Joy

Once, when I was a kid, I got in trouble.

I remember gettin’ a talking to for not showing enough emotion, especially when I was expected to be visibly grateful and happy. I think I was very awkward expressing emotions at some points, which may be hard for you to believe if you have been around me lately. I don’t know why I was almost non-communicative emotionally. I don’t think it was all due to being a brat. 🙂

I have been attending a 3-part class on adoption and substance abuse. Last week was about temperament. One of the dimensions they spoke about was emotional intensity. As a child, I had low emotional intensity. I was rarely hyper, excitable or giddy. I also did not show much sadness or pain. I was happy but also cautious, rational, and rule-oriented. Basically, I was 5 going on 55.

As I have become older, I have become comfortable admitting my emotions as well as a tendency towards melancholy. I am content with not being an optimist. At the same time, such a historical sense of apart-ness from the happy, hyper crowd has left me with a lingering sense of missing joy–like an observer to this great Christian virtue I never got. It has made for an internal dialogue and striving that sets joy as something foreign, other, and a “should” destination that is really tough to get to. I find joy intimidating.

There have been about a million mediocre reflections, devotions and sermons written on joy. I have found few very helpful. At the risk of adding another to the pile, here is what is helping me this year when it comes to the J-word.

Joy is not as much a behavior or demeanor as it is a current.

A space for wonder. Opening. Submitting. Tension. Aim.

I joined the shepherds this morning when I read in Luke 2 of when the angel delivered the news of so-called “great joy.” They saw Him. The area all around them was filled with His glory. They were surrounded by the sacred; they had full view of Love Himself. And yet they also stood there, filled with fear. The good news of great joy didn’t seem to take too quickly. Or did it?

So often in modernity, we are subtly and overtly told we have two choices. Grief or celebration. Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative. Demonizing or deifying a person. Productivity or healthiness. Separating convictions or moral relativism. Sadness or happiness. All is well or all is lost.

In the current of joy, from what I can tell, there is space for and instead of or. The end of the story is not what it used to be and the field–the announcement–is big enough to handle the glory and the fear.

Therefore, I can cry over losing a baby girl without losing the possibility of rejoicing over her first holidays, even if she is never told about me. I can choose to accommodate and be hospitable to people with religious and cultural rules that are different to mine, without losing my own point of view and witness. I can lament in the current of joy. I can be completely hurt and I can forgive the perpetrator. Though I don’t exactly know where I am headed since I joined this stream, I do not have to stay put in the Pain.

Joy can be before us, as much as it feels beyond us. Much like the newborn King–who, for the joy set before Him, endured suffering. Joy can carry us, when our feet cannot find the ground but in our core we insist that there is more to this story, that there is redemption for the darkest moments. Joy frees us to remember that we are not the center of the universe but we are attended to completely. Joy shifts us so we remember that Shalom is for all people, for all parts of people, for me, for the Other, for this.

That’s all I need. Not a new personality. Not a beaming demeanor. Just a shift, a space–a to-be-continued lightness. To be included in and count myself a part of a well-ending journey–that is joy enough this year.

Peace

I’m sure she would have liked to know the part about the stable.

Giving birth in the company of animals, no matter how primitive your normal life, does not shout “favored one” or “his kingdom will have no end.” It did not confirm the calling on her life and body and probably wasn’t the set up to the Messiah and a new reputation that she was anticipating. The darkness of the night must have been punctuated by great disappointment. By heavy question marks that asked, is there a mistake? Is this truly happening?

Still, somehow, that is the story. That is the nativity, the pageant, the beginning.

So many times this past year, I have not wanted the story I was given or a part of. I have cried and prayed beside people whose stories were not panning out. I have watched plot twists that left people in deep nighttime, susceptible to loneliness and despair. In my own small world, 2013 has included more than its share of stables and instability.

It is for us, then, that dawn breaks.

We are the ones with our eyes fixed on the sky, who know that our greatest fears are not always unfounded and are peering through them to find a new star. We know the allure of apathy and absenteeism and can also testify to that pump of energy and faith that is a brief gift, completely unmanufactured by our own will or effort–simply a lifeline until the next calm can be found. We are the ones who grip another’s hand harder than we have had to before, who have come to readily admit our limitations because the lie of carrying them alone and quietly has been shattered by reality. We have come to the end of ourselves and found that He embraces that journey and frees us to our need. We are the ones less convinced than ever of worldly frameworks of health and happiness.

