I didn’t feel like smiling, and I sure didn’t feel like singing.
Soaring redwoods surround the Worship Center at Mission Springs near Santa Cruz, California, but shuffling feet dragged my sinking heart in that direction. In ten minutes, I would resume my role as Platform Leader for a retreat of senior adults, gathering for their morning session of song and scripture.
I was asked to serve because of my role at that time as Director of Mission Advancement for the regional conference of my denomination. A feasibility study had just been completed for a ten-million-dollar church planting initiative, for which I had been recruited to lead. The results were underwhelming, which meant that the conference was over-staffed.
Ninety minutes earlier I had met with the Superintendent, who bought me a cup of coffee and gave me my thirty-day notice. Fifty-one years old, I now had a fat new mortgage in Southern California and no job. After serving two churches for twenty-four years before joining the conference staff, I wanted the title of Pastor to remain solely on my resumé, not on my next business card. What would I do?
Well, the first task would be to greet a hundred people with a cheery good morning, but my words would not match my assessment of the day so far.
As I approached the Worship Center, the worried voices in my head were accompanied by Winnie Crew, the retreat pianist. Wait – I know that song! Maybe forty feet from the entrance, I stopped and listened, for I was very familiar with the hymn she was playing – He Leadeth Me.
He leadeth me, O blessed thought O words with heavenly comfort fraught Whate'er I do, where'er I be Still 'tis God's hand that leadeth me
He leadeth me, He leadeth me By His own hand He leadeth me His faithful follower I would be For by His hand He leadeth me. *
What does a shepherd do? He gently prompts his sheep, and leads them by the quiet waters. Winnie knew hundreds of hymns by heart, but I believe that the Good Shepherd prompted her to play that song during the moments as I walked up.
And he also prompted me to listen. Like the morning fog that lifts as the sun breaks through around Mission Springs, the doubts in my head lifted. Immediately. I did not know what new job waited me, but I was convinced in that moment that we were going to be okay because our God was going to provide for us.
That sense of calming joy stayed with me for the next five months, even with no income. He Leadeth Me was a constant refrain in my head. I knew Linda and I weren’t alone, and I was convinced that our Shepherd would lead us every step of the way. As it turned out, faithfully following him meant returning to the Pastorate. In August I began to serve among the people of River Ridge Covenant Church in Olympia, Washington, and remained as their Lead Pastor for twelve years.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve lived with that sense of joy since 2006. We settled into a new home, and I settled into my pastoral tasks, which included leading the congregation through a time of healing from a church split a year prior. We changed our focus, becoming a missional church that served the community and the region. Our hopes that the congregation would grow numerically into our oversized mortgage never materialized, which meant that meeting the budget was a constant struggle.
I never sensed that God had left us. However, the calming sense of joy I had known for five months became a fading memory. His faithful leading and timely provision had become a story I could tell. Yes, I had written it down, which helps. But it no longer served as a guiding and providing force in the details and difficulties of daily life.
Which brings me to Christmas. I need Christmas.
In the larger, universal sense, Christmas is a wonderful display of God’s purposeful and compassionate love for the world he created, bringing light and love to all people. Like his name implies, Jesus is our Savior who also embodied his other name: Emmanuel – God is with us. By his Holy Spirit, he still is. We all need that. Desperately. We need that message, for it brings us joy. Unspeakable joy.
But in another, practical sense, I need Christmas – the annual recitation and celebration of his birth, the calling to mind again of the events we know and love. We all do.
Tidings of comfort and joy come a-plenty during the last month of the year, with the songs and the stories. Yes, the days are dark, and often stormy. But the lights and the loved ones with whom we sit – in our homes and in our churches – stirs up a rejoicing within us, one that refills our souls with hope, which we long to be with us all year long. Ah, yes – God is with us. Emmanuel.
Jesus said that he wanted the full measure of his joy to be in his disciples, and for our joy to be complete**. He brought the promised Oil of Joy***, which is in abundance in December. But by early February – or even earlier – the voices of angels are drowned out by social media, and the glad tidings became yesterday’s news.
Why is there such a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the mess of life? Does the Oil of Joy leak from our souls?
Or to bring up my experience in the years following 2006, why did the troubles and trials of church and family life overpower the knowledge of our Good Shepherd’s pledge to lead and guide us?
Thus, I have long reflected on a question: can a person live with an abiding sense of joy, throughout the year, through all the roadblocks, pileups, setbacks, and detours of life? And if so, how does it happen?
I have finally come to believe it’s possible. But let me begin by stating it plainly: joy is not about putting on an artificially happy face, nor trying to think positively. I’ve known people who have attempted to live with those fallacies, and sometimes served as their pastor. The first option is unhealthy, and the second is not natural.
Yes, joy is generally defined as an emotion, but I think there’s a better way to describe it, because feelings are fleeting. Joy floods our soul when we acknowledge a foundational reality, a truth that we have believed and known, and choose to live into it.
Sometimes joy will make you feel glad, but more importantly, and at its best, it makes you feel calm and assured. Which is exactly what I experienced for those five months, living with the knowledge that the Lord really is My Shepherd, even amid a very difficult season.
My reflections on this subject have been distilled down to one word, which serves as a mental bridge linking our daily existence to God’s presence and provision, bringing a calming sense of joy.
How does a person live with joy year-round? By connecting two realities with one word – Nevertheless. Yes, life is tough. But we can choose to walk over the bridge called Nevertheless, and call to mind the reality that God is with us, and has shown his powerful hand over the ages – both in events written down for us in the Bible, and in our own personal experiences.
In 2006, I was out of work and had no prospects. Nevertheless, The Lord was our Shepherd, and he was leading us.
In 2014, we went through some disappointing and heart-breaking trials at our church. Nevertheless, God had promised to walk with us during the storms of life, and He was faithful.
In 2018, Linda and I felt it was time for me to conclude our ministry at River Ridge Covenant. We set a target date of August 1, even though we didn’t know what the next chapter would look like. Nevertheless, God prompted the leadership of Community Home Health and Hospice in Longview, Washington to call me on July 31, and asked me to come for an interview on the next day, August 1.
Christmas 2021. The pandemic continues to rage. Partisan struggles are dividing nations, cities and families. The founding principles upon which our cultures have been built are being called into question. Debates have become arguments, with lots of yelling and not much listening. Nevertheless, God is with us. Joy to the World. Let every heart prepare him room, for he still rules the word with truth and grace. Let us repeat the sounding joy.
Benediction of Blessing:
May it become your frequent practice to say the word Nevertheless, thus connecting the daily events of your life with the reality of God’s presence and promises.
May you be filled with increasing joy and greater faith.
May you sing for joy in praise to God!
* * * * * *
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM
* He Leadeth Me - Author: Joseph H. Gilmore (1862)
** John 17:13, 15:11, 16:24
*** Isaiah 61:3 speaks of the gifts brought to the world by the Messiah, including the Oil of Joy.