Monday, 19 January 2015

Joy unmasked

"...We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22)

Butterfly days. Warm and brown as little nuts, our boys dart in and out of the house, full of life and the freedom of summer. Blissful hours spent exploring pond-life and skipping over hot rocks. I rediscover the luxury of stretching out on a sun-warmed boulder, with cool droplets still clinging to your skin. Children bring back that sense of freedom that we all had and long for once we give it up for being "grown-up". They allow us to be silly, to play and to be deeply aware of what is happening right now, before your eyes. Just yesterday, our eldest looked around at the peak of Gaika kop, the wide blue sky, valleys and forest stretched out on all sides of the gurgling water and declared with a sigh: "It looks like someone painted this place". I knew exactly what he meant. And I know the Artist too...

Mid-way through January, the "happy new year" greetings over and done with, we settle into a familiar routine. It is a relief, but not as welcome as I thought it would be. Apart from the fact that I am not all that fond of routine, it just seemed like I was settling for a "half-measure". Just in our small community there are already people in mourning, people fighting the final battle with cancer, people dealing with broken relationships, physical pain, financial insecurities etc. Our wishes for being merry and happy have a rather hollow and meaningless echo in the face of reality. Being real, being sensitive to the Holy Spirit and open to change and challenges, is where I'd prefer to be.

I tend to harbour pet-annoyances and irritations and one of them is the word (and the idea of being) "happy". We paint happy smiles over everything, write happy messages to everyone and post happy photo's on our Facebook pages to prove to the world how much fun we have. Sharing our good times with friends is not wrong in itself. Joy is a good and wonderful thing, but "being happy", can easily become addictive, and it is all too often faked.

This may sound a bit cynical, but if we look back to see when were we most "happy", what do we recall? Carefree holidays, spending time with loved ones, grand adventures, being in love, getting your first car - whatever it is that made your heart smile at the time. But if you look back to when there has been a turning point in your life, growth, grounding - what brought it about?   Were these times of testing necessarily the opposite of happy - sad or bad?

A good friend of "happy" is "easy". Once you have removed the things that are difficult to cope with and you are cruising along on a wide smooth road, you should be happy, right? And a good friend of both easy and happy is money - once you have lots of that, the others are sure to follow.

There are enough verses in the bible to confirm to us that God does want us to live full and joyful lives. Here are just a few:
  • A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)
  • For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
  • The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.(Proverbs 10:28)
  • For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
  • You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
  • ...For the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)

But there are some verses about joy, which are a bit more difficult to make your own, although no less true:
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds... (James 1:2)
  • Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them. (Psalm 126:5-6)
  • The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:11)

I used to love the poet, artist and writer Kahlil Gibran, and thought him to be a sage of great wisdom and insight. I still find the prose to be beautiful and poignant, but something is lacking. The "source" which he often refers to, is vague, undefined. Here is what he wrote in the well-known little book, "The Prophet" about "Joy and Sorrow":

"Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises,
Was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

I was curious to see what would happen if I "rewrote" it, now that I know the true Source of Joy. Compare it line by line and see which version makes you feel good (happy) and which one brings you deep joy.

Jesus can turn your sorrow into joy.
He is the well from which your laughter rises, your tears are His tears.
How else can it be?
He bore the deepest sorrow which could ever be carved into any human being, so that you can contain the joy of salvation.
He drank the cup of suffering, so that you may be refined to His likeness in the Potter's fire.
Is not the selfsame love which soothes your spirit, the reason why He was nailed to the wood of the cross?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only Jesus, who took your sin and sorrow who brings true joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see Him who is the Truth, the Way and the Life, you are weeping with His tears, for which you thought to be your delight...

The picture folder on our computer holds hundreds of pictures of our happy times together. And they really are lovely and special. But it is the memory of the times that we did not capture on "film", that bring me the greatest joy. The times when it seemed that all was lost and darkness hid all that was good from sight. In that darkness, Jesus stretched out a nail-scarred hand, took mine, and my joy and hope overflowed. This is a joy that I could never explain or even fathom. A joy that could never have been, had I not been made deeply aware of my utter brokenness and need for my Saviour. A joy that would not have been, had I not met Jesus on the pages of my bible, in desperate prayer and in loneliness.

From that place, when we stopped taking pictures, stopped being happy, stopped pretending that all was well, Jesus was able to make it truly "well" and whole. 

Embrace times of trial, as you do the times of blessings - these are the times that He uses to refine us, prune us, mould us, whatever it takes, that we may take on His likeness, little by little. In times of "plenty", reach out to those who suffer, take to them the source of your joy and the gift of His love. And when you suffer for His Kingdom - count it all joy. There is no pain, which Jesus has not suffered, no disappointment or darkness that He has not overcome.

