Monday, December 19, 2022

Joy in a Time of Struggle


And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2: 10-11

Joy is the emotion we most often associate with Christmas. After all, it is the day we rejoice over the birth of the Messiah. In an infant's first cry, God set the stage for a permanent change in our status with our Creator. The saving work of Jesus transforms us from hopeless sinners to hope-filled children of God. No other event in this world could produce a stronger joy.

Some of us may struggle with feeling joy this Christmas. How can we be expected to feel joy amid grief over losing a loved one? Where do we find joy while enduring a life-threatening illness? And what about those people whose life situations increase the burden of their depression? Can we, or should we, manufacture joy? Is it permissible not to feel joy at Christmas?

Emotions are tools of our brain for reacting to people, news, and situations. We can regulate our emotions by helping them to fit a situation better. However, each emotion has its authenticity and purpose. As Ecclesiastes 3: 4 reminds us, there is a time for both sadness and joy. Our emotions are there for a reason. Our grief, worry, and sadness can all draw us closer to God as we realize our need for His love and mercy

I think of Christmas joy differently. This joy is not something we create – joy is something we receive. Joy is not only the reaction to grace; it is grace. The remembrance of the birth of the Christ Child brings us joy even in the darkest of circumstances. That joy is real even when mixed with grief or weariness. Jesus' birth and what it brings to us are true even when we don't feel like celebrating. Because Christmas joy is a gift from God, it is not emotionally exclusive. We can feel seemingly opposite emotions simultaneously. However, the emotions change each other. We may not feel the exuberant joy of a much hoped-for gift or the tearful joy in the embrace of a loving reunion. 

Instead, we find the quiet, soul-saturating joy of communion and the realization of the depth and breadth of God's love for us. Because of Jesus' sacrifice, we have a place at His sacred table.

We can experience joy in both the best and worst of circumstances. This "good news of great joy" is a joy that marks an awareness of God's amazing grace. It is not so much an excited, euphoric joy but a quiet mindfulness of God's saving and healing love emanating from the bed of the newborn Christ child and echoing in the Easter tomb.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”  So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Matthew 28: 5-8


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Mary's Lesson on Primary Emotions

 Today we celebrate Epiphany, but my heart is still with Mary's song.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Luke 1: 28-30

As I read this familiar passage of the Christmas story, I am struck by Mary’s emotions. One moment she was a young woman preparing for married life, and the next, she was trying to comprehend the words of an angel. Mary reacted in fear and confusion, certainly an appropriate response given the circumstances. Our emotions are a gift from God that help us to absorb a situation. However, emotions do not always feel like a gift, especially when they are intense.

It is not unusual for us to take a strong emotion and change it to something more comfortable. Mary might have turned her fear into anger and focused on the new challenges of her life. She was to be an unwed mother at a time that did not treat that circumstance with mercy and kindness. From an earthly perspective, her life was in ruins. Instead, she let go of fear in favor of praise as seen in a psalm sung for Elizabeth.

And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Luke 1: 46

God turned her fear into rejoicing. Because of this, Mary moved outside of her own needs and considered how she was to have a role in divine mercy. She did not dwell on the days and months ahead. She did not dwell on her sacrifices, difficult conversations, or how God imposed this situation on her. Instead, she rejoiced in the fulfillment of God’s promises growing beneath her heart.

This particular part of the Christmas story sticks out for me this year. I have spent much time working with teachers to understand the emotions they see in the colleagues, students, and parents with whom they work. We have talked about how we are apt to replace our initial emotion with one that makes us feel we have more control over an out-of-control situation. The problem is the second emotion doesn’t fit, so we have to find a way to justify it. For example, our fear about a pandemic becomes anger, and we look for someone to blame – scientists, health experts, pastors, teachers, government leaders, and even loved ones. But, of course, this anger and blame do little to address the issue that brought about the fear. Instead, it keeps us from trusting in God’s plan. When we fail to trust, we miss out on the blessings God prepared for us. Imagine the grief Mary would have created if she had not put her trust in God’s benevolence.

Mary had God’s messenger to help her move past the fear and confusion to see God’s ultimate plan. Mary also had a strong faith that moved her emotional state into gratitude and joy. We don’t have an angel encouraging us to process our fear through faith, but we do have God’s Word. God’s Word has power over our fear and anger. God’s Word always points us to the saving work of Jesus.

I am intrigued by Mary’s song because even though the event happened to her, the song is about what God was doing. She saw blessing in being a servant to her God, no matter the circumstances.  Her song sang the praise of what God’s mercy accomplished through the work of the Christ Child.

And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Luke 1: 50-51.

In Mary’s response, we see the best course of action for dealing with any chronic struggle. We set aside anger and trade fear for trust. God’s plan is complete and ancient. He brings good out of all circumstances because He can do no less for the children He loves. The baby in the manger came to fight and win all battles for us.

The Magnificat teaches us that our God delivers His people amid suffering and disappointment. But Mary’s song points to an attitude we can adapt to better process challenges. We can trust in God and look for ways to serve His people. We, too, can be a part of God’s work. We do this not out of a spirit of fear or obligation but as a result of the joy of being a child of God. Because of Jesus, we find ourselves living in God’s favor, covered by His righteousness. This favor is the source of our gratitude and joy.