield on exactly one half of every tree. Glacial gems partially encase each bough of pine needles; winter and spring kiss each other on the same branch. My breath comes in tatters, but the sun touches briefly on the west face of the Colorado trees, and stars blaze in the afternoon. Where oxygen falls short, beauty abounds. And there is joy... 

I am learning much about joy these days. I am learning that many people consider it an elusive drug - a high sought after, but rarely experienced. We’ve heard rumors of it, known people who have tasted it, brushed past it lightly in moments soaked with sunrise or sunset. It seems we parade joy to the world at Christmas, then relegate it to greeting card storage boxes with other coveted but rarely pursued virtues like hope and peace for the year’s remaining months. Many find it an antiquated word of antiquated promises; a blissful pipe dream of the soul with no actual substance in today’s modern world.

In the absence of a genuine encounter with joy, the temptation is to push back the darkness by accepting a substitute. Success, popularity, wealth, good health, positive self esteem; these advertise circumstantial happiness - elation on demand. Occasionally they even make good on the claim. But, circumstantial happiness is a poor man’s (or a rich man’s) joy, and if the original has ever been tasted, no fraud will satisfy. 

Try as I might, my heart will accept no substitute. I have tasted authentic joy and it has so spoiled my soul that any imitation only piques my thirst for the real deal. The real deal cannot be hunted in the same manner as its counterfeits, however. Pursuing it for its own sake (as one would success or wealth or popularity) will always leave me wanting. Joy is a shy quarry; it occupies center stage only when pushed there by brass instruments and tympani’s and great choruses of “Hallelujah”. The more I seek it, the more it hangs back in the wings, sweetening the corners of life rarely noticed; when I abandon pursuit of it for pursuit of a greater goal, it finds me. 

The truth is, I have only tasted joy when I have indulged my appetite for God. When I am looking for Him, preoccupied with trying to find His hands at work in the world, trying to live out His love, trying to drink in His glory, joy sneaks up on me, trumpeting great “Hallelujahs” in my heart and setting every fiber of my soul aglow. King David experienced the same phenomenon. 

“Splendor and majesty are before Him; 
strength and joy in His dwelling place.” (1 Chronicles 16:27)

“I have set the LORD always before me. 
Because He is at my right hand, 
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; 
my body also will rest secure...
You have made known to me the path of life; 
You will fill me with joy in Your presence, 
with eternal pleasures at Your right hand.” (Psalm 16:8,9,11)

Joy dwells in the place my Savior dwells. In His presence is the fullness of joy. He offers eternal pleasures and my heart is glad. My tongues rejoices. And, the path of life? St. Paul draws a map:

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Joy and thankfulness come by our souls hand in hand. When I see the goodness of my God, joy rises up in me like a slow sweet blush, thankfulness leaps and leaps again out of the depths of my spirit. When I am thankful for God’s provision, for His love, for sparkles on the water and sunsets and swans and the promise of daffodils buttering the edges of spring, joy spills through my veins like champagne, effervescing and ever-lifting my heart to the tips of its toes, throwing back its head and laughing freely in His holy wind.

I have seen that joy is not a destination. It is a by-product of the journey. There are no promises that the journey will be comfortable; that I will not fail at times, that a steady rain will not occasionally fall. Many of my circumstances are beyond my control; if I depend on them to make me happy, I am a gambler and a fool. Bad days will come - God is still good. Sometimes life hurts - God’s love for me remains. Joy does not run from grief; it is not bullied by pain - in fact many times the two kiss each other on the same branch. Any discomfort of mine cannot alter the fact that beauties which are capable of taking my breath away abound. 

In light of such truths, let me then dwell where He dwells, in good days and in bad, in sorrow and in laughter, in solitude and in the company of dear, dear friends. Let me be thankful in every circumstance, praying continually, walking the only path I have ever known to lead me to life. For there is joy....

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