Philippians 4: 4-7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Have you heard the term “toxic positivity?” Generally speaking, it’s “a denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” A rule of thumb I like to use is this: is someone telling me how I ought to be feeling about a circumstance in my life? Or am I doing that to someone else? Am I saying, “Cheer up, it could be worse,” when I have no clue the depth of emotion this person is experiencing? My guess is somewhere along our way- we’ve been at the receiving and giving end of such comments. I bring up toxic positivity for this reason. It’s the opposite of true joy. Often, people insist on the need to feel happy all the time (or worse, insist that someone else just cheer up already), because they’re scared of dealing with the breadth of human emotion. Grief and doubt, pain and rage find their origin in discomfort. Who likes to be uncomfortable, right? So denying that discomfort is what can create a toxic positivity mindset. “I’m just fine!” (when inside I’m actually gripped with fear.) And sometimes it’s honestly more convenient to leave it at that, right? “I’m just fine!” Because we can’t trust that our vulnerabilities will be treated with dignity. So the cycle continues. Don’t deal with the pain, cover it up with niceties.
Enter the Apostle Paul’s writing to the believers in Philippi. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!” How do we know that Paul’s words speak of real joy and not toxic positivity? Because Paul’s joy has been forged in the fires of pain. Paul writes these words from a prison cell--held captive by a regime intimidated by freedom & justice in Christ’s message. Paul has been thrown in prison at least three times by this point, endured mental, emotional, and physical torture. Why? Because he just won’t shut up about Jesus. And somehow, in the midst of real pain, Paul has chosen joy.
Paul’s rejoicing comes from his commitment to live beyond himself. Paul’s spirit of joy is not about his momentary circumstances, it's about what’s happening in his heart. He is alive with the breath of Spirit, he is set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even him. He has chosen a way of life in which the joy of Christ surpasses momentary (even long seasons of) pain. And the very people he writes to, about this peace of God that surpasses all understanding-- keep his joy alive. Joy is a shared experience, and we get to choose it as a way of life despite whatever circumstances come our way.
Each year as we usher in the story of an expectant Mary, the way we romanticize Jesus’ birth brings me back to my first days as a mom. Ten days into Briggs’ life I wrote in my blog, “If I think about my past week-and-a-half while simultaneously stripping away my support network, income privileges, education, sound mental health, environmental calm, etc., I am honestly not sure how I would have gotten through without dangerous thoughts.” I went on to say, “I get how moms recovering from the bodily trauma of birth, struggling to breastfeed, might just lose it.”
Now my own mom, who once upon a time used to want to read my writing, commented to me after this post on my blog, “well, it sure wasn’t very positive, was it?” No mom, it wasn’t, and the fact that we insist on new moms being positive- well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I get it, it's uncomfortable to hear a new mom’s pain when you simply want to ooh and aah at a newborn.
But here’s what I think is SO important to understand. Being positive is not a prerequisite for joy. And dismissing negative human emotion is antithetical to experiencing real joy. See, joy is a glimmer of hope you hold within, even when life sucks. True joy is not a fleeting feeling. It’s a chosen identity, a narrative we set for ourselves, that might just see us through the pain to the other side.
Here’s the key phrase: we set this narrative for ourselves. No one can tell us how to feel about something or how to respond to pain. See, if the letter to Philippi had been the other way around, if Paul’s associates outside of prison were writing to him, “Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul, it’ll be fine!” as he sits in chains, we might call that toxic positivity. But when Paul, in his authentic and diverse experience of human emotion proclaims, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” That’s joy as a way of life. Because that’s the identity Paul chose for himself.
Friends, we too can embrace a spirit of joy beyond our momentary circumstances; we too can be made alive with the breath of Spirit; we too can be set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even me. I know for many of you, momentary life circumstances are not good. Finding true joy takes a willingness to embrace our discomfort, to acknowledge its effect on us, and to choose joy even in the midst of the pain.
I will never quote you Apostle Paul, “Don’t worry about anything, just pray and give thanks!” as a prescription for the Christian way of life. It’s not. But I will invite you to consider choosing joy in the midst of pain, if that’s the identity you wish to claim. I’m happy to be a conversation partner along the way. Joy is a shared experience, forged in the fires of generations who've known deep struggle & chosen to rejoice in their Creator anyway. I give thanks for the saints of old, like the Apostle Paul, who reveals that joy IS possible in the depth of human pain. Lord knows I’ve needed their witness more often than not.
In my same blog post as a new mom, I wrote: “My first week of being a new mom was not awesome. There, I said it. Positive, happy-go-lucky Emily did not have a great week. This is not to say that I didn’t have moments of joy, because I couldn’t help but discover joy in Briggs’ serene face after a feeding. He is truly remarkable, and it gives me pleasure holding him while he happily coos. Even so, Briggs and I are still working on his latching issues, I’m still fighting off mastitis, and those pesky hormones still arise to remind me of how well I cry.”
