The Triumph of Joy
by Pastor Dan White
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Derrick Dixon inhaled the fresh Fall morning. God’s brush dipped into the oranges, reds, and browns painting His leafy masterpiece with a brilliant wonder. He thought perhaps that he should have thrown on a windbreaker over his short sleeved shirt as the early chill of a northwesterly breeze invigorated his step. His faithful Ziggy strained against her leash when she spotted a squirrel across the street busily eating an acorn and laughing at his barking and ‘wanting to chase’ nemesis.
“Calm down, Ziggy. You aren’t going anywhere. Let the little critter eat in peace!” Derrick laughed at the drama unfolding before him. His constant companion was showing plenty of gray around her muzzle but still had lots of spunk for a run at the squirrel.
Derrick knew that his ten year old Spaniel was in the autumn of life just like he was. There wouldn’t be too many more autumns left before winter’s deathly chill set in.
There had been times when there was no spring in his step or smile on Derrick’s face. But today, a song was on his lips from the abiding joy in his heart.
He side-stepped a puddle on the sidewalk that had filled from last night’s much needed rain. The water was nasty looking like snow stained from ashes and salt spread by the road crews in the winter to keep the street navigable.
Derrick’s life was once like the fouled puddle. There was lots of mess in it. But now, he knew that every promise of God was real. His faith had been made sight.
The muddy pool in his life had been transformed by the bright and beautiful change from Christ’s mercy, grace, and providential care. Derrick gazed at the dirty puddle knowing that even then, the sun was pulling up the water. All of it’s dirt and grime would be left behind and soon, the water would reappear as pure rain drops clothed with sunbeams shining through them in all the bright hues of the rainbow.
Derrick said to himself, “Wow! That is what Christ did for me. He pulled me up to Himself and all of the dirt and grime of my early years have been left behind! Wow!
Derrick sometimes harkened back to those painful childhood memories. His musing shifted gears, and the smile left his face.
“Derrick Dixon!” You’ll never amount to nothing! You ain’t worth a pot of beans! You’re a piece of trash! Worthless! Lazy!
“And don’t look at me like that! I don’t want none of your sass and impudence! Get your books and go to your room! I don’t work hard all day for you to come home and goof off. Go to your room and get busy!”
Disgusted, Derrick’s mom blew cigarette smoke from her mouth and nose turning the room blue adding to the house’s stale, rancid odor.
At times like that, Derrick longed for his father, but he had long ago checked out and lived far away.
The verbal abuse from his mother were the sticks and stones that broke his bones. And all for what? Derrick had gone over to a neighbor friend to play football with some of the other neighborhood boys instead of doing his home work immediately after school. When his mom had come home from her stress-filled job, she hurled her frustration at him.
Her fury was not limited to hateful tirades. There were those times she grabbed his cheeks around his mouth with her thumb and finger and squeezed them until tears welled up in his eyes. Then, there were times when she slapped him in the face.
The next morning, Derrick left on the school bus for another day in the fifth grade. He always loved school mornings. School was a sanctuary for him. The teacher was nice and patient with him even though he withdrew to a place inside himself. She thought that sometimes he acted like an abused dog and was afraid of his own shadow. She wondered why he was overly shy.
He did his utmost to avoid the class bully. He did have a couple of school friends in addition to his friend next door. But, for the most part, he lived as a lonely and pathetic creature.
Derrick never knew what to expect when his mother came home from work between 5:30 and 6 o’clock in the evenings. Sometimes she was Dr. Jekyll and sometimes Mr. Hyde.
However, there were those happy moments that Derrick cherished like the visits to his grandfather and grandmother. His mom always managed to act nice around them and never had a fit of rage. He wondered why she couldn’t do that all the time. He always dreaded the ride home. Before they even got back on the main road, she started to criticize and shame him. The more she ranted, the madder she got. Being confined in the car with his mother was no fun.
At home, he had to walk on eggshells so as not to upset her. One little misstep could set her off like a stick of dynamite. She didn’t take into consideration that he was just a boy and was subject to doing foolish, innocent boyish things.
Derrick and Ziggy walked past the squirrel who was too busy feasting on the acorns to pay any attention to them.
Turning the corner of his street, the specters of Derrick’s childhood tried to haunt him again like they sometimes did. However, he had learned to ignore them like the squirrel ignored Ziggy. He had not allowed his painful ghosts from long ago to ruin his life, and they certainly weren’t going to ruin his morning walk today.
Derrick had trained his mind to follow the admonition of Scripture when bad thoughts troubled his thinking. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
He breathed deeply swallowing up the beauty of the early morning sun, the blue sky and the gorgeous autumn scene surrounding him. He took delight in his and Ziggy’s shadow dancing down his street.
