Monday, December 14, 2015

Looking for Joy in All the Right Places

At church yesterday, we lit the Advent candle of joy. Joy is my middle name. Literally, not figuratively . . . though I would gladly trade the literal for the figurative.

Joy seems so elusive to people. Happiness is not, although we think it is. Happiness is temporary and surface-level. I feel happy when I get to sleep in. I feel happy when the dog greets me enthusiastically at the door. I feel happy when my favorite Christmas song comes on the radio. I feel happy when I eat dark-chocolate-covered blueberries.

Joy is different. Joy is deeper. Joy is a condition of the heart, not a reaction to my circumstances. I've known people who profess to be joyful, Christians who claim to have "the joy of Christ" (or some churchy thing like that), whose daily attitudes show them up for liars. You can't have joy and grumble every time I see you about how hard your life is and how uncooperative your kids are and how inadequate your bank account is and how decrepit your body has become . . .

It occurred to me this past week (for some unknown reason) that an awful lot of us believe that our joy -- or at least our happiness, but probably our joy, as well -- is dependent on being able to do the things we want to do. Kids assume they'll be happy when they're adults and can do all the things they can't do when they're young. Adults assume they'll be happy when they're retired and can spend their days not working, but doing what they want. Poor people assume they'd be happy if they had enough money to not have to work so hard at a job they don't like. Rich people assume they'd be happy if they didn't have obligations to people to do things they don't enjoy doing.

I know that I would give my right arm for a day with no obligations of any kind, present or future, when I could spend my time on whatever appeals to me at that moment and not feel guilty doing so.

But I have enough sense to know that, although that might make me happy for the day, it would not make me joyful. Joy is different. Joy is deeper. Joy is a condition of the heart. Joy has nothing to do with doing what I want to do instead of what I have to do.

Joy, it seems, has more to do with doing the things I'm truly supposed to be doing as opposed to the things I think I should be doing or the things I think will make me happy. Doing those good works that "God prepared in advance" for me to do.

If God prepared some low-key, menial work for me to do, I will never find joy doing the grand and glorious work I prefer that gets me lots of attention and praise from the people who see me.

If God prepared some kids for me to nurture and raise, I will never find joy putting them in daycare every day and running off to a job, even if I love what I do, even if I am "changing lives" in my fabulous profession, even if I think being a stay-at-home mom will drive me crazy.

Joy comes from being exactly where God wants you, because God made you and knows how He made you and what you were made for. Because the joy comes not from what we're doing, but from the condition of our heart when we are so in love with God and so completely trusting of His love for us that we are willing to go to the lions if that's what He calls us to. When that relationship with God is completely right (which is a daily effort while we're here on earth, I think), our heart is right, and the joy comes.

This is not a revelation to most believers. We know this. The revelation comes in how poorly we are living what we profess to believe. If we believe that our joy is in our relationship to God, why do we continue to seek it in the praise of others? In the love of our family? In success at our careers? In dark-chocolate-covered blueberries? Why do we give little more than obligatory lip service to the one thing we were created for and then wonder and complain about the fact that we have no genuine joy in our lives?

Seek joy this week, friends -- in the only place it can ever be found.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas and the Six C's of History

Mrs. A is the history teacher extraordinaire at our school, and last Friday, she had lunch with my daughter and her homeschool cohorts to discuss the six C's of history: change over time, causality, context, complexity, contingency, and connection. To think like a historian, you need to look for these things in the stories you study.

This conversation came back again in church yesterday as we talked about Joseph.

See, as much hullabaloo as Christmas gets, we need to remember that it is the lesser of the two primary Christian holidays. The Christmas story is only the prelude to the real story -- the one we celebrate on Easter.  But, of course, Easter wouldn't have happened without Christmas. Contingency.

And our view of the Christmas story is pretty sentimentalized. As Aaron, our Sunday School teacher pointed out, while Luke's presentation of the story could be almost lullaby-ish (and that's the one you hear the most), Matthew's brings out the brutality of the age. Herod the king was a genuine lunatic; that slaughter of hundreds of babies was bloody and unspeakable. Picture this happening in a middle eastern country today and the international outcry it would cause. But back then, the king was the king, and he did what he wanted. Change over time.

Joseph must have been a pretty resourceful man to pick up his wife and newborn at the drop of a hat, in response to a warning in a dream, and move them to Egypt (the closest place out of Herod's jurisdiction) and just live there for a couple years. Finding a way to make a living and a place to live among a people of a different language, culture, and religion. We have romantic images in our mind of them camping out or something down there for a couple weeks . . . no, it was years. Herod died and his son took over. They had started a new life. And then they picked up and came home again at another angel's instructions in a dream. Causality . . . complexity . . . and prophetic fulfillment thrown in there, to boot.

But a certain detail of the story stuck out to me yesterday. When Mary was found to be pregnant, this was scandalous. Actually, scandal is hardly the word for it. Extramarital sex is so commonplace anymore, a single woman getting pregnant is hardly news these days, unfortunately. But the Jewish law said that Mary could be stoned to death. Joseph had every right to call her out and have her executed. Context.

But he didn't. Even before the angel came to fill him in on what was going on with this baby, he had already made the decision to "put her away quietly." Just end the relationship. No public condemnation. Leaving her alone with a baby may sound cold-hearted to the modern ear, but folks, this was a tremendous act of mercy on his part. More context.

Fascinating to think: the whole story could have ended right there. She's my betrothed -- she's pregnant -- it's not mine -- hand her over to the authorities for punishment, which was death. Had that happened, of course, God would have found another way to save the world, but He chose these people for this task because he knew that wouldn't happen. He knew Joseph. He knew he was merciful. He knew he would hear God's voice and obey. And the Christmas story -- and therefore the Easter story -- depended on Joseph's mercy and obedience.


So much depends on mercy and obedience. So much that we are not even the least bit aware of. This small act of mercy . . . this seemingly insignificant act of obedience . . . could have monumental effects on your life, other lives, society, even history. I must never forget to be merciful and to obey.

And there, my friends, is connection.