Once upon a time, in a village far, far, away lived eleven children huddled together waiting for hope to find them. In another city far, far, away from that African village, lived a woman in an American city looking for something more. She was looking for joy. I was that woman. This is a story of unexpected joy.
In many stories we read of two strangers’ lives intersecting through magical encounters of collision in a coffee shop or an airport. Somehow “love” is born. These random intersections alter destinies of each person, and their lives are forever changed. And this all happens because of a random force (maybe a fairy godmother, twitterpated emotions or Cupid) orchestrating the epic encounter in the unforeseen event that has now eternally entwined them. We cheer. We wipe away tears of joy. But is that really joy?
This story of a woman and eleven children isn’t about magic or mystical encounters but miracles. This story isn’t about random chance meetings, but God appointed times. This story is about how our sovereign and incredible God weaves ordinary, unpredictable endings together and connects them to joy despite the seemingly unknown, ordinary, or long paths of life we often walk. This story is about how joy can be found in the darkest of places, tiniest, forgotten spaces, and in the eyes of tiny, little faces.
Years ago, I was honored to be able to travel to West Africa on a mission trip. While there, we were asked to take food into a local village. We had heard there were some children in need there.
Our driver got directions to the remote location. We stopped and bought rice, water, crackers, and basic hygiene supplies. We drove through vibrant, green forests, through thriving villages, where the smoky scent of fish and banana chips being fried over open fires followed the van we traveled in. I was in love with this country and its people. I felt honored to see such beauty in the landscape and robust lifestyle. We continued over dirt roads, past goats, chickens, and all the beautiful smiles and friendly faces of people watching our large, white, multipurpose, fifteen passenger van traveling over roads that would have been better suited for a safari jeep.
Eventually, we exited busy village life and entered uninhabited, tropical jungles. The roads began to narrow and then turned into wide-ish paths. There were less people and a whole lot more potholes. Every now and again we would pass a woman carrying her children on her back, eggs and fish for sale in a tin basin balanced perfectly on her head and pushing a cart with fruits for sale. I marveled at her strength and grit. We would wave and ask for directions to ‘the village’ we were looking for. We began to wonder if perhaps this village was more of a hidden city or an unknown people group. The women on the side of the road would smile, nod and wave us forward. Into the jungle deeper and deeper we went.
Finally, we began to smell a scent that indicated we had found another village. That same smokey smell of life being lived over an open fire started to fill our van again. We were close. As soon as the rumble of our jungle-challenged van was heard by the village children, they started running out of the beautiful green foliage all around us. It was a scene out of my wildest dreams. The children cheered and clapped, chased us and waved us into their village. Thankfully, they were as happy to see us as we were to see them.
As we began to interact, laugh, and develop a relationship with these beautiful people, we became aware of a few children that weren’t joining the fun. Beyond the small group of people gathering around our poppin’ party, we could see a crumbling concrete structure. It was an old, abandoned school with a few rooms. We approached the structure we saw little faces peeking out from behind pillars and old wooden school desks. We had found the children in need.
We entered this school building they had been living in, we came across something I never expected. There, in the dim light filtering through a torn and pieced together curtain waving in the breeze, a small figure appeared to be laying in the shadows on the floor. It was the smallest of these children. He was fevering and unresponsive. He was suffering from malaria, and the villagers and his young friends had tried to find help, but it was too far and too costly. This small boy’s condition had become an extreme situation quickly.
We asked many questions and sought many answers in the days to come. These children had been foraging for themselves and taking care of one another. Brought together by stories too long to tell here, they had formed a community of eleven children ranging from the ages of 17 to 2 years old. They were a band of non-related survivors of circumstances over which they had no control. They had survived stories most of us couldn’t listen to let alone live through.
These children had found shelter. They each had found each other. And now, we had found them.
We left that village the way we came in, but with nine more seats filled. That van was the perfect vehicle for our mission now!
The next week was spent working with the local government, orphanages, police offices, and village hospitals to help these children in need. It involved so many potty breaks and food stops that I lost track.