They came to an intersection, and Derrick made the turn toward Richard’s house.
Derrick’s reverie changed directions too going down a different pathway, a pleasant pathway that brought a smile to his face again.
Derrick waited with anticipation for his high school literature teacher to place the graded paper on his desk. It had been a hard assignment generated after the class read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Derrick had to compare Napoleon, the antagonist boar, with a cruel control-freak dictator like Joseph Stalin.
The teacher placed the paper face down on his desk. Derrick nervously turned the paper over and was pleasantly surprised to see 98 written on the cover sheet. That felt good. Tough assignment. A plus!
Derrick knew that his only way out was to further his education. He retreated to his books, his safe haven. Yep, he was the class nerd. The weakling. The geek. The teasing bothered him some, but he stayed focused on his goal of advancing his education.
It was also in high school, shortly after the beginning of his freshman year, that he began emerging from his shell.
He met a fellow student who had come from the other junior high school in town. The two junior high schools joined together as one in the town’s only high school.
Sometime before Christmas, his new friend, Dale, invited him to church.
With some trepidation and anxiousness, he mustered the courage to ask his mom if he could go with Dale’s family on Sunday.
At first, he wavered about asking her. His mother kept him under her thumb and had denied him opportunities for extracurricular activities. He didn’t know then what he knew later. It was his mother's way of controlling him - having power over him and keeping him for herself.
Derrick braced himself for the coming hurricane over his appeal to go to church with his new friend.
Sure enough, his simple request indeed set his mother off on another diatribe.
“They ain’t nothing but hypocrites in that church!”
Derrick’s hopes faded.
“That Deacon Barclay ran off with one of the choir ladies. That’s all church people are - hypocrites! Each and every one of them!”
“That Barclay acted like he was so high and mighty. He acted like he was better than any one else. Every time the church opened its doors, he was there. I know that he never darkens the door of the church any more. He divorced his wife, and she divorced her husband. Now, they are shacking up together.”
“Yes, mom. I know about that. Everyone knows about that.”
Derrick thought to himself that the scandal might as well have been on the front page of their town’s newspaper. It was the gossip of the town from the church house to the court house to the school house and all places in between.
Reaching deep down for a booster shot of courage, Derrick asked her again bracing himself for another deluge.
“Well, I’m not much for you going, Derrick,” his mother replied with a bit of sanity in her voice much to Derrick’s surprise. She reached over and knocked the ashes off her cigarette into the ash tray on the kitchen table without saying anything.
To Derrick, her pause seemed like an hour. His pulse quickened with hope knowing from past experience that such a rare pause usually resulted in “Yes” more times than “No.” When she was on the attack, it seemed to Derrick that she didn’t even take time to breathe. The pause was a sign of encouragement for him.
At last, she spoke. “I’ve never been one for church, you know. If I want church, I can turn the TV on Sunday morning and watch them on TV. But, I’m not even too keen on that. All they seem to ever want is my money. But, if you want to go, I reckon you can go. You’re old enough to decide for yourself about religion. I just don’t want nobody shoving it down your throat, you hear?”
Derrick could hardly believe what he had just heard his mother say. He didn’t want to appear overly excited even though you would have thought that he had just scored a winning touchdown.
His voice was measured and calm - as calm as he could be at the moment. He told his mom, “Thank you” and got out of his chair. His mother also stood up. Mother and son embraced for a moment.
Derrick thought he saw a tear well-up from the soul of his crusty mother.
“How much homework do you have, son?”
“Quite a bit, mom.”
“Well, I guess you need to get busy.”
She was proud of her son’s good grades and studious habits, but she dared not heap praise on her son out of fear he would get the big-head. No word of affirmation came from her lips. It was another way to control him and to keep him subservient and submissive to her.
Derrick waved at his friend who was raking the first leaves of the season in his yard. He stopped his work and came over to talk. Ziggy wagged her tale and jumped on Derrick wanting a scratch behind her ears.
Richard too was retired. He and Derrick were fast friends.
Richard and his wife were there when Derrick’s wife died from leukemia five years ago. It was a helpless feeling watching the cancer overtake her and seeing her in pain. The morphine drip helped relieve some of the pain, and the hospice nurses had been kind and compassionate. Richard had really stood with him through it all - through the tears, the sadness, and the emptiness after losing her.
As Richard approached, Derrick thought of that verse that reminded him of what Richard had done for him. “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
The house still seemed empty without his beloved wife, but slowly and surely, Derrick had moved forward the best he could with the help of church friends like Richard.
