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Rejoice Always

Last night, I was sitting on the sofa after dinner looking over the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday, trying to decide which passage or combination of passages I could preach on. When my wife wandered over and inquired as to what I was doing, I immediately solicited her advice in choice of texts. She read them over, hummed and hawed noncommittally, then took a deep, trepidation-filled breath, and said, “Can I make a suggestion? Do you think this week’s sermon could, you know, maybe focus a bit less on the negative?”

Those who know me well are likely chuckling right now (not least because enthusiastically embracing “constructive criticism” is not among my strengths…). For those who do not, perhaps some context will help. It may surprise you to discover that I am not, by disposition, a relentlessly cheerful optimist. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. Call it a character flaw, a faulty gene, spiritual obtuseness, or just plain stubbornness on my part, but I simply have never been a “glass half full” kind of person.

I have never understood or experienced faith as a one-way trip to happy-land. I was always a little suspicious of those Christians who couldn’t clap and sing loudly or eagerly enough, and gave the impression that the Christian life was one of unqualified and uninterrupted bliss. I always viewed with a mixture of curiosity and envy those people who stood up in churches and talked about how miserable their life was before meeting Jesus, and of how, since converting or recommitting or whatever, their view of the world had been instantly changed for the better. It sounded appealing, but it just didn’t reflect so much of what I saw and experienced. It still doesn’t, truth be told.

It’s not that I don’t think that joy is not or ought not to be a part of the life of faith. I do. It’s just that, for whatever reason, my own journey has tended to gravitate toward the shadow side of faith. I know the terrain well here. I understand doubt and skepticism—both how it feels and the aspects of existence that produce it. I feel the pain and sadness of the world, both in sharing in the lives of others, and on a more abstract, global level. I am reasonably comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and am convinced that “the fact of the matter” is rarely as simply as many would have us believe. I know fear and anxiety.

In other words, to borrow the “now”/”not yet” paradigm of the nature of the kingdom of God and the life of faith between Christ’s Advents, I have rarely had problems understanding and communicating the “not yet.”

The problem, as my dear wife pointed out to me last night, is that I because this is my default perspective, it tends to be over-represented in my writing and preaching. There are other important things that need to be said about the life of faith that are easily missed or inadequately addressed when one tends to consistently look at the world through a certain lens. It is one thing to accurately—even compellingly—map the landscape of the “not yet,” but what about the “now?” What about the life to which we are called, the life we believe is pulling us along, guiding and shaping those aspects of reality that are not yet what we believe they will one day be? What about the gifts that have been given to sustain, embolden, and enliven us in the in-between time? What about the foretastes of eternity that can be experienced in the present? What about periodically moving from the cold comfort and “security” of shadowland and enjoying the light every now and then?

In other words, what about the joy of faith? What about enjoying God and the life he has given? What about celebrating the story that we are graced to participate in and gladly thanking and praising the Storyteller?

The life of faith is not a grim exercise in duty, after all, much as Christians have, at times throughout history, given this impression. It is participation in the very life and purposes of God! It is joining with all creation on a journey of reconciliation and redemption! It’s actually kind of exciting! Wait, did I say that? Out loud?! I’d better stop before I get carried away….

I had to suppress a chuckle when I saw that one of the suggested texts for this Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. The passage begins thus: “Rejoice always.” Rejoice! Always!

I think I have my text for a happy(er) Sunday sermon.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    I have the feeling that your really going to enjoy your forties and fifties. Aside from the fact that body parts will hurt for no apparent reason you may find your “default” positions markedly different. Mine have changed significantly. Perhaps some of our skepticism and suspicions are traceable to a youthful masculinity that places great value on rigourous physical and intellectual persuits. We can distance ourselves from a world that we find neither strong enough or smart enough.

    Nowadays, if me and my little guy get in some good play and tickle time, it’s been a really good day.

    For the record….”what your wife said!” 🙂

    December 7, 2011
    • We’ll see. I don’t anticipate any major changes, but I suppose unexpected things do happen :). I don’t mind my default position, truth be told, even if I appreciate occasional nudges to move from Good Friday to Easter (to borrow Dora’s language below). I think I’m (slowly) growing comfortable in my own skin, as they say—realizing that God can and does use all kinds of people for all kinds of tasks, and that there are better ways to spend my time than apologizing for the way I’m wired. Can’t say I’ve arrived, but I’m on the way…

      Speaking of youthful masculinity, today someone mistook me for a student at a lunch put on by a local church near the college. It was a happy (holy?) moment :).

