Most of my school years were spent in the Cumberland County School System in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I attended Brentwood Elementary School (1st-6th grades), Hillcrest Junior High School (7th grade), Lewis Chapel Middle School (8th grade), and Seventy-First High School (9th-12th grades).
But my scholastic career started in Augusta, Georgia at C.T. Walker Magnet School as a Kindergartener. On the first day of school my parents took me to school and walked me into the auditorium where I was to wait until it was time to go to class for the very first time.
We had rehearsed this walk out of the auditorium, down a short set of stairs, and straight to the end of the hall on the left. Ms. Bentley’s Kindergarten Classroom. I didn’t know anyone at C.T. Walker. Everything was completely new, foreign, big, and scary.
The bell rang and it was time for me to put the plan into action. Even then I tended to have a one track mind when I was in pursuit of a goal. Almost nothing else mattered to me except getting to the classroom. I was aware that there were other students, but they were a blur.
When I hear athletes talk about what it feels like to be on the field in front of tens of thousands of people, yet the world seems like everything around you is quieter and in slow motion, it reminds me of walking to class that day. I had so many thoughts running through my head at the same time: Walk don’t run; Walk on the right side of the hall; Be polite; Remember you are a Lee; Last door on the left; Ms. Bentley’s room; Your address is 2815 Ptarmigan Road; Your dad is the pastor of Windsor Spring Baptist Church, Your mom teaches 6th grade English at Morgan Road Middle School.
I put my head down and started to walk. I didn’t get more than a couple of steps out of the auditorium, not even to the small set of stairs when I physically bumped into an adult woman in the hallway. I said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, excuse me.” And tried to get around her, but she moved back in front of me.
All of a sudden she put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Austin!”
How did she know my name?
I looked up. It was my mom. My little brain had already decided that once mom dropped me off that I was on my own. I was so focused on getting to class that I didn’t recognize the clothes or the voice of my own mother. I thought I was in trouble on my first day of school, but I wasn’t.
It was the exact opposite. I was the most safe from trouble at that moment than I could have possibly imagined. In a single instant my entire world shifted from fear to utter joy. I’m not alone, Mom is here.
Read – Acts 17:22-28
Paul stood at Mars’ Hill and told the people of Athens that God doesn’t live in the buildings they construct. He does not need us because he is the one who gives us what we need. All they need to do is seek him and he will be close by.
I absolutely love the imagery of the words in the various translations:
NASB2020 – if perhaps they might feel around for Him and find Him
KJV – if haply they might feel after him, and find him
NIV – and perhaps reach out for him and find him
NRSV – and perhaps grope for him and find him
ESV – and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him
But my favorite translation is from the Message:
and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him
I have had a hard time writing about joy this week. I sat and stared at my computer for 3 hours last night writing and erasing, writing and erasing. At 10:30pm I walked downstairs and called my mom and dad. Yesterday was their 43rd wedding anniversary and I had not yet called to wish them our congratulations.
I told them I was having trouble writing about joy. How joy seemed to be this thing that was always just out of my writer’s mind. How was I possibly going to write two more posts about joy? I told them that Peace, and Hope, and Love by comparison seemed to be endless wells of inspiration, while joy seemed to hide itself in the weeds of my mind.
And then it hit me: What if joy was the closest thing we have to God here on earth? “Joy,” I said, “has been with me since before I was even born.”
Both of my parents were full of joy at the mere knowledge that I was going to exist. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and acquaintances, too, were overcome with joy. Joy was there at my birth, and at my high school graduation. Joy was at my birthday parties and joy was at my wedding. Joy was with me at funerals and joy was with me during heartbreak.
Joy was with me as I visited with my grandparents for the last time before Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease stole their minds and bodies.
“It is interesting to me,” I told my parents, “that peace, and hope, and love are easier to write about because they seem much more tangible than joy. Writing about joy is like writing about God, how can I possibly describe joy, much less God. I seem to always find God wherever I look for him and…”
I stopped. It all clicked into place.
“…joy seems to be the same way.”
Yes, joy was there on my first day of school, too.
I think about this verse in Acts and specifically the way the translation talks about “just groping around in the dark.” How many times in my life have I been reaching out for something and groping around, willing to take ahold of anything that might offer me stability, hoping I might find God, but really willing to settle for whatever happens to be there.
My mom has said these words to me countless times in my life, “I am so proud of you.” But, I promise you that they have never had as much joy in them as when her son used his manners on the first day of school.
I groped around looking for a handrail to help me get down the stairs and past this lady that was in my way. But what I found was my mom, tears streaming down her face in a mixture of joy that her son remembered his manners and melancholy that her first born might not need her as much as she hoped he might anymore.
What I found that morning was joy. I was not alone in that hallway, I had my mom. I wasn’t looking for her, I was groping around for something…anything to help me, but mom was not far from me after all.
Over the years I learned to trust that my mom was always close by and instead of groping around trying to find my way I could seek her out directly. She was there for me during the best and worst times of my life and she was there for me last night on the phone.
Sixteen years after my first day of school I called my mom from college, at Mars Hill to tell her that a relationship of mine had ended and that I needed to see her and my dad. I was devastated and could not leave school. They drove the 4 hours to my dorm room the next morning and when they arrived I collapsed to the floor sobbing uncontrollably.
My mom knelt beside me on the floor and held me like she had done countless times before. She whispered encouraging words and let me be sad. Then we prayed together as a family and it was time for them to head home. I stood on the porch of my dorm and watched my parents car drive away.
I have been asked a few times the last several weeks how I manage to weave popular secular songs into my writing about God. I learned it from Paul. You see, in this passage Paul was speaking to a population of Greeks, in Athens. So to drive home his point he paraphrases a famous poem by a poet named Aratus. A poem that was very popular and that his audience would know very well.
Aratus writes his poem about Zeus, but Paul uses it to make a point about God himself and his relationship to us:
Let us begin with god, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of god.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of the deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to god.
For we are indeed his offspring…
There it is again. The idea that we are the children of God is found throughout the Bible. I imagine the Greeks that day, as they heard Paul invoke the popular poem of their day, understanding this God that Paul spoke about in a new light. A God that desires them to seek him on purpose.
As much as I knew my parents loved me, I didn’t feel much love in the midst of my heartache that day at Mars Hill. I didn’t feel much hope or peace, either. But on that cold February afternoon, I felt the cold wind as it burned across my tear stained cheeks and I looked out at Bailey Mountain and felt joy.
God showed up that day as he has done so many times and for so many people; in the form of my mother. I felt joy that day in the midst of my sadness because I sought God and he brought my mom.
Sing – Joy to the World
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.