another school assignment “this is life” post. anyone want to guess what i’ve been doing lately? =)
there’s always that moment of terror when you hit “submit” and a little window pops up to say, “are you SURE you want to submit this assignment?” and then you have to ask yourself for the bajillionth time, “did i check it all the way? did i forget something? it’s almost eleven and i’m going crosseyed from staring at the computer for too long…what if i wrote something really dumb and forgot to erase it?” but i could what-if forever. so…maybe i’m not totally satisfied with how this essay turned out, but i’m glad that it’s over. just two more assignments and this class will be done and we can move on to bigger and more painful things…oh, joy. wait…
The Pursuit of Joy
Two thousand years ago, two women witnessed the sun rise over an empty grave, the sign that God’s wrath had been satisfied by the death of His Son. A mere four years ago, on a frigid Easter morning, I hiked up a darkly cloaked mountain with a hundred other people and watched as dawn spilled into the valley beneath my feet, turning the mist first silver, then gold, then scattering it completely in an ecstasy of warmth and light. Memories from the somber Good Friday service two nights previous trembled on my eyelashes, slid down my cheeks in shameless streaks, as I tried to comprehend the enormity of salvation. Like Moses, whose face God covered until all His glory had passed by, I caught only a glimpse of it as it swept by me – but the glimpse was enough to make me tremble in the wake of a forgiveness too complete to fathom. My lungs expanded until they refused the pain of swallowing the cold any longer. I knew the Scripture readings almost by heart, and as golden light spilled into the valley and splashed up onto the mountainside, my soul murmured the words.
“Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave…The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.’…And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.” (Matthew 28:1, 6, & 8)
Joy so often expresses itself by means of some other kind of sensation. Perhaps the human heart is incapable of comprehending it in its purest form. We experience it as pain, as longing. Matthew couples great joy with fear, as though the two belong together. We cry tears of joy, as though it holds some intangible link with sorrow. Perhaps it does. Sadness and happiness oppose each other, of course, but the term “joy,” so commonly used as a synonym for “happiness,” has always seemed to me to express some deeper plane of experience, one which cannot always fit into the boxes in which we like to categorize emotion.
My littlest sister, Shannon, is just three months old, a starry-eyed baby with a perpetual string of drool which hangs from her open mouth in testimony to the teeth pushing towards the surface of her gums. A friend informed us that babies’ pain tolerance puts adults to shame. Supposedly, if adults experienced the level of hurt a baby endures during teething, we would be totally incapacitated. I do not know whether this is true, but I have gone through enough orthodonture work in my lifetime to know firsthand the pain of shifting teeth. Shannon fusses the most in the afternoon and evening, when she is tired and lying down increases the pressure in her mouth. She still manages to smile and “talk” to me when I get home from work around six, but sometimes her coos end in soft squeaks, surprised out of her by some sudden pang. Her open-mouthed smile contorts, she lets out a cry, and then, just as suddenly, she stuffs her fists into her mouth with a happy sigh.
We brought Shannon home from the hospital two days after she was born, which seems strange to me because it was not my mother who bore her. Our adoption agency contacted us about two months previous to ask if we would consider allowing an expectant birthmother to view our profile. We agreed, but we received very little other information until June 19th when they called to tell us that the mother had chosen our family, that the baby had been born, that she was a girl, and could we make the five hour drive to see her the next day?
Most people have nine months to prepare for the welcome of a baby. We had one night.
I grew up in a Christian family. Though my parents took seriously the instructions of Deuteronomy to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, they were young Christians themselves. I grew up knowing and loving God, but my knowledge of Him was sporadic at best. When I was very young I read “Bible stories,” watered-down picture-book retellings of Old Testament events. I read about David and Goliath, about Samson, about Queen Esther and Daniel in the den of lions. Every December the children in our church re-enacted the manger scene, in which a teenaged girl with a pillow stuffed under her costume self-consciously played the role of the expectant Mary and a boy wearing white sheets and glittered wings over his jeans recited the immortal words: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) In the spring, during the week before Easter, my dad read to us from the gospels about Jesus’ triumphal entry, the last supper, the trial, the crucifixion. On Resurrection Sunday, my sister and I wore matching pastel dresses and straw hats to an abnormally crowded service, where we parroted the appropriate response to the traditional Easter greeting: “He is risen, indeed.” It took years of churchgoing and reading – I read the Bible straight through three times by the time I turned sixteen – for me to finally understand how all of the Bible stories, the Christmas tale, and the solemnity of Good Friday pointed to and culminated in the joy of the event we celebrated every spring: the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
The knowledge never took me by storm. I never experienced any single moment of redemption or even of enlightenment. Faith came to me organically, like the dawning of day or the opening of a flower. It expanded as I grew, lengthening with my jeans, thickening with my textbooks, acting as an undercurrent of security through the confusion of growing up.
Happiness relies heavily on circumstances: whether my half-curly, half-straight mop of hair decides to cooperate with my efforts to tame it, whether there is chocolate left in the cupboard, whether my levels of energy match the pace of my schedule. Perhaps this is why the Declaration of Independence speaks about the pursuit of happiness and not the defense, or the protection, of happiness. Happiness is not something you can hold on to. It’s something you pursue, and if you can catch it, it is something you taste – but you can’t hold on to happiness.
Joy, at least in the way that the word resonates with me, runs too deep to be easily swayed by circumstance. In this way it seems to bear more connection with the idea of redemption than of happiness. The redemptive quality of a movie is the portion which makes it palatable, the part which edifies the viewer. Joy’s links with sorrow, with fear, with yearning, enable it to redeem each of those experiences. “…Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Joy, and the hope of joy, redeemed shame and death for Christ, and through Him, it redeems all circumstances for believers. No need to pursue joy, because it has pursued me all the way to the cross, where it died and was buried and rose again.
