Today we are looking at the spiritual discipline of celebration. This one may be one of the hardest practices for us to recognize as a spiritual discipline. How is it a discipline to celebrate, to laugh to party? Aren’t disciplines supposed to be hard?
No. As I said the first week we talked about this, the spiritual disciplines are ways to come closer to God. That is their purpose. If something is too hard it can be a distraction in itself. That is the problem, often, with people who choose total austerity as a spiritual practice. Just as our stuff can distract us from God, total lack of stuff can also distract us from God. Hardships of any kind can claim our focus, and the purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to limit distractions from God, or to figure out ways to still focus on God through the distractions of our lives. So then the question might be asked, isn’t celebration also a distraction from God? When we are partying and celebrating and happy are we focused on God? Well, it depends on how and why we are celebrating. If our celebration is about God, and if we include God in that celebration, it is an invitation for joy with God, for dancing with God, for expressing gratitude to God for all that God has given us and does give us. We hear today in the passages from John and Luke all the many times that God celebrates. God celebrates when we are with God. God celebrates when we return to God. God celebrates when we get married (as in the wedding in Cana). God celebrates when we find new life and when joy finds us. God celebrates us. And we, in turn are called to celebrate God.
Some may say that lent is the worst of all times to focus on celebration. It is supposed to be a somber time of reflection and preparation for Jesus ultimate sacrifice. We celebrate after lent. But actually, the forty days of lent exclude Sundays. If we included Sundays, lent would be 46 days. But we don’t. Sundays are supposed to be the days off from lent. They are set aside to celebrate the resurrection, the return to life, the glory and wonder of a God who loves us so much that even death is overcome by that love. Sunday is the day of celebration – of God’s love and resurrection and new life given to us each day. So perhaps especially during lent we are called to set aside the seriousness of self-reflection, repentance and preparation on Sundays and simply to be and celebrate God’s love and grace this day.
It may, then, seem odd to offer up ways to celebrate. Surely we all know how to celebrate. But I would say that if the typical traditional church service is any indication, we really don’t know how to celebrate God. It’s like when a pastor stands up and says, “This is the day the Lord has made” and gets back a “let us be glad and rejoice in it”. That is not rejoicing. That is not celebrating. Are the words we say simply words, detached from the rest of us? Or are we called to genuinely celebrate with all of our being the amazing things that God has done and is done for us? Celebration is an expression of true joy. Celebration therefore involves all of who we are, our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our emotions. (pass out toys). It looks like gratitude, deep: heart- felt gratitude. It looks like a joy that can not be contained in a sitting, still, solemn body. It should look the same way that we celebrate birthdays and weddings and graduations. But it usually doesn’t, does it?
When we first began our Wednesday evening service, the kids were quite young. And they would dance in the aisles and move around. And I have to admit that I, too, found this “inappropriate” and for that I deeply, deeply apologize to the kids – to my own kids, especially, whom I told that they needed to not move around as much. They gave me the perfect example of true joy. They truly embodied and demonstrated for me the celebration in each of those services of joy in their faith, in their community, in each other. But I was uneasy because I, too, had ideas about what “church” should look like. I was wrong. And I encourage all of us, as we look at lent and these spiritual disciplines to think much more seriously about how we celebrate God as a spiritual discipline.
Here, then, are some of the ways that I think we can celebrate God’s love and presence and resurrection:
Attend and throw parties
Visit special places
Visit friends, old and new
Be generous with your time, talents and resources
Sing or make music another way
Notice the blessings around you and practice gratitude
Be excited about what is happening and what is coming
Let go of fear
Appreciate nature and celebrate the seasons
Enjoy the physical things in life: eating, drinking, walking, etc.
Use all of your senses in life: smell, taste, seeing, hearing, touching.
I think the hardest time to celebrate is when something bad has happened, when there is a tragedy or a big loss. I hear people who’ve lost a spouse or a child tell me that they feel guilty celebrating when their loved one is gone. I get that. I understand that. But I also know that it is the times of celebration that sometimes pull us through those hard times. I remember dancing, almost every morning, with my youngest child as she got ready for school when we were at our hardest times. Sometimes we would hold hands and dance, sometimes I would pick her up and swing her around the room to some of our favorite music. We did this almost daily as a way of surviving; of moving when it felt hard to even breathe; of saying, there is still love here and life and that is worth celebrating no matter what; as a way of remembering that joy was still accessible, even when happiness was elusive; as a way of saying, “God, we still experience you in life. We still honor you with our actions. We still choose to walk as the resurrection people, even when it feels like death is upon us.” We did it as a way of being in and held by love for each other and for God in each moment. We still do this sometimes, though not as often. The physical activity, the connection with a loved one, the laughter, the smiles, the joy – these things don’t make us forget what we have lost. They are not sinful distractions from caring for someone else. Instead, they take the edge off, they renew our strength and energy so that we can get through the harder times, so that we can support each other going through hard times. They remind us that what is important in life is not just the pain, not just the losses, but the people who continue to love us and surround us and care for us. They remind us that God still wants good for us, joy, wholeness, peace, even when things are hard. It is good to take breaks from our grief just as it is good to have a weekly break from our more serious Lenten practices. It is good to take time to remember the joyful blessings that surround us - the beauty of the earth, the bounty of our food and friends, the smiles, hugs and love that come our way, the unexpected surprises of new friends or seeing old friends, the gifts that surround us daily.
We are so very blessed. Celebration is a way to honor that. To acknowledge it. To express our gratitude to God. And to say, as God said at the beginning and every day, “It is good.”