David C. Hughes, Writer

“For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your JOY will be complete." –Deuteronomy 16:15

Archive for the tag “New River Fellowship”

The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 16: Joy in Suffering (3 of 4)

As Christ-followers we are not immune to trials.  Jesus said so Himself: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).  Not we “might” have trouble, not we “may” have trouble; no, we “will” have trouble.  That’s part of the hardening process, part of the raising up as warriors for the Kingdom.  But when we do have trouble, our job is to endure, hope, and hold on to our joy as our Daddy transforms us from sinfulness to holiness, from flesh to glory.  God’s in the demolition and rebuilding business; He holds our hands as He turns ashes into beauty and weeping into dancing.

Jesus has already overcome the world, and in that truth we are urged to trust He knows what He’s doing and to seek out the lessons He’s revealing as we undergo trials, no matter how severe.  All trials are life-changing, but it’s up to us to put into perspective the direction, depth, and character of that change.  As my wife put it, “Just because we’ve already won doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight the battles.  It doesn’t mean the devil isn’t going to win sometimes!”  But even when the devil wins, he still loses, because, in our case, a scoreless inning does not result in a lost game but a chance to review the film, adjust our strategy, and come back out swinging.

In his exhortation to the Jewish Christians, James encouraged the first-century followers of Christ to hold on to their joy even as they faced various sufferings: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).  And what is our reward for this persistence?  Heaven.  “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Jesus suffered, and we followers of Christ would be arrogant to think we could be immune to suffering.  Nowhere in the Bible does God promise life on earth would be easy.  Or fair.  Or painless.  “But he was pierced for our transgressions, /” wrote the prophet Isaiah, “he was crushed for our iniquities; / the punishment that brought us peace was on him, / and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  The point: Jesus suffered a horrible torture and death, yet His death restored our relationship with God and allowed us to approach the Throne of Glory without shame.  Jesus’ suffering led to pure joy, for God and for us, and because He modeled suffering for us, we should not expect to be spared, even to death, because we can’t even begin to fathom what Jesus went through.

Just look at the apostles: of the eleven original apostles who remained faithful to Jesus, ten of them suffered horrific deaths as martyrs.  The Apostle Paul spent a good portion of his ministry chained up, a prisoner for his bold proclamation of the gospel, before being put to death.  And history flows with the blood of countless others who have sacrificed—and continue to sacrifice—their lives defending the Good News.  God expects us to take up our own cross and follow Him, even into the throes of immense suffering, for His glory and for our perfection.

But is it really possible to get to a point in your life where, like Paul, you can experience joy while chained to a prison wall?  Or to maintain joy while suffering persecution like the Thessalonian church and the other oppressed Christian communities he ministered to?  Or, as tradition has it, to be as joyful as the Apostle James the Greater appeared to be when he faced beheading?  He exuded so much confidence that a false witness who had testified against him became convinced of Jesus’ true nature and was beheaded along with the apostle with the same sword.[i]

“You can still experience joy through suffering because of what God heals you from,” explained Renee Crenshaw, Women’s Pastor at New River Fellowship.  Like many folks, I’d struggled to wrap my arms around James’ exhortation in his epistle to consider it pure joy whenever we suffer.  How could the pain, the depression, the rage, the overwhelming darkness of what I’d been through in the past be considered “pure joy?”  To me it was pure hell.  I couldn’t relate.  But Renee shined the light of truth on my exasperation: we can look back on the things of the past from which we’ve been delivered and experience joy now.  We can take what was created for evil and, with God’s grace and guidance, flip it upside down and use it for the benefit of the Kingdom.  Like Jesus’ death on the cross, joy, as Renee explained, “changes our perspective on what happened to us.”

When she was a little girl her parents turned a deaf ear to the fights between her siblings.  “My brothers had knock-down drag-outs where the big kid was always beating on the little kid.  It was a Sunday tradition,” she said.  The family would arrive home from church and her brothers would start fighting.  “I thought it was normal, that the biggest brother got to beat up the little brother, with the kids screaming for mercy.”  Because of this experience, Renee made a vow that her own children would never treat each other that way.  “And they don’t.  Our kids usually don’t speak ill of each other.  They just don’t fight.  So what the enemy tried to make for evil has turned out completely different.  Of course, we didn’t do it perfectly, but I still think we can experience joy after the fact.  He takes the ashes and turns them into beauty.”

As Renee related, my life has also been one of both joy and suffering, but along the way I’ve come to realize the only way to learn the really big lessons in life—the epiphanies—is to go through hell and emerge on the other side, not unscathed, but wiser.  One of the most effective ways to grow is to face suffering head on, not avoid it.  We need to suffer.  We need to fail.  Mary and I both tell Hannah there’s nothing wrong with failure, that failure is part of learning.  If I was successful at everything I did, would I ever learn?  No, I’d be bloated with pride, a lesson for others in how not to live life.  Worse, would I ever learn dependence on God?

