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Meditations for Advent: 1. Moving Toward Joy

Are you ready to celebrate Christmas? This year has been a hard year on many fronts. Many have suffered grievous losses. On top of record wildfires and hurricanes, our divided people coped with anxiety caused not only by the pandemic but also by protests and politics. Hope and peace and joy often seem very far away.

That’s how I felt after Lev died. The very thought of the Holidays terrified me. To prepare my heart, I turned to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, as I have so often when I was depressed, discouraged, anxious or fearful. By meditating on a few verses each day and allowing Paul’s timeless, practical advice to speak to me where I was, I was able to move toward joy. Today, almost 12 years later and three years since I originally wrote these meditations, I need to meditate on the words of Paul again.

So, before we dive into Scripture, a couple of questions:

What brings you here? What is keeping you from experiencing joy? Is there an empty chair at the table? an empty space in your heart? Are you alone this Christmas, with little to celebrate, little reason to decorate?

It’s okay to mourn your loss. Your grief impacts you physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually. Build time in your daily schedule to take care of yourself on all fronts. Rest, exercise and build a moment of joy into every day. These Advent meditations are designed to nourish you spiritually.

The week’s study is divided into seven sections, which you may use as a time of daily meditation and reflection. Light a candle. Play Christmas music. Allow time for God to speak to your heart. You might like to keep a journal, jotting down your thoughts. As you read each passage of Scripture, ask yourself:

  • Which keyword or theme speaks to me today?
  • What lesson can I learn from this passage?
  • What can I give over to God?
  • Whom do I know—family members, friends, famous people, even literary figures—who model the character trait or attribute I need today?
  • What am I thankful for today? What were my moments of joy?
1. Grace, Philippians 1:1, 2

Grace and peace…we need an extra measure of both when we are overwhelmed by loss!

Paul, in prison, sends greetings to the church at Philippi. Young Timothy is with him and possibly serving as his secretary, writing the letter as Paul dictates it. Paul describes them both as servants, and some translations use the word slaves. Paul says that he and Timothy are in bondage to Christ, acting as His agents.

In the Church, we often hear the term servant-leader to describe the appropriate attitude for leaders. We move toward joy when we adopt that same attitude of humility and service, thinking about others instead of ourselves. We can always find someone whose loneliness, suffering and loss exceeds our own.

We can apply these same attributes in all our human relationships. The problems in the church at Philippi can exist in our families, in the workplace and in our circle of friends. Likewise, Paul’s advice to the Philippians is good advice for all of us, whatever our loss, whatever our circumstances.

Grace is the bottomless well of God’s unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness and pardon. It is the gift of unmerited favor. And in the giving and receiving of grace, we find inner peace and peace with others.

In my grief after Lev’s death I often overreacted, creating tensions with both my family and my professional advisors. I desperately needed for people to extend grace to me. And I had to extend grace to others. People could not read my mind, and I was not yet able to articulate my needs. I needed to overlook and forgive those who said and did the wrong thing…or who said and did nothing, because they didn’t know what to do. In so doing, I began to find peace.

2. Gratitude, Philippians 1:3–8

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy…

From his prison cell, Paul claims joy as he remembers those he loves in Philippi. In his prayers, he thanks God both for his memories of the church and the anticipation that he will be released from jail and will see them again.

As David Garland wrote in his commentary, “In the New Testament, the Christian experience of joy has no correlation to a person’s outward circumstances. Joy usually eludes those who seek it out but comes to those who wish to impart it to others.” (192)

I claimed gratitude, taking time each day to say, Thank you, God, for… I paraphrased Paul’s prayer in prayers of gratitude for Lev, both the good memories of 46 years together and the anticipation that I will see him again.

In our despair, we cannot imagine that life will ever be good again. We wonder, will I live long enough to enjoy life again after the pandemic? By living in gratitude mode—counting our blessings, continually saying thanks—we can move from despair to hope. This is a year when Christmas Past and Christmas Future both look better than Christmas Present. For starters, we can find joy in our memories of the past and our anticipation of a vaccine and a Covid-free future.

3. Discernment, Philippians 1:9–11

Paul balances his expressions of gratitude for the Philippians with hope that they will grow in love and discernment. He hints at the problem in that church—the dispute between two of the women, which led to divisions in the congregation.

Loving one another, seeking knowledge and wisdom—both facts and insight—will lead to healing and reconciliation. Paul has already made clear that he wasn’t taking sides here. He addresses his letter to all saints in the church, including the leadership. (v.1:1)

My continual prayer in widowhood developed from this passage. Lord, give me wisdom and discernment and help me protect the family unit.

My mother set a powerful example for me. At a time when there were divisions in our church and pressure on our pastor to resign, Mama said, “I have loved every pastor I have ever had. I thanked God for their strengths and prayed for their weaknesses.”

Jesus said, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27, 28 NRSV) If you mourn broken relationships today, look for the good and thank God for it. Pray for reconciliation, thanking Him in anticipation.

4. Courage, Philippians 1:12–18a

Paul models courage in the face of adversity. He tells the Philippians not to worry about him. He is even able to find good in his imprisonment. He looks beyond his personal suffering to see the bigger picture—God at work through, not in spite of, the circumstances.

He displays courage in continuing to preach despite the consequences, giving courage to new Christians who face harassment, discrimination and persecution both from Roman and Jewish authorities.

As a new widow, I looked for role models and mentors. I saw widows who faced life alone without fear, courageously overcame obstacles, found joy