The two men talked football for a little while debating whether or not the university’s coach would be fired after the season. The team looked like it was headed for another losing season. After their spirited conversation, Derrick and his Spaniel continued on their morning jaunt.
Their football talk caused Derrick to recall the good times of his college life. At college, he finally was free. No longer did he have to ask permission from his controlling mother. He had a life, and as a freshman, he attended a football game for the first time in his life. The four years had swiftly passed and were filled with joy and happiness. He had accomplished his goal. He had won some scholarships to attend the state university. That and along with some student loans, he financed his education. He had graduated in the top percentile of his class. Moreover, he met his future wife there in a weekly Bible study fellowship.
It had been a long, difficult road for him growing up. Often, he couldn’t see anything but his unpleasant circumstances coupled with deep doubt about anything changing for the better.
That’s the way people are. When they are in a dark dungeon, the light of faith doesn’t get past the adversity. Problems turn into insurmountable mountains, and faith shrinks to a speck of dust. It is like shooting a BB gun at an attacking, roaring lion.
But, Derrick had immersed himself in church during the last two years of high school. He found good, kindhearted people in the church, and he was one of those kids who was there on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. He lived for summer church camp and in his junior year, he went on his first mission trip with kids from his church.
He soaked in every lesson, every sermon, and devoted himself to daily prayer and Bible reading.
One of his favorite sayings from Jesus was in John 16:20, “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”
Another passage was Hebrews 12:2. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
And now in the autumn of his life, he knew through faith and experience that these promises he had clung to from his youth were true.
Derrick had endured a lot of crosses. It wasn’t all pie in the sky especially when he buried his beloved wife, but just as surely as the sky cleared that morning for his walk after the night’s rain, he knew that the days of joy would always follow sorrow. And, they did.
Some nights, he and his wife watched TV together. While the TV was on, Derrick often read a book while his wife embroidered. She weaved beautiful designs and flowers.
“How’s it going?” Derrick asked. “Let me see what you’re working on.”
She loved to tease him and walked over for him to see her work. She held it up high where he couldn’t see the beautiful roses and flowers that she had woven into the fabric.
“Hey,” Derrick said. “I can’t see anything but a jumble of threads looking at it from the bottom. It makes no sense.”
She laughed and replied, “Of course not. Now look at it from the top and tell me what you think.”
She lowered her embroidery where he could see from the top down and saw the beautiful pattern.
“Now, that’s better. That’s a beautiful thing you’ve put together!”
Derrick could look back and see the hand of God weaving his pattern throughout his life. Now, his view was from the top and not from the bottom. It all made sense to him. He could see that even in the bad times how God had woven his life into a pattern of beauty with threads of His love, grace, and mercy.
Yes, Derrick could testify that “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Ziggy pulled against the leash excitedly leading Derrick toward the house. She knew a treat awaited her when they entered the house. Derrick reached down to get the morning paper lying on the driveway.
He walked into the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He sat down and opened his Bible that he kept on the kitchen table and decided to read Romans 8, another of his favorite passages. He paused over one of his much loved verses from that chapter. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs-- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Derrick bowed his head in a spirit of prayerful meditation and thanked God, for his mother, for a difficult childhood, for Dale, for the church of his youth, for his dear wife whom he met in college, for their home together, for Richard, and for the bad times that drove him to prayer, and for the blessings that filled him with joy.
Derrick stood up and walked over to the counter and refilled his coffee cup before reading the paper. The kitchen clock over the kitchen window caught his attention. Time was flying by like the flurry of leaves from the sudden gust of wind that he saw from the window. Derrick knew his time was quickly falling away like the leaves falling to the ground.
He then leaned over and put both hands on the counter to watch the show through the window. The clear blue autumn sky sent his eyes heavenward beyond the trees and the falling leaves.
“Heaven,” he thought. “The place where I shall be enfolded in the arms of my Savior; the place where I shall embrace my dear wife once again. The place where God shall wipe away all my tears. Heaven. What a place that must be! Yes, yes, the promises of God are true.”
It is the triumph of joy!
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!
- Henry Jackson van Dyke
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This is the best illustration of redemption I've ever read: "...Derrick gazed at the dirty puddle knowing that even then, the sun was pulling up the water. All of it’s dirt and grime would be left behind and soon, the water would reappear as pure rain drops clothed with sunbeams shining through them in all the bright hues of the rainbow. "Derrick said to himself, “Wow! That is what Christ did for me. He pulled me up to Himself and all of the dirt and grime of my early years have been left behind! Wow!" Wow, indeed. Thank you for this story and message!