I find that studying the biblical meaning of the word "joy" is really useful at a time like this. What's expected of us or promised to us when Jesus talks about this joy in His final hours on earth? Does He promise us that everything will be peachy keen all the time? Does He expect us to have a smile on our face continually? Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words offers some interesting insights into the word "joy". One note Vine makes that is rather worth our attention is this, "Joy is associated with life... Experiences of sorrow prepare for, and enlarge, the capacity for joy, e.g., John 16:20..." He goes on to say in his description of it as a verb that, "It is contrasted with weeping and sorrow, e.g., in John 16:20,22..."
In The New Strong's Complete Dictionary of Bible Words a more accurate definition of "joy" is given. Originally the word "chara" in Greek, joy is described as a "calm delight; gladness". To me that sounds awfully similar to the word "content" or "assured" in our modern-day language.
With these descriptions in our tool chest, let me comment on today's Scripture passage in the context of Advent. My first thought is that as parents of kids with special needs, we may bear a disproportionate amount of sorrow. More than a few times in recent weeks I've talked to parents whose children are undergoing surgeries and treatments during this season of preparation. We ourselves have just completed an extensive neuropsych evaluation on our daughter followed by an initial IEP meeting. Stress abounds as school staff, medical personnel and our children are distracted by the anticipation of Christmas. Sadly, what should be a time of joy often becomes a time where we suffer under the burden of our hearts racing to get things done. The kids are whining and thinking of nothing else, while their bodies are filled with a disproportionate amount of garbage food and their nervous systems overly stimulated by sights, sounds and people aplenty! What a toxic combination this can be with juggling medical or psychological needs at the same time!
But here's another thought I have. While Jesus promised His disciples that they would grieve and have pain, He also assured them that they would be left with a joy that no one could snatch away. In other words, if you are walking with the Lord, His Holy Spirit fills you with that chara or calm delight that can only be lost by you surrendering it.
That leaves one to ask, How am I surrendering my joy this holiday season? There are a number of ways we do it. One way is by biting off more than we can chew. There are so many delightful things available to us this time of year. My daughter with ADHD and SPD was invited to both a play and an opportunity to decorate cookies with the elderly this month for her Brownie troop. This was in addition to her regular meeting and gift exchange party. While it sounded like so much fun, I had to process in my mind, What will this look like once the event is finished? Frankly, it would be very difficult for her to sit through any play unless she is right down front to see well. That easily scratched the play off the list. Her behaviors are also very difficult for people of my parents' generation to understand. It can be exhausting just watching or listening to her. So there was another event scratched off the list. Further, on both of those days we were expected to do some other things like pull the junior high float in the local Christmas parade, so the rest of the family would have been cranky from all the running and tight schedules.
How are you keeping yourself from biting off more than you can chew? Are you buying fewer presents or maybe shopping online? Are you only going to bake 3 kinds of cookies this year than the usual 6 or even buy already made cookies this year? Are you putting off some of those doctor's appointments or school meetings until January rather than trying to deal with all of it at this time of high stress?
Another way we give away our joy is by trying to live up to the expectations of others this time of year. Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows that I am a HUGE fan of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend who together wrote the Boundaries series. If you haven't read any of the books, you must! People with children who have special needs must be especially careful of guarding their time and priorities lest they collapse from the weight of all they deal with! This series of books gives the visual image of creating a fence or boundary around your life with a gate. You open the gate to let in the good and close it to keep out the bad. An example of what this may look like in your family is, "Sorry, Mom. We can't come for Christmas dinner because Johnny is on a gluten-free diet and can't be around it. But we'll be happy to come open gifts at a specific time you'd like." Another example might be, "Sorry, cousin Susie. We can't make it to your party because there's too much snow to handle with little Morgan's wheelchair. But we'll be looking forward to your get together around Easter!" Relatives are notorious for wielding guilt at times like this, so rehearse what you will say. Mustering up the strength to do such a thing will feel invigorating versus the anger and exhaustion you feel by giving in to the unreasonable demands of others. And lest you allow the guilt to get the best of you, remember the words of my friend, psychologist, Dr. David L. Smith, PhD, "You can either be like Velcro and let everything stick to you, or you can be like Teflon and let it slide off of you." Make the choice for your sanity and for the sake of the true meaning of Christmas, to be like Teflon when dealing with the expectations of others.
The final way I'd like to discuss the manner in which we surrender our joy is by holding on to our own unreasonable expectations. I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, and it takes some continual work to improve upon. It is hard to let go of that dream of a life where your child has no special needs. We can often carry on throughout the rest of the year with great acceptance, but find that heartache and denial creep in at certain times. Christmas is one of those times where we may be holding on to fantasies of our perfectly dressed children singing like a choir of angels at church. With a daughter who has serious sensory issues, I was never able to get a dress on her until I found a wonderful place with special dress clothing she could tolerate. (We LOVE Soft Clothing!) I've also had the unrealistic expectation of inviting everyone to dinner at a time too close to the time when we're supposed to be doing an IV infusion on our son. Nothing will make a child resist cooperting like the stress eminating from parents in a hurry to get things done on time! You may have the fantasy of still being able to participate at the same level in every event that you're invited to. Perhaps we need to just have the hubby watch the kids while we make a brief appearance somewhere. We may have the expectation of still getting out dozens of Christmas cards before the holiday hits, complete with letter and photos. How important is that to us if we are rushed to get them done and can barely afford the postage?
What can you be letting go of in the way of expectations? What could you adapt to make things a bit easier for your family? Do you love to have the Advent wreath on your kitchen table, but find your impulsive child just can't handle it? Are their precious ornaments that may need to be put away for just a few years? How important is it that your child be dressed like a catalog model if it makes both of you miserable?
Picture this: You and your children, snuggling together, being yourselves, reading stories that help them understand that the God of the Universe took on human form to assure that they will be in a beautiful place some day where they will be free of their disability(s) and free of any shortcomings we all have. Now that's a calm delight none of us can be robbed of! Please be certain you spend the remainder of this season making sure you don't surrender that kind of joy at any cost!