Becoming a Benediction

In the winter of 1990, my father became a prophet. Against all sense and reason, he bought season tickets to the Atlanta Braves, the laughingstock of baseball who had just finished yet another abysmal season at the bottom of their division, where they had been ever since my family moved to Atlanta from here in the Lehigh Valley in 1983. People asked him what he was doing. “They’re finally going to be good next year, you’ll see,” he said. Our family and friends laughed at him. And yet as spring unfolded, a very strange thing started happening: the Braves began winning.

Spring changed to summer, and the Braves kept winning, finding themselves in a dramatic race for the division title with the Los Angeles Dodgers as fall approached. Suddenly those friends who had laughed at him started asking if he had any tickets to spare. By the time they clinched a spot in the playoffs, the city was electrified with excitement. They won a dramatic league championship and headed to the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, and suddenly I found myself sitting at Game 4 of the World Series, just a few rows above third base, with the Braves down two games to one.

The game was a nail-biter, tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning. With one out and a runner on third base, the backup to the backup catcher came out to hit for the pitcher, because that’s all that was left on the bench. And with two strikes, he managed to loft a fly ball to right field. The runner on third base took off as soon as it was caught, racing home as the throw came in, sliding under the glove of the catcher, being called safe and winning the game. And the stadium exploded; people were screaming, jumping up and down, hugging strangers, chanting in unison; you could feel the seats shaking from all the energy. And it went on like that for at least 15 minutes after the game ended. To this day, I’ve never experienced such intense public euphoria anywhere or anytime.

The thing is, part of what made that night such an exhilarating experience was its uniqueness. Atlanta sports teams were so bad for so long that the city’s nickname became “Loserville” in the 1980s. The Braves spent almost a decade as one of the worst teams in baseball; the Falcons were a joke in the NFL; the Hawks were at least competitive but always choked in the playoffs; and the hockey team, the Flames, literally ran away to Canada, moving to Calgary in disgust. So watching an Atlanta team come from behind out of almost sheer will and tenacity once again, snatching victory out of their opponent’s hands at the last minute, was more than just thrilling. It felt like a kind of redemption of the city. We were no longer Loserville. Of course, that euphoria didn’t last. They lost the last two games and the championship title in two extra-inning heartbreakers and suddenly the miracle season was over. I put my ticket stubs in a drawer, thought to myself, “maybe next year,” and refocused on my studies.

One of the biggest challenges to understanding what Paul is talking about in our reading from his letter to the Philippians this morning is the concept of joy. If you had asked me that night at the stadium, as the building shook with the exuberance of people’s celebration, what it felt like, I would have probably said something like, “unbridled joy.” By that I would have meant the intensity of the emotion, which seemed to go far beyond mere happiness to elation; the way the crowd erupted was an ecstatic, enraptured experience. But by definition, that cannot last. All of those words denote a major but momentary spike in positive emotion from which one inevitably comes back down again. And that’s how we tend to think about joy: as a particularly intense experience of happiness. But if that’s the case, then Paul’s instruction to “rejoice in the Lord always,” sounds almost oppressive: is that really how we’re supposed to feel with and about God all the time? All the time, no matter what we’re experiencing?

Confusing joy with happiness, and vice versa, creates a lot of big problems. Because happiness is a temporary feeling. We feel happy in response to some kind of external stimulus: our favorite sports team wins an important game; we share a great meal with friends; we spend a day doing absolutely nothing except curling up under a blanket by the fire with a new book. And a million other such possibilities, all of which bring us the feeling of happiness. Sometimes it feels like fireworks going off; other times it feels like the crackling logs of a good fire that slowly turn into coals glowing in the dark. But sooner or later, the light and the heat dissipate and we’re back to reality. That’s simply the nature of happiness, no matter how intense, just like any other emotion. But when we forget that, ironically, we quickly start making ourselves more and more unhappy, because we start wondering why we’re not happy, or whether we’re happy enough.

Social media is a wonderful resource in many ways, but it is particularly problematic when it comes to this issue. Lots of people complain about the negativity that happens on social media, but the selective positivity is at least as big of a problem. Because everybody looks happy on social media: they’re having great vacations and making healthful, delicious food from scratch and spending special time with their beautiful kids or grandkids and going to cultural events and making special craft projects and catching up with friends and learning a new musical instrument and all the other kinds of things that you wish you were doing instead of laundry and cleaning the gutters and trying to catch up on work over the weekend when you also have to drive three kids to fifteen soccer games while they fight in the back seat and you end up making microwave generic macaroni and cheese for dinner because you’re out of time but you had to use water instead of milk because you forgot to go by the store so the cheese just clumps together in these orange blobs and then you fight over bathtime and bedtime and then you pay your bills and do the dishes and when you finally have a few minutes to relax you fall asleep on the couch while you are scrolling through your Facebook and Instagram feeds feeling isolated instead of connected to others, wondering why everyone but you seems so happy and together.

