Joy…

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Today is the Advent Sunday of Joy. This marks a turn in our Advent journey. This is when the celebration of this season becomes a true celebration. This is when we turn from quiet contemplation to elation…sometimes our joy may be noisy. But sometimes it might be soundless.

Today I experienced joy in many different forms – it was there in the greetings of congregants before worship, it was there in the singing of the choirs (both junior and senior), it was there in time spent with a friend. And it was there in a quiet moment, as my dog and I stepped out into a snow flurry for an evening walk.

Joy is a gift. And our deepest, truest joy comes from the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. A baby who’s beautiful life, ground-breaking teaching, and sacrificial death would reconcile God and humankind. Through him, we are saved – the basis of all our joy.

The angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!
Luke 2:10,11 NLT

Being Christ…

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I was at a meeting this evening where an issue was raised about how all of the people at the meeting (elders and ministers, for the most part) treated each other. We were reminded that we are not always very “Christian” to each other.

It was a good reminder. The reality is that those of us in full-time ministry and those of us who have served the church in a long-time capacity (like that of being an elder), sometimes forget that we are called to be Jesus to each other. That we are called to embody the very spirit and manner of the One who gave his life for our salvation. We are called to treat each other with love and and kindness and gentleness. Peace and hope and faithfulness are meant to be at the center of our comments and conversations. Joyfulness and patience and goodness and self-control are supposed to ooze out of us. (In case your keeping count, yes, those ARE all the fruits of the Spirit.)

And yet, all too often, I have been in church meetings where this was not the case. People spoke harshly, shaming and blaming others. Someone got their back up and someone else responded with sarcasm or derision. Hurts were dealt out in equal measure by people on both sides of the issue.

And I think I heard Jesus weeping.

The fact is it is not always easy to keep our tempers in check. When you gather together a group of ministers and elders, you have a bunch of people who care passionately about the church. And sometimes our passions get the better of us.

But we need to remember (and I say this for myself as much as anyone else) our calling. We are called to be Christ. We are called to embody the fruit of the Spirit. We are called to lead by example. We are called to act in ways that honor the teachings of Jesus and the sacrifice he made for us.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV

Complex…

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I have often struggled with the idea of Lent. I think this is because, historically, Lent was a time when you couldn’t sing happy songs, when you couldn’t eat tasty foods and when you couldn’t wear bright colors. All of this was because you were meant to be participating in the sorrowful sufferings of Christ…so how could you possibly sing or eat or dress in joy? You were meant to be in mourning.

But my experience of faith is that things are not so hard-and-fast. In a time of mourning you may find yourself smiling or laughing. In a time of despair you may find yourself giving hope to another. In a time of brokenness you may experience healing. Life is kind of messy and emotions don’t stay in neat little boxes. Nor does God allow us to experience only one emotion at a time. God made us more complex than that.

So while I appreciate the idea of taking a season to remember all that Jesus has done for us and all that it cost Him to do it, I find it very difficult to impose what sometimes feel like false restrictions in order to do that remembering. Because that isn’t true to the beautiful, messed up, paradoxical life each of us is living.

For me, this winter has been brutal. I have struggled with illness after illness and while none of these illnesses were debilitating in the long run (it’s been two stomach flus bookending a wicked boomerang cold that came back just when it felt like it was on its way out), they have knocked the stuffing outta me and taken some precious time away from me. That’s been tough. I’ve shed more than one tear over that this winter.

At the same time, there are some very exciting things happening at St. Andrew’s, Brampton, where I serve as Associate minister. Our G.R.A.C.E. Group network is coming along, we are making strides forward. You see? Even in a time of struggle, God is at work, birthing something new and beautiful in our midst.

This passage from Hebrews reminds me of this “life doesn’t fit into neat little boxes” theory of mine:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
Hebrews 12:1, 2 NLT

Because of joy, Jesus disregarded the shame of the cross. Because of joy, Jesus went willingly to lay down his life for us. Because of joy – and shame and suffering, and death and new life – we know what it is to walk through this life as a beloved, cherished child of God, never alone.

