Surprised by Joy
January 6, 2017
“Straight tribulation is easier to bear than tribulation which advertises itself as pleasure.”
― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
It has been many years since I’ve read Surprised by Joy and, honestly, I remember little from it beyond the title. I find that unusual as I am a lover of the works of CS Lewis and am able to, at least in passing, refer to most of his books straight from memory. In many instances, I can direct you to the chapter or section I’ve been discussing so it’s unusual for me to not be able to do so with this book.
Yet this title remains with me and has, of late, been singing to my heart and I find that surprising. You see, in the course of my life, joy is an emotion with which I am intimately familiar. I have known the simple joys of having someone treat me to a wonderful meal to the complex joy of a new and exciting faith experience. I have experienced the joy of love and marriage, the joy of seeing my children born and watching them grow, and, of course, the joy of a few good friends. While I may have found these joys unexpected or unusual at the time I cannot say I have been surprised by the majority of them.
Yes, when I was new to the faith, I was surprised by that particular experience and the joy which accompanied it. This was something I had never observed in my family and it was not a part of my life growing up so when this occurred in my own life I must say I was both surprised and astounded. I did not expect so much joy from encountering the forgiving love of Jesus so, yes, I was surprised by it.
However, the joys of a wife, children, extended family, and good friends were not surprising to me. These are things which are common to most people (at least that is what we are told) and I would have been surprised if I had not experienced them! Yes, I realize there are many who go through life and never experience these joys but, as I grew up, I was taught to expect them as a natural part of life. Our books, songs, movies, and most everything else in our culture tells us we are to expect them. This means, sadly, these joys are often taken for granted. It also means there are many people who feel as if something is wrong with them if they do not experience these joys for themselves.
If I tried, I could probably write a book on those joys which we take for granted or the depression that arises when expected joys never seem to arrive. However, that’s not what I wanted to write about this evening. Tonight, after everyone else has gone to bed, I find myself wanting to write about the joy which has surprised me so very recently. The best way to describe this joy is a sense of calmness which has come over me. It is a calmness I have not felt in a long time and, even in the midst of my own sins and failures, this joy is present.
The reason this joy has surprised me to such a degree is that, when I really think about it, it should not be happening! Since early 2016 my life and that of my family has been filled with a lot of chaos. Some of it is the normal, everyday chaos of being a father and a pastor but some of it has “gone above and beyond the call of duty.” Early last Spring our son was formally diagnosed as being autistic. For me, this was a bit of a blow as I was not sure how to process it. Unlike my wife, I understood little about autism at that time so I began to spend more and more time studying it. Some of the reading had me rather depressed and left me in a bit of a funk for some time.
Then, last May, I lost a close friend whom I felt was way too young to pass from this world. Over the course of the summer, I saw my father’s health and mental abilities progressively deteriorate due to his cancer and his age. I then lost a parishioner whom I had become very close with who, in many ways, reminded me of who may dad might have been if he had made different life choices. (Long story short…dad wasn’t very supporting and encouraging toward his children and was known to be emotionally abusive. There is no need to elaborate on it further but it made for a difficult childhood as well as strained relationships into adulthood.)
Then, this fall, I suddenly found myself with back-to-back sinus infections as well as what I’ve come to find out is a kidney stone which doesn’t seem to want to pass. In the midst of all of this, and a few weeks before Thanksgiving, my father became even more ill and then passed away a few days before Thanksgiving Day. Needless to say, this was all quite overwhelming as the Christmas season is a busy time for a full-time pastor.
Yet, in the midst of all of this chaos, over the past week or so I have found myself strangely surprised by joy. Some of the surprising parts actually occurred earlier in 2016 and they arose as my father began to share things with me he had never shared before. This led me to understand better why he was not so very supportive of his own children. Dad shared with me something he had never shared with me over the course of my life and, in doing so, was able to help me have clearer insight into why he was the way he was….and the answer was simpler than I expected: His father had never been supportive of him.
It was in the midst of Dad’s sharing, I believe I began to love my father a bit more deeply. No, I couldn’t forget all the things he had done over the years nor the people he had wittingly and unwittingly hurt. Those wounds are still present yet I began to see the source of that which had damaged him and it gave me clearer insight into my own wounds.
It was also during this time my father and I began to talk about faith and religion a bit more. While my dad always remained somewhat “all over the place” he seemed pleased to take communion with my family and me. This is something I never quite expected to happen and it allowed us to bond even more. Sharing the bread and the cup with my father has now become a cherished memory and, yes, the joy from it surprises me.
Now, as I head toward Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I have learned to take a deep breath and relax. I sit here in my recliner wondering how things are going to go with this kidney stone. The idea of surgery always makes me a bit nervous yet, for some reason, I find myself surrounded my a calm joy and, yes, it surprises me. I feel as if my work is piling up on me and I’m not as present for others as I need to be yet I don’t feel weighed down by it.
So, the question I’ve been asking myself most of this evening is, “Why am I surprised by this joy?” And the only answer I can seem to come up with is, “I don’t feel as if I deserve this joy in a world where chaos seems to reign and so many people are in need.”
And then, somewhere in the midst of this calmness, a thought enters and that thought says, “Derek, don’t you realize this word joy is just another word for grace? And have I not said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness.'”
I hope in 2017 all of you find yourselves surprised by joy.
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