I swing open the door only to be bombarded by an onslaught of bouncing curls and scampering feet rushing headlong from around the corner. I set down my bags and prepare to fend off the attack with a resistance of quick hugs, all the while expecting her to come around the corner.
Nine-months pregnant or not, she’s as gracious and beautiful as her wedding picture that has adorned her wall for the past five years, wrapped in a joyous energy, an enthusiasm seconded by few. My mentor greets me with a laugh of delight and an all-encompassing hug that spreads warmth throughout my body. The children laugh and prattle around us as I slip off my shoes and make my way into the familiar kitchen. I’ve been here many times before, but today, I am on a mission to discover, through the side-by-side experience of living out an ordinary day, the secret to her joy.
The kitchen scene is an ordinary one. Half-eaten eggs and barely-touched smoothie cups adorn the kitchen counters, a stack of toast left almost-buttered nearby. Heedless of their breakfast, the children engage themselves in shooting colored pencil “arrows” with their rubber band stick bows—for a moment. Then, unfazed, that same firm but kind eye settles down the imaginary war and sends the children scuttling off to their respective seats to gobble down the last bites of egg. In the high chair, Jewelbug coos over her morning portion of milk, seemingly oblivious to the hubbub around her.
Mundane, yes. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it, the beauty of routine, ordinary life transformed by sheer joy, that drives me here week after week. In this carefully-nurtured atmosphere, her ever-growing circle of little ones thrives, caught in the naughtiness of all children but somehow compelled to return to duty by the firm kindness of their mother.
I’m about to experience a taste of this naughtiness as I prepare to take the three oldest children on a cleaning tour of their bedrooms. A certain little boy, as I am all too soon to discover, has a tendency for hiding in closets to avoid being the recipient of my next chore assignment. I hardly have time to notice while I’m engaged in sending the toddler running downstairs with an isolated shoe and supervising little sister’s cleanup of the plastic kitchen toys sprawled across the floor. His mother, though, has clearly noticed this escapist inclination and hands him a vacuum and clear instructions as soon as we march back down the stairs. “The children all have their tendencies,” she would say. “Whether it’s laziness, willfulness, or pride, all I can do is to keep faithfully chipping at their character each day and pray for progress.”
I wonder how she maintains her joy when the progress seems slow. After all, I’m even a little irked when our cleaner decides he’s too tired and tries to lay against the couch while lethargically moving the vacuum over the rug. Of course, I know he’ll be all energy in a few moments when he’ll challenge me to a sword fight, so I try to perk him up: “Stand up, Carson, you’re a big boy. Make sure to not miss that spot on the rug.”
Somehow after our labors, the house does begin to look brighter, and the children scamper off to the backyard to play. I follow, knowing they eagerly look forward to our times together, while their mother exercises her escalating nesting instinct in her bedroom. The girls clamor to the swing set, pleading for me to push them “high.” I busy myself with the monotonous back-and-forth, back-and-forth of pushing the swings. The day’s escapades have worn on me, and for a second, my mind wanders to the faraway land of reflection. My countenance, before a painted-on smile, slips into its oft-found perch of seriousness.
Angelina’s words bolt me from my reverie: “You’re not allowed to do that around here.” I look at her, puzzled. She continues, her three-year-old chubby face serious, “We have to be happy around here.”
I laugh off her remark and return her a smile. But the comment goes deep. I am impressed; the three-year-old knew joy not as a party favor but as the main dish of the course. Not that she always lived it. I had been the one to deal with her pouting face and angry tears before.
Yet, I perceive more in her comment: a cavernous, all-encompassing outlook that doesn’t reciprocate happy and sad faces like emoticons on an email. It is steady, expected, secure. I can hear her mother’s skilled fingers running up and down their little piano, singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with her clear soprano as she so often had at the news of a new little one within her—or at the death of first her tiny beloved. It is all the same, the smooth as well as the rough, the tragic as well as the triumphant. In the calm moments, those monotonous days of changing diapers and wiping tiny noses, that joy continues to spill out.
The morning hour finally closes, and the children and I file in to begin lunch preparations. Once everything is set out, we linger over our meal of leftover soup and corn chips. I’m eager to relay the question heavily weighing on my mind: “What’s the secret to your joy?”
She smiles as she spoonfeeds Jewelbug another bite of sweet potato. “I guess I grew up that way,” she reflects. “My parents didn’t let us come down in the morning grumpy. Cheerfulness was expected.”
She pauses for a moment. “But joy has been a journey for me. I wasn’t used to the mundane when I jumped into marriage; contentment took time. I ran a girls’ ministry during my single years, and though I’m passionate about public speaking, it wasn’t an accurate picture of life. After all, children don’t affirm you the way admiring girls look up to their ministry leader. It took some adjustment, but it has been so worth it. I’ve learned I have so much power as a woman to set the atmosphere of my home, I simply had to learn to be content. I’ve also learned the key of keeping short accounts. You can’t be joyful if you’re holding onto sin.”
Our conversation ceases for a moment as her husband walks in the door for a quick lunch before he heads back to work. After a few interruptions, she gives the children a firm “no talking until you finish your soup” and turns back to her husband. They go back and forth on everyday matters of life, but a sweetness prevails the encounter. The joy of this woman has not only spread to her children, but her marriage also glows because of it. I smile over a bite of lunch as I recall the How to Love your Husband and How to Love Your Wife books I had detected on their bed stands. I don’t think those were merely decoration, I conclude.
With lunch finished, we put the children to bed and meet to tackle the pile of dishes. As I study the warm, sudsy water overflow into the sink, she begins to talk once more. “As a young woman,” she picks up a towel to begin drying the dishes, “I struggled deeply with assurance for years at a time. When I met my husband, I was ashamed to confess I wasn’t certain of my salvation. Right then and there, he walked me through the scriptures, assuring me that if I believed on Christ, I would be saved. It was the first time I rightly understood God’s sovereignty in salvation. It cleared the issue right up.” A porcelain plate clinks as she sets it in the cabinet. “Plus,” she laughs, “I work so hard now since I’ve had kids, I don’t have any time to worry!”
I laugh along with her. I can’t help but think of Sarah Edwards’ comment after a day of tending to her eleven children, “Oh how good is it to work for God in the day time and at night to lie down under His smiles.” I have to agree. There’s a comfort, a joy, in working hard for God.
Before too long, I must bid goodbye. As I pull out of the driveway and watch her wave enthusiastically after me, I muse on the day.
Joy—I’ll never view it the same way. It affords emotional comfort, yes, but reaches beyond one’s soul and wraps its comforting arms around everyone within reach. In seeking it, I seek not merely my own good but also the good of all I meet. For who does not encounter misery but is not affected by that same woe? Much more, who does not meet joy but has even a breath of that spirit blown upon himself? Ultimately, this joy reaches to the very heavens, for as one put it, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him” (John Piper, Desiring God, 288). It is worth seeking—at any cost.
Today, I have witnessed this joy, for it holds an unrealized power, a steadiness, a security. It sweetens a marriage, corrects a wayward child, and spreads light to many a searching girl who has wandered into the threshold of this house. But I have discovered her Source, for times have not always been easy here. “Our God is a good God,” she would say. Somehow, whether it was from Jewelbug’s glow as she gazed into her mother’s face or perhaps from her own face smiling back, I knew she was right.