Searching for conversation starters throughout the next week, we asked the children if they had ever been to the beach. Afterall, we were in West Africa. The Atlantic Ocean was part of their great land and culture. The children had very little understanding as to what we were talking about. They had heard of the ocean or seen a picture of it here or there, but none of them had been to it. They had not danced in the surf, or been chased by waves, or buried their toes in the sand. As we traveled through days of official paperwork, offices, and officials, we would describe the ocean and tell stories about it to pass the hours of waiting and hoping for help and homes for all of these children. Our promise to them, after securing them in safe homes with the help of local authorities, was to get permission to take them to the ocean. We promised to let them jump, play, and run on the beach.
It was a long week of perseverance and determination by our mission team, but compassion and safety were found for each of these children. The young boy who had malaria was running around and full of life once again. It was time to keep our promise. We loaded up that van with a picnic lunch with nine, eager and ocean-ready kids. I heard the ocean waves and the seagulls. I was aware of the heat and the beating sun. I was expecting a great afternoon. What I didn’t expect was what I would feel when nine children who had never seen the ocean, never observed the magnificent size, felt the force of the waves, or the warmth of the beach that stretched farther than they had ever been able to see.
The waves crashed all around them and joy crashed over me. Unspeakable, unexpected joy!
I wept as they leapt. Then I laughed. I laughed so hard I felt like I could fly. I couldn’t help but jump and play. Their joy had become my joy. The joy of loving them and knowing them and seeing them find a new beginning was more than my heart could handle. I held their little hands. They held my fragile heart. I knew I would never be the same. Their story had become part of mine.
Finding Joy within us
Two thousand years ago there was another child born in a village far-far away called Bethlehem. Not many knew he would appear in a broken down left-for-the-animals-only shed on a starry and ordinary night. He was wrapped in rags. He appeared to be small and insignificant born to two ordinary individuals.
Jesus entered our world in what seemed to be a crazy unexpected way to save our broken, lonely, dark world.
Everything about his arrival appeared ordinary. Obscure. In fact, his birth appeared so ordinary many of us might have missed it. He came to make sure none of us were ever orphaned or alone. Ever. He went to extremes to get to us. He refused to give up his mission. He came to make sure none of us were ever going to have to be abandoned or enslaved to the bondage of sin, shame or suffering. He came to deliver us… and set us free. Not a small birth plan, huh?
Jesus’s purpose was greater than anything most people could see or imagine. His life was full of purpose. He healed the blind. Set captives free. Performed miracles. However, His ultimate purpose on this earth wasn’t his birth. It was His death. He knew he was born to die.
….for the joy set before Him he endured the cross. Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)
Jesus focused on “the joy” that was set before Him? Is joy really enough to help us endure all things? The birth of my second child felt like it was never going to end. My labor was long. The pain was relentless. As I endured the long hours of what felt like torture, my husband would keep leaning in and whispering a truth that had been apparent to me 9 months prior to this moment but had lost it’s power in the middle of my pain. “Honey, the pain is going to be worth the reward.” he would tenderly remind me. My son was born, despite my doubt that I would ever survive that kind of intense labor. He was worth it.
My husband knew the secret place inside a runner looking to finish his race or the internal secret of an author who is lost in words but knows the end result of her work is in sight. The joy we find in life is knowing the end result is worth the temporary struggle.
Joy is not what is going on around us but rather what is going on inside of us.
Joy surprises us. It meets us in labor and delivery rooms, dark hallways, lonely schools, the cancer ward, or at a beach in a land that is not your own where you thought you were helping someone else, but instead you find out they were helping you! We must remember the joy in us and before us as we endure the hardships around us.
Finding joy around us
In a broken world the joy we want is sometimes found in what we avoid. No one wants to suffer or sacrifice. No one wants to hurt or feel helpless. No one chooses to give up something for someone else.
So why would we?
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.1 John 4:9 (NIV)
Love chooses what is best for others despite what it costs us. Jesus says it is that act of giving away our lives that brings us the most abundant life. We choose to give away what was freely given to us. Love.
