“Dashing through the snow . . .” Dashing. Strange word. One we don’t use much, except when we sing “Jingle Bells.” It means, basically, “to hurry with a purpose.” Picture a “100-yard dash.” The runner runs with the purpose of reaching the finish line as quickly as possible. It’s different than jogging, different than “running around like a chicken with their head cut off.” There is a goal to “dashing.”
So, what’s ours? What’s our goal for all this “dashing around?” It’s the last two weeks before Christmas – the “dashing” is getting serious! There are plenty of possible answers: gift-buying, food preparation, travel plans, preparing the house to receive visitors.
There are some less tangible goals, too – the ones we talk about each Sunday: peace, love, joy, and hope? The Advent Candle Themes. One the First Sunday of Advent, I reminded you that God can give peace, even when something terrible has happened. Last week, we heard a loving confrontation from John the Baptist. Today, the theme is JOY.
The scripture might seem an odd choice for Advent – its from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians and it doesn’t mention “Baby Jesus” at all! Listen to it – and listen for what Paul might be saying about the purpose of all the “dashing.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (CEB)
16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit.20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.
Many of us read “The Upper Room.” Did you read this morning’s entry? It was written by a woman named Zaina Renner. At the end she says this: “despite turmoil and turbulence in the world, I remember that Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ, is meant to be the sweetest, brightest, and most joyous season because God showered love on earth.” The real story – the real meaning of her writing comes when you notice the bottom of the page. Zaina is from Sierra Leone. Just this week, the President banned all holiday celebrations because of the Ebola epidemic (8086 infected, 1900 died). Schools are closed, no travel, no soccer (because of the sweat). Churches can meet, but congregants shall be separated. All of which will be enforced by the military.
With all of that, is it possible for Zaina to experience the joy she longs for? Isn’t that the question we ask whenever we read these words from Paul? “Really, Paul? Rejoice always? All the time? No matter what’s going on?” Our joy-drowning problems often pale in comparison to those experience by Zaina in Sierra Leone.
Paul Griffiths, a professor at Duke Divinity School, ponders that question in a journal article written for Baylor University, called “Pray Without Ceasing.” Should we really rejoice when we are eating, shopping, watching football? Can we rejoice when someone we love dies? Can we rejoice when – like Zaina – our nation is suffering so, when the government bans Christmas? To answer that question, he says, we must focus on prayer. After all, Paul says we must pray continually, too.
We find that hard because our lives are different – modern lives are compartmentalized. That means we have a “work compartment,” a “family compartment,” a “faith compartment.” This makes “prayer life” and “normal life” seem separated. Because of this, we define prayer as an occasional act that we do sometimes, but not all the time. That’s a pretty weak understanding of prayer.
Griffiths suggests that we see prayer as “the acknowledgement of a gift.” Gifts are given to us from someone or somewhere else; we did not make it; we do not deserve it. When we acknowledge a gift, we must be grateful.
That’s easy with some gifts – gifts we can see – like a book, a watch, some clothes. We can see that gift, remember where or who it came from, and be grateful. But what if the gift we are acknowledging is life itself? Gratitude and receptiveness get a lot harder!
We should, Griffiths says, “be active in the way that grateful people are active: enthusiastically, attentively, lovingly, and, above all, not as though we have done anything to deserve the good things that surround us.”
This is what it means to pray: to be someone who, in all they do, expresses gratitude to God who made it possible and made the world in which we do all things.
But what about Zaina? What about Sierra Leone? What about Ebola? Pray and be grateful for those things, too? No. Those are “anti-gifts,” he says. Anti-gifts come when humanity treats God’s gifts as possessions, something to be owned. We lament anti-gifts; lament is the proper response to damaged gifts.
Now, we begin to see what “rejoicing always” looks like – through prayer we cultivate a sense of gratitude that informs all we do. Gratitude makes a huge difference:
- If we are grateful for a gift, we use it differently. We use it with attention to who gave the gift. We remember and honor the one who gave it as we use it. I use my grandfather’s watch much differently than I use the sample pen I got in the mail.
- If we are grateful, we become receptive. Receptiveness is different than possessiveness. When we possess something, we try to make it something it can’t be – ours! When we are receptive, we are open and filled with peace.