      December 7, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Woah brother!! I been passing your resume around secret catholic headquarters….they are everywhere, btw…ask Tom Hanks…and was hoping to advise you of our approval of your work, AND THEN YOU SAY AND I QUOTE, ” THAT THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO SPEND MY TIME THAN APOLOGIZING FOR THE WAY I’M WIRED!!!!”….

        Mel Gibson just got bumped up a spot.

        It’s nice to be mistaken for a teen. I think that happened to me once in the 80’s….tell me you don’t wear a hoodie when you preach.

        December 8, 2011
      • Below Mel Gibson, eh? That’s a fairly meteoric descent in my stock… Assuming this is a bad thing, of course… To be honest I don’t really have much of an idea what you’re talking about here…

        No worries, I don’t preach in a hoodie…. I even take my hat off :).

        December 8, 2011
      • Ken #

        Some of your words arising initially through your brief discourse with Dora imply in an ironic way an affinity with Roman Catholicism (unintended, of course.) The words are ironic, especially when considered from a Roman Catholic perspective. Mel (in his Jesus movie) and you focus on Good Friday more than Sunday. Protestants have long alleged that Catholics don’t let Jesus down from the cross – always Good Friday. (That is, of course, unfair and untrue.) Hence, Paul’s humorous play on this irony about you being a secret Catholic.

        But then you wrote about not apologizing. Every good Catholic apologizes. Confession, guilt: Roman Catholic Christians sometimes laugh about themselves related to their feelings of guilt, and about “the way (as Catholics) they are wired.” That is, I think, the second part of Paul’s joke.

        I imagine he would eventually explain, but I just wanted to try it myself. His very clever use of these images made me think.

        December 9, 2011
      • Hmm, certainly sounds like a plausible interpretation of Paul’s comment. Thanks, Ken.

        (Re: guilt, I think Mennonites can be just as “good” at this as Catholics :).)

        December 10, 2011
  2. We know a couple who freely acknowledge that one of them is a Good Friday kind of person and the other an Easter kind of person. Good thing there’s both in the world, for together they tell the whole wonderful truth.

    December 7, 2011
    • What a great way to put it! Thanks, Dora.

      December 7, 2011
  3. Thanks for the reflections Ryan. Speaking of wives, mine often laments the Good Friday type focus of our regular Mennonite publication. She laughs at the seriousness of my bookshelf, joking that Gandhi’s autobiography might be the lightest reading in it. Though I feel I have turned the corner towards Easter as I’ve gotten older and had less time to read and more time spent our young children.

    December 8, 2011
    • Sounds like a very similar dynamic to our house—although I could probably find something a bit lighter than Gandhi on my bookshelf :). Glad to hear that fatherhood and young children have steered you toward Easter. That seems very good and appropriate, somehow, given Jesus’ words about the nature and role of children in God’s economy.

      December 9, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Yikes! Brain cramp! Busy with the Christmas season and forgot I owed you an answer here, Ryan. Just read Ken’s, as always, generous interpretation.

    Wow! Did I say all that !! 🙂 Good for me! 🙂

    You got part two as intended Ken but much as I wish to claim part one was as ironicly nuanced as you found and made it, my intention though humourous, was less sublime. Mostly the joke was about me moving forward and rather than engage Ryan with partisan arguement I have simply decided that Ryan is RC after all, ( Everybody’s closet RC anyways ) though to be modestly realistic, he appears to maintain a somewhat muted but persistent conscious state, of self denial.

    While some may speculate that my claim is delusional, I assure you and them that it is nothing short of visionary. I’m a card carrying RC, visions are my specialty. Also as an RC whatever I have discerned spiritually is always the best and last word on a subject…it’s true…look it up….something about whatever I tether or untether…yadda yadda…it’s in a big churchy book somewhere… I swear!!!

    BTW, Ryan is mostly skeptical when he tells you that your explanation of my post is “plausible”…How do I know, you ask ?….Just another example of RC “best and last word” discernment. 🙂

    December 13, 2011
    • A “closet RC,” eh? Well, that’s certainly the most interesting thing I’ve been called today :).

      December 13, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #


        December 13, 2011

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