Jesus looked upon our world in need and his love couldn’t sit by and not act. Compassion is an action. Jesus knew love had to do something. Yes, it would be hard. Yes, it would require all of heaven to raise up what He was about to lay down. But Jesus knew the secret to living was giving. So he gave. To us. For us. Jesus knew that the greatest reward in loving and giving was the joy at the end of the journey knowing His life changed ours. The joy inside Him was greater than what was going on around Him. He knew His earthly life and death would change our lives eternally. The purpose and passion in His mission was what kept him enduring to the end of His mission.
You and I were the joy Jesus was living and dying for. Joy is the abundant outpouring of love pouring out of us.
Joy empowers us to endure all things when love is our motivation.
Many times life requires us to endure hardship. We must go through something we aren’t sure we are going to come through. Love is what chooses to endure hardship. Joy is the reward as we endure hard things.
Jesus whispers, “Hang on, the joy that is coming will overcome the pain you are experiencing!” Joy tells us we can do hard things because they become holy things. God is not random. The people we encounter as we walk through life are meant to be part of how we experience God. There are no chance meetings in life. Only chances to change someone else’s life. This living to give in love is how we find abundant life. God touches others through us. We are touched by God when we see the joy of our lives intertwining with theirs as God writes a story of beauty we couldn’t have dreamed of or decided upon. We experience the greatest joy when we give away the love God has given to us.
God’s greatest gift was given to us and for us. When we live and give in that same spirit we will experience a joy set before us that will propel us into places and spaces we never could have imagined. Places where we find the joy we might always have been looking for.
When others find Jesus we will find joy. Joy is not dependent on our current state or condition but rather is a result of what God has done for us, in us and promises to complete through us. We must look past our present circumstances and toward the reward found in a life motivated by enduring love.
I had no idea that bumpy, dusty road into that obscure village in Africa would lead me to joy. I found what I was looking for when those children found what they needed. Joy, unspeakable joy.
“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (ESV)
This GREAT joy came to all of us. His love was big enough to save us and humble enough to meet us in our messy, dark, hard moments. Jesus was willing to endure all things for all of us so that we might find the joy of His great love.
Jesus’s inward joy for what He loved was far greater than the outward obstacles he would have to endure to get to us. The joy within Him took Him off His Heavenly throne and on to this planet. There was more going on that silent night in Bethlehem than met the eye. Sometimes we overlook the ordinary because we can’t see the extraordinary and profound love of God hiding in it. All of heaven was full of joy as they watched their heavenly prince come to us. I imagine they were jumping for joy knowing we were all about to experience something we had never seen, touched or known before.
Joy is found unexpectedly in moments where love chooses. Joy jumps and plays. Joy is not a denial of hardship but rather a gift in it. Ordinary life offers us the opportunity to find extraordinary joy when we seek love and share love with others.
Jesus is joy. When we have Jesus in us we carry joy around with us. When we love in His name our ordinary lives can become lavish expressions of an enduring and unexplainable love.
I left those children in Africa many years ago, but they have never left my heart. To this day I can’t think about joy without remembering those eleven children leaping on that beach and how my heart jumped out of my chest as they experienced God in their joy.
Unexpected. Unexplainable. Undeniable.
The enduring love of Christ had connected us. The power of love had changed us. Unexpected joy had captured us. Finding joy in unexpected places is worth the journey love will take you on.
“I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” John 15:11
Laura is a writer and speaker. She lives in upstate NY with her husband of 23 years and their six children. Laura’s desire is to connect her audience with God. Laura’s speaking and writing has inspired and impacted thousands to connect with God over the last 15 years. Laura writes bold, beautiful and brave words that stir your heart. Every word, spoken or written, invites you to live the crazy amazing life of love, hope and faith you were born for. Laura writes and speaks the truth of God’s Word passionately. She believes that a girl and the gospel are a powerful force God uses every day to turn ordinary into extraordinary. Laura believes that every woman can live her purpose, pursue her passion and IGNITE the world with the power and love of Jesus Christ.