Walking Our Faith: Opening our arms to the joy of the Lord (column)
March 16, 2018
It's nearly midnight in Fort Lauderdale and I'm just starting this column. On Wednesday morning, I rose at 5:30 a.m. to teach two online classes, followed by the arrival of Rebecca at 7 a.m. to pick up my dogs, the airport shuttle came at 8:30. Two motion sickness tablets worked their magic on the ride to the airport, but they also had me falling asleep on the four-hour flight to Florida. Which may have been a blessing since I had the middle seat on a crowded flight.
I arrived at Mom's condo around 10 p.m. We sat down to a dinner of grilled salmon I'd picked up from my favorite restaurant, and then were in bed by midnight. Thursday was spent running errands, meeting friends for dinner and finally, finally, sitting down to write.
The verse that has been running through my head is this: "The joy of the Lord is my strength."
I mentioned it to Mom before she headed off to bed and she nodded at the familiar words and said, "I never quite understood what that meant."
After we said goodnight, I Googled the verse. It's from the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. The full verse is this: "Don't mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God…Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don't be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:9-10)
The Biblical book of Nehemiah recounts the rebuilding of Jerusalem. In this verse Nehemiah encourages the people of Israel to celebrate rather than weep as the Word of God is read. The context is a far cry from where I am and yet, I confess these words are both an encouragement and a reminder of a larger lesson I believe God is trying to give me.
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I have come to Florida to visit Mom and celebrate my birthday. Until this moment, I have spent more time rushing around than savoring this precious time with Mom and friends I love dearly.
As I walked along the beach with a friend at sunset, I felt my thoughts slipping away. This is when I must recall that the "joy of the Lord is my strength," rather than let thoughts of the past or worries about the future cloud my ability to see the rose filled sky, hear the surf, taste the salt air and live right here, right now.
We spent the evening talking about the past and looking toward the future. But what I want to remember of our evening is that we created memories by fully living in the present. Our willingness to do so is an expression of our trust in God's love for us. We embrace the promise that the "joy of the Lord is our strength."
The second lesson I learned might seem like a juxtaposition to the first. Writing this column has caused me to fall more deeply in love with God and with my walk of faith. I find myself reading books on faith with a growing hunger to learn more and sometimes wonder if 56 is too old to take a second Masters degree, this time in religion instead of business. Simultaneously, I often admonish myself that I don't spend enough time reading and studying and writing. Somehow I always feel that I must be doing more.
When we love someone, we want to be with them constantly. They are always in our thoughts, and when we are away from them we feel a longing for their return. Yet, we know that existing under a bell jar, even in the throes of love, is not healthy. On the other hand, every happily married couple I know have regular "date nights" when they give time and attention to nurturing one another.
I believe that God is calling me, and all of us, to seek this same balance in our relationship with him. I spent the last two years mostly in my own head, at home, alone. Over the past few months, I believe God has been calling me to live my faith in my community, to experience God in others and work with others as the hands and feet and heart of God.
For an introvert like me, this is where the assurance that the "joy of the Lord is my strength" becomes a profound touchstone. It's time for me to leave the comfort of my mind and go out into the world to truly walk my faith, overcoming my tendency toward agoraphobia by relying on God's strength.
If, on the other hand, our relationship with God has been lived through an external expression of Sunday worship and community service, God may be calling us to pursue a more intimate relationship through studying the Bible in a small group setting as well as cultivating a private prayer life with God.
In the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes it says there is a time to mourn and a time to dance … a time to be silent and a time to speak. (Ecc 3:4,7) If we are to experience the full beauty of a relationship with God and the full measure of lives we are meant to live in God, we will be asked to accept the challenge of this balancing act. During times of sorrow, we remember God's joy is our strength to continue on when we feel as if we can't. In times of joy, we are asked to share what we have with others who do not, and to fully experience these moments, to create sustaining memories when the wheel turns again.
We are called to live with arms wide open, accepting the challenge: "Don't be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
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