And remember:

Jesus wants to give you a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. 
We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendor. (Isaiah 61:3)

Saturday, 3 January 2015

New year, New dawn, New mercies

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

Deep breath. The third day of a new year. New: Having been made or come into being only a short time ago... Still fresh... Never been used or worn before... Just found, discovered, or learnt... Not previously experienced or encountered, novel or unfamiliar... Different from the former or the old... Recently obtained or acquired... Changed for the better, rejuvenated... Being the latter or latest in a sequence... Being remade into a different likeness...

Up here in our hill-top home, I have so often been made aware of how new each day is. Never is the same canvas repeated. On some days the view to the three mounts is clear and they tower over all that is good and green. Some days a veil is drawn over it all and my focus is brought closer to a spider-web, slung low with moisture, clinging to the threads like resin to pine. Autumn spreads out in a riot of colour or drifting leaves, and winter varies from pale hues to pure white during the snows. This morning, after three days of sunshine and dreamy clouds in a wide blue sky, the day is soft. The limbs of a silver birch outside my window tickle the breeze, with cool mists drifting and reaching for our cabin.

With a chuckle I pick up the sound of a man's voice, roaring and barking, bellowing out the Hogsback version of the Maori "haka" war cry. Very intimidating if you are a baboon, but rather amusing to witness if you're not. (Especially if it's your soft-spoken husband doing the roaring...)

After yet another time of family togetherness came to an end, an afternoon of strange silence passed.  A sense of weariness settled on us, and I briefly looked back on the season of celebration, sweet sharing and conflicting emotions. A song started somewhere in the back of my mind, found its melody, and when evening came, I realised I had been singing it - without really hearing. During the final hours of last year, I remember telling my husband how over the previous years, I had been given a verse of Scripture at the start of the year, to make my own over the months to come. I did not want it to become something I simply expected or took for granted. Like a jaded new year's resolution. So I set the thought aside, until I "heard" the lyrics that had been on my lips for the greater part of the next day. Last night I repeated the chorus to my husband and asked him if he knew where it is found in the bible:

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning, new every morning,
Great is Thy faithfulness oh Lord,
Great is Thy faithfulness..."

These words are written in Lamentations 3:22-23, almost verbatim. Before I went to sleep, I read over the whole chapter, a part of the prophet Jeremiah's lament about the state of his people's hearts and his own condition. He starts off by saying: "I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord's wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed"...Then he says in verse 20-21: "Surely my soul remembers. And is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope..."

In what was Jeremiah's hope anchored?

v22-23:"The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease"Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each morning".

With a sense of wonder I realised, God gave me a song in my heart, straight from His Word and His heart. The English Standard version (from which the lyrics were taken) uses the word "steadfast" in stead of faithful - meaning constant, unwavering, unchanging. Yes! my heart answered, whatever this year may bring, however high or low I may be brought - His love is stead fast, never fails, never gives up, never runs out.

Then follows the best part: His mercies never cease...They are new every morning...(ESV). Truly the Lord is faithful, steadfast, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Yet with each new dawn, His mercies are fresh and new. Like a rock, solid and un-moving, but with fresh living water flowing from it and into our lives each day. To revive us, give us hope, renew us to His likeness, regardless of yesterday or the day before.

We do not need to be "better" this year. Whatever we have resolved to become or to achieve, if it is not subjected to His will, it will be futile. He most certainly wants us to prosper, but not in the way the world expects. If we let go of our own ideals and motives, and let more of Jesus be reflected through us, it will not only change and grow who we are, but also ripple out into a spiritually hungry world.

The winding path to our back door is flanked by various shrubs and plants that each give off a distinct scent as you brush past them. It leads you through a haze of apple- and spear-mint, rose geranium, lemon verbena, lavender, penny-royal and mock orange; and I often walk into the house with the wonderful perfume still in my nose or on my skin.

Such is a life with Jesus. Constant "contact" with Him, lends us a sweet fragrance, which we carry into the world each day. It beckons or repels, depending on a person's state of heart. As it wears off, and we feel ourselves being wearied by the stale state of the world, we may draw near to Him and be refreshed. Regardless of how "good" or "bad" we have been, His mercies are new and available to us every single day. It covers us, our sin, our past, our flawed efforts at being "great". For there is only One who is truly Great. And since we could never hope or aspire to find greatness within ourselves, it is so beautiful to know - He has been all that for us already. Know this with me: I am a new creation in Christ, my name is written on His palm, I am seated in heavenly places with Jesus, I am victorious and have overcome the world with Him.

This makes me feel bold, dizzy and brave. Ready to be changed, challenged - to walk out on a limb, far above the buzz and dazzle of fleeting pleasures, to a life of soaring with the King. Knowing that it is His wings that give me flight, His strength that I will draw on through the storms, and His arms that I may rest on when I grow weary.

From Everlasting to Everlasting - He is God. So beyond what we can ever imagine, yet near enough to be a precious friend and Saviour. Don't dare to just "dream big" this year, dare to let Him unfold a reality that is far larger than our limited dreams and desires. He will take your breath away with wider horizons, higher destinations, deep, deep peace and an all embracing love.