I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas music. And I’m definitely not a purist when it comes to when one is allowed to listen. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music all during the season of Advent. I’ve been known to even begin listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving (I just told my students recently it was because there were no good turkey songs). I can even tell that I am truly getting into the spirit of the season when I bust out the Carpenter’s Christmas album. For me it truly is the most wonderful time of the year…and yet for some. Well they struggle with this season more than any other. Often times issues of grief or family drama or financial stress become even more prevalent during holiday seasons. For some this season even becomes the least wonderful time of the year. In a season that is meant to be marked by joy, peace, love, and hope, some find themselves struggling to find these very things in the midst of all the other issues that become more transparent as the holidays take hold.
And on some level I think it all hinges on that last aspect of the Advent practice…hope. The season of Advent, for those who aren’t aware, begins this Sunday and marks the beginning of the church year. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it is both a celebration of the initial coming of Christ and an anticipation of His return. And yet, we so often struggle with finding hope in the midst of this season. Many find themselves placing their hopes in things like the economy, politicians, national defense, etc. and as they often discover; this is no place for hope. When it comes to Advent, our hope takes on an incredible shape. Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” – Isaiah 2:4 The Advent hope of Christ return almost seems too wonderful when we read it in the context of our current situation, but this is what true hope should look like.
In a world of shopping malls, black Friday sales, twitter feuds, international diplomatic escalation, racial unrest, cancer, and the like we struggle to take comfort in the story that Advent ushers in. Sometimes it is too much to find ourselves marveling at the story of a young Jewish mother giving birth to a son in the midst of a small town in Judea. Sometimes we struggle to find hope in the shepherd’s vision or the Magi’s quest or the angel’s songs. These stories are too wonderful and too far removed from our present situation for us to take hold of hope in the midst of a competing narrative. Perhaps what is needed is for us to look forward to the coming Advent that will take hold of the broken systems of this world and redeem them. The hope of Isaiah the prophet becomes realized in the words of John the apostle in that concluding hope of scripture. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:4 May we come to find ourselves caught up in THIS wonderful season and hopeful promise as we anticipate the Advent of Christ once again.
Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
There’s an epidemic that is seizing our society. You see it everywhere you go…sometimes even in church. I’m not sure how it began either. Perhaps it was originally a defense mechanism. Maybe it started out of the need to feel cool or aloof. But wherever or however it began it has become a serious problem. I speak of course of the scowl; you know, the perma-frown. The look that indicates you’re not happy, in pain, angry or perhaps you’re face is just stuck that way. It’s the furrowed brow mouth turned down look that seems to be the standard greeting these days. You see it at the store, the school pick-up line, the elevator, and even sometimes when I look out from the platform while I am preaching (maybe that’s because of my preaching). But I have come to take serious issue with this epidemic.
Maybe it’s because as often as I can I strive to show the opposite. I think strangers must often think me a very simple minded person as I often am grinning like an idiot and trying to catch their eyes for the return smile. But I often think about what the expression of joy should look like in our lives. Joy is most often characterized by laughing or smiling. And why is this important? “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” – Galatians 5:22-23 When describing the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the apostle Paul begins with Love and then the second priority is Joy. So one of the primary evidences of the presence of God in our lives is joy. This is the exact opposite of the scowl that so often we see painted on the faces of people who so often claim Christ.
I’ve been trying to think about why this might be. Maybe you are unhappy about something in your life. Maybe you are frustrated by the way others are treating you or what they are doing. Maybe you are in constant pain. I suppose all of these things are reason enough to struggle with exhibiting joy. But think with me for a second. The very God that spoke the entire universe into existence looked at you and thought you so worthy as to give His very life for you. Not only that but that same God looks at you and calls you child. This thought alone should be enough to permanently affix a smile to most our faces. Every day you can look around you and find something worthy of the expression of joy. Maybe it’s the wonder of the sunrise (or sunset if you’re not a morning person), the fact that your body still works, the laughter of a child, the insanity that we don’t go flying off this spinning orb into space or any number of things that should elicit wonder and joy. There’s an old song that says, “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, The whole world smiles with you.” Maybe that should be our challenge today. Let’s see how contagious the joy of the Spirit in our lives can be and perhaps we might begin to see the whole world smile with us.
“I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite.” This is still one of my favorite lines from the movie Elf. Maybe it’s because I really do love to smile. I think back on our recent trip to Guatemala and my face may have been sore from smiling. Really! Every person we would encounter or pass on the streets we would exchange a smile and a horribly mispronounced Spanish greeting. It was almost customary for us to be overly friendly…possibly even labeled as the scary smiling gringos. But it was just one of those things you do…you almost can’t help it. The beauty of the country and it’s people was overwhelming. But now we find ourselves two weeks removed; back in our routines, work habits and possibly even struggling to smile.
Well this wasn’t good enough for me. So I tried a little experiment a few days ago. As I was visiting my local Kroger I went crazy with the smiling. I smiled and said “Hi” to everyone who would make any sort of eye contact with me. So now I am not banned from that Kroger as the creepy smiling pastor…j/k. In all seriousness I probably received an 80% positive return rate of either a smile or a return greeting (granted I wasn’t keeping statistical reference and there wasn’t a control group). But I begin to think about how a smile can really communicate so much.
1 Peter 3:8-9 goes a bit like this, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Inexpressible and glorious joy. I love that phrase. Although I am not entirely sure that the joy Peter is describing is inexpressible. Maybe it is beyond our normal human limitations to try to describe this joy, but I actually think it is quite easy to express our Christian joy. It might even be as easy as smiling. Think about it for a minute. What is the second fruit of the Spirit? “Love, Joy…” If we are consumed by the Spirit of God, then the second most important identifying mark of that life, second only to love, is joy. And yet how often do we walk around with vacant, lifeless expressions. Or worse yet, sour or frustrated expressions. This should not be.
So my challenge to myself and to others is to recapture a bit of the dumb crazy gringo Guatemala magic. I am going to smile, to wave, to greet anybody around me. Why? Because inside me I am consumed with the ever present fact that I have a God who would do anything to be with me (and in fact has already done that). And maybe if people see that on my face, hear that in my voice they might wish to be consumed with that same joy. So if you see me and I am not smiling make sure I am not dying first and then quickly correct my expression. Because I just love to smile…