“Happy are those who hear the joyful call to worship, for they will walk in the light of your presence, Lord.” 
-Psalm 89:15

Last night I shouted to my fiercest child, “Hey, baby! Want to make a cake?!”

“SURE!” he tumbled down the stairs, ready to conquer the world.

That kid loves to do hard stuff if it ends with some kind of sugary treat. He measured out the ingredients, mixed them up, and we ate dinner while it baked. When it was done, it was quite the hit of the night.

I handed him candles and a lighter after he showed me the result of his rather unique stabbing-motion frosting technique. He relished his good fortune. The delight a ten year-old boy has when lighting things on fire cannot be described. The minute his hand grasped that propane lighter, life hit its pinnacle of awesomeness. Fire! Flame! YES!!!

I gazed at the tiny candles, and treasured my son’s Joy. He’s a lucky kid to have that kind of Joy.

I have hunted joy all my life. I mostly only find its tracks, though. I spot little bits of a trail it made, tiny crumbs from a sandwich Joy ate on the run. Joy is hard to catch, a slippery fellow. Joy is elusive like the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Fairies, and Unicorns. Even so. I keep hunting.

Joy sort of slinks around at weddings. It’s the guest everyone expects to come. But melancholy is always on its tail there, poking at the people who are unhappy in love. Joy spooks easily, so it stays close to the bride. 

Picturesque nature sometimes whispers to me that Joy is is hiding in the sunset or the sound of the wind or the crashing of the waves. But the sound of Wonder sort of overpowers Joy there on the mountaintop. I forget Joy completely and instead sink into the majesty of creation.

There is one singular event that seems to draw a bit of extra Joy from its hidden place. It’s birthday candles. This was sort of an experiment last night. We needed some Joy for our day. I wanted to see if it was the same even when no one was a year older. I’m happy to report, it totally worked!

Birthday candles are the most common of occurrences, so it’s a little unfathomable that Joy is hidden in them. But those tiny lights are powerful beacons for Joy, like mini Bat Signals in the sky. Lit there on top of chocolate buttercream or whipped cream with sprinkles, they proclaim the best news in the world: “You are loved! You are one year older! Let’s all celebrate!

I want to snap photo after photo every time I’m around birthday candles, even if they don’t belong to me or to someone I love. It would be a little awkward in restaurants if I pulled out my phone to capture some lady’s cheesecake on its way to her table. But it would be worth it. Birthday candles are almost holy in their purity. Someone had to care enough to buy them, to plan a celebratory dessert, and then to light a match and make them burn. This tradition is so very intentional.

No one really knows when people first thought to set fire to candles on a dessert. Some say it was the Romans or the Greeks. Candles on cakes was definitely a thing in Germany in the 1700s.

I wonder what the cakes in ancient cultures looked like, lit with happy flames. Back in the 1980s, my birthday candles stood alongside plastic ballerinas atop pink frosting. Every year, same cake, same decorations, same magical moment when everyone sang to me and then waited with great anticipation as I made a wish and blew out the tiny flames.

As we grow up, so many stories and holidays lose their magic and charm. But every year, the candles do not disappoint. They are especially placed there, shining for you, saying that you are valued, loved, and (even if only for that day) the luckiest person in the room.

I am trying to light candles in my soul that will remind me that the Joy that is true when birthday candles glow is also true when ordinary days open their arms and welcome us into their mundane moments. It’s strange the way looking for tiny lights has opened me up to the possibility that Joy is not something I will ever be able to truly catch and own.

Now I’m the Joy hunter who is learning that Joy is not big game from Safari. It’s not meant to be brought home and mounted on the wall. Joy is like the notes to the most beautiful song ever written. I can’t see the notes. I can’t hold the notes in my hand. But I can feel them transforming me when I listen carefully to their melody.

The notes sound like these moments:

  • Sinking into my bed after a long day.
  • Grass under my feet.
  • The love of the only man I ever want to be with for the rest of my life.
  • Texts from my friend that are too ridiculous to show to the rest of the world.
  • Flowers on my bedside table.
  • The first cup of coffee of the day.
  • The sound of my children laughing.
  • The stillness of the back porch at dusk.
  • Strangers who are kind when they don’t have to be.
  • Boys who bake cakes and set them on fire.

After we ate the cake and cleaned up the dishes, I wrapped the leftover cake with plastic wrap. The kids ran upstairs to get ready for bed. I could hear that Joy song so clearly. I didn’t even try to catch it. 

I just let the notes roll over and around me as I thanked God for candles and love and children and sugar and all the places Joy hides here in the wide open space of life.