That though life is often cruel because of heartbreak,
It more often is simply hard because of paradox:
who we are is not who we want to be,
the grand beauty we dream of
is not actualized in the day–to-day—
and the movie screen is an insufficient substitute.
If we settle, give up the longing, and live half-lives,
But when we plumb beyond the temporal shallows,
Shoving past the “too weak” desires
To the eternal depths beneath,
We discover Joy has a Name,
A Face, a Person—
Whom we are invited to Know.
Inspired in part by C.S. Lewis’ opening words in “The Weight of Glory”:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (26)
How do you lose joy? She must have failed to hold onto it. Perhaps she’d forgotten it completely, left it in a corner, and it had wandered off, hoping to find a home where it wouldn’t be neglected. “I’ve lost my joy,” she tells her husband, and he nods.
Oh dear, it’s noticeable! she thinks.
Where do you begin looking for joy?
She tries singing as she does the tasks that annoy her most. She hums as she packs the children’s lunches, warbles in the car, belts it out when she de-clutters the living room.
Where are you, joy? she wonders, I can’t sing any louder. Can’t you hear me?
She tries putting on a show of it. Didn’t she hear a pastor say once that the outward action of love can kindle the feeling?
Or was that her college drama director talking about action and emotion?
She’s not sure, but she tries it.
Smile, she tells herself.
She shoves grumpiness down. She swats selfish thoughts like pesky gnats.
Joy, come back! Please.
She is sitting, alone at her desk, absorbed in work, when she senses a presence nearby.
Joy? Are you there? I caught a glimpse of you.
Man, I wish my knees still bent like that!
But when the house bustles again, when children’s squabbles break the quiet—joy recedes.
Oh, she realizes, I am allowing the noise to drive joy away. But joy doesn’t have to have peace and quiet. Joy doesn’t mind chaos, excitement.
I haven’t lost joy.
I’ve sent it away.
I am telling it when it can be present, and when it can’t.
How do I invite joy into my full life—all of it? How do I keep from shutting it out?
Still missing joy, she goes to the Good Friday service.
It is good to reflect, to be with others, all reflecting together.
They sing, they read, they listen.
But she is waiting, though she doesn’t know what she is waiting for.
There is something here for me tonight, she thinks. I’m not sure how I know this, but I do.
The sermon is finished. They have taken communion. Her shoulders slump. It was good, but…
The pastor speaks again. “Some of you have lost your joy,” he says. “You’ve lost the joy of your salvation, your redemption. Come to the cross.”
Her hands tremble.
Her body feels light.
She knows this is for her.
It may be for others as well, but it is clearly for her.
But she will have to get up, cross the room, walk in front of so many sets of eyes.
He is still speaking. “Come. We will pray for you, that here at the cross you will remember your source of joy.”
She gets up, quick.
Her husband, beside her, stands, too.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
By the time they reach the cross, there are others.
I am not the only one, she thinks. We have all lost joy.
Pastors pray. She hears only snatches of their words over the music.
But that is all right, because it is the song she needs to hear.
“Behold the man upon the cross,
My sin upon his shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there…”
Somehow, in the second of space before the next line of the song, she experiences guilt, sorrow, despair. I did send you there. It was my sin. It was my selfishness. Oh God, I love You, but I don’t know how to stop hurting You. I am unable to pull my thoughts away from myself, away from what I am feeling or not feeling.
All this in a God-stretched moment.
“Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life—
I know that it is finished.”
Stop, she commands herself. See truth. Christ does not have to die again. He has done it! I AM redeemed. It is not the chaos that is driving joy away; it is my fear that when I sink into moodiness, into selfishness, that I have stepped out of redemption. But that can never be. He finished it.
“I will not boast in anything,
No gifts, no pow’r, no wisdom;
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection.
But this I know with all my heart,
His wounds have paid my ransom.”
Paid, accomplished, finished—in a transaction that is outside the scope of time. It is not undone when she grows grumpy yet again, not taken back when she fails or is petty. She looks up at the Christ figure on the cross. Through that finished work, she tellsherself, I am redeemed. My sin does not for one single moment make that untrue. It is present and ongoing, without conditions. Without resting at all on me. I can have joy IN my grumpiness. It is not limited only to when I am feeling peaceful and good but is a reality even when I am fully aware of my own sinful nature.
She feels her husband’s hands on her shoulders. They have been there all along. She just now senses their gentle weight.
“Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders”
He took it from me—and He abolished it. Why do I try to carry what He has already taken?