Just as there was no place for them, the immaculate conception, in the inn, things have probably passed that we had no room for–in our psyche, our emotional muscles, our schedules, our faith. We had no constructs to get through the time with, to lead us in the nights. We look up with empty hands, feeling unsheltered and oh so tired.

I am praying, leaning, holding my breath–that this advent would welcome the dawn of redeeming grace we sing about and for which we search. In the silent nights that haunt us, in the stables of disappointment. Not of a deus ex machine hero tale that dismisses what has happened but a step in each narrative towards resolution. A creeping towards the Prince of Peace. A filter, a blanket, over and under and through the darkness.

That would be peace. That would be a small way to add an ornament to the assorted memories of the year, a bridge to the unfinished ballads. That is the Christmas we need–not high-gloss but deep footing. We need to know that “those who dwelt in deep, intense darkness, on them the light shone”–in exile, in disobedience, in famine, in suffering. In birth and new life.

…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us…

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79

Hope

It is a chance for us all to be pregnant.

Man, woman, child. It is the time to be waiting and expectant. And maybe a little hormonal.

We join Mary and Joseph in the anticipation of a baby King. We reach back in time, and feel this present time, and hope for a coming time that is, at the very least, different. No amount of decorations can lift our hearts. No consumption of holiday drinks and sales can mend our souls. We are longing, we are waiting. It is Christmastime.

This year, I feel the burden of Mary’s role, of her being given a bewildering part to play in a salvific drama that largely does not include her.  From the time she heard that she carried a Savior, that Joseph could not claim Him as his son, that His name had been chosen for her, she must have sensed the awkwardness. She must have had an inkling that this road was not only an honor, it was a grief. Not just embarrassing, but bereaving.

She would face the humiliation and isolation. She would cry out in labor pains, and lose her figure. She would have all the worries and urges of a new mom. But from conception, this baby was not hers alone. He–the Messiah–was the Son of God. He would not call her house His home. He would differentiate from her before she was ready. He was born to die, rise, and ascend. She would lose Him and it started before she even had Him. She couldn’t know Him fully.

Yesterday, I held a sleeping baby girl while I hung up a 28-year-old ornament with my other arm. It is a piece of fabric, in a tiny quilter’s hoop, with printed words speaking of all the love a daughter brings to Christmas. It is dated 1985. It is a familiar ornament as I have hung it each year for as long as I can remember. Tears came to my eyes as I realized the predicament I was in, willingly, painfully. The sleeping baby in my arms is almost surely going to move and be someone else’s daughter. She was entrusted to us and while we had always hoped, we also always knew, that others may come forward with higher priority than we. This darling knows our smells, and we know her cries. She enlarges the hearts of my sons but they cannot understand that each week, I am holding my breath, wondering if this week, we will lose her. This is a unique and difficult beauty.

It struck me as I looked at her and looked at the tree through quiet tears, that 1985 was the first Christmas I had had with my parents. It was not my first Christmas, but it was the first Christmas with my family. Though I was over a year old that December, it was the first time they had their daughter during advent. They had waited. They had followed other paths that did not result in a firstborn child. They had been pregnant many times over, in a way, before that ornament could be hung.

I have no idea if we will spend her first Christmas with her, but I know that we are not her family, though our feelings betray us.

I am no Mary. I am not waiting for the Savior, nor growing Him inside my womb. I am not facing public scorn and have the benefit of the Lord’s Prayer, her son’s prayer, to guide me this pregnant season. 

But I can see her story in a new, heart-wrenching way this advent time, and that helps give meaning to this spot. I can appreciate not being able to lay claim in any conventional way to someone you are caring for with all your heart. I can appreciate, though cannot emulate, the faith she must have clung to, the wide picture that must have softened her suffering. She is a hero of heroes. She, in a messy, human, awe-inspiring way, is part of the reason we today can sing “Joy to the World” at the end of all of this.

I cannot hang a new ornament about a daughter this Christmas. But I have the comfort of an old one. I cannot call her mine or name her but I can show her the Christmas lights and begin advent with her lying on my chest. Even as she fills our arms for now, we continue to wait, to make room, to anticipate. I love her with urgency; we grieve even as we gain. We continue to be pregnant, arms linked with the rest of the Bride, once again–searching for the star, yearning for salvation. May hope steady us for peace.

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