They’re not, of course. They’re just as anxious and scattered and busy and lonely and self-doubting as you are, and when they look at your pictures they feel the same thing. But nobody really knows that, because almost anyone can keep it together long enough to take a picture, and that’s what we see. One of the most memorable art exhibits I ever saw was a video exhibit in which the artist had taken videos of people at various tourist destinations: the Grand Canyon, Times Square, the Capitol building, and so on. The videos showed people posing for pictures in front of the sights and then just after the shot was taken. But the video was in slow motion, so what you saw was people in twos and threes and larger groups leaning into each other with their arms around each other, smiling beautifully and broadly for a few moments, and then clearly the photo is taken, because the smiles on everyone’s faces disappear, the groups crack and fall apart as arms fall and bodies step away from each other, and what you’re left with is a powerful sense of how momentary those smiles, that apparent happiness, really is. Did you ever wonder why nobody smiles in really old photos? There are different theories, but one common one says that it’s a hold-over from portrait-painting. When people had to sit for a portrait, they couldn’t smile because they couldn’t hold the smile in the same position for the length of time that was required to paint a face in a portrait. And so that became the convention for someone’s appearance in a painted portrait, which carried over into photographic portraits. People only started smiling when photo technology advanced to the point that the subjects only had to hold a smile for a couple of seconds. Because anybody can hold a smile for a few seconds.

But happiness is like that, here and gone, like any emotion. Which is why it’s so dangerous to confuse happiness with joy. There’s an insidious myth that Christians are supposed to be happy all the time, but that’s not true. Jesus wasn’t happy all the time. Paul certainly wasn’t happy all the time. The Apostles and early church leaders weren’t happy all the time. Happiness is fairly incidental to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian author who converted as an adult once said, “I didn’t turn to religion to make me happy; I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.” Now, if Port doesn’t make you happy, you can replace it with whatever does, but the point is, the power of the gospel is not to make us happy; there are plenty of other things that will do that, and plenty of things about the gospel that will not. As Lewis went on to say, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Because Jesus asks us to do all kinds of things that make us uncomfortable sometimes: Love your neighbor as yourself; love your enemies; welcome strangers; give to anyone who begs of you; forgive, if you have anything against anyone. And so much more.

No, the good news of Jesus Christ is about far more than happiness. Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, be happy;” he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice…the Lord is near.” Only then does he say “do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests be known to God.” The rejoicing Paul calls us to has nothing to do with circumstances; those are the “everything” that comes afterwards, in which we are to make our requests known to God. But the rejoicing is not about good times or bad, good things or bad; things that make us comfortable or uncomfortable. It is rejoicing in the Lord, which is why it can be “always,” because the love and grace and presence of the Lord is “always” and near. Christian joy is not a feeling, it is a state of being, of knowing and being known by God through Jesus Christ, of being fully loved and fully claimed and fully valued by the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, who loved you so much that the Son of God was willing to be born in poverty in a backwater village of a neglected corner of the world, and grow up to suffer and die on a cross just so the powers of sin and death cannot and will not get the last word about you or any of us. And there is nothing that can interfere with that; nothing that can stop it; nothing that can change it. Which is why “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” as Paul concludes. Peace is the product of joy, not of knowledge; it comes from trust and gratitude in who God is and what God is doing with us and for us, not an intellectual understanding of God (or of peace) that we have worked out for ourselves.

Ted Wardlaw, longtime president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, points out that this last verse of today’s reading is technically a benediction: the pronouncement of God’s blessing and peace upon the people. “In worship,” he says, “the benediction is predictably the last word of the liturgy.” But this one comes before Paul’s letter to the Philippians is over; there’s still a ways to go. “Paul’s placement of a benediction here,” he concludes, “is a good reminder that benedictions come, more often than not, in the middle of things and not just at their end.”  And so, if you imagine the season of Advent as one long service of worship, the benediction also comes before the end, here almost in the middle of things on the Third Sunday, with two Sundays behind us and another Sunday and Christmas Eve yet to go. Which is truly good news for us: that the benediction comes when the Lord is near and not just when the Lord is here.

Because we need benedictions in the middle of things; we need to celebrate and experience joy in Christ and the peace that comes from him right here in the middle of things, not just at the end. Life in Christ is not a long struggle filled with anxiety and doubt until the game is finally over and a jubilant, triumphant celebration breaks out. Every single day is an opportunity for benediction, for Christ’s joy and peace to break in, making the forces of fear and despair, anger and hate, division and deprivation bolt away like a candle drives away the dark the instant it is lit. And every single one of us is a candle waiting to be lit; every single one of us, as followers of Christ, is a living benediction to be pronounced upon the world by God, right in the middle of things, regardless of where we find ourselves. Perhaps especially where we find ourselves, when we find ourselves in places or times that we would rather not be. Because those are the places and times that need the light of Christ’s joy and peace the most. And the good news is that we don’t have to muster up the energy or the happiness from within ourselves. We simply have to share what has already been given to us; and like one candle lighting others, we lose nothing in the sharing; the light and the warmth only grows, until everyone’s face is finally illuminated, and nobody has to be afraid or anxious or alone any more.

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