[f] these things.
The most important thing is first, rejoice in the Lord always, and again, just in case you missed it, I say rejoice. Joy is not just a Spring planted crop. It is often planted beforehand. Someone planted those daffodils ahead of time, in trust and hope that there would be a Spring. Like garlic, joy does best planted on the darkest day of the year after the first hard frost. Planting joy in the good times just isn’t as hardy. Psalm 30 gives us some insight:
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face; I was dismayed. (Psalm 30: 6-7 NRSV)
That’s great insight into the human psyche. After a few successes, we are world beaters. We are moving on up. “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” And then we hit an obstacle, our circumstances change, our brilliant plans fail, our health slides, and we feel like God has abandoned us. We think that God is such a jerk to ruin the moment. Our emotional lives change much like the weather. In the Spring and summer we are singing, “Come on baby let the good times roll.” Fall hits and our tune changes to “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey.” By winter we are singing with Mick Jagger, “Paint it Black.” (or white as the case may be.) Things go bad and we think the face of God is hidden. To say that we are dismayed doesn’t quite cut it. In the modern Message translation, it says “You looked away and I fell apart.”
God is a presence for all seasons and situations. I’ve officiated at two weddings in the last two weekends, and I remember something about a covenant in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, as long as we both shall live. If that is the highest hope and vow of human love, why would we think that God is less than that, that God has dropped us in sickness, sorrow and want?
The Psalm 30 author reminds us God is present and faithful in all times, not just the good times. To make the shift from gloom to joy, the first step is knowing that God is present in the gloom. God draws nearer when we think God should be hiding, and if God is hidden it may be when we think should be near in our prosperity. Joy has little to do with our achievement and success, it is a gift from God’s presence. This is why I have mixed feelings about making a bucket list. A bucket list is great for determining what outward, external things you would like to do before you die. I would like to hike to Machu Picchu, see the ruins of Rome bike through Italy, and write a best seller. There’s nothing wrong with a bucket list, but they are usually external things, they don’t say who you are, and there is no guarantee any of these will make you happy for an extended period of time. These lists are doing things rather than being.
True joy often comes when we have passed through the valley of the shadow of death, not from the peak, or mountain top experience. The best morning I ever had involved a walk to my mail box about 12 years ago. Checking my mail that day was one of my most important experiences of God’s grace. About 4 weeks before my intestine ruptured after an operation. The surgeon said my insides looked like a grenade had gone off. I was in the hospital for most of that month recovering, and when I came home Jeanne said I looked like a war camp survivor. My first morning home, I walked to the mailbox by myself. It took me two minutes to walk those 50 feet. I got my bills, and let the cool winter air prickle my face. I looked at the sunrise streaming over the horizon and was filled with a deep joy, like the peace that passes all understanding. It was a pretty morning, a pretty average morning really, nothing like seeing the sunrise on the walls of the Grand Canyon while skydiving with a Go Pro Cam live feed on Periscope. But it was certainly the best morning I had seen in a month, and it was fabulous to be alive. I had passed through the night, through the valley, and I prayed a simple prayer: God don’t let me forget the joy of seeing the morning.
That joy was a sheer and complete gift of grace. I could never create, plan or manufacture such a thing again. But I could be aware of it. I could notice and receive it. Before that day, I had a lot of trips to the mail box that did not matter. There were many beautiful sunrises that went unnoticed, but that day I was alert and ready for joy. Why? During the four weeks in the hospital I had no “to-do” lists, no responsibilities and I read books and wrote in my journal twice a day, I had nothing to do but all the things that feed my soul. All those things I put off when lists and duty calls, that I vow to do when I’m less busy. The seed of that joyful morning germinated during the hard days before, in the quiet moments.
Its hard to have joyful if we are not looking for it. And if we don’t look for it regularly, especially in the challenges and gloom of night, then every day is just another day and the best things in life pass us by. You can’t manufacture joy, but you can only put the seed in the ground and wait and watch. This is why Paul says to set our minds to all the things that are true, and commendable and honorable and worthy of praise. Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I saw rejoice.
Many AA and 12 step folks know this. When I ran a clean and sober transitional housing program in New York, I asked the folks who were doing well in the program what was working for them. Almost all of them kept a Gratitude Journal and had a morning ritual. One man told me that for several years he had been getting up early, and writing down at least 5 things for which he was grateful. The first three never changed. 1. I’m alive. 2. I’m sober. 3. I have a roof over my head and food to eat. After a few weeks of of that, you’d think he would start to skip the obvious daily blessings. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to forget that even the simple things were a gift. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:20 give thanks to God in all things and for everything…
Weeping may linger for the night, but its not permanent. Joy comes in the morning! When the frost covers the grass, and you feel the cold approaching, that is the time to plant. Put your bulbs into the rich soil, and cover them. Even as you have a little shiver, give thanks. Wait and watch. And joy will come again.