Finding the Joy in the Mess

Took the dog for a walk yesterday.

It’s been a while. He’s had to settle for chasing balls and frisbees in the front yard… what with the flu striking the house and now the water issues. Poor dear.

We circled the block near the school and ended at the park where he could go off-leash. The boy went nuts! He was free and literally jumping… every step had a bounce. And he stopped and turned and looked at me and there was a smile on that dog’s face. Joy, covered in shag. It was uninhibited freedom and joy with a big black nose and floppy ears.IMG_20130208_115154_813 IMG_20130823_105449_287 IMG_20131019_165045_397

And I thought there’s a story here, a message. Because that is the kind of joy I seek. Right here, in the middle of the mess, joy. Over the sound of the blowers and the air scrubber… joy.

There was joy beyond compare yesterday and today, too, for my son who found a pile of gravel left over at the park. Some really big sticks and rocks and this pile of gravel and he could play for hours. Imagination working overtime, joy in the physical labor of digging a cave, body heat and the sun’s warmth pinking his cheeks. The stick is a sword, a gun, a laser beam, a shovel, a tool depending on the moment. Sand in the shoes and the pockets, grime on the hands, grit in the hair… is there anything that announces the joy of a boy so loudly?IMG_20140110_143815_362 IMG_20140109_133617_039

I delight in their joy. It brings a smile to my face and lifts my spirits. But where do I find that same kind of joy? I’m envious of the freedom dog and boy have to feel intense joy. (And maybe non-dog lovers are tilting their heads asking do dogs really feel intense emotion. I have to argue that yes joy is in their sensory data.) Where do I go for that same kind of kick-in-the-pants frolic?

Really been feeling kind of blue today. I blame it on the sound of jet engines in my kitchen, the slow drying out of my house, the tedious calls with insurance, the waiting. Waiting is my personal pariah. Not good at it. Horrible actually. Just ask my husband about the time I couldn’t wait for him to help me paint the back door, or the time I enlisted the help of the children to help me move the sofa instead of waiting for him to return home. I want action, decision, answers, progress.

And yet, funny thing. God hasn’t been content with my moping. “Look for the blessings! At least this isn’t happening over Christmas,” quips a friend this morning. Another friend texts me Psalm 16:11, “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” During some quiet time this morning, my Bible study takes me to James 1: 2-4, “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing…” and to Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ….”
He’s got my attention. I’m listening. And I’m asking. Is this wet kitchen a trial, a challenge that ranks with the biblical challenges faced by the heroes of the Bible? There seem to be categories of challenges… something like this… challenges to one’s ministry, challenges to one’s safety and security, challenges to one’s beliefs about self and/or standing in society, challenges to one’s health and comfort. There must be some variation in the intensity of the challenge too. Right? And don’t challenges to one’s ministry rank higher in biblical implications than say challenges to one’s comfort?

I’m confused. We are to count each challenge as joy. I can understand how the apostles felt joyful over a flogging because they felt like they were experiencing what Christ had suffered and there was testimony in coming through it well. Not that I personally want to experience this particular challenge. But I’m having trouble finding joy in the mess that is my kitchen. And I just can’t reconcile my challenge as necessarily bringing God glory. How? No, it just seems like a major inconvenience, a distraction sent to derail me… like the plethora of distractions this fall. Kind of sick of the derailments.

The Bible study went on to talk about how we are not citizens of this world, this is not our home, we are mere travelers, nomads on earth. This is Christianese, church talk. I like it, I get it. There was that time I heard Beth Moore talk about going out to a Mexican restaurant and ordering fajitas. After the meal, she smelled like fajitas. She equated it to our lives here on earth. We are to eat the fajitas but not smell like the fajitas, be a part of the earthly world, but not act like it, smell like it, or cling to it.

And really it’s not the kitchen itself that has me upset. I know that it will all get sorted and a kitchen is just a kitchen after all and at least I have a kitchen and hot water and electricity and food to prepare. So I don’t think I’m clinging to the world; I don’t think that is really creating the funk.

