So It Is To Be

Devotional:

Revelation 1.7

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Weekly Devotional Image

The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. I was lost in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and had wandered inside a church hoping that someone from my group would eventually find me. Unlike any church I had been in previously, the ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight. The walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires lit by those who sought to destroy the faith. And the once beautiful paintings and decorations had completely disappeared from view. 

The small of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever seen. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I finally found myself standing by the far wall. There, poised right in front of me, was a magnificent and immaculate sculpture of Jesus. 

In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Jesus contained not a single blemish and almost shined in the darkness – Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders and in one of his outstretched hands he held a crown of thorns.

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In that moment I was confronted, perhaps for the first time, about the reality of what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is King. I was surrounded by decay and disregard and yet Christ stood before me in glory. It was right then that I saw the true paradox of the crucifixion: the King was hung on a cross to die, a nearly abandoned church had no semblance of life, and Jesus is still in charge. 

I used to foolishly believe that I was carrying God with me when I went to different places and encountered different people, but that day I learned that God is the one looking for me, waiting to confront me even in places like a dark and empty church. 

Look! Jesus is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who betrayed him, abandoned him, pierced him, and crucified him. And in response the entirety of creation will wail.

So it is to be. 

As we round out the Christian year, and prepare to start over again with the season of Advent, this final word about the one who is, and was, and is to come sounds frightening and maybe even a little convicting. But Jesus, the King of kings, died on a cross for you and me. He stands abandoned in a cross devoid of light with a crown of thorns in his hand. He calls and searches for us through the Holy Spirit on this side of the resurrection.

How else could we possibly respond except by wailing? 

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Devotional – Psalm 126.3

Devotional:

Psalm 126.3

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Weekly Devotional Image

I was in the midst of wrapping up my sermon yesterday when my 19-month-old son decided to clasp his hands together over and over and shout “Amen!” as loud as he could for everyone to hear. While some thought it was precious and perhaps even faithful for him to do so, he only really knows that we say “amen” at the end of things. Which is to say, he was trying to get me to stop preaching!

I couldn’t help but laugh when I finally got to my “amen” at the end of the sermon as I looked over and saw a huge grin across his face as he was standing straight up in the pew next to his mother. And in that fleeting moment, I realized how remarkably blessed I am.

In the ordinary moment of doing what I do every week, I took in the scene in a way that I had not done so before.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you experience moments where you contemplate how wonderful your life really is, but you realize it’s outside the frame of reference for what should be considered a blissful moment? Sure, when we graduate from school, or say “I will” to our spouse at the altar, or welcome a child into the world, we should count ourselves blessed. But those strange mysterious moments of ordinary divine gratitude are helpful reminders in between the big life events.

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In just a few days, scores of people will be gathering with family members from far and near to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There will be moments where individuals look at the scene before them (children tearing open gifts, a full family at the dinner table, wood crackling in the fireplace) and think the great things God has done for them.

But why do we only think those thoughts at special times during the year?

I had a very typical moment from the pulpit yesterday, but it struck a profound chord within me. I am blessed each and every day in ways that I don’t deserve. I encounter people and experiences for which I should be extremely grateful. And to be honest, I don’t thank God nearly enough for all that God has done for me.

It is my hope and prayer that during the remaining days of Advent, each of us can look for those wonderful ordinary moments that remind us of all the great things God has done for us.

We can keep singing about how this is the most wonderful time of year, but with God every single day is a tremendous blessing, a blessing for which we should rejoice.

Lost

Luke 15.1-7

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”

On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.

While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.

After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.

However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.

When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.

I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.

Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.

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Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”

After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.

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We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.

The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.

We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.

Offensive Grace

Luke 15.11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property is dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Prodigal-Widescreen

Today marks the third part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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There was a man in Staunton who had two sons. For years the family enjoyed the small town feel of the community, rejoiced in running into friends at grocery stores and the park, and celebrated the goodness of God in church every Sunday. They were always the family that every other family envied; whenever they were seen in town the sons were so well behaved, the husband and wife were always holding hands, and everything looked perfect.

   But within the safety of their home, far removed from public few, things were not as they seemed.

The father loved his sons, but he could tell that the younger resented him for being raised in a town such as this. The father knew his younger son enough to know that whenever he harshly reacted to a comment at the dinner table, or stormed out of the house, it was out of a desire to depart and start over somewhere else. But he remained patient with his son and always tried to love him the only way he knew how.

