Sunday, September 23, 2012

Choose Joy

I was sitting in the waiting room of our local clinic recently, biding time until I was called in for an immunization. It was the middle of a hot summer afternoon and fairly quiet except for a handful of folks in the chairs around me. A nurse came out from behind the door to the exam rooms and called a name from the clipboard she was holding. An elderly woman rose stiffly from her chair and used a walker to hobble along behind the nurse to be admitted into a room. Her snowy-haired husband glanced up as she left and then returned his gaze to the television that was rambling to no one in particular. From across the room, another woman recognized the man and came over to sit next to him to chat. They seemed like little more than vague acquaintances, to my eavesdropping ear, but I was pleased they'd be providing me with entertainment while I waited my turn.

"What did your wife do to her leg?" the woman asked the man. 

He shifted in his seat and slapped his cap against his own leg. "Aw, she was painting some trim up in the dining room and stepped off the ladder wrong."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," the woman replied, tsk-tsk-ing her disapproval over such atrocities of fate. She explained that she was at the clinic waiting for her husband who had macular degeneration. "He can't see a thing, you know. He used to get out in his pickup every day and drive down for coffee, get the mail. Now I have to drive him everywhere--do everything for him. He just sits in his chair and listens to the TV he can't see. Life is no fun."

The man nodded. "Yep. It seems like there's more sick people now than there's ever been."

I lifted my eyes from the magazine I wasn't reading to see both of them staring, not at each other, but off at distant corners of the ceiling. The old man rubbed a gnarled hand over the stubble on his face. With lowered eyes he muttered,"There's nothing good any more."

The smiling nurse called my name from the doorway and I rose to follow her, the old man's words echoing in my head as I left.

'Nothing good anymore...nothing good? Nothing? What a tragic summary at the end of a long life! His dismal commentary reminded me of Solomon, the wisest man that ever lived, who declared at the close of his days, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Someone who had experienced the richest of earthly blessings, endowed with all the wisdom man could attain, was basically saying the same thing, "There's nothing good, nothing worthwhile. Everything in this life is like chasing the wind."                                                                       

I am part of a mom's group this fall called Exhale. We have committed to focus on the following Bible passage as our theme:

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Philippians 4:4-8

Verse four caught my attention lately as it's something I've been working on in my own life:"Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say REJOICE." Paul is not making a plea for positive thinking, cute yellow smiley-faces, or dopey songs--"Don't Worry/Be Happy." When I think of the word "happy" I think of the similar word "happen." I happen to be happy because of good things that have happened. One dictionary definition of "happy" is: Feeling satisfied that something is right or has been done right. We must take note that when Paul wrote this letter to the believers at Philippi he was a prisoner awaiting trial for his life. So when he tells them, "REJOICE," he is not saying, "Have a good feeling about how great everything is in your life right now."

It is good for us to distinguish between joy and happiness. Paul is talking about rejoicing that is not dependent on temporary current conditions. Anybody can feel happy when the bills are paid, the kids are healthy, and the sun is shining. He's directing us toward something that runs far deeper in our souls--a knowing that, while my circumstances will and certainly do change, God will never change. God has promised his grace is always sufficient for whatever trials I face. His blood will cover any stain from my past, his salvation is certain, his righteousness is forever. If every earthly well of good things in my life would shrivel up, still he remains The Constant Font of Every Blessing.

Why is it important to understand and express joy? How many of you, like me, feel weary and need more stamina in your daily lives? Do you find there is too much day and too little time, too many people with too many demands? What if someone told us the secret to living the abundant life that Jesus promised us? The Bible does that! It says that the joy of the Lord is our strength. There is nothing more draining than sitting around thinking about how awful everything is. It doesn't matter if we consider ourselves by nature optimists, pessimists, or realists. The fact is: We may be accurate in our assessments of what is happening around us. Things may not have been done right. They may not currently be right. The natural, human inclination is to see any glass as half full. (And probably filled with something we don't even like to drink: Prune juice, maybe. Or milk of magnesia. Or a barium milkshake.) But rehearsing what's wrong over and over in our heads does not minimize problems. It makes them grow. Joy must be intentional because it most certainly will never be accidental. We must purpose in our hearts that we are going to pursue joy and strength will be added to our lives.

Joy isn't a solo act. Joy and Thankfulness are inseparable twins. They go everywhere together. You show me a thankful person and I'll show you someone who is filled with joy. Start counting your blessings. Grit your teeth if you must. Do it. Start small, look within: Say, "I am thankful I have breath in my lungs today. I'm thankful my heart is beating." Then look around: Are you thankful your children have energy to spare and that's why there are blanket tents all over the living room? Are you thankful you have plenty to eat and that's why there are stacks of dirty dishes cascading in your sink? Are you thankful you have work, shelter, people who love you?

Avoid comparison: It is a killjoy. It literally kills JOY. We need to stop looking at our friends and family as competition. Nobody wins a prize if they wear their pre-pregnancy jeans home from the hospital. The neighbor isn't a better person because he drives a nicer car. Your sister's baby is not smarter because he crawled before yours did. If Facebook makes you crazy, close your account. If certain people continually make you feel bad about yourself, find new friends who will help you focus on things that really matter. Don't fall into the trap of looking at what others are doing. You work on you.

Not long ago I posted a Facebook status that said, " choosing joy." A young friend of mine Liked my status and that evening informed her husband, "I'm choosing joy."

"You can DO that?!" he asked.

She responded, "If I can choose to be crabby, I can sure as heck can choose JOY!"

Am I saying that we should all skip around in flower beds, grinning, and singing in a high falsetto because everything is just so dang wonderful? What about when everything is not coming up roses? What if we can't find the silver lining in the clouds and everything in life seems to be swirling down the toilet? Choosing joy is never more important than when hardship comes. James 1:2-4 tells us:"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Jesus guaranteed us that in this life, we will have trouble. (How come nobody writes songs about that precious promise or displays it on signs outside of churches?) My paraphrase of that passage in James is this: "Tests build us up and make our faith TOUGH. This causes us to GROW UP in God and become useful for something in his kingdom." God didn't call us to stay children toddling around the church nursery begging for animal crackers. Sometimes, even as adults, we can be so delicate. When the least challenge comes along our knees buckle and we fall to the floor weeping, "Why me, Lord?" as if we are some unique person on the planet that should be singled out for special exemption from difficulty. God is calling us to maturity, he is calling us to bear fruit. So when trials of all kinds come--EXPECTED and NECESSARY--choose JOY as your response.

I enjoyed watching the Olympic games this past summer. I am amazed by the athletes' commitment to train for years for one moment. Theirs is an indisputably admirable endeavor. Yet, 1 Timothy 4:8 tells us: "Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come." Referring back to the passage from Philippians I see a challenge--a commitment to TRAINING. I need to rewire the way I think about daily life in general and trials in particular and it's going to take work. I'm asking God to help me condition my mind to find Him in every circumstance. I'm making the pursuit of JOY my goal, a discipline I exercise every day. Having begun this race of life, I want to run with endurance (strength) and finish well. I don't want to park myself on the sidelines, grumbling and complaining that nothing in life is any good. I'm choosing JOY. And I'm cheering for you to run with me.

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