Game pieces? I think so. Why? Not sure. Because he’s a nine-year-old boy? Yep, that’s probably it.
Sunday night Dave took the crew out for ice cream. Jake decided to stay behind. As soon as everyone left, I found out why.
“Mom, I need to talk to you about something.”
He’d been waiting for just such a quiet moment.
“What’s up, bud?”
“I think I have an idol.”
It took me a moment to process that one. It’s not a phrase a 9-year-old boy often uses.
“Where did you hear…? Never mind. How ‘bout we sit down together.”
After we were snugged into the chair-and-a-half, with Jake’s hand rubbing the back of my hair, I asked, “What do you think your idol is?”
“Why do you think Legos are an idol?”
“Because I think about them so much. I would rather play with them than read my Bible. I know that reading my Bible is good, and Legos are keeping me from doing as much of it as I should. I think they’re an idol.”
Ah! A repeat of our conversation the week before.
I held my hands up as if they were scales and launched into an explanation of how we can never do enough “good” to earn God’s acceptance. It’s impossible, which is why He made another Way.
But the anguish in Jake’s face stopped me.
I thought of what I’ve learned through spending time with believers from other cultures—how our Western view of salvation as a transaction is not the only way God presents the Gospel in Scripture. It is justification, yes, but it’s also reconciliation and restoration. It’s relationship, made possible through Christ.
“J-man, what do you think your dad would say if you told him, ‘Dad, I know you’re a runner, so I’m gonna’ start running four miles a day to make you love me more’?”
Jake’s face screwed up as if I’d bought him a hot pink shirt. “Mom, Dad already loves me. That’s not gonna’ make him love me more!”
He was quiet, his brain connecting the dots, seeing in them a picture, a constellation of beauty.
We talked more, about how we know someone loves us, then specifically about how we know God loves us. We talked about God’s joy in Jake’s enjoyment of Legos, how Jake’s creativity, imagination, and collaboration please God; they are gifts from God. We talked about how good things CAN turn into idols (and I thought, “Even Bible reading, clearly!”) and what we do about that.
At one point Jake said something truly beautiful. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like this: “So God wants me to read my Bible so I can know better that He loves me! It’s NOT so He will love me more! That’s not it at all.”
I laughed aloud in delight.
But part of my heart grieved.
Not at his words, but at this truth: my son, like I, will forget, time and time again, that God loves us simply because HE IS LOVE. Jake, too, will wrestle with guilt over “not doing enough.” He will lose the joy of being loved freely by God. He will equate “doing” with relationship, and he will wonder what he has done–or not done–to feel so far from God. He will assume God has withdrawn in anger and fail to realize that his own efforts and guilt have actually pulled him away from God rather than to Him.
I am grateful, not only for strange but wonderful conversations with Jake but also that God is revealing my own tendencies through my son.
But I still don’t want him to wrestle with my struggles. I want him to feel as sure of God’s love for him as he is of his dad’s (and, boy, am I grateful for that!). I want him to draw near to God with full confidence in His grace and mercy.
I want him to fiercely love God—because he knows God first fiercely loved him. I want him to know that God never, ever stops loving him.
I want for him what I want for myself.
And I can be confident that God, Who is a far better parent than I, wants the same for both of us.
Friday morning, before the getting-ready-for-the-last-day-of-school rush, I biked, Chai dog by my side, to the dog park, where I tromped around, fast, trying to avoid the mosquitos. I reviewed the Scripture passage I’m memorizing, but not a whole lot of thinking was going on. As I swung back on my bike, ready to pedal home, I thought, “Oh, I should pray.”
That’s not a bad thing. But there was a hint to it of “I have to do the right thing. I have to go about this the right way. This is what will please the Lord.”
My mind immediately went to confession and prayer for others—because that’s more “godly prayer,” right? That’s what pleases God most—my attempts at being humble and others-centered.
God was having none of it.
But rather than a thunderbolt from the sky, He got my attention with JOY.
The trees waved their branches at me—hey,
Em likes to make–and then photograph–food creations! Yummy smoothie.
look over here!—and the wind flowed over my collarbone like it was trying to tickle my neck. Happy dog on a leash at my side, green grass on left and right, hum of bike tires, and when I pulled up to my house, two ducks—a mama and a daddy!—perched on our chimney!
The bubble of joy burst and showered me with droplets, and I shut down confession/supplication and let myself BE in God.
Gratitude welled up to meet the joy raining down, and an old hymn rose.
Morning has broken, like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the Word.
