Looking for Joy

We talked long the other night about the mystery of Joy, how it comes from God and bears little resemblance to the human emotion by the same name. We noticed the unexpected connections, how thanksgiving was inextricably linked to joy, our praise giving honor to the Giver; how trust is the act of recognizing and bowing to the beauty of His nature; how hope springs from acknowledging His power and sovereignty, believing His promises are steadfast and true. It’s as if we were a mirror, and turning our focus on who He is and what He is doing reflects His glory everywhere, lighting up our lives with our enjoyment of Him….Joy shining in us like a candle in the darkness.

It will take time, this unraveling of all the threads woven through one large intangible concept. Is praise an overflowing of joy in our hearts?…or does joy flow when we lift up our voices to praise? And do we trust because we have hope that His promises are all solidly true?…or do we hope because we trust in His solid faithfulness? It doesn’t really matter, except when we try to pry it all apart and find out how it works, so that we understand. The answers are all Yes and Amen in the person of Christ. All the questions boil down to a matter of perspective– it’s all in what we look at, where our hearts are dwelling.

See, joy is not a thing. Not a skill. Not an experience. We study joy because we want to find it, and possess it– we know instinctively that we cannot live without it. Instead we are finding that joy comes from relationship, the response of the human soul to the One who gave it life. And all these habits we can cultivate are not a way to attain some quality, but rather a matter of learning to live in His presence and to know Him more fully– that’s why Paul tells us “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” (Colossians 3:2, The Message) When we see things the way God does and participate in the work He is doing, finally stop looking for joy…it comes looking for us, and it is a mystery wilder and brighter than we realized.

So we are counting in our journals for the next two weeks, five things to be thankful for every day, and “no repeats.” Seventy all told, written on the pages so we will remember, and I find it is like priming a pump to look for His goodness: the more I count the more I can see Him everywhere. Seventy may be only the beginning by the end of two weeks, and hope and trust unfurling new shoots as the praises continue to flow. It takes practice to turn our eyes on what is unseen and not get distracted by the demands of the unavoidably real everyday; we will choose to praise, choose to trust, choose to hope in His promises…and discover that joy is right there where He is, and all we had to do was step into the Light.

 

 

 

“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)

 

 

“We bury our swollen prayers in Him who’s raised from the tomb.We lay our hope, full and tender, into the depths of Him and wait in hope for God to resurrect something good.” Ann VosKamp

 

 

“The root of joy is gratefulness … It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” (David Steindl-Rast)

Giving Thanks

The cobalt glass on the windowsill,
The tree slowly turning to flame across the way,
The smells of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger,
Crisp Fall apples,
Hugs that let you know you are not alone…
These are things I am thankful for today–
The offerings of praise lifted up
In recognition of Your invisible attributes,
painted across the canvas of Your creation.

 

 

 

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:20-21)

 

 

“…’God is good’ is not a stale one-liner when all’s  happy but a saving lifeline when all’s hard….And every time I give thanks, I confess to the universe the goodness of God.” (Ann VosKamp)

Be the Bucket

It always comes to mind now when I water my flowers, how the bucket is just an empty vessel to carry life-giving water from the faucet to the thirsty plants.  Our author-mentor Elizabeth used that illustration to explain the way our lives are the vessels God uses to carry His love into the lives of others. Us holding up empty buckets and filling with His endless supply of love, and then taking it to those who are thirsty; becoming the hands and feet and smiles and words that make God’s love tangible to the world. Then back again for More, because if it all works the way it should, buckets will get empty as fast as you fill them. The needs are endless. Fortunately, the Supply is everlasting.

The very first step in this bucket brigade is admitting that you are empty. And its no use trying to fill up with with everything you find along the way. Buckets are only valuable if they are empty and ready to be filled with what the Gardener desires. It’s hard to admit my need; empty feels broken, seems wrong…but You say it is the beginning of something very right and good. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) It is the same paradoxical truth that Paul discovered: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me….For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) When I am empty, then I can be filled with His love.

Mostly, a bucket just needs to be available whenever the Gardener wants to use it. It’s a good choice to make at the beginning of a new week, to present ourselves as empty buckets. It doesn’t seem like much. It’s how a bucket is used that makes its life so meaningful.

 

 

“Hungry I come to You for I know You satisfy
I am empty but I know Your love does not run dry
So I wait for You…
I’m falling on my knees
Offering all of me
Jesus, You’re all this heart is living for.”
(Hungry, Kathryn Scott)

 

 

Love Might Be The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do

This morning at the gym, women are working out together and sharing their lives in bits and pieces, so naturally: how feet get larger as we grow older (“What?? They really do that? I have to stop working out with you people.”); how husbands manage to remain in bed at night when the baby awakes; how someone hasn’t been in to class for weeks, did anyone call to see if she is well; and a good book just finished, that someone else could borrow.

