Monday, March 5, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Celebration

John 2:1-11
Luke 15

      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 our celebrations, they become invitations for joy with God, for dancing with God, for expressing gratitude to God for all that God has given us and continues to 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 find meaningful relationships (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.  And while there are some traditions that do away with celebratory words such as “alleluia” and even “Gloria” during lent, other don’t – reflecting that every Sunday is a celebration of resurrection and every Sunday is a time to remember that God created us, first and foremost, good, and that is worth celebrating.  I read an article recently in Presbyterian Outlook from a pastor who intentionally decided to keep using alleluias and glorias during lent as a way to remember that indeed, we are made good and that our time of self reflection is not about beating ourselves up, but encouraging us to grow into being the best we can be.  Sometimes the beating up behavior makes that harder.  It is easier, it is better to celebrate the good and from that place of celebration, rededicate ourselves to working towards being even better.
       It may 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 our God has made” and gets back a “let us be glad and rejoice in it” in a monotone, somber, distracted voice.  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.  It looks like gratitude, deep: heart- felt gratitude.  It looks like a joy that cannot 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. 
       At my last church, we began a family oriented midweek service when almost all the kids in the church were quite young.  The kids would dance in the aisles during the songs, they would move around during the prayers. And I have to admit that I, too, struggled with this.  I felt like they needed to learn “proper church decorum” at some level, and so, while I did not scold the kids in church, I did tell my own kids after services that they really needed to not move around as much.  That was a mistake.  Worship should have been a joyous experience, a celebration.  Instead, we made it like another school day, inviting them to sit and listen.  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:
1. Laugh often
2. Play
3. Attend and throw parties
4. Visit special places
5. Visit friends, old and new
6. Be generous with your time, talents and resources and celebrate that we have so much to share!
7. Dance
8. Sing or make music another way
9. Be silly
10. Notice the blessings around you and practice gratitude
11. Be excited about what is happening and what is coming
12. Let go of fear
13. Anticipate and look forward to events that are coming.
14. Appreciate nature and celebrate the seasons
15. Take time to really enjoy and savor the physical things in life: pay attention to what you are  eating or drinking and savor it.  When you walk, run, exercise in any way; pay attention to how your body feels and enjoy it.
16. Smile often
17. 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 or even experiencing joy after they’ve lost a loved one.  I get that.  I understand that.  But I also know that it is the times of celebration that help pull us through those hard times. 
     When my family was going through its hardest time, I remember dancing, almost every morning, with my youngest child as she got ready for school. The other two kids would have left already, and it would just be my daughter and I getting ready for our day.  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, as I said, 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; frankly, not often enough.  The physical activity, the connection with loved ones, the laughter, the smiles, the joy – these things don’t make us forget what we have lost.  They are not sinful distractions from caring about what or who we have lost. 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, “creation - it is good.”  Amen.