Yes! Be in God. Let Him guide heart prayer into His glad fullness, His sheer joyful goodness, His eagerness to share Himself with me.
Romp in the revelation of right righteousness revealed. (Couldn’t resist the alliteration!)
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning;
God’s recreation of the new day.
“Morning Has Broken,” words by Eleanor Farjeon, 1931
This is the downstairs bathroom in our new house, and, yes, that is a cold-water-only pump for the sink and a toilet disguised as an outhouse bench. And, yes, we will move right at the end of soccer season and the school year. More adventure awaits!
When Maddie was three years old, she climbed onto the top bunk of her and her sister’s bed; crawled across the five-foot-high wardrobe next to it; grabbed the bottle of cough medicine that we’d accidentally left there after a middle-of-the-night dosing; unscrewed the “childproof” cap; and drank enough to make her loopy drunk. We took her to the emergency room, where she spent the night for observation.
After we got over our fear (“Too much cough medicine can cause heart-stopping seizures?!”), it was actually humorous. The doctor asked her to jump on both feet (the toddler version of walking the straight line, I guess). When she flopped over instead, she looked confused. “I’m all twisted up.” When the nurses inserted an IV into her little wrist, she was so high it took a good five minutes for her to notice it. “Daddy!” she said, looking at it with her face scrunched up. “This hurts. What happened?”
Before the hospital would release Maddie the next morning, I had to speak with a social worker. She opened her binder and, pen in hand, asked, “Why was the bottle out in the open? How did she get ahold of it? Where are medicines generally kept in your house?”
Then, “Does Madeleine have any siblings?”
“Yes. Emily is seven, and Maddie has a twin brother, Jake.”
Her pen paused. She capped it, closed the binder, and got to her feet. “She’s a twin, Mrs. Underwood?”
I was confused. “Ye-es.”
She smiled at me. “I hate to tell you this, but I doubt this will be your last trip to the emergency room, Mrs. Underwood. Twins have a way of… well, they…”
She wasn’t sure how to say it, but I knew exactly what she meant. From the time Jake and Maddie were able to crawl, they began collaborating on schemes Emily would never have thought of. They snuck in the fridge so often we put a childproof lock on it, but Maddie figured out how to rip it off. A few days later the two of them walked down the hallway carrying egg cartons, dropping an egg every few steps. Splat. Splat.
Another time I’d run downstairs to grab a load of clean laundry. I carried the basket up the steps of our split-level ranch and stifled a scream when my eyes were floor-level with the kitchen. Somehow they’d opened the dishwasher, and Jake had used it to climb onto the kitchen counter. He’d pulled several apples from the fruit basket, taken a bite out of each, and dropped them on the floor. Maddie had grabbed a sharp knife from the dishwasher. Plopped on the floor, chubby legs spread wide and an apple between them, she was stabbing the fruit with her knife.
I did NOT scream—only because I was afraid Maddie would jump and stab herself.
So I knew what the social worker meant about twins.
Even after they were old enough that I wasn’t so much concerned about them accidentally killing themselves, they could make amazing messes in no-time flat. I taught myself to pause before I entered a room where they’d been “playing.” I would close my eyes and imagine how bad it could possibly be. Then I would walk in. Generally my imagination had created the worse picture (hallelujah for a vivid imagination), and I would say, out loud, as if reassuring myself, “Well, it could be worse.”
I didn’t realize how much I said it until I sent Emily to check on them one day and she came back and said—in a perfect mimic of my tone—“Well, Mommy, it could be worse.”
I’ve gotten out of that habit of dealing with the “mess-ups” in my life, and I’ve decided I should get back into it. I read an essay by G.K. Chesterton a few days ago titled “On Running After One’s Hat” (http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/gkc16004.htm). He wrote about how silly it is to be frustrated and seriously miffed by mere inconveniences. He suggested the opposite: taking joy and even humor in the moments when things go wrong. He wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
I imagine that in heaven toilets won’t clog, and sheets won’t get tangled into knots in the dryer, and long trains won’t cross the tracks just when we have six minutes to make it to a meeting on the other side. But here, those things WILL happen. They have to in a world that’s broken in its core and cracked all the way to its surface. But this is STILL the day God has made for me, and He is not surprised by any “inconveniences” I encounter. In fact, believing as I do that His sovereignty is a truth, there’s an awfully big chance He may have planned them.
And so I can rejoice—because they MUST have purpose; because He knows what those purposes are even when I don’t; because there probably is a funny side to it that I can find if I only look for it;
Because, really, isn’t it true that, almost always, “it could be worse.”