Sunday, April 28, 2019

WHY MOST AMERICANS HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED TRUE JOY

We Americans live at a disadvantage in experiencing joy. If someone has known joy, it has likely been only a measure.
Most Americans have never known a full and unreserved joy.
This is a realization that I have come to as a result of two separate and seemingly unrelated events of this past weekend.



It was Easter weekend as you know, the time of the year when we commemorate the death and burial of Jesus Christ, and finally then celebrate his resurrection. Although we celebrate in America, our celebration is often muted. We are happy, certainly, but we do not have the same level of complete and demonstrative joy that the first disciples had when they learned that Jesus rose from the dead.

That was the first of the two events I spoke of. The other event in my life that took place over last weekend was receiving word from our orphanage in Kenya that on the evening before Good Friday they ran out of food. “Please pray for food for the children. We will have nothing for supper tonight,” Pastor Joel wrote to me.

I have communication with Joel on a daily basis, so I knew that their food supply was running low. I had no money to send, and they apparently had no other source at this time. All weekend, the children and staff of the orphanage took no meals. They were without food. Our prayers to God were than he would somehow provide for these, his children.

I will add here that running out of food is not an uncommon occurrence with the orphanage. We have forty-two children plus the workers, and food there is expensive. From time to time, there are periods when their food pantries run empty, and they have no way to secure more supplies.

“I wonder if the children have eaten today.”
This is always among my first thoughts upon waking up in the morning. Sometimes it is my very first thought, as it was last weekend. But despite periods of difficulty for the orphanage, I am also grateful to say that on most days, the children have had food.

However, this past weekend they did not. Easter weekend. On one of those days, a church member was able to bring a few bananas to cook for the children, but mostly they had no food at all. While my own family gathered around our table on Easter Sunday to celebrate the day, my mind was also on the children at the orphanage of Kenya. They had no celebratory meal. 

We may think this sad, but what does it all have to do with Americans not knowing true joy? It seems as if it would be the Kenyan children who would be the ones who were lacking joy. And what does this all have to do concerning the resurrection of Jesus and with experiencing joy on Easter Sunday? 

The Desperation of Hunger

I first would like to discuss the matter of hunger. While I am aware that there is hunger in America and that many children here do not have enough to eat, I think that I can safely say that most people in America do not go several days without eating, especially not repeatedly. But this does occur at the orphanage. On one occasion, when I knew that the children had had no food for about a week, I asked Pastor Joel if they had eaten nothing at all.

“We have water,” he told me. “And we had a little corn meal to stir in with it, but that is also now gone.”

At that time, as was the case also this past weekend, I had nothing to send them before the need became so critical. The children had to pass several days, having only mostly water to sustain them. They may have also found some greens to chew on.

In my limited time of actually being with the children of the orphanage, I have not been present there to experience these times of shortage. It makes me wonder what it must be like to care for forty-two children who have had nothing to eat for days and days. I do however, think that I have pretty good idea what it would be like to care for a typical child in America who had to miss even one meal.

For me, at my older age, I can easily miss a meal without feeling much of any effect. However, I know that if I go without eating for even most of one day, my energy level falls into the negative category and I have no ambition to do much at all. I don’t think that I am crabby and whine constantly, but Vivian may tell you differently. I have never in my entire life been without food for a full week, nor do I believe most Americans have. But this happens at the orphanage in Kenya.

We Americans live in a land of plenty. We have been blessed by the Lord, and we should not be ashamed of that fact. However, there is also a negative side to living in plenty. Most Americans have never felt the level of pure joy in being delivered from a hopeless situation.

It is true that some have, because it is not only famine that can put us in a situation of desperation. There are also many other states of deprivation. Homes and livelihoods can be lost to tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and tidal waves. A sudden and severe illness can threaten to take away your very life. These are situations when we feel powerless. There often is absolutely nothing that we can do. We simply are at the mercy of circumstance.

However, another thing about being in America, there is always some kind of aid program, some kind of shelter, some kind of food pantry or church organization that is available. In Kenya, at least in the area where the orphanage is located, there is not. There is no organization active in the vicinity, no church ministry, no relief program.

Most of us have probably been in difficult circumstances at one time in our life or another, but I think that very few of us have been in a truly desperate situation where there was absolutely no one that would offer help. 

The Joy of a Full Belly

I know that most of you reading this have never gone without food for an entire week, but with the best ability that your mind allows you to imagine, try to put yourself in that position. Imagine the joy that you would experience when suddenly someone came to you with a meal! Imagine the pure and unabashed joy!

Happily, after both of these food crises in the orphanage that I mentioned, God did supply food. On both of these specific occasions, some money came to me that I was able to send to the staff to buy food. In the marvels of our technological and economics based age, money I send right now can be collected in Kenya within ten minutes, although for me it takes a trip to town, as it does for Pastor Joel.

I was not there when the children had their first meal, but Joel sent me pictures and described the happiness of the children. Food had arrived! Their empty bellies were once again given something to eat!

Since food is so critical to life itself, I think that this type of occasion must be as close to pure and unreserved joy that one can reach in this world. Their small bodies were famished by hunger, and suddenly food arrived.

All was dark, but then light dawned on a new day. 

The Despondency of Good Friday

Now, let’s turn our minds to the events of the day that we call “Good Friday.”

