As Pastor Kyle was speaking in church last week, I kept thinking about my parents. Most of what I’ve learned about joy, I’ve learned from them, but the lessons didn’t come so much through some devotional studies or powerful talks at Starbucks. What I picked up from them were glimpses of joy giftwrapped and handed to me from a God I was still learning to see.
Middle school was rotten for a lot of reasons, and not just because I had to deal with snickering 9th graders and acne. Those were also the years we thought we might lose my mom. One morning she woke up with cuts in her hands and on her tongue, and the doctor explained she was having seizures while she slept, serious seizures. After more tests, gathered around our kitchen table, Dad told us we might not have much time left with her. The three of us kids didn’t know what to do. There were times my brother grabbed her wedding picture and cried. The stress needed a release valve, and sometimes that was yelling about a bike pump or losing it over some spilled orange juice. Mostly, we stuffed it, but not Mom. Every morning on my way to the bathroom, I heard music. It was a cassette tape by a group called Maranatha. They sing Bible verses, and they do it beautifully. Mom would sit in a chair by the living room window and let the truth of the words she was hearing unveil the nearness of God. She was not alone, and she knew it.
There are moments in life when God’s authorship is undeniable, and one of those came in church when Kyle read, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5). My mom and dad were sitting next to me when he read that verse, and we all smiled at each other when he finished. The Maranatha group that Mom listened to 30 years before sings a song that repeats that verse. She clung to that truth, and we were all changed by it. God chose to heal her, and the tears have turned to joy, but why?
The answer to that question came one summer while sitting around a fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My dad asked my brother and I, “Hey, you guys want to take a walk?” We looked at his face, smiling in the orange glow, and we were hooked. The darkness swallowed us as we walked away from the light of the fire and my uncle’s camper, but the paved path under our feet offered some comfort. Nerves turned into talking.
“Where are we going?” my brother asked.
“I can’t see a thing,” I whispered, secretly wondering what was out there ready to eat us. Although I couldn’t see his face, I’m sure my dad was smiling. Then, we heard it. For a while, it was just the sound of gravel under our feet, the wind and our voices. But then, from somewhere out there in the field, not too far away, came a deep grunting sound. It was rough and aggressive. My brother and I pressed against my dad, clinging to his hands. “What the heck is that?” I asked, trying to sound calm in front of the “men” but absolutely screaming with terror on the inside. My dad didn’t answer, giving the moment a chance to build. “Listen” he said. More deep, guttural sounds broke the silence, and this time the sounds were closer. We were surrounded!
“Is this safe?” I asked, wondering why we weren’t running for our lives. Dad just stood there, and we clung to his hands like a drowning man clinging to a rope. We were drowning in a sea of adolescent adrenaline, but fear was not in charge. Good old wide-eyed wonder took center stage. With our hearts beating like a hummingbird’s, we strained to see what was out there and wrapped our arms around our only protection. He loved it.
Then, with a tug, Dad leaned in close to our ears and whispered, “Ok boys, let’s go,” and we walked back to the flickering fire. That next day revealed the source of the sound. It was a buffalo herd, thankfully grazing behind a very strong fence, but my brother and I had experienced something we will never forget, something that would later help me understand why my mom could reap joy after sowing the seeds of tears.
Kyle said we need to see that Jesus really is Emmanuel. He was born in a dusty Bethlehem manger so that we could know that God is with us. David says, “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure” (Psalm 16:8-9). My mom reaped joy with heavy news lurking at the doorway of her heart because she let the heaviness unveil the nearness of God. Like Kyle said, joy came to her. In a strange way, the bad news was a gift. The truth in the music she listened to became her lifeline, and she held on to Jesus like my brother and I held on to our Dad. With God holding our hands, fear is no longer fear; it becomes wonder. When He is near, the everyday is no longer boring; it’s an adventure. Even in the darkness surrounded by the haunting, guttural sounds of bad news, seeing God’s nearness, holding His hand, changes everything, because it’s in knowing that God really is with us that the doors of our hearts are opened and we are filled with joy.