One day, while the father was sitting in his study, the younger son walked in with his fists clenched tightly by his side. The father listened as the son listed off his chief complaints and demanded his inheritance early. As the frustrations percolated, and the son kept talking about how suffocated he felt, the father was already pulling out the checkbook and signing his name. He said, “Son, I love you and I’ve known this day was coming for a long time. Just remember that you will always be welcome here.” And with that the son grabbed the check from his father’s fingers and walked out of the house, and out of his father’s life.

For a long time the father heard nothing from or about his younger son. Life continued as usual in Staunton: babies were born, older folks went on to their heavenly reward, time passed, and the father kept living his life. Little by little news would seep into dinnertime conversations from the mother or the older son about the one who was missing. Rumor had it that he had set up in Richmond and was spending money left and right on all sorts of things, including some that could not be mentioned out loud. But the father gave it no thought. The money was his son’s to do with as he pleased.

But as time passed, the rumors became fact, and the father knew his son was in trouble. The money had run out and he was working odd jobs to get by. The mother no longer even had an address to send him letters because he was either moving from house to house or living on the streets.

The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the father eventually heard nothing about his younger son. No letters arrived in the mail, no text messages were sent, and the son even stopped updating his Facebook account. As far as the father knew, his son was gone.

And then it came to pass one afternoon, while sitting in the same study where he had given the son his inheritance, the father glanced out the window and saw a figure walking up the road. From his vantage point the father thought it might be his son, but the person was too frail, and slumped over with what looked like shame. But sure enough, the closer he came to the house, the more it looked like his son. Before he knew it the father was running out the front door and he tackled his son to the ground on the front yard. He simply could not contain himself and he began covering his younger son with kisses and the tears were flowing out his eyes.

Only then did the father hear his son say, “Dad, I’m so sorry, and I am no longer worthy to be called you son.

But the father wasn’t listening. Instead he was yelling up to the house describing preparations for the party he was about to throw. Go to the grocery store. Invite all the neighbors. Get the music ready. We are going to party tonight!

Hours later in the midst of a rather crazy party the father noticed the older son standing in the corner with what looked like an angry expression on his face. The father was filled with such merriment on the return of his one son that he walked over to the other with a smile on his face and asked what was the matter.

The father listened as his older son started listing off the complaints. But it was what he said at the end that hit him the hardest, “Dad, I’m glad that he’s home just as you are. But did you really have to throw this party? I’ve been living with you all this time while he was gone wasting his life away and you never even let me invite my friends over and now look at all this!”

And the father put his arm around the older son and said, “I love you and all that is mine is yours. But we had to party tonight because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!”

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We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is easily the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables, and has been embraced by faithful and secular alike for its powerful message. We like the idea of a reconciled relationship and we sigh in affirmation whenever we hear about the wayward son returning home. But, as the church has so embraced the clichés of the story, we’ve missed out on the offensive grace that it dramatically conveys.

We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, but we should probably call it the Parable of the Loving Father. The father is the main character of the parable and the one that Jesus identifies with. He tells this parable in response to an attack against his character for eating with sinners. He, Jesus, is the one who welcomes everyone to the table in celebration regardless of circumstances. And for as much as we enjoy hearing this story, we should really be offended by it.

The older brother has every right to be angry. I would be if one of my siblings ran off and my father treated them the way the one does in the parable. It’s fine to welcome a wayward child home. Sure, give him some clothes and some food. Let him rest at home until he can get back on his feet. But it is simply bad parenting to throw a party in the wake of so many mistakes. For years we have emphasized the moment where the prodigal son “came to himself” and we have identified with a particular moment in our lives when we turned back. But in so doing we have neglected to confront the utter strangeness and offensiveness of the father’s love.

Reading and imagining the story from the father’s perspective frustrates our understanding of justice, fairness, and grace. We want people to be punished for their mistakes, we want them to grovel when they’ve wronged us, we want payment for our suffering.

We don’t want to welcome the prodigal home. We want to be rid of the people who drive us crazy. We don’t want to waste our time on someone who might disappear again. We want to honor the good people who have been with us. We don’t want parties for sinners. We want celebrations for saints.

And then Jesus tells this story about the Loving Father and everything gets flipped upside down.

The power of this parable is not the good and warm and fuzzy feelings we have when we hear it, but in God’s love being so strong that it can offend us. God’s forgiveness and mercy is so powerful that it is beyond our ability to understand. God truly loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgivable, and welcomes us whenever we stray away.

