Joyful, Joyful!

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For you, Malala.

Many bloggers are writing about joy this week. After all, we’re in the middle of the most joyous season of the year. There are twinkling lights in the city squares, ribbons wrapping the columns of houses, and the smells of baking goodies wafting out of every door. My nearly 3-year-old son talks excitedly about the gifts he will unwrap on Christmas Day. While I watched him participate in song and applause at my church’s service this morning, my heart became fit to burst. It’s hard not to be joyful.

But I realize it’s not the same for everyone, or even during the rest of the year. Sometimes the car breaks down. Sometimes work becomes overwhelming. Sometimes nasty people get in the way. The kids get sick, the washing machine goes out (my house this week), the spouse becomes cranky and distant, and internal demons surface to fight your every step. At these times, it’s easy to sink into a pity-party state. You watch your neighbors drive up in their spotless Lexus or BMW, while your not-so-stylish Ford sits collecting pollen and paw prints in your crumbling driveway. Joy seems like a thousand miles away.

I grew up with some discontented people–people who were always looking around at what others had.

“All my friends have a Nintendo. Why can’t I have one?”

“Oh, I can’t invite people over here. My house isn’t nice enough.”

“Why can’t my spouse be more spontaneous, like [insert name here]?”

“I bet our family is the only one in town that can’t afford to take a vacation.”

After a while, I began to realize something: Contentment can’t be overrated. People who always wish they had something better struggle to feel the joy of the Lord. They create an atmosphere of shame and unease. They may stop to count their blessings once in a while, but the blessings always seem inferior to their needs or wants. Special occasions like Christmas or birthdays become opportunities to exercise entitlement rather than thankfulness. And it drags everyone down.

Gratitude is the beginning of joy. When people stop to look at what they have and give thanks for it, they don’t notice as much if someone else has more than them. They begin to rejoice in their blessing. One translation of “rejoice” in the Bible is “to spin violently.” Watch a child spin around for fun and notice his demeanor. He (or she) will most likely be smiling and giggling. After a little while, the child will become somewhat delirious from the motion. To be joyful is to be deliriously happy and content in spite of one’s circumstances.

Content even though I can’t afford a vacation.

Deliriously happy in spite of nerve pain.

Inexpressible peace in the face of violence.

A little over a year ago, God began teaching me about thankfulness. He began opening my eyes to the little things in life many people take for granted. Almost half the people on this planet live without access to fresh running water. Yet I can turn one of six knobs in my house and have fresh water at my fingertips–as much as I want whenever I want. Many people live with inadequate nourishment, yet I can put a pound of meat on the table every night. Some people sleep on the floor or on the streets; I have a warm mattress. Millions of people are bound to wheelchairs, but my legs still carry me. My entire kitchen might be mustard yellow, but I am blessed beyond measure!

Last night, I visited my favorite hangout: Barnes & Noble. I’ve always loved books, and just being able to touch, see and smell them makes me happy. As I browsed the tables and shelves, a thought occurred to me: What would Malala Yousufzai think about this?

Malala is a young Pakistani teen who was recently shot in the head for saying that women should be educated. She survived and has since become a passionate activist for women’s education in countries dominated by religious extremism. As I looked around the store, I felt overwhelmed: There were many women freely browsing books, reading, making purchases. In my own hand, I held an 800-page reference book on Jewish literacy. I could just picture Malala standing among the shelves, her eyes dancing with excitement as she picked up book after book, the options for expanding her knowledge endless and abundant. No one to tell her “no.” No one to discourage her. I had to choke back tears.

Joyful, joyful!

And better still:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Joy to the world! The Lord has come! Let Earth receive her King!

Oh, my King! He came down from heaven to save me! He didn’t have to, but he did. To redeem me, my friends, my family, my children, my ancestors. He healed my mind, body and emotions. He promised never to leave nor forsake me. He placed me in a land of abundance and granted me his precious Spirit! How else can I respond but with joy? Even if all my worldly possessions were taken from me, I have that which can never be taken.

Joyful, joyful!

This year, make joy a priority. Don’t worry about what’s not under the tree. Give thanks for the ultimate gift. It might just change your life. And Merry Christmas.

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