Comfort and Joy
Well, it's been a particularly rough run-up to Christmas this year. Last minute changes, shock announcements, disappointments, stress and anxiety - it's been quite a jumble. So much is so different. SO much is missing - especially if you now know you will not be able to meet with anyone else this Christmas bar a possible one to one outdoor walk. And it's the things we’re missing most that are being lost: the atmospheric moments, the people, the shared moments, the hangout spaces where we celebrate together and relax. It’s hard to feel festive this year with so much missing.
And suddenly we're starkly aware that whilst vaccines offer a promise of a return to so many things we miss so much they are still a long way off making a visible difference. They promise something - but it is not yet present. Just like in advent we remember a time of waiting for something that was coming, we’re very aware we are still waiting. Life is still so heartbreakingly ‘on hold’. And we still don't know how long for.
So how do we manage our moods in this moment? How do we find moments of comfort when things are hard and we feel more like sobbing than celebrating? How do you manage the weariness of ten months of pandemic life, with even tougher weeks or months ahead - and still do something to mark and enjoy Christmas? As we all try to gather up the energy to find ways to do this amidst the latest changes, is it possible to find joy even in the darkest months this year?
In 1 Thessalonians 5, the end of a letter Paul wrote to Christians in the early church, he addresses the issue of waiting - waiting for God to act, for Jesus to return. He talks about how to live in darkness when you are waiting for light - but do not quite know how it will come.
Here are 3 great pieces of advice he gives for how we should live in a season like this one which also fit with some things we know from human psychology - tips for finding moments of comfort and joy this festive season but also beyond, as we head into the new year:
1 - REJOICE ALWAYS! Or as some translations put it - be FULL of JOY
Now, this is a thorny place to start. Don’t stop reading!! I want to be clear - this does not mean we should pretend everything is ok. It does not mean we have to hide our emotions in tough times, fix on a happy smile, fake it until we make it. What Paul actually talks of here is about where we find joy even in difficulty. It reminds me of the Old Testament wisdom from Nehemiah “The joy of the Lord is your strength’ - where the Hebrew word we read translated as strength actually means your tower, your fortress, your place of protection - somewhere to retreat to in tough, stormy or battle times.
Having and knowing sources of joy and pleasure - and even celebration - that are resilient and persist even when other things in life are difficult can get you through life’s rougher moments.
Now, it may be that you can find these times in your human world - hopefully even though COVID has stolen so much there are still some things that remain - and it is good to think about what those are. But, of course, both Nehemiah and Paul refer to a specific source of joy we can find as people of God. The greek word Paul uses has the same root as the greek word for Grace and refers, literally, to the joy of realising God’s love for us: his grace and kindness to us. It refers to a better, more reliable, ever secure and present source of Joy, and reminds us to draw on this at all times.
Tapping into this joy is about a deliberate, intentional - even defiant drawing of our minds from the difficulties of this life and realities of our world and surroundings right now, to the wonders of God. The great theologian AW Tozer put it like this: “While we are looking at God, we do not see ourselves - blessed riddance.”
When we can fill our minds with joy sourced from beyond this world, it sustains us through the challenges of this world. How do people do that? It may be a moment or worship, of prayer, of someone else praying or speaking words over or with you, in the ritual or routine of a service. Or, it may be through a connection with the wider world - a moment of awe about nature or creation. Go for a walk and look at all the colours you can see. Sit on a hill and watch the birds fly, or watch the clouds rush across the sky. Go out at night and look at the stars. Then remember Psalm 8:3-4 “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” - the same God who did all that loves you, sees you, cares about you …
2 - Secondly Paul advises us just how important it is to spend time with God. Specifically he say “Pray continuously, in everything give thanks, don’t quench the spirit.”
Literally, the language he uses here warns us - in these times when we’re waiting so desperately for light, don’t leave too long go between moments you connect with God.
