Gaudete? The command to rejoice

advent_candlesRejoice? [shakes head] Your rose-colored glasses would have to be opaque, and your heart made of quartz.

What to do, then, with this command? Gaudete ….

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. (Philippians 4:4-7)

I don’t know if your community managed it. We’ve been moving through mourning and memory and making do, around here. On Sunday morning, my beloved and I read Paul’s words to the Philippians together, and prayed them for each other.

Perhaps if we reshape the word, it will fit in our mouths again. How can we re-joy our lives? Will that question always feel premature, or impossible? Is there a way to return to joy that does not feel like a betrayal of the children who died of our communal imperfection?

That is how the deaths in Newtown feel to me, all of them. Some asked, how could this happen here? Others asked, where was God?

I don’t have good answers. The fact is, I believe “this” can happen anywhere: if any of us are not safe, then none of us are safe.

I am once again reminded that “safe” is not a helpful word. But that’s a rant for another day.

As to where was God, I think God was right there, in those classrooms, in those hallways, in and among the dying women and children. And I believe God is still present: to those endlessly peeling the days of grief; to those dying more slowly but just as cruelly, of hunger, and disease, and for lack of our care.

The question is not “Where was God?” This is not a time for theodicy, asking where is a good God when bad things happen. The question is, “Where are we?” This is a time for anthropodicy, asking what justifies the existence of humanity, when such things happen.

In this case, there have been and there are good people present, even as bad things were and are happening. Several threads in the social media webs have reminded us of this, recalling Fred Rogers’ words:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

This deliberate re-focusing and enlarging of our vision is one of the calls being placed upon us all. Some of us may not be able to manage it just yet. That’s all right.

But when you are ready, remember that while we have breath, we are still called to choose life. We’ll all need to find our ways to do that. Here are some ways I have been finding.

1. Breathe. When things get to be too much, or whenever you think of it, close your eyes and let your attention come to your breath. Let your breath become prayer: “Lord” or “Love” on the intake, and “have mercy” on the outflow. Repeat until you settle, and for as long as needed. The Lord is near. So is Love.

2. Pray from yourself out. This prayer follows the shape of Buddhist loving-kindness meditation. Begin by praying for your own well-being. Ask God for peace, to fill your mind and heart, and say thank you even as you are asking. Then ask peace for your loved ones, to fill their minds and hearts, and say thank you as you ask. Then ask peace for those farther from you, to fill their minds and hearts, and say thank you as you ask. Then ask peace for those who challenge you, or make you afraid, or angry; ask for peace to fill their minds and hearts — and to fill your heart and mind as you think of them — and say thank you as you ask.

Paul charges us to 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. We may not be able to stop worrying, but we can let each worry and each grief bring us back to praying, and asking to be made peace.

3. Feel your gratitude. In these difficult days, as fortune would have it, I had just been reading Brené Brown’s definition of joy — differentiated from happiness — and her description of joy’s relationship to gratitude (in The Gifts of  Imperfection). “Happiness,” Brené says, “is tied to circumstance and joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude.”

This is exactly right, I think. It’s Advent; it’s gaudete time; it’s nearly Christmas; but it is not a happy time. The circumstances are not good. Reality right now is catastrophically awful for some of us, and the rest of us are walking around stunned with heartbreak or numb with avoidance. “Happiness is attached to external situations and events and seems to ebb and flow as those circumstances come and go.”

Joy, Brené says, “seems to be constantly tethered to our hearts by spirit and gratitude.” It feels counter to reality to be thinking of joy at the moment, I know. But …

If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.

So, then. There are things you are grateful for, right now. Name them. And — although it takes counter-intuitive courage — let come whatever little light of joy that may, however fleetingly, arise.

Again, I say that I know a return to joy, a re-joying, a rejoicing may not feel possible for you right now. It’s only there for me in a moment here, a moment there.

But joy is what we are made for; feeling joy and pain are how we know we are alive. And living our lives fully may well be the only way to truly honor lives that are lost.

That’s all I can say right now. Whatever you need, I pray you will let your requests be made known to God.

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2 Responses to Gaudete? The command to rejoice

  1. Maybe it helps to not see it as a command, so much as an invitation. It’s like the don’t be afraid, or the be of good courage– there are a lot of things that sound like a mandate, but maybe they’re more of an invitation.
    But I’m all for breathing, praying, and naming the things we’re grateful for, letting that settle in- maybe it will spawn a re-joy-cing. I like that idea of returning to joy.

    I am grateful for your words.

    • tam121 says:

      Thanks, Lynn. I like the invitation notion, but somehow there’s also something interesting in the imperative. Like a loving parent who knows what’s good for us, even when we are reluctant or think something is impossible. There is some reason God knows it’s important for us to rejoice even — maybe especially — when we’re not feeling it … and if gratitude is how we get there, that’s kind of amazing in itself.

      I guess over the years I have gotten to a different place in how I feel about some commands, like the command to love. It feels to me like something God Feels Very Strongly About … more than something God is ordering us to do.

      In any case, I do appreciate your reading, and thinking, and replying … peace and grace to you this night and always!

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