This year in our own commemoration of the day at the Log Church, in reading of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, it struck me as never before how the death of Jesus put his followers in a state of total despondency. During the previous three years in the lives of the disciples, they had left everything in order to follow Jesus. They had placed all of their hopes and aspirations in him. Their devotion to the teachings of Jesus was total and without reservation.

And now he was dead.
Jesus was dead.

They witnessed the beatings and the scourgings that Jesus endured. They watched as the Romans nailed his hands and feet to the wooden beams that formed a cross; they saw Jesus hanging on the cross in great agony; then they saw Jesus die. They saw the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed, and they saw the Roman guards who had been stationed there to prevent tampering.

After all of this, the disciples and the other followers of Jesus saw themselves as left with nothing to hold onto—no hope, no thought that things may look better in the morning, and no future.

Indeed, the following morning looked no better. The disciples had mostly sequestered themselves in various homes, seeking what little security that they could manage to find. But security was just a dream, there would be no security for them again, not in the following day, not next week, not ever. And as for joy, they would not have even been able to define the word. It was like hearing a word in a foreign language.

Some of the women began to prepare spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus to reduce the stench of death. This is a way of expressing grief. They were not seeking joy—they would not know joy again. They were only seeking some small life raft of comfort in the sea of their sorrow. 

The Joy of the Resurrection

But then something happened. On the third day after Jesus was killed, when the women went to the tomb to apply the spices to his body, they found things not as they had expected. The heavy stone, which had been placed in front of the entrance of the tomb, had been rolled away. Then, when they looked inside of the tomb, they found nothing but the burial cloths.

There was no sign of the Roman guards, but two other men were there. These men were not Romans, but had an appearance that made them shine in the early morning light. The women fell to the ground in terror.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they asked the women. “Jesus is not here. He has risen!”

The women ran and told the others, but no one believed them. It could not be true, they thought.

But then, over the course of the next couple of hours, more and more indications made it obvious that their words actually were true. Jesus had risen from the dead! His dead body had come to life!

Can we even begin to imagine the unreserved joy that these first followers knew when they finally realized and then witnessed the resurrection of Jesus? It is no wonder that the common greeting among the Christians of that day was not, “Good morning,” or “Good day.” It was, “He is risen!” This single thought occupied their minds continually, looking only for the opportunity to express itself with the tongue.

“He has risen!”
“Indeed! He Has Risen!”

This is joy! This is pure, unabashed, unreserved, uninhibited, full and complete JOY! It is joy in the life of Christ. It is a joy that can only arise after first passing through a time of utter and complete despondency. The disciples were without even any scrap of hope, then suddenly, hope arrived in its fullness.

All was dark, but then light dawned on the new day. 

The Joy of Being Delivered from Despondency

In general, we Americans do not know despondency. I do not mean to make light of many who have passed through or are even now passing through times of great difficulty, but we live at a time and in a society where there are seldom no options that are available to us. There seems to be always some aid program, some insurance plan, some medical treatment—something that we can do or something that we can seek.

We can be thankful for this, and we should be. But we should also realize that because of this, we will have more difficulty in understanding joy. 

The Joy of the Temporal, and the Joy of the Eternal

But there is another distinction that I would like to make on the subject of joy. The joy of having one’s belly filled after a long period of famine is one type of joy, but it is a joy that will last only for a moment in time. It is a joy that can be taken away by the next period of foodlessness.

Jesus speaks of another type of joy—a type of joy that is everlasting.

Long before the disciples understood that Jesus was actually going to be crucified and that they would be passing through great difficulties, Jesus told them, “You will have sorrow, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

And then he told them this: “Truly I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you…ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (John 16:22-24).

Did we catch the impact of his words? Jesus speaks of a joy that is “complete,” one that cannot be taken away. It is a joy that rises above present and temporary circumstances. He speaks of a joy that is eternal.

The Apostle Paul understood this. He knew that to have a joy that is complete we need to look beyond having even full bellies. He said that “If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

He means that if we are looking for relief from present circumstances only, then we are missing the point completely. Paul has in mind a much greater joy than that. He is speaking of a joy that exceeds even that of the disciples on the morning of the resurrection of Jesus, when they came to realize that he was actually alive!

He calls the resurrection of Jesus the firstfruits of all those who may die in this present life, but who have placed their faith in Christ: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then at His coming, those who belong to Him” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23 BSB)

The Apostle James also realized that true and complete joy must be sought beyond present circumstances. He writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 NAS) 

The Dawning of the New Day After the Darkest of Nights

It is the knowledge of this fact that will give the complete joy that Jesus talks about; it is this and only this.

But it is a joy that can only arise after first being in complete desperation, when we see no hope in any circumstance. It is when we have no place to turn, and then Jesus finds us.

“When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were yet in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’” (Ezekiel 16:6).

This is what I fear most Americans have not known. They have not known true and absolute desperation. Because they have not known this, they do not realize their need for Jesus.

But truth be told, if Jesus is not alive in our life, we are all despondent, even if we do not realize it. We in America have trouble seeing this because we have substituted the security of a living Jesus with the partial and false security of other options.

Jesus cannot merely be our best option. He must be our only option. 

Though the fig tree does not bud and no fruit is on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though the sheep are cut off from the fold and no cattle are in the stalls, yet I will exult in the LORD; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! (Habakkuk 3:17-18 BSB) 

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11 ESV) 

I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10 NAS)

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