Really, I’m just not sure where to find the joy and … big AND… can I come through this without smelling like the world? Can I deal with the inconvenience and the disruption to plans and the kids telling me I’m not fair because I have to choose being home to meet a plumber over going to the park and claims agents who may or may not have our best interests at heart? How do I live in the world, because this is where God put me, for just such a time as this, how do I live in this with a soggy kitchen when I’m really seeking Heaven? I have to deal with the here and now. And do soggy kitchens really have eternal implications?

Is there a 12 step program out there on how to live in the world and not smell like it?

The answer is right in front of me… in the words of my friends, in Scripture. Count the blessings. Look for them, seek them out, open the eyes. Dig in the dirt to find them. Take off the leash and jump. Count God’s gifts. Because in God’s presence is fullness of joy… not in the kitchens or the other things of this world… in God’s presence.

So, counting the blessings of today:
1. Sunshine and a dirt pile
2. Making a new friend
3. A tree full of birds
4. 3 multi-colored chicken eggs in a freshly cleaned roosting box
5. Following 3 police cars rather than being followed by 3 police cars
6. A surprise gift arriving
7. Lemons hanging on a tree
8. The beauty of sharing faith with a friend
9. Quiet time… despite the fans
10. A dog’s nose resting on my arm in companionship

And each of these is a gift of God, a little treasure He tucked into my day, moments to stop and feel His presence.

Reveling in those moments, counting them, listing them, publicly announcing them for what they are, that is how one doesn’t smell like the world. It derails the funk, turns living into thanksgiving, ushers us into God’s presence, and makes us look different, smell different, less worldly. We can rejoice in our challenges, whatever they may be, when we count the blessings.

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Redeeming Grace

Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Taking a 5-year-old boy, who is the living definition of perpetual motion, to an orchestra and choral concert while he is in the throes of Christmas excitement was perhaps not entirely bright. But we did. The boy crawled all over my lap, conducting the orchestra in his own way, falling to the floor on occasion, and playing with my hair most of the time. Between my own incessant shushing and his commentary about the songs and sights, it is amazing that a) we were allowed to stay and that b) we got anything out of the concert at all. But we did. After all, this was the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus – perhaps the best orchestra in the US if not in the world.

The concert opened with a rendition of O, Come All Ye Faithful that was both melodiously traditional and hauntingly new. When we got to Joy to the World and the audience was asked to join in, a thought struck me. It was fleeting due to my son and his gymnastics, but it was a coherent thought and it went something like, “Wow! This is a Christmas concert in the truest sense of the word! Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas! Here is an orchestra and chorus and audience singing a Christian hymn of praise in a very secular, public place. Cool!” And then I had to disengage from the thought and the moment to prevent my son from crawling under the seats.

Shortly thereafter, I was relieved to hear the familiar opening bars of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. We can stand! Hallelujah! I leaned over to my daughter to explain to her that when King George II of England heard this music for the first time he was so moved that he had to stand and that because no one may sit when the king is standing everyone has been standing for the piece ever since. (I’ve also heard that he had nodded off, and when the first trumpet sounded out the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus, George awoke with a start and jumped to his feet. Others have suggested that as the head of the Church of England, George would have been very aware of the Jewish tradition of standing for hymns of praise and therefore was a) complying with tradition and b) accepting his own secondary status before the true king of the universe, Jesus Christ.) And then the thought hit me again. “Wow! Look at us all! Standing and praising God and heralding Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings!” My mind swept back to Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday.

Like so many of us, Noonan tried to explain or analyze what just happened in our country, what the events of Sandy Hook Elementary really mean. She commented on how people across the US are not following the story and its every detail like they have in the past. “Too depressing,” she quotes their explanation for tuning out. “Because it’s too painful now, because they’re not sure anything can be done to turn it around and make better the era we’re in. This new fatalism is… well, new. And I understand it, but there’s something so defeated in turning away, in not listening to or hearing the stories of the parents and the responders and the teachers.” There have been a lot of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets talking about the impact of our nation turning its face away from God, suggesting somehow that because we’ve asked people to refrain from public prayer, public displays of religion, and the public teaching of biblical morality, we’ve turned God out and invited in the devil at the worst or at least a grey no-man’s-land of political correctness and individual morality that has actually created a moral abyss. This national sense of despair Noonan is sensing may in fact be because we, in turning away from God, have become hopeless. As she suggests, our nightmares are coming true and the optimism, hopefulness, and perpetual innocence of our grandparents is being shaken by current events. Where do we turn to for hope if we’ve asked God to leave?

