I deliberately skipped last week’s Advent blog, because I got my Sundays mixed up. I thought that last week was the Joy Candle, and that this week was the Love Candle. Love is easy to write about – I’ve been writing about it since high school oratory competition (I was State Champ, and I am bragging.)
But, me being who I am – and God being who God is – my carefully steered boat got rocked this morning. I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual this week – I had remembrance for two more combat deaths this past week – and I was giving serious consideration to skipping church again, regardless of which candle we were lighting today. But, my wife reminded me that my mood is always vastly improved by attending church. As she is much wiser than I, and employed by the VA to be the guardian of my mental health, I decided to sacrifice a little sleep to attend worship.
I was looking forward to a good sermon, as my pastor is a 30-year veteran of pastoral ministry and missions. He always delivers the goods. At first, I was simply suffering through the Christmas carols (our worship band is spectacular, but I am something of a grumpy purist when it comes to carols, and they do non-traditional/contemporary music.) Then, the Advent liturgical and Scripture reading happened, and it started with, “Today we light the Candle of Joy.”
And in my mind, I thought, “Oh shit.”
I looked at my wife, and said (out loud), “Since I tried to avoid this candle, he’s going to preach directly at me this morning.” (He doesn’t mean to do this, but he almost always does when it comes to theological topics that I struggle with. This is why I say that he delivers the goods.)
His sermon wasn’t particularly challenging to me, personally. It was all about his own travels to Bethlehem, and the irony of the most important people in history being in a small town in Palestine on Christmas night. And, that particular message has resonated with me for the past few years, ever since I embraced the dangerous, subversive, revolutionary overall message of the Gospel. BUT… while I know intellectually why the birth of Jesus should bring me great joy, and while I desire it greatly, I don’t feel it in my soul. I don’t have that peace and contentment that I have always felt is the prerequisite for joy.
As an aside, and by way of explanation, I’ll tell you this: a few years ago, as I was undertaking a serious search for my place in the five-fold ministry, I had an experience that left me with a certainty that my place was that of the prophet. I might explain that in more detail in the New Year – I only tell you now to provide a little insight into why peace and joy are such difficult concepts for my spirit. Go back and read some Old Testament prophets, and you won’t find a great deal of joy or peace. Very rarely (if ever) do you hear a prophet – either ancient or modern – say, “You know what? We’re doing okay. Everything is pretty great. You guys just keep doing what you’re doing.” NOPE. The prophet doesn’t exist to comfort; the prophet exists to challenge, to cry out and rail against injustice, to confront. It’s a pretty lonely place, which is why there are a lot of pastors, teachers, and evangelists out there, but not so many people who embrace the role of the prophet. Our lives are generally difficult even before we embrace our ministry, and acceptance of it typically only increases that difficulty.
So, joy? Peace? Not typically on the menu for me.
I’m sitting there in church, half-listening to the sermon and contemplating why I can’t feel joy, why I have such a hard time with the concept, why I feel like such a terrible Jesus follower for not walking around with a Giant Joy Halo all the time. And, suddenly, Joy walked in.
Actually, his name was Da’Von. He’s one of my favorite teenagers ever, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I think about him often, but I don’t stay up nights worrying about him. He’s a good kid, and I am pretty sure that he’s staying out of trouble. But, seeing him… it brought me such a feeling of peace and contentment, that I can only describe it as absolute, unfettered joy. And, he was excited to see me too. It was an epic hug that we shared, huge smiles all around.
And, as I knelt at the rail later and prayed, “God, can I please have some joy?” it was as if the Spirit descended as a dove and said, “Look around, Prophet.” And, I realized that I experience that joy every Sunday morning. This is the reason that my wife sees my mood soar after church: it’s the 10 teenagers that greet me with a hug and a smile when I come in. It’s the older men and women who greet me with those same smiles and hugs, one of my “spiritual fathers” ragging me about my wrinkled shirt and my messy hair, my “spiritual mother” telling me how handsome I look and how happy she is to see me. It’s dancing to the familiar praise and worship songs, or to 80s funk in the burrito joint after church. It’s making those employees laugh, giving a good tip to them, jamming out to Colin Hay and Indigo Girls on my iPod. It’s all these little things in my life, but it’s especially all these everyday – yet extraordinary – people in my life.
The life of the prophet might be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be lived alone. And, while I don’t get this spiritual ecstasy listening to the Christmas story, I do get it from living like Jesus is in the face of every person that I meet. Whether it’s a teenage man-child that I haven’t seen in a while, or it’s in a homeless, hopeless family on the side of the road – Jesus is born in those people each day, and it’s up to us to be the shepherds and the magi that recognize the glory and the majesty of what we’re witnessing. We’re witnessing the Incarnation forever and ever, world without end.
Now, here’s the challenge: I can’t just find that joy, that Jesus, in the faces of the people that I love. I have to find it in those people that I nearly despise, those people whose deeds and words I rail and cry out in opposition to. I have to see the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ child, in those that I would make my enemies. Because, that baby in the manger that turned history and power on its head, the one who grew up to say, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor”… He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.” I feel like, today, He’s saying to me, “Michael, Prophet, find joy in your enemies, in those who hate you (and others), in those who persecute you and those that you love. Find me in their faces.”
I may be a grumpy old Christmas carol purist, I may feel like hell every December, I may not get all tingly at the Christmas story – but, I have joy. It just takes a little effort to recognize it.
May I bring that joy to the world. May we all bring that joy to the world.