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SHE HAS EVERY REASON TO BE BITTER.
Though talented, she went unrecognized for years. Prestigious opera circles closed their ranks when she tried to enter. American critics ignored her compelling voice. She was repeatedly rejected for parts for which she easily qualified. It was only after she went to Europe and won the hearts of tough-to-please European audiences that stateside opinion leaders acknowledged her talent.
Not only has her professional life been a battle, her personal life has been marked by challenge. She is the mother of two handicapped children, one of whom is severely retarded. Years ago, in order to escape the pace of New York City, she purchased a home on Martha's Vineyard. It burned to the ground two days before she was to move in.
Professional rejection. Personal setbacks. Perfect soil for the seeds of bitterness. A receptive field for the roots of resentment. But in this case, anger found no home.
Her friends don't call her bitter; they call her "Bubbles."
Beverly Sills. Internationally acclaimed opera singer. Retired director of the New York City Opera.
Her phrases are sugared with laughter. Her face is softened with serenity. Upon interviewing her, Mike Wallace stated that "she is one of the most impressive if not the most impressive ladies I've ever interviewed."
How can a person handle such professional rejection and personal trauma and still be known asBubbles? "I choose to be cheerful," she says. "Years ago I knew I had little or no choice about success, circumstances or even happiness; but I knew I could choose to be cheerful."
* * *
"We have prayed for healing. God has not given it. But he has blessed us."
Glyn spoke slowly. Partly because of her conviction. Partly because of her disease. Her husband, Don, sat in the chair next to her. The three of us had come together to plan a funeral hers. And now, with that task done, with the hymns selected and the directions given, Glyn spoke.
"He has given us strength we did not know.
He gave it when we needed it and not before." Her words were slurred, but clear. Her eyes were moist, but confident.
I wondered what it would be like to have my life taken from me at age forty-five. I wondered what it would be like to say good-bye to my children and spouse. I wondered what it would be like to be a witness to my own death.
"God has given us peace in our pain. He covers us all the time. Even when we are out of control, he is still there."
It had been a year since Glyn and Don had learned of Glyn's condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). The cause and the cure remain a mystery. But the result doesn't. Muscle strength and mobility steadily deteriorate, leaving only the mind and the faith.
And it was the coming together of Glyn's mind and faith that caused me to realize I was doing more than planning a funeral. I was beholding holy jewels she had quarried out of the mine of despair.
"We can use any tragedy as a stumbling block or a stepping stone....
"I hope this will not cause my family to be bitter. I hope I can be an example that God is wanting us to trust in the good times and the bad. For if we don't trust when times are tough, we don't trust at all."
Don held her hand. He wiped her tears. He wiped his own.
"Who are these two?" I asked myself as I watched him touch a tissue to her cheek. "Who are these, who, on the edge of life's river, can look across with such faith?"
The moment was solemn and sweet. I said little. One is not bold in the presence of the sacred.
* * *
"I have everything I need for joy!" Robert Reed said. "Amazing!" I thought.
His hands are twisted and his feet are useless. He can't bathe himself. He can't feed himself. He can't brush his teeth, comb his hair, or put on his underwear. His shirts are held together by strips of Velcro(r). His speech drags like a worn-out audio cassette.
Robert has cerebral palsy.
The disease keeps him from driving a car, riding a bike, and going for a walk. But it didn't keep him from graduating from high school or attending Abilene Christian University, from which he graduated with a degree in Latin. Having cerebral palsy didn't keep him from teaching at a St. Louis junior college or from venturing overseas on five mission trips.
And Robert's disease didn't prevent him from becoming a missionary in Portugal.
He moved to Lisbon, alone, in 1972. There he rented a hotel room and began studying Portuguese. He found a restaurant owner who would feed him after the rush hour and a tutor who would instruct him in the language.
Then he stationed himself daily in a park, where he distributed brochures about Christ. Within six years he led seventy people to the Lord, one of whom became his wife, Rosa.
I heard Robert speak recently. I watched other men carry him in his wheelchair onto the platform. I watched them lay a Bible in his lap. I watched his stiff fingers force open the pages. And I watched people in the audience wipe away tears of admiration from their faces. Robert could have asked for sympathy or pity, but he did just the opposite. He held his bent hand up in the air and boasted, "I have everything I need for joy."
His shirts are held together by Velcro(r), but his life is held together by joy.
* * *
No man had more reason to be miserable than this one yet no man was more joyful.
His first home was a palace. Servants were at his fingertips. The snap of his fingers changed the course of history. His name was known and loved. He had everything wealth, power, respect.
And then he had nothing.
Students of the event still ponder it. Historians stumble as they attempt to explain it. How could a king lose everything in one instant?
One moment he was royalty; the next he was in poverty.
His bed became, at best, a borrowed palletand usually the hard earth. He never owned even the most basic mode of transportation and was dependent upon handouts for his income. He was sometimes so hungry he would eat raw grain or pick fruit off a tree. He knew what it was like to be rained on, to be cold. He knew what it meant to have no home.
His palace grounds had been spotless; now he was exposed to filth. He had never known disease, but was now surrounded by illness.
In his kingdom he had been revered; now he was ridiculed. His neighbors tried to lynch him. Some called him a lunatic. His family tried to confine him to their house.
Those who didn't ridicule him tried to use him. They wanted favors. They wanted tricks. He was a novelty. They wanted to be seen with him that is, until being with him was out of fashion. Then they wanted to kill him.
He was accused of a crime he never committed. Witnesses were hired to lie. The jury was rigged. No lawyer was assigned to his defense. A judge swayed by politics handed down the death penalty.
They killed him.