It makes me think again how we women are good at loving. We notice the needs and feelings of others, and have a heart to come alongside and help. We understand the importance of connecting, of sharing common moments, of feeling you are part of something larger. We can go without, to meet people’s needs, extend ourselves beyond reasonable bounds, persevere through storms that should make us quit. It is the cry of every woman’s heart to love and to be loved, and she knows it very well, regardless of how she goes about seeking it.

Discovering God’s love for us suits us completely; His command to love others is something we can tuck in among our natural relationship abilities, like adding to the collection– definitely an improvement, something we are quick to take up because it comes with admirable standards and handy “how-to” descriptions. It also tends to confuse us, and we will spend all our days wrestling to mold our natural abilities into something resembling God’s standards, maybe feeling guilty because of how hard it can be to make wayward emotions conform.

See, we women also have a hard time loving. At least loving the way God does. Maybe because we value relationships so much, they have the ability to disappoint us more. The very connections that make life worth living can become a very heavy burden. And our sensitivity to others’ emotions also leaves us easily wounded by what we notice. We can pour out love so naturally… but we often find ourselves running dry and irritable at the ones we are closest to. As long as we look at love as a feeling of closeness, or even a liking for someone, we will struggle to love the way God does, and that is the crucial hair-splitting point on which everything turns.

It’s Jesus who tells us how it works, when He is talking about branches staying connected to the vine: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love….This is My commandment that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (John 15:10, 12-13) Obedience is the key– an act of the will, and very often in conflict with our emotions– and then there’s that little phrase added onto the end of the sentence, only six words, but expressing something so big that it sent the apostle Paul into superlatives: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) And suddenly we are beyond the realm of natural abilities and into something supernatural: love that commits to the good of another no matter the cost or the obstacle… regardless of whether it is wanted or returned…love that looks like Jesus dying on the cross for people who hated Him.

Choice…obedience…death…not the words we would choose for a love-letter, but woven all through God’s message of love to us. And to love like this I need His help to push beyond the feelings of a woman’s heart; I need to stay connected to Jesus, who calls me His friend and shows me His own loving heart and explains to me in words what God’s love looks like. Watching Him I am learning a whole new way to love, finding a moment of choice when I am running dry and irritable– a moment in which to ask Him for help, to choose to obey, to depend on the Spirit for the power to bear fruit that is loving.

 

 

 

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

 

 

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
(The Love of God, Frederick Lehman)

Of Elephants and Orchards

We talked of gardening the other night in Small Group, how Paul wrote about what was growing in our lives: all the weeds that spring up so naturally from Self, and the new fruit that flourishes in the presence of God’s Spirit. The supernatural fruit that is named by the qualities contained in it. One fruit, nine descriptive words of the best, the most longed-for and admired qualities of human life. I’ve heard a lot of words through the years about this fruit, but I feel like only now am I really starting to catch a glimpse of what it means. Maybe we are very often like the blind beggars circling the elephant and trying to put into words the small bits we can touch and experience ourselves…. or maybe we are just too easily satisfied with what our limited perspectives can hold onto, and we could waste our days arguing about the shapes of smaller things and miss the larger truth entirely.

Jesus said it plainly enough: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Only I think we often take that rather literally, more along the lines of our years on earth, because that is how we measure life, as a quantity of moments…and surely we would want them to be rich and full and last forever, so if we could learn to add those nine virtues to our repertoire we would be blessed indeed. But what if life is measured better in quality– by what is flowing in us, and by what we produce with it? And then Jesus’ purpose becomes all about us living in close relationship with God, in the fullness of His own Spirit, and the abundance is this supernatural fruit that grows in us when we stay connected to Him. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… not as separate human virtues to add onto our list of good deeds, but as one work of art– a portrait of Jesus.

Paul explains exactly what the Breath of God is producing in us, the fruit He is growing: “For God knew His people in advance, and He chose them to become like his Son” (Romans 8:29)….“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) Jesus said that if we stay connected to Him, make our dwelling in His presence, the Spirit’s life will flow through us and grow this fruit of Christ-likeness in us.

The power that raised Christ from the dead raising my own spirit from its sin-death? Re-creating me from the inside out, into the person God intended me to be all along, reflecting the image of God? His own Life breathing through me the way it did in Adam and Eve at the Beginning, like sap and sun and rain through branches clinging tightly to the vine? We are feeling our way along like children trying to understand, and this is a much bigger Story than we could ever have imagined on our own– the fruit of the Spirit a much bigger treasure than we suppose. Not just a way to live, but Life itself. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6)

 

 

“Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
And where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me…
Lord, I need You, oh, I need You
Every hour I need You…”
(Lord, I Need You, Matt Maher)

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“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)