I am thankful, even in a time of struggle or a time of mourning or a time of remembering suffering, for the fact that God made us complex enough to experience more than one emotion at a time. I am thankful that on the cross, joy and sorrow meet. I am thankful for the new things God is doing in our midst.

Emotional complications…

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With the tragic shootings a Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut have come a whole slew of different reactions. Some call for the banning of assault weapons, others wonder whether teachers should carry guns. Some find comfort in the thought of these children being united with Jesus in heaven, others cannot find any comfort at all. I read an article today that said this is not the time for dancing or celebrating anything. I certainly respect anyone who feels their grief too keenly to engage in any celebration at the moment, but I also know there are others who find that even in their sorrow there is cause for celebration…there are reasons to smile and laugh. Life never occurs in a vacuum, or in neat, compartmentalized boxes.

It’s kind of a mess, and things are mixed up together. At every funeral I have ever presided over, there has been laughter through the tears. And I believe that’s the way it is meant to be. A life lived fully is a life where conflicting emotions are experienced together. Where joy and sorrow meet. Where the cradle dwells in the shadow of the cross. Where defeat and victory are experienced in the same event. That’s what Jesus’ story is all about. We have a way of white-washing it, of making it all pretty and nice, but the mess always existed in the story.

Take the shepherds and the angels for example:

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12

Do you see that little phrase in the center of the passage? “They were terrified.” All heaven is breaking loose, with the best news ever, but the shepherds were terrified.

Because life is kind of messy, and you don’t expect all heaven to break loose in the midst of the night shift. Terror in the midst of joy. That is the mess of life. These things go together, and make the story more beautiful, in the end.

Not to give tomorrow’s passage away, but the shepherds will turn from terror into rejoicing. They will find their joy.

But for me, I’m glad to read that little phrase in the center of this passage. I am glad to know that I’m not the only one who knows what it means to feel more than one emotion at once. I’m glad to get to live this messy, confused, crazy life. And to know that it doesn’t always have to make sense.

Joy and sorrow can coexist within us, because God made us to be emotionally complex beings. I hope you can find some joy, even when sorrow seems to be all around. I hope, like the shepherds, though you may feel terror, you will not dwell there indefinitely. I hope you can hear the good news of great joy that is for all the people.

Finding balance…

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The last two days have been kind of crazy. Packed full of activity – lunch with friends, back-up singing at an Elvis impersonator’s concert (I never get sick of dropping that detail into conversation!), Christmas shopping, addressing Christmas cards, cooking, buying turkey(s). It’s been a bit of a whirlwind.

So on the night before the Advent Sunday of Peace, I find myself reflecting on the lack of balance I’ve had this week. It has been full of one thing and another. It has been sadly lacking in peace and rest.

I found myself at the local mall this morning. I had gotten too little sleep the night before and had too many things on my to-do list, and now that I think about it…I was one of those grumpy joyless people that make me frustrated at this time of year. Now that I’m on the right side of a good long nap with my dog, some time spent with friends, and the completing of so many things on my list, I realize I could have actually enjoyed this morning. I could have spread all my errands over a few days. I could have stopped and taken it all in rather than rushing from one moment to the next. I could have found the balance between getting it done, and enjoying the moment.

Micah, the prophet, wrote:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you,
one whose origins are from the distant past.
The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
until the woman in labor gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
will return from exile to their own land.
And he will stand to lead his flock
with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honored around the world.
And he will be the source of peace.

Micah 5:2-5 NLT

Part of the problem with my experience this morning was that I got so focused on the list of things to do, that I forgot the reason I was doing it all. In the end, it is all to honor Jesus. To celebrate that moment when Love came down from heaven and dwelt among us.

Micah says that Jesus is meant to be the source of our peace. So I will try to make him the center of my celebrations from now on. I will try to smile when it might be easier to scowl. I will tap into the source of my peace, and remember that this is about him first and foremost. I will pray that you will be able to do the same.