Most of what I’ve learned about joy, I’ve learned from my parents. The lessons didn’t come so much through devotional studies or deep talks at Starbucks. They came through experiences giftwrapped by a God I was still learning to see. I can say now they were gifts, but at the time, I wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels when those experiences came along.
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 on her hands and tongue, and the doctor explained she was having seizures while she slept, serious seizures. After more tests, the family gathered around our kitchen table, and Dad told us we might not have much time left with her.
The three of us kids didn’t know what to do. The stress needed a release valve, which led to yelling about bike pumps or losing it over some spilled orange juice. My brother would sometimes grab my mom’s wedding picture and cry, but mostly, we stuffed it.
The only one not stuffing anything was 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.
Thirty years later, I was sitting with my mom and dad in church. Our pastor read, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5), and the memory of Mom listening to that Maranatha group washed over us. We all leaned forward in our seats and discreetly looked at each other, huge smiles lighting up our faces. Psalm 126:5 was the verse that was repeated in her favorite song on that old cassette, and it was her lifeline. It changed her; we were all changed by that truth. God chose to heal her, and all our tears from that painful season did eventually turn to joy, but it wasn’t just the healing that brought joy. It was also something else.
I didn’t know it at the time, but God gave me a picture of that “something else” that brings joy, long before the seizures and the Maranatha music. My brother and I were still little boys, sitting around the campfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and my dad asked us, “Hey, you guys want to take a walk?” We looked at his face, smiling in the orange glow, and we were hooked. We followed him away from the fire and the glow of my uncle’s camper. The darkness swallowed us, 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. (Click here to listen to the 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 drowning men clinging to a floaty. 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’ll never forget, something that would later help me understand why my mom could “reap joy after sowing the seeds of tears”. As she listened to that cassette and sang along, she saw that Jesus really is with her. The tears helped her experience the joy of God’s closeness.
David writes in Psalm 16:8-9, “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.” My mom let the haunting, guttural sounds of bad news drive her to God, and she held on to Jesus like my brother and I held on to our Dad. In a strange way, the bad news was a gift. It helped her see God was there, and 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. If we let the darkness open our hearts to our Father, we’ll find joy in the morning because we’ll realize He’s been holding our hands the whole time, and with Him by our side, nothing can shake us.
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