 

[i] “The Apostle James (Son of Zebedee).” BiblePath.com. n.d. 6 November 2013. www.biblepath.com/james.html.

 

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Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes

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The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 15: Joy in a Person (2 of 3)

Amy Copeland, Preschool and Special Needs Director at New River Fellowship in Hudson Oaks, Texas, knows all about God’s control, and God’s grace.  While growing up, she aspired to become a teacher, and while still attending the University of Kentucky, she married her husband, Barry.  After graduating, Barry’s job led them to Cincinnati, then to Ridgeland, Mississippi, where she gave birth to their first daughter, Kaylyn.  “I was passionate about my child as any new mom would be,” she said, “but perhaps a little more so, since I never really knew if I would be able to have any children at all.”  Amy had been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and her doctors had cautioned her that conceiving a child could be very difficult. “Once I saw that little girl wrapped up in that tiny little hospital blanket, I knew my role as a parent was going to be the biggest and most important role I would ever have here on earth.  This new passion would spark everything I did during the next fifteen years.”

As her oldest daughter went off to kindergarten, her second miracle baby, Ashton, missed her sister so much she begged her mom to go to school as well, even though she was only two.  So Amy applied and got a teaching position at New River’s Kids Day Out, or KDO, program, and Ashton attended KDO’s three-year-old class.  “I fell in love with the kids, and from those years of serving God’s little ones, I learned I was supposed to work with young kids.  I had found my Joy and my Calling.”  So over the next four years she studied for her Texas Teaching Certification and substitute taught at a local elementary school.

“During my last two years of subbing,” Amy said, “I got a call to cover a class for a lady I knew, Angie, an aide in the Autism Unit.  She told me she felt terrible that day and asked me to cover her on Thursday.  I said hesitantly, ‘Sure.’  Until that moment, I had avoided the Special Education Department like the plague.  I didn’t feel comfortable in those classrooms at all, and I had no desire to work inside one.”

“Well, little did I know what God was about to do,” she continued.  “I worked for Angie on Thursday and received a call from her again that evening.  She asked if I could work for her again on Friday.  I thought, Well, I survived one day, I guess two won’t hurt.  Her last words to me during our phone conversation on Thursday evening were, ‘Thank you, Amy.  By the way, the class is going on a field trip and you can wear my T-shirt that is in my locker.  I just don’t think I’m going to beat this illness before the weekend.’  Wow! One day in the Autism Unit and now I was headed to the Special Olympics at the Weatherford High School football field.  God is funny!  He just loved putting me outside of my comfort zone.  I realized that day that special needs kids are just like any other kid.  They need to be loved, nurtured, corrected, and just have fun playing.”

Tragically, the Sunday after Amy took the kids to the Special Olympics, Angie passed away from the swine flu.  The school asked Amy to continue to substitute teach until they found someone to take over the position permanently.  She stayed on for two and a half more months, but Amy never applied for the position; she’d given in to the voice in her head that she didn’t have what it took to tackle the job long term.  The lead teacher later told her she should have applied for the position.

“I never thought of myself as a Special Education teacher until the moment she told me she wanted me to stay.  That’s when I became the ‘Sped Sub.’”  She then substituted at the Autism Unit almost daily, and at the encouragement of the lead teacher, Amy went back to school and obtained her Special Education Certification.  “I love teaching and I love kids, all kids!  God has had me on quite a journey to show me what my passions and abilities truly are, and working within my passion in a way that brings glory to Him.  This brings me joy!”  Amy understands it, and she demonstrates that joy amazingly well.

Another person who understands joy is Kayla McMillan, also known as Kayla Mac.  Just being around this enthusiastic young lady for a few minutes can lift up your mood, and, like Amy, Kayla also had an epiphany that painted her life with permanent joy.  It started in her freshman year of high school when she failed her standardized state assessment tests—all of them.  Then her best friend died.  “I think my ninth grade year was my turning point,” said Kayla, “I saw my best friend the night before, then I found out the next day she was dead in a car accident.”

In addition to struggling with the heartbreaking loss of her best friend, Kayla also wrestled with feeling secure in her own identity.  But the reality and finality of her best friend’s death opened her eyes to the fact that she was her own person.  The tragedy spurred her to question what she was going to make of herself.  “So I determined Kayla Mac was gonna be me.  I was scared nobody would recognize me,” she said.

“Throughout high school I made a name for myself,” she explained.  She really wanted to become an athlete, but “I wasn’t good at sports.  I tried basketball and I tried volleyball.”  She even did track, but “God had a different plan: I became an athletic trainer.  I got to stand on the field.  I got to be at every game.  I did athletic training for football, then I did basketball.  I wouldn’t change anything, I was so excited.  The best years of my life were spent on the field.”

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Copyright © 2014 by David C. Hughes

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