In my Junior and Senior High School days I had a friend who went to many more movies than I did. On at least two occasions he tried to convey to me just how great a movie was. Later I saw both of these movies and was, at the time, unimpressed. I thought both were really good movies but I was not moved to rave about them to anyone as he did, and felt I had kind of missed something. Years later I was on the leadership team for several youth events that were anywhere from a day to a week long, and that affected the participants deeply, both socially and spiritually. Experienced leaders spoke to the youth involved and warned them about the frustration they would feel when they would struggle to convey the impact the time had on them with those who weren’t there. You can’t give someone the experience that you have had, they would warn. And they were pretty much right. My movie going friend had pushed my expectations so high that I could only be let down.
This gives the church a problem. When our faith gives us joy how do we invite others into that without setting them up for disappointment? One way that just doesn’t work is to paste on a smile or a happy face and go around exuding what you think looks like joy! I have seen too many smiling preachers on TV and in person to know that this doesn’t make their joy contagious or inviting – typically such a demeanor leaves people confused or wondering how they can be so happy all. the. time! There is something unreal and unsettling about them.
What are we to do then? One way to move people into joy is through story, poetry and music. Both have a way of getting around our spiritual barriers and defenses. We all have them and they work pretty well. Then we hear or sing a song or read a poem and tears flow. We are touched somewhere deep inside. Someone has felt something that we have felt, when we thought we were alone in that feeling. Connection. Keep in mind I am not talking about stories, poetry and music that try to make us feel something. Those are just manipulative.
Another way to share the experience of joy is to cherish its embers after the flame of intensity dies down and let them warm our hearts. In this way joy becomes something lived everyday – as opposed to something we unpack at Christmas time and demand that everyone not spoil it!
This Sunday our theme is Joy! This is awkward because as Christmas approaches people are feeling the price of getting rundown, stressed out and fearful. When you are at the point where you know Christmas will not be perfect (where did that expectation come from?) and you just want it over, trying to make people joyful is a disaster in the making. So we are going to acknowledge our frustrations and fears and sing some songs anyway. We are going to hear ancient words, some joyful, some just telling us what getting ready spiritually means. We are going to reflect a bit on the Why of Christmas and not on the how to endure it. Because in the disappointing quest to make everyone happy we need to pause and remember that someone made Christmas happen. The story is one of loving justice and seeking justice that we might all share in the great gift of self-giving life and love.
May your Advent and Christmas be wonderful,