God’s love is weird. And we would do well to remember that. Not to belittle God’s love into a line on a Hallmark card, but to be offended by how God could love the people we hate. Not to limit God’s love to the people in the pews next to us, but get angry that God even loves the people who sleep in on Sunday mornings. Not to assume that God only loves Christians, but to be offended by the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.

The parable of the Loving Father will forever frustrate and offend our sensibilities precisely because God’s grace is offered to all, and all really means all.

 

 

Responding:

We are going to try something a little weird. I want us to take a moment to think about someone that absolutely drives us crazy. It might be a neighbor who is forever frustrating our understanding of decency. Or maybe it is someone in our family that always takes everything too far. Or maybe it is one of the candidates running for president this year. Just think of someone who you can’t stand. Picture them in your mind. And then I want you to think about them walking into our sanctuary right now and pummeling them with loves and kisses. I want you to imagine grabbing them by the hand and dancing around the sanctuary in the midst of the greatest party you’ve ever attended.

Because in a moment we are going to put on some music, and we are going to dance like we’ve never danced before. We are going to break out of our pews and boogey up and down the church. And it is going to be weird and uncomfortable, it is going to upend our ideas of what church should be like, because sometimes God’s grace should be offensive.

Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
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The topic of “blessings” occurs regularly in our Bible studies at St. John’s. We can be reading from the Old or the New Testament, we can be reading a Psalm or an Epistle, we can be reading a genealogy or one of the miracles of Jesus, and the conversation almost always turns to how we take out blessings for granted. There is something inherent in scripture that works like a mirror, forcing us to confront ourselves in the text.

Yesterday morning, while we were reading about the episode of Jesus with the woman at the well, we started off by praying over the text, and before long one of our group members started to reflect on her blessings: “I am so blessed. I’ve got a great family and home. I have a church that cares about me. But I am even more blessed than that. I wish I could realize that every single day, every single breath, is a gift. And I wish I could stop taking these gifts for granted.”

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For many of us, life feels like a train that keeps moving in one direction and we barely have time to admire the scenery passing out windows. Time rolls like a blur and we neglect to be thankful for the present because we are always looking toward the future. The psalmist’s words then confront us in our fast-paced lifestyles: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I use these words to mark the beginning of worship at St. John’s because gathering in our sanctuary is a gift that God has given. It is not something we should take for granted. But can you imagine how differently we would live if we started every morning with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of your life every morning rather than just once in a while?

This week, let us use the words of Psalm 118 to mark our mornings. Instead of waking up and rushing to catch up with the train of life, let us take a slow breath and say: “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do this, we will begin to stop taking our lives for granted, and we can give God thanks for all of our many blessings.

Devotional – Philippians 4.4

Devotional:

Philippians 4.4

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.

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Advent is a strange time for Christians. While we patiently wait through the weeks leading up to Christmas, people around us are moving at remarkable speeds to get anything and everything they need for the holiday. I was at Target yesterday and I saw a couple arguing about how many gifts they should be purchasing for their respective in-laws. In the parking lot I witnessed a man struggling to fit his bags of presents into the back of his car. And while I was leaving the shopping center I saw someone blow through a red light and the immediate response of one driver screaming obscenities from her car.

Advent is a strange time for Christians. While we strive for patience, the world rushes on. And while we strive to remember the reason for the season, we get caught up with the anger and impatience the holiday brings with it.

Children, on the other hand, are somehow able to maintain the sense of joy that comes this time of year.

This morning, shortly after the preschoolers arrived, we gathered in the sanctuary to practice for the upcoming Christmas pageant. For weeks the students have worked on memorizing their lines and delivering them clearly into a microphone, their costumes have been altered and cleaned, and they have learned to keep from fidgeting while standing in place.

After we went through the theatrical side of the production, we then reorganized the kids to practice singing six songs about the real meaning of Christmas. Our Preschool director quieting counted “1-2-3” in order to start the song and then they started to belt out the words to “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” It was loud and powerful. They took in as much air as possible to sing with full gusto, they had accompanying hand motions to mirror the words, and every one of them had a huge smile on their face. In fact, they were so loud that our secretary left her office just to make sure that everything was okay in the sanctuary.

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Near the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul commands the disciples of Jesus to “Rejoice in the Lord always, against I will say, Rejoice.” There are plenty of Sundays in worship when it really feels like we are rejoicing in the Lord, but many of them pale in comparison to the joy I heard echoing from our Preschoolers this morning. They believe in rejoicing in the Lord always.

This week, let us strive to rejoice in this season rather than resent it. Let us pray for God to give us patience while we prepare for the holiday. And let us recapture the joy of this time in the same spirit as preschool-age children.