This is all I could figure out how to say . . . I recommend listening to the audio rather than reading the manuscript, but it’s your choice.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
My eye—or more accurately my heart—was drawn to this particular lectionary passage from Philippians, and I think the reason it got to me was because it is sooo the opposite of how I feel and where I am right now. Typically, when I feel dissonance with a text, that means: Pay attention. Dig deeper. Don’t run from the discomfort. Sit with tension and see what comes.
But this week the disconnect was too much. Rejoice in the Lord? Small children were gunned down in an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday morning. What is there to rejoice about in times such as these? I read a text like this one, and I push back:
Rejoice in the Lord? You can’t be serious.
The Lord is near . . . Really?
Do not worry about anything? Yeah right.
Pray with thanksgiving? If I pray, I will pray with sorrow.
Peace of God . . . what peace? What possible peace could there be???
Our world just doesn’t get much more brutal than it did Friday morning. I don’t even know how to pray for things like that; they are too big and too awful for words at all. And it is times like these when I think one more ounce of pain in the world would do us all in. How much more can we possibly take?
The third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be about joy—that’s the official theme—but there are just too many joy-sucking events in the world, if you ask me. I would love some holiday cheer right now, but the world keeps delivering pain. It’s paralyzing. It’s too much. It’s awful.
Recently, as I was facing my own season of grief, someone made the suggestion that if there are any blessings along the way, if anything good shows its face in the midst of this horror, be sure to notice it. They said I wouldn’t want to miss it, if there were any blessings at all mixed in with the pain. This wasn’t a way to belittle my pain or pretend it wasn’t there; it was just a reminder to notice everything—the good along with the bad.
But when people say or when the Scriptures say, “Rejoice in the Lord,” I tend to think of a big Holy Spirit party—dancing, clapping, praising and shouting. How are you possibly supposed to rejoice at will, no matter the crap is going wrong?
What if rejoicing has nothing to do with the level of enthusiasm you bring to it? What if rejoicing is as simple a thing as saying, “In the midst of all this soul-crushing pain, I am grateful for this one friend, or this one comfort, or this one act of heroism, or this one whatever?” What if rejoicing means that you feel—I mean really feel—the weight of the world’s darkness and you see the evil of which people are capable, and yet you don’t fail to notice kindness too, even when kindness seems trivial compared to the magnitude of a crime? What if rejoicing does not imply that you ignore all the ugly? Maybe you are just as fed up and angry and brokenhearted and disgusted as can be, but you realize that it would give even more power to Evil if you let the Evil be all there is to the story. Evil wants to be the only thing you ever see, Evil wants all the fame, all the attention, so you open your eyes to glimmers of goodness, no matter how fleeting, even amidst the storm. Joy can be Pentecostal or joy can be somber, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation. But joy cannot and should not be contrived or forced. Joy is not some strange denial of what is tragic and painful and sickening. Rejoicing is when you see the most awful things about the world side by side with the beauty and kindness that still exist, and you pay attention to them both, though the contrast is excruciating.
Also, I used to think that rejoicing in the Lord meant I was supposed to sparkle with delight every time I thought of God—the way children light up at the thought of Santa or the way grown-ups light up at the thought of a martini or the way I feel when I taste chocolate or Dr. Pepper or cheesecake. But who has ever been pleased with God as consistently as they have been pleased with chocolate? No. One. Ever. If you’re looking for pure happiness, stick with the chocolate. God is more complicated, and your feelings towards the Divine are bound to be mixed. You cannot force yourself to feel delighted about God, especially when the world’s all messed (f***) up by gunmen or you are smack in the middle of a personal dark night of the soul.
I think what it means to rejoice in the Lord, is that, when you find reason to rejoice, no matter how small the rejoicing, you are in that moment of rejoicing, in God. Of course, you were in God all along and God was in you. But the rejoicing is what helps you know it, what helps you see the reality of being wrapped up in God. Rejoicing is like putting on 3-D glasses. Pain has a way of flattening the world down, so that you can only see two dimensions: pain and regret. Rejoicing doesn’t take the pain and regret away; it just helps you see the third dimension, a dimension akin to hope. This is faith: the rounding out of pain and brokenness, the belief that there is more to this world than those cold hard straight lines of suffering. Even when the world goes flat as can be with shock and grief and utter dismay and we are gasping for breath, faith is that wriggly little notion that won’t leave us alone, hinting ever so softly at a third dimension, even now.
