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Third Week of Advent

The messenger snuck around the guard in the moonlight. He made eye contact with the prisoner, who silently told him to wait until another guard had moved on. Then, in a move so quick it was almost imperceptible, the prisoner slipped the letter out of his cloak and up through the bars. Just as quickly, the messenger slipped it into his cloak and disappeared into the shadows.

He moved quickly through the streets of Rome, in order to deliver the letter to its recipients. It did no one good to be found with such a letter, so it was best to move through the night to deliver it. As he traveled down the road, he watched the moon slip across the sky. It haunted him to see the prisoner in such dire straits. Gaunt. Hungry. Arms and legs rubbed raw by the chains that kept him prisoner. He sped on his way, motivated by that picture, and wanting to make sure that his risk was not wasted.

But he was motivated by much more than that. He was a member of the congregation to which the letter was addressed, and he knew the significant problems that he hoped it would address. There were external attacks against the congregation. The list of opponents was long, and the messenger hoped that the prisoner could provide some direction against their incessant attacks. They brought into question the purpose of the church itself. And as a result, the leadership of the church itself was suffering. They had begun to pick at each other, and two of the leaders were disagreeing about how to best lead the church. Both women believed that they were right in their leadership, and so the messenger hoped that perhaps the letter would bring some conclusion to their disagreement.

But there was one more motivation as the messenger sped through the moonlight. It wasn’t the fear of losing the letter. It wasn’t the urgency that the letter’s contents represented. Instead, it was the look that the prisoner gave when he handed off the letter. It was fleeting, hard to see in the darkness, but the messenger was sure he had seen it. It was a wink and a smile, so infectious and surprising that the messenger had to double take before he left the cell. Here was a man in chains, unfairly imprisoned. He was hurting from physical maladies, malnutrition, and the chains of prison. He was hurting emotionally to be away from so many church members that he loved and hurt for in their chaos and turmoil. But what he demonstrated was not pain, or anger, or revenge. But joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. The messenger couldn’t help but smile as he sped up his pace. What was it that gave him such joy? And how could he get some of it for himself?
Of course, the prisoner in the story is none other than the Apostle Paul, the congregation is the church at Philippi, and the letter is what we have come to know as the book of Philippians. Indeed, Paul was in prison when he wrote to the church at Philippi, and while we don’t know every detail of how the letter was delivered, we do know that it did indeed address several issues of congregational turmoil, both from outsiders and internal leadership. And we do know that the man in that prison cell indeed modeled joy for those in that church, and throughout all of the churches that he had started and continued to mentor.

This week, we light the candle of joy. For me, it’s easy to get cynical when it comes to joy. Because it’s easy to be joyful when everything is going right. But, for Paul, the joy that he felt was something much deeper. Much more profound. More significant. His was not a joy made easy by circumstances. His was a joy made real in spite of those circumstances. And his story helps us in the midst of our turmoil and struggle to ask, “how can I get some of that myself?”

Richard Foster talks about joy in his classic work Celebration of Discipline. First published in 1978, it has become a standard way to talk about how we as Christians can grow in our faith. His chapters on the disciplines of prayer, meditation, study, solitude, submission, service…these are stuff of legend. But one chapter that I admit not having spent much time on is his final chapter: the spiritual discipline of celebration.

Maybe you can see why I missed it. Celebration doesn’t seem much like a discipline, does it? Celebration just…happens. When the Royals win the World Series, no one has to say, “it’s time for us to settle down and discipline ourselves and really celebrate.” Or when the child gets what she really wants for Christmas – been asking for months for it – mom and dad don’t have to say, “now before you get that out and play with it, I want you to buck up and celebrate.” Celebration doesn’t seem much like a discipline, does it?

But, of course, that is because the external situation makes celebration easy. There are clearly times where celebration does not have to be a discipline. But those are not the times that Foster is talking about. Or Paul, for that matter. Paul couldn’t count on his external situation to bring him much joy, could he? Hungry and beaten. On death row. Most of us would imagine that the last words that would come out of a man like that would be “rejoice in the Lord always!”
But that’s exactly what Paul says, and exactly the way that he lived. Listen again to the passage, now that you can picture the person and situation of the person writing it. Here it is in The Message:
4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
6-7 Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
What a powerful discourse on joy! I love the way that Allen Hilton summarizes this passage from Paul: “Fear not! For the joy that we celebrate today is anchored, not in bright circumstances but in the Christ-aided direction of our minds toward joy, toward others, toward God in prayer, and toward God’s best things.”