On the mountaintop that Easter morning I caught a glimpse, not of the sorrow of the cross, but of my inability to understand its full weight. Knowing that because of this, complete catharsis could never take place for me, I wondered if I could then wholly experience the result, the fullness of joy for which my Savior endured death. John 15:10&11 records Jesus’ words: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” In order to keep His Father’s commandments, in order to claim the joy set before Him, Jesus became sin and died on the cross. In the first chapter of the book of Mark, He tells me what I must do to claim the joy set before me: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
When my mom called me to tell me the news about Shannon’s birth, it took some time for me to comprehend what was happening. The period of waiting was nearly over, and it felt like a kind of glorious betrayal. I felt baffled, like a child betrayed for the first time, confused by the very granting of all that I hoped for because it meant the abandonment of hope and the embrace of fulfillment. At the same time, some part of me held back, sure that this gift could not be for my family. The chance that Shannon’s birthmother might change her mind shadowed our happiness, tempted us to dam up the love we wanted so dearly to offer.
A sense of urgency assailed me, an almost suffocating realization that in moments of intense emotion, the mundane becomes symbolic. I dug out my camera and began taking pictures of anything, everything – my tattered Shakespeare book lying open on the couch, the phone which I prayed might ring, my own bewildered face in the mirror – certain that someday these photos would hold a precious kind of significance.
We spent two days at the hospital, hoping, wondering, trying both to fully give our love to this baby in the present and to hold loosely our dreams of a future with her. I turned to the Psalms often in those two days of unknowns, longing to read God’s praises in which I joined heartily, but also desperate to remind myself of His steadfastness. My world was tilting wildly and I needed an anchor. My memories from that week are inconsistently accurate – some stand out to me in sharp, indelible outlines, and others have blurred in all the emotion surrounding Shannon’s arrival. I do not remember of my own volition which Psalms I read in the damp hotel, in the car, in the tiny waiting room, but my camera recorded the details. A photo of my open Bible, in the yellowed light of a hotel lamp, reveals words from Psalm 92: “It is good…to declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness by night.” I clung – not to those exact words – but to the assurance revealed in them.
As I grew up, I began to realize that though my faith brings great assurance and stability to my life, it also brings great difficulty: a constant war between my natural behavior and the standard held out in Scripture. I remember long, wakeful nights in which I prayed that God might change my heart because I wanted nothing less than to be praying at the moment. I remember days on which my changing hormones made it so very easy to snap and snarl at my brother, and I shut myself into my bedroom with my Bible and a box of Kleenex, trying to understand why Christianity involved so much denial. I thought it was so simple: repent, and believe. Yes, but repentance and belief are ongoing, a continual process. Salvation itself occurs once for all time, but if I have been truly saved, I will express that salvation by continuing to repent and believe. Redemption must cause a change in behavior or it is not true redemption.
During the two frantic, whirlwind days of Shannon’s adoption, I occasionally found myself wondering why, though I found it difficult to rest in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty, I never once doubted that He was sovereign. That assurance stayed with me, cradling me all through the sticky, sleepless night in the hotel room as I stared at a fuzzy phone image of the sleeping baby who might be my sister. Though my trust shook occasionally, the object of it remained solid, satisfying, like the firm warmth of my daddy’s voice reading the gospel story to me.
When the Apostle Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, he orders it in such a way that “peace” comes just before “joy,” as though one must obtain one before the other is possible. I once read a story about an art contest in which artists painted pictures based on the theme of peace. Most entries involved a scenic setting, a sunset, a quiet lake. One entry, however, portrayed wild brushstrokes in shades of threatening grey: a ship tossing on billows of stormy water, with passengers clinging to the decks in terror. At the heart of the painting, a father cradled a baby in his arms, a baby in whose eyes there rested an expression of total peace. Chaos surrounded this child, but looking up into the face his father, he found nothing to fear. This entry won first place.
This is the kind of peace which must precede joy. Only when we feel secure can we also experience the logical result of that security. Perfect joy is that which can exist in terror, in fear, in confusion, in sorrow, not because it distracts us from those emotions or because we look forward to experiencing it once those emotions have passed, but because it transcends them. It runs over and beneath them, redeems them, like cold water over a burn.
On June 21st, I woke up in a muggy hotel room in which I had slept only a few hours. The air hung heavily with the dampness and the agitation we all felt as we prepared to either take my baby sister home or to leave her there at the hospital, along with a piece of each of our hearts. I propped up the laptop on which my dad looked up restaurants the night before, and while we dressed and collected the baby clothes and carriers which were strewn over the expanse of the room, we listened to renditions of old hymns. I only remember one of them specifically, perhaps because it expressed the emotion felt by my entire family that day. Whatever happened that day, however difficult it might prove, we knew that we had something which transcended all fears and allowed us to say with perfect honesty, “it is well with my soul.” We had the assurance that God’s wrath was poured out on His Son, fully and completely. While that sounds totally unrelated to the adoption, it gave us confidence that, if she was taken away from us, it would not be as punishment for some sin in our lives, but as part of the plan of a loving and sovereign God. We feared the unknown, but found comfort in the awareness that God not only knew but controlled the outcome of all our dreams.
At ten o’clock that morning, we packed coolers and bags into the Suburban and checked out from our hotel, which, despite the damp, had come to feel like one final link with the semblance of stability. We severed that link and drove once more to the hospital, hoping for everything, expecting nothing. Nine hours later, after the sweet heartbreak of meeting Shannon’s birthfamily, after the paperwork, after the tearful goodbyes, we buckled a tiny bundle of sleeping joy into her carseat and began to drive along the sunsetted road toward home.