As we move our hearts toward Christmas, the sacred story of Jesus’ birth, I hope we make space in our hearts to hold both joy & the depth of human emotions, whatever they may be for you. This is what God reveals in the birth of a divine child to a human mother. Joy moves us toward hope beyond current circumstances. Mary believed holding joy, alongside every single emotion a new mom faces, is possible.
May we find ourselves moved beyond momentary happiness to claim an identity as people of joy. Rejoice in the Lord always- again I say rejoice. Paul & Mary lead the way.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Last Sunday afternoon Blaire came home and shared the story they learned in Sunday School- in great detail. The story of Jonah and the BIG fish. She gets to the part when the fish burps Jonah onto shore (and although she wasn’t quite sure of the details there) Blaire proclaims with excitement in her eyes, “And God gave him a second chance.” Jonah had been running away from a hard thing, God’s command to be a leader who proclaimed a baptism of repentance to the people of Ninevah; his job was to say “your violence makes God sad, turn over a new leaf; Start again. The irony in the story is that Jonah is also in need of a second chance. So, clearing the seaweed off his shoulders, he decides to proclaim a baptism of repentance in Ninevah after all, because that’s exactly what has saved him.
Prophets often share the way of the Lord with others because of a compelling spiritual moment in which rough ways are made smooth, in which they’ve experienced inner clarity like never before. Think Saul who becomes Paul on the road to Damascus- blinded in order to truly see Christ. John the Baptist is another prophet, sent to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching a baptism of repentance--a fancy way of saying turn in a different direction; choose a new path; if you’re truly sorry, don’t do that thing again. Whatever choices are in your control and are hurting you, hurting others, even making God sad, make better choices. John the Baptist is passionate about this message, because he believes we are people worthy of second chances. Because turning away from the world’s insatiable hunger for more (more power, more popularity, more possessions) is what saved him; what can save us all. What can bring us actual peace on earth.
Did you notice where John finds himself when the word of the Lord comes to him? He’s in the middle of nowhere--wilderness; not surrounded by a crowd, no warm and comfortable home; certainly not holding any high office. His story begins, though, with a long list of important people in Jesus' day. It’s as if this contrast matters: the Emperor, the governor, the rulers of Galilee, even the high priests- yet none of them are given the word of the Lord. Only this dude who eats bugs & weirds everyone out by how badly he smells; telling folks that a baptism of repentance is how you find peace of mind, heart, and soul.
Why repentance? Why is repentance the way to peace? I’ll say it again: Because true repentance hinges on the belief that people are worthy of second chances- yes, even us.
Do you believe this? I think it took Jonah a good long while before he believed the violent folks in Ninevah were worthy of a second chance. Heck it took awhile for Jonah to believe HE was worthy of a second chance. I bet John the Baptist would have even doubted his own message had he been alive to witness the Roman Empire torture and kill his cousin Jesus. Are even those who murder worthy of repentance? Jesus says it's true with his dying breath: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
That my friends, is what makes Christ the Prince of Peace. He does the unfathomable- gives a second chance to those who kill him. If that’s not counter-cultural in our day and age, what is? If you are searching for peace, Jesus says you won’t find it in rage, in resentment, in restless searching for more.
No, only in repentance. And as a people forgiven, we practice forgiveness as a way of being; we prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our hearts for peace. Repentance means willing to let our hearts be changed: our attitudes, our opinions, our need to be right all the time. That changes when we get serious about Christ’s ways above ours.
When we live in the light of grace, our daily decisions will change; We’ll prioritize our time differently; We’ll engage people around us in a new way; we’ll find ourselves talking less in favor of listening more; we’ll act from a heart of contemplation rather than reactionary rage; we’ll see the world as it could be, even when others cannot. That’s how John the Baptist led others to Christ. Preparing the way of the Lord with a vision of peace: "Every valley shall be filled- every mountain made low. Crooked things made straight, and rough ways made smooth.”
God is a God of second chances.
When I forget to love my neighbor as myself, because I'm overwhelmed with my own issues, Jesus offers me a chance at repentance, turning my heart back to God.
When we enact violence against people who don't look or sound like us, Jesus offers us a chance at repentance, turning our hearts back to God.
When you forget that you bear the image of God, Jesus invites you to the table and says, “beloved child, you are welcome back into my holy embrace. I am a God of second chances.
The work of the Kingdom begins within each of our hearts. It’s the only way to lasting peace, so may we find our hearts opened to the gift of repentance in our lives this Advent. When I'm tempted to act from a place of human insecurity or pain, it helps me to know that I have a role in preparing the way of the Lord...who I am and how I act is significant to God's coming kingdom. The same is true for all us who long for the day when all flesh might know the gift of peace from the Prince of Peace. Transformation from the inside out, until the whole world is aglow with repentance and grace.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.