And that’s what the passage says: focus on prayer, on gentleness and magnanimity toward others, not on worry or anxiety, but on the things in life that are true, honorable, just, pleasing, pure, commendable. It really is a discipline to focus on these things, instead of on the circumstances that surround us. And while most of us are not living lives of difficulty as stark as Paul’s we still have our own set of struggles, don’t we? Our own prisons. Our own injustice. Our own pain. For most of the days in our lives, celebration is absolutely a discipline.
So, Foster gives us some practical, practicable ways to discipline ourselves to celebrate:

Laugh more. Even in the 70’s there was verifiable scientific research to show the positive effects of laughter. Foster explains that disciplining ourselves to laugh more is absolutely a spiritual practice. He writes of the healing discipline of the Marx brothers. Or – and here is where the book seems a little dated – Candid Camera. Take the time to laugh out loud, read a funny book, tell each other jokes.

We have this practice – we’ll call it a spiritual discipline – in our extended family, taught to us by my father in law. It goes something like this: the first time we tell a joke, it is a little bit funny. The second time, it is less funny. The third, a little less funny. The fourth through the fourteenth time, it’s really not funny at all. But the fifteenth time, it is hilarious! Dave Letterman made a lot on money on that premise. It works!

How do you laugh? Really deep belly laughs? Foster reminds us to discipline ourselves to laugh.

A second thing he says is to “take time to relish the creativity of others.” To listen to a good piece of music, or enjoy a beautiful work of art…these are disciplines that can help us truly live lives of celebration. I know that all of us have different music that touches our souls, and you might be like me, and like a wide variety of music. There are times when a soaring Wagner is just what I need. Or a little J.J. Johnson on the jazz trombone. Or this time of year, even some campy Christmas music hits the spot. There are times when getting out on a back road and cranking some Earl Scruggs or Ricky Skaggs is just what my soul needs. When we “take the time to relish the creativity of others,” as Foster tells us, we forget for a moment our own troubles and tribulations. We are able to focus on the beauty that surrounds us, enlivens us, makes us whole. I could imagine Paul sitting there in prison, long hours, waiting for his death, singing the psalms in his head. Disciplining himself into celebration.

Laugh. Relish creativity. Finally, Foster tells us to take back our holy days. He points to many of our celebrations and holidays that have been co-opted by culture to become something that they are not. Halloween has become a celebration of darkness, instead of a celebration over it. Easter and Christmas have been overrun by what he calls crass commercialism (and remember, this was over thirty years ago). If there is a war on Christmas, I think it has less to do with whether or not there is a nativity on the city hall yard, and more to do with the fact that consumerism and commercialism has been allowed to dominate our holy festival of justice and simplicity.

But Foster reminds us what it really means to celebrate on these holy days. To delight in our holy days with unadulterated joy. He writes of the story of his young son who chose one year to give everyone a special gift at Christmas. He wrapped up huge boxes for every member of the family, and inside of each, there was a little note telling them what song he was going to play them on the piano. Instead of buying more things or spending more money, he gave the gift of time, of hard work, and of celebration.
James Evans, Jr. makes a helpful distinction between our cultural faith and our Christian faith. He reminds us that the Declaration of Independence tells us that one of our inalienable rights is the “pursuit of happiness.” We pursue happiness. But joy is different. Joy pursues us.

When we follow these disciplines of celebration, the end result is joy. Foster saves this chapter for the end of his book. It is the final chapter in Celebration of Discipline, because, he writes, it takes us working our way through all these other disciplines to be able to reap the joy that comes at the end. He explains that we cannot manufacture joy. We cannot pursue joy. We can follow these disciplines and do this work, but joy cannot be manufactured. Joy pursues us.

The messenger had delivered the letter as soon as he arrived in Philippi. The church leadership went together into a room to read through it first, as the rest of the congregation filed into the house church in order to hear it read aloud. The messenger would have had every right to disappear back to his house to sleep, and no one would have blamed him. But he could do nothing of the sort. He was as amped up and excited as he could ever remember in a church meeting, and he wasn’t going to miss this for the world!

Suddenly, the door opened, and the leadership filed out. The two women leaders who had been caught in disagreement both had sheepish looks on their faces, and came out arm and arm as they came to the front of the church. The leadership took turns reading the letter out loud, and the messenger was on the edge of his seat the whole time. Words and phrases stuck with him from the letter, but the phrase that stuck out most clearly to him was from the final words: “Rejoice in the Lord, always!”

He immediately thought back to the man in that dark cell, with every reason to complain or cry out, to curse and scream, who instead smiled. He thought over his own life, the struggles in his church, the oppression of the Roman rule and the injustice of his world. And as the Apostle’s words crescendoed to a chorus of cheers, the young man allowed himself to receive grace, receive hope, receive joy.

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