It’s always a shock when tragedy strikes, to discover all over again how very little there is that we can control in this world. The Scripture says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” I don’t think we get to choose much in life, other than our responses to those things we didn’t choose. We’d much prefer to make things happen than have things happen to us, and yet when darkness befalls, choice becomes most crucial; when we have the least energy to make any choices at all, we have to choose how to respond to bad things, and we can—yes, we can—choose gentleness, again and again. We have every right to get angry and there’s a need to live boldly, but gentleness means we abstain from violence. It means we get creative; we invent ways to deal with rage that don’t involve more wounds.
It’s one of the only ways we know the Lord is near—when we see people respond with true gentleness. It gives us hope, after we’ve seen the worst of humanity, then to see the best of humanity. Compassion. Love. Gentleness. Service. Sacrifice. The Lord is near.
And yet, I know it makes no sense at all to say “Do not worry about anything,” when you cannot send your child to school in the morning without fear. What use is it to pray if God’s presence doesn’t stop bad things from happening? What comfort is God in a time like this, when God didn’t stop the horror from happening?
I don’t know how to answer all that, but I am remembering this: Prayer didn’t keep Jesus safe either, and I think that’s worth paying attention to. The thing I kept thinking the last few days is that there is just too much pain in the world, so much I think I might break. And then I remembered: there is too much pain in the world, so much God broke. Broke right open and poured out blood—graphic but true. At a time like this, we remember that God binds up wounds and heals the broken-hearted, but before any of that happens, first God breaks when we break, hurts when we hurts. Before the healing starts, God is broken with us. There is no greater evidence in all the world that God suffers with us than God on a cross, broken.
We always want to know why terrible stuff had to happen, and that question is so painful because of its lack of an answer. The huge WHY looms over our hearts, the lack of resolve eating away at our souls. I think God entered the question with us when God suffered and died on a cross. After all, it was Jesus who prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and the heavens gave no answer. At Christmas we talk of the incarnation—the miracle of God among us—and in days like this one, we try to imagine God is still among us, even now, and we hold in our hearts that sacred and ancient image of the forsakenness of God on the cross.
The Scriptures say, “Do not worry. Pray. Make your supplications with thanksgiving.” Obviously, there is plenty of stuff to worry about. Obviously, prayer doesn’t keep you safe: Jesus prayed so hard he sweat blood, and still, he died. Obviously, there’s not much to be thankful for at a time like this. Let’s please not deny or belittle the obvious.
However, I don’t think it’s a denial of the pain to be thankful we have a God who suffers with and to be grateful for the friends who keep us company—I think that’s called solidarity. I don’t think it’s a denial of reality to pray, even if the only prayer that makes it out is a groan, a sigh, a tear—I think that’s called compassion. I don’t think it’s a denial of the risk of living to keep on living and shedding fears as you go—I think that’s called courage.
And finally we come to peace. It is promised that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Peace? What peace?
If you have peace because you know everything is going to work out just like you are hoping it will, then that would be a peace in accordance with your understanding. You understand what will come, and you like it; therefore you have peace. Easy as pie. But the peace of God surpasses understanding. It has a mystical, contemplative, inexplicable element to it, and we’re not talking about blind faith or naiveté or silly innocence. It’s not the fragile, misguided hope that things will happen the way you want them to. It’s not the ignorance to think you are somehow going to skate by unscathed. Peace is something deep and abiding, a certain kind of grounding that resides in the soul, and I don’t think anyone—even the greatest of the saints—feels it at all times. At best, you feel it in spurts, and often you feel it when you don’t expect it. It’s more like a gift than a thing you can attain by trying, though some people are better practiced at receiving such gifts than the rest of us. I think the practice of receiving peace starts with rejoicing, by the way—you take note here and there of beautiful things and miniscule surprises and extraordinary daily occurrences, and this expands your receptors for peace.
The point is: Sometimes the only way to rejoice is to find one simple thing of beauty amidst a terror. Sometimes the only way to know God is near is to look at the kindness of your friends. Sometimes the only way to pray is simply to notice the world around you and let what you see into your soul. Sometimes the only way to feel peace is to let yourself not feel it until it surprisingly comes to you on its own in some subtle way. And sometimes it is good to remember that at the heart of our faith is this imagery of the suffering God.
There is a poem by Mary Oliver that says it best, to me:
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had His hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?
This is my sermon, “Can There Be Any Rejoicing,” based on Philippians 4:4-7, preached at Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas, on December 16, 2012. Other sermons here. Information about Covenant here.