One of my favorite books we read in high school at Grace is A Tale of Two Cities. Some people don’t like Dickens, but his story of sacrificial love and redemption set in revolutionary France has always captured my imagination and expressed my faith. It also has two of my favorite literary lines in history: the first and the last. The first, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” captures 2018 for the families of this school in many ways.
This year brought three state championships to Grace in athletics, and a host of fine arts recognition, as well. God revealed an incredible vision to our school board, and that same board is putting the finishing touches on the strategic plan to carry it out. Students are growing in their walk with the Lord, college freshman who graduated as Grace seniors last year are thriving in universities across the country, and our community is strong and growing. But, this year also brought more death, disease, injury, and sadness than I can recall in recent memory. It seems as though I spend way more time these days in prayer interceding on behalf of the brokenness and grief in our school community than ever before. Honestly, I was driving to work the other day just feeling world-weary, the way I’ve heard some life-worn men nearly twice my age describe their life perspective.
Now, more than ever, we need the candle of joy. On Christmas, the angels brought good news of great joy for all of us. But, what is that? We all know that joy isn’t happiness; that happiness is fleeting, moment to moment. Joy isn’t even an emotion, really. It’s a state. Bonhoeffer said that God makes us joyful in the way that only children can be. God shows us, through joy, that we are no longer alone: God is with us. Instead of looking for a home, Home has moved inside of us. The Home within us isn’t this one-it’s eternal. And, it gives us the quiet assurance that everything is going to be alright- that there’s a Sovereign Lord who loves us and who controls all of the details of our lives and who knows our hearts but loves us anyway, not the “someday, sanitized” version of us, but the “right now” us- this Lord, who controls it all, assures us that it’s all going to be alright.
And so, joy isn’t an escape from grief, but a meaning-maker of it. As Tim Keller has said, the great paradox of Christianity is that we are free to feel the full weight of our grief, but with that grief activating the hope and joy we have within us, rather than bitterness. Our faith makes it possible to feel the fullness of grief and the fullness of joy simultaneously. It’s what Christ promised when He said He came to give life, and give it abundantly. Full life: good and bad.
One of the blessings of this school is that my children made wonderful friends, who love them and have held them accountable to the Truth. Several years ago one of my oldest daughter’s closest friends, a young lady who I’ve come to love as one of my own, was injured. Unable to play sports the year before because of illness, she had high hopes for her senior year. Those hopes were shattered at the beginning of her senior season, along with her knee. As her parents and I sat in a darkened auditorium a week later, watching her prepare for her Christmas concert solo, her mom texted me, sharing the doctor’s report: her knee was injured even worse than expected. As I watched her hobble into position on crutches, my father’s heart ached- at her physical pain, certainly, but even more so after two years of crushing disappointment, exacerbated by her young age.
And then, she sang her solo. And, she almost cried. A nearly-crying angel’s voice. And, I completely lost it.
Joyful, joyful we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee, Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!
That beautiful girl is now preparing for a career of worshipping the Lord, following a call to music ministry. I think back on that moment, in that auditorium, and I know now the joy, tempered by grief, she felt in that moment, was God embedding the seed of that call deeply into her heart.
God is profound and gracious and good when He uses a barely 18-year-old, hurting kid to remind a craggy, world-weary head of school to be grateful for the precious gift of deep, abiding joy.