December 13, 2008

A soft knock on my bedroom door barely roused me from a mid afternoon nap. With a frustrated groan and a full body stretch I reluctantly answered the door and was immediately ushered into full alertness by my youngest daughter, Trisha, peering at me pitifully through two of the saddest, eleven-year-old eyes I have ever beheld. At her side was her older sister, Tiffany, supporting her with a two-armed hug of consolation and comfort. Trisha’s trembling, cupped hands lovingly caressed a tiny ball of gray, lifeless fur.
“Joy’s dead,” she sobbed in a halting, high-pitched squeak. “I thought he was sleeping but when I took him out of his cage to play with him he didn’t move.” Reliving her painful discovery was all it took to open the spillway and release a reservoir of tears which cascaded down her quivering cheeks.
Joy had been a much loved member of our household for almost a year, a long life span for a hamster. When the energetic ball of fluff first came home with us as a gift for Trisha from her school I knew in the back of my mind there would be a day all too soon when we would have to deal with saying our goodbyes. “What will you name him?” I asked.
With a sparkle in her eyes and a giggle of delight Trisha announced, “His name is Joy!” Although we suggested that Joy was a girl’s name and might not be appropriate for a male hamster, Trisha would not be dissuaded. Once we saw the extreme pleasure Joy brought to her life we all agreed this special animal was aptly named.
But now Joy’s brief sojourn with our family had sadly come to an end and looking at my grief-stricken daughter I wondered if joy would ever again be a part of Trisha’s life. We did our best to console her. I mentioned that when she felt ready we could go down to the pet store and pick out another Joy. But to her, Joy was irreplaceable, a one-of-a-kind, treasured friend that was forever lost. Tiffany talked about losing one of her pet goldfish. “It took awhile but I got over it,” she offered hoping to stem the flow of tears. Trisha, however, was not convinced and remained inconsolable.
“What do we do now?” I wondered to myself. For Tiffany’s goldfish we had arranged a solemn, yet simple ceremony culminating in a “burial at sea.” In other words, we flushed it. Such a ceremony seemed unfitting in this case, especially given the size of the deceased and the tendency of our plumbing to back up. We opted for a shoebox coffin and an interment in our backyard garden. After a tearful eulogy and a family prayer, we laid Joy to rest beneath a maturing redwood tree, a symbol of eternal life, which in years to come would engulf the remains of Trisha’s beloved pet. Death would be swallowed up by life.
It comes to mind that Trisha’s encounter with the death of Joy is an oft-repeated experience for most of us as we journey through life. It’s not that we all have pets named Joy who pass away. But we do have this tendency to attach enormous significance for personal happiness onto earthly possessions, the loss of which can bring us spiraling into an abyss of despair and threaten to forever bury our joy. We place an inordinate amount of hope upon current circumstances which can suddenly turn unfavorable and leave us grasping a handful of empty dreams. And we have a habit of depositing our joy in other people who will eventually, invariably disappoint us. Things, circumstances, and people comprise an unholy trinity of assassins bent on finding any door we leave open, breaking into the inner sanctuary of our heart, and ravaging our joy. At no time is this evil triumvirate more active than during the holiday season.
“Joy is dead,” we announce as we grieve over our favorite football team’s loss in the playoffs, or the loss of a career that has been “pink-slipped” into oblivion by a down turn in the economy, or the loss of a high percentage of our retirement savings in a bear market. “Peace on earth good will toward men? Bah, humbug!” we proclaim through mounting anger after being unfairly reprimanded by a boss, or haggling over the price of a sweater with an uncompromising salesclerk, or quarreling with an unreasonable spouse. “Will we ever know joy again?” we wonder to ourselves as we walk out of divorce court faced with living the rest of our life alone, or as we hear the word “malignant” coming from the lips of our oncologist, or as we watch a loved one being lowered into their grave.
This is the time of year when we should find ourselves singing “Joy to the World.” But how much joy is the world really experiencing these days? We are facing a global recession, corruption in politics, reports of a growing climate crisis, famine, pestilence, warnings of overdue earthquakes, and the war on terror which still rages out of control. Does it seem to you that this year’s Christmas caroling is a little less passionate than in years past? Many people cling to their dreams of the ideal Christmas—peaceful family gatherings, a spectacular pile of gifts under the tree, festive holiday decorations, and the perfect Christmas dinner—only to have reality fall far short of what they envisioned.
My wife has been enjoying watching all the holiday programming on television, especially the mini-dramas on the Hallmark channel. They all seem to end with the main characters joyfully singing around the perfectly decorated Christmas tree, their every concern having just been gloriously resolved, their every conflict having just been miraculously transformed into peace, while snow gently begins to fall outside the picture window. Tragically, life does not always provide us with a happy ending and the holidays seldom live up to our idyllic dreams. In fact, for most people, the Christmas season is by far the most stressful time of the year.
The problem isn’t that we latch onto people, circumstances, and things with such passion or embrace the Christmas season with such idealism, but rather that we depend on them for our primary source of joy. Basing all our happiness on this conspiring trio of “joy thieves” sets us up for a nightmarish roller-coaster ride through life filled with breath taking climbs into ecstasy followed by gut wrenching dives into heartache. We become the marble on an emotional roulette wheel bouncing around from one passion to another until the eventual futility of it all drags us down into a slot of despair where our joy is gambled away while someone else walks off with the happiness we crave.
Is there any remedy for this emotional instability? Is there any hope of getting through this life, or even the holiday season, without burying our joy in the backyard? Yes, but only through Jesus. He is the safety strap that keeps us secure through the wild carnival rides of life, the sure bet on the fickle gaming tables of our emotions, the “peace plumber” who keeps the water of life flowing through our lives and labors at trying to prevent our happiness from being flushed, the “heart sheriff” who guards us from that which is determined to rob us of our joy. Placing our hopes on Him and Him alone is the only prescription that leads to everlasting joy. Keeping our focus upon Christ rather than Christmas is the only answer to stave off the holiday blues. What does the Lord of joy have to say about all this?
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:10. “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” – John 16:24. “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” – John 15:10-11.
It seems obvious that Christ yearns for us to be filled with joy—continually, even throughout the Christmas season. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” – Philippians 4:4. Jesus alone can be fully trusted to never leave us or forsake us. Only He can save us from the fleeting emotions of worldly passions. Only He can bring our lifeless joy back from the grave. Much more than a symbol, He is the real “tree of life” that swallows up the death of our joy. Much more than a season, He is the eternal Prince of Peace who continually enables us to bear any burden, endure any circumstance, and suffer any loss without losing any joy.
“The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces…” – Isaiah 25:8. “Everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – Isaiah 51:11. “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” – 1Corinthians 15:54. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11.
Trisha, I’ve got good news for you. Joy is alive and well!

Bill, a child of God, filled with His joy

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