Because in these times you desperately need your spiritual sense to be operating well. We speak traditionally of our 5 physical senses - touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. But our friend at MASF, Shaun Lamber, reminds us in his book ‘Putting on the Wakeful one’ that we are also created with additional senses including the ability to sense the things of God: a spiritual sense of something more, something beyond this physical world. This is the ability to ‘see’ things spiritually as sure of as if they were right in front of us physically. And we need that SO desperately when times here on earth are tough.
We know that time spent in meditation and prayer does help people. Those with a regular rhythm and routine of connecting with something bigger and greater than them and their present circumstances show a better response and resilience to stressful times, and has even been linked with significant health benefits - physical and emotional.
Like all our senses the ability to ‘see’ God’s perspective is one we can grow, develop and improve - and if we don’t we limit it - as Paul says ‘quench’ it. How do we grow it? By time in prayer and worship and connection with God - but time spent listening, waiting, allowing our inner soul to reach out for God. In human terms it may feel like we’re not getting much done - but in spiritual terms it is like plugging your phone in to charge. Do you recharge your phone more often than yourself? How could you change that over the next week or so?
3 - Finally, Paul has some very practical advice: Hold on to what is good; reject every kind of evil.
You know, humans love to share information and news - but did you know bad news spreads better? Human emotions like anxiety and worry focus our attention making us more likely to notice, remember and share negative stories. Paul’s original words here encourage us to examine everything - not to miss good things. Our human minds so easily do - miss them completely or just fail to grab the moment and the pleasure good things offer. Psychologist talk of the art of savouring - lingering in a positive moment or a good thing to really get all the benefit from it. I like to think of it like squeezing an orange - don’t leave most of the juice in it! In these times squeeze every last bit out of good moments.
Did you know, for example, that when you hug someone (gosh how much we all miss hugging), feel good hormones are released that help counteract stress, calm you down and increase your bond with that person? But those hormones are only released if you hug for something like 20-25 seconds. Count to 20 for a moment. When is the last time you lingered in one of the few hugs you ARE allowed right now - your household people, or bubble people, or even with your pet if you get them to sit still for long enough? The same principle is true of other good things. That text a friend sent you? The Christmas card you got in the post with the photo in it of kids you’ve not seen in nearly a year? The work email praising some work you did? That really good Christmas chocolate you’ve got to have with your coffee …?! Don’t miss the goodness of good things - linger in them. Squeeze every last bit of juice out!
And then there is the things we choose to talk about, ponder, allow our minds to turn over. We need to choose to override our mind’s negative bias and to share good things, speak good things - and sometimes to choose NOT to let the bad grab our attention. Because darkness and evil shout loud, triggering emotions like anxiety and worry to manipulate people into listening, to fight for headspace. Light is gentle and pure, quietly shining in the background. We can choose to turn our focus to it. In another letter Paul gives some more detailed advice on this - suggesting you “keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind.” (Phil 4:8 TPT). How much would it change your day if you spent the same time you could spend worrying and reading negative stories focusing your attention on something GOOD. Something good about your life or your world, or the wider world, or about something humans have done - people you know or further afield? Because there is a LOT that would worry us in this time, but there are also some AMAZING good news stories to remind us of how brilliant humans can be.
How do we do this practically? It may mean turning OFF the radio sometimes, changing what we read and share, especially on social media, looking for and celebrating good things happening in our families, our friendships, and communities. It's a great way to spend some spare time this Christmas.
We cannot escape reality this year. We are in a dark time, a time of waiting, dreaming, and hoping against all hope that this will not go on too much longer. We carry difficult emotions in our hearts and minds and we can’t ignore that those things are there.
But they do not blot out the presence or reality of good. Good things to come, good promise ahead, and even moments of light and life and pleasure in the midst of all the mayhem.
If advent and Christmas reminds us of anything, it is that in dark times that does not mean there isn’t a better, brighter story playing out.
Paul finished his letter with a prayer of blessing so here’s one for you in this moment - his words with a few of my own added:
May God himself, the God of peace, fill you through and through.
May he protect you, keep you safe and sustained, fuelled with his hope that does not disappoint and topped up with heavenly joy.
With love and prayers from the whole MASF team xx
Kate Middleton, 20/12/2020