Yet, here I was with over 2000 people, packed into Severance Hall, standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. Was this a moment like the one in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Grandma Bethany who, when asked to offer a blessing over the Christmas Eve feast, recited the Pledge of Allegiance? Did they stand because it is a tradition that has little meaning but that is followed to the letter simply for traditions’ sake? Or were the people standing in awe of the one King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Was this a midwestern phenomenon? Would such concerts be played this season at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or in any other of the big concert halls of our country? Or was this a prime example of President Obama’s statement about the Midwesterners who tend to cling to their guns and their religion (well, maybe not guns, although since Ohio is a conceal-carry state, perhaps there were a few guns in the audience)?

Fleetingly, I marveled at the freedom of the moment. After reading Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, I had glanced at a headline of another opinion piece. “The Most Persecuted Religion” written by Abraham Cooper, John Huffman, and Yitzchok Adlerstein, claims that of the 193 nations on our planet, 131 nations harbor either individual groups or governments that are openly hostile to Christianity and its believers. The article discusses how there are groups in places like Nigeria who are practicing Nazi pogrom style selection, singling out Christian people for slaughter. It reminded me of a speaker I once heard who told of a meeting with a Chinese lady. This American had worked closely with the woman for years on psychological studies. Neither had ever publicly acknowledged the other as a fellow believer for fear of repercussions. But during their first meeting in the United States, the two were able to embrace moving the woman to tears. Why? Because she was so happy to be with a fellow believer, safely. And here I was, at a public concert, quite openly celebrating Christ. Hallelujah!

The concert closed with Silent Night. The stage was bathed in candlelight and the twinkle of strands of Christmas tree lights hanging from the ceiling. Robert Porko, who directed the orchestra and chorus for this concert, asked the audience to ponder the recent current events as they listened to the words and sang along to this beloved hymn. He had previously joked with Santa about the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Ceiling, about repealing Santa Care (which stood for unlimited cookies for life), and about the ever-bumbling Browns football team. Porko added Newtown to that list of things to ponder. Like Noonan, it seemed he sensed a national need in the midst of crisis after crisis to return to the one who offers unlimited hope. And then, in the third stanza, it hit me. Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Redeeming Grace, the grace that is redemptive, the way we should treat each other. This is a great big God saying, “Hey, you bunch of screw-ups, I love you and I’m going to save you.” This is joy beyond measure translated into handling each other with grace, with mercy, with peace. This is holding Christmas in our hearts. This is forgiveness for the little screw-ups and for differences of opinion and for each other’s foibles and tendencies and idiosyncracies. This is hope. Once upon a time, America was viewed as a city upon a hill, set apart, shining holy hopeful light on the valleys below. President Obama recently commented that we are no longer a Christian nation. But what I see happening is that perhaps we don’t quite agree. Perhaps Christmas needs to mean a little bit more to us all, that we are beginning to wake-up from our nebulous gray cloud of moral turpitude, from our politically correct stupor to say, as Noonan put it, quoting Eugene Kennedy, “We are like King Arthur’s knights, entering the forest each day without a cut path, and ‘finding our way through is what we are called to do.’ Here… faith offers not an explanation but the only reliable guide. Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’ That is not a metaphor.”

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Through our holiday sales this year, and thanks to you for your amazing support, we at Compassion Tea will be able to offer redeeming grace in the form of life-saving medical care to countless people in Africa. Extending the hand of love, God gave us Jesus. Extending the hand of love, we in turn give care and love to our neighbors in Africa. Hallelujah!