What’s with this?

My apartment is filled with the sound of passing vehicles because I have the porch door open so my cats can watch the traffic. My back hurts from rearranging the cooler at work last night, which involved shifting (i.e. moving each at least twice) well over 60 cases of beer and energy drinks. My hands are so swollen from the task that I had to take off my Black Hills gold ring, and my neck hurts because I fell asleep in the recliner while unwinding after work and didn’t wake until morning.

Still, I am filled with joy. Shouldn’t I feel … well, grouchy? Disgruntled because I had to do that heavy work when we have both men and younger women working at the store (which would be a deceitful position since I voluntarily assumed the task)? Irritated because I finally have a day off, but don’t have the energy to enjoy it?

In what way is joy an appropriate response to this situation? Those who have experienced joy know the answer. Joy isn’t circumstantial.

Happiness often is. I am happy the cats I have now don’t tear holes in screens (as one cat I owned did, preventing me from opening windows). I am happy the cooler is organized so we can find product with which to stock the sales displays. I am happy I was able to sleep last night because I had a backache when I came home from work.

These are good things. That I would appreciate a sense of well-being and satisfaction as a result is natural.

Joy, while experienced as a similar lifting of the spirits, is more elemental. As one of the fruits of the Spirit — the others are love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Gal. 5:22-23) — it is a gift and grace. But, more than that, it grows out of a relationship with God and his creation which is rooted and grounded in trust, in the belief that we are loved because we are his.

Paradoxically, the seeds of joy are planted when we take a two-fold approach to things of this world. On one hand, we need to take very personally the blessings that come into our lives, the experiences and people which enrich us immeasurably. Each blessing is a love letter from God.

Mary, I love you, God said, when I heard my granddaughters’ hearts beat for the first time. Mary, I love you, God said, when I glanced out the window at work a week or so ago and saw a double rainbow with colors so rich they might have been drawn with crayons. Mary, I love you, God said, when I discovered a coworker and I shared fond memories of a coffeehouse in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota.

On the other, we need to avoid taking personally the challenges and adversity which are integral to the  human experience. At those moments, we are more often than we realize being shaped by God to be his hands, feet or voice in the world. I see glimpses of this over and over in my life.

I have to admit, I was  approaching 50, before my heart and mind were open enough to appreciate God at work in this way. The night I saw the first glimmer of this understanding is still surrounded by a golden glow in my imagination.

I’d won a cash prize for my work in helping to bring South Dakota into compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and decided to use this money to start a journal-writing class at the women’s prison. Since my goal was to help the women understand writing could help them grow in wisdom, could help them make better decisions, I decided to be honest about my life — the abuse, the sexual violence, the mistakes, everything.

As I stood before that group of women, many of whom had also been abused, had also been victims of sexual violence, had also made mistakes (obviously), I saw the moment when a spark ran  through the room, when several of the women began to think, “If she can overcome her past, I can, too. I don’t need to be a victim of what happened to me.” In that moment, my past — all of the pain, all of the suffering, all of the mistakes I made out of a desperate and misguided attempt to escape these things — became a precious gift.

God had shaped me so I could give hope to others. Even now, thinking of it, I am almost breathless with gratitude, that I could be his servant in this way, that he could use me to help some of his wayward children find their way back into the blessed life he wanted to give them. Who would have believed he could use me in this way?

Women who have given birth experience something akin to the tremendous joy I felt that night. When the labor has ended and the child is placed in their arms for the first time, they glow. Memory of the pain is still with them, but it seems to be a small price to pay for the privilege of motherhood. 

Unfortunately  for us, God in his infinite wisdom doesn’t often show us how he is using us in the lives of others. My guess is that he knows Satan would have a heydey if he did. Few of us are not tempted by pride, at least from time to time. If we knew how God was using us, we’d probably be like the sons of Zebedee and imagine ourselves at God’s right and left hands (Mark 10:35-37).

Instead, we are asked to simply trust that he is at work in our lives when the going gets tough. Surprisingly, there’s a delicious freedom in that. It slices through the “why me?” without ignoring the “I hurt” and brings us to “thy will be done” where angels can minister to us as they did to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43).

They can whisper in our hearts a gentle reminder to pray, to enter into God’s presence. They can draw our attention to the little love letters God sends into each day to strengthen and encourage us. They can bring to mind songs and passages of Scripture which remind us of God’s loving care.

At some point, without any real effort on our part, we can abandon ourselves wholely to God without the need to understand or to control the situation in which we find ourselves. These moments of abandon are fleeting, but they leave behind a joy that’s not at all dependent upon immediate circumstances, and it is good.

Very good.


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