He left as he came penniless. He was buried in a borrowed grave, his funeral financed by compassionate friends. Though he once had everything, he died with nothing.
He should have been miserable. He should have been bitter. He had every right to be a pot of boiling anger. But he wasn't.
He was joyful.
Sourpusses don't attract a following. People followed him wherever he went.
Children avoid soreheads. Children scampered after this man.
Crowds don't gather to listen to the woeful. Crowds clamored to hear him.
Why? He was joyful. He was joyful when he was poor. He was joyful when he was abandoned. He was joyful when he was betrayed. He was even joyful as he hung on a tool of torture, his hands pierced with six-inch Roman spikes.
Jesus embodied a stubborn joy. A joy that refused to bend in the wind of hard times. A joy that held its ground against pain. A joy whose roots extended deep into the bedrock of eternity.
Perhaps that's where Beverly Sills learned it. Without doubt, that is where Glyn Johnson and Robert Reed learned it. And that is where we can learn it.
What type of joy is this? What is this cheerfulness that dares to wink at adversity? What is this bird that sings while it is still dark? What is the source of this peace that defies pain?
I call it sacred delight.
It is sacred because it is not of the earth. What is sacred is God's. And this joy is God's.
It is delight because delight can both satisfy and surprise.
Delight is the Bethlehem shepherds dancing a jig outside a cave. Delight is Mary watching God sleep in a feed trough. Delight is white-haired Simeon praising God, who is about to be circumcised. Delight is Joseph teaching the Creator of the world how to hold a hammer.
Delight is the look on Andrew's face at the lunch pail that never came up empty. Delight is the dozing wedding guests who drank the wine that had been water. Delight is Jesus walking through waves as casually as you walk through curtains. Delight is a leper seeing a finger where there had been only a nub ... a widow hosting a party with food made for a funeral ... a paraplegic doing somersaults. Delight is Jesus doing impossible things in crazy ways: healing the blind with spit, paying taxes with a coin found in a fish's mouth, and coming back from the dead disguised as a gardener.
What is sacred delight? It is God doing what gods would be doing only in your wildest dreams wearing diapers, riding donkeys, washing feet, dozing in storms. Delight is the day they accused God of having too much fun, attending too many parties, and spending too much time with the Happy Hour crowd.
Delight is the day's wage paid to workers who had worked only one hour ... the father scrubbing the pig smell off his son's back ... the shepherd throwing a party because the sheep was found. Delight is a discovered pearl, a multiplied talent, a heaven-bound beggar, a criminal in the kingdom. Delight is the surprise on the faces of street folks who have been invited to a king's banquet.
Delight is the Samaritan woman big-eyed and speechless, the adulteress walking out of the stone-cluttered courtyard, and a skivvy-clad Peter plunging into cold waters to get close to the one he'd cursed.
Sacred delight is good news coming through the back door of your heart. It's what you'd always dreamed but never expected. It's the too-good-to-be-true coming true. It's having God as your pinch-hitter, your lawyer, your dad, your biggest fan, and your best friend. God on your side, in your heart, out in front, and protecting your back. It's hope where you least expected it: a flower in life's side' walk.
It is sacred because only God can grant it. It is a delight because it thrills. Since it is sacred, it can't be stolen. And since it is delightful, it can't be predicted.
It was this gladness that danced through the Red Sea. It was this joy that blew the trumpet at Jericho. It was this secret that made Mary sing. It was this surprise that put the springtime into Easter morning.
It is God's gladness. It's sacred delight.
And it is this sacred delight that Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount.
Nine times he promises it. And he promises it to an unlikely crowd:
· "The poor in spirit." Beggars in God's soup kitchen.
· "Those who mourn." Sinners Anonymous bound together by the truth of their introduction: "Hi, I am me. I'm a sinner."
· "The meek." Pawnshop pianos played by Van Cliburn. (He's so good no one notices the missing keys.)
· "Those who hunger and thirst." Famished orphans who know the difference between a TV dinner and a Thanksgiving feast.
· "The merciful." Winners of the million-dollar lottery who share the prize with their enemies.
· "The pure in heart." Physicians who love lepers and escape infection.
· "The peacemakers." Architects who build bridges with wood from a Roman cross.
· "The persecuted." Those who manage to keep an eye on heaven while walking through hell on earth.
It is to this band of pilgrims that God promises a special blessing. A heavenly joy. A sacred delight.
But this joy is not cheap. What Jesus promises is not a gimmick to give you goose bumps nor a mental attitude that has to be pumped up at pep rallies. No, Matthew 5 describes God's radical reconstruction of the heart.
Observe the sequence. First, we recognize we are in need (we're poor in spirit). Next, we repent of our self-sufficiency (we mourn). We quit calling the shots and surrender control to God (we're meek). So grateful are we for his presence that we yearn for more of him (we hunger and thirst). As we grow closer to him, we become more like him. We forgive others (we're merciful). We change our outlook (we're pure in heart). We love others (we're peacemakers). We endure injustice (we're persecuted).
It's no casual shift of attitude. It is a demolition of the old structure and a creation of the new. The more radical the change, the greater the joy. And it's worth every effort, for this is the joy of God.
It's no accident that the same word used by Jesus to promise sacred delight is the word used by Paul to describe God:
"The blessed God ..."
"God, the blessed and only Ruler ..."
Think about God's joy. What can cloud it? What can quench it? What can kill it? Is God ever in a bad mood because of bad weather? Does God get ruffled over long lines or traffic jams? Does God ever refuse to rotate the earth because his feelings are hurt?
No. His is a joy which consequences cannot quench. His is a peace which circumstances cannot steal.
There is a delicious gladness that comes from God. A holy joy. A sacred delight.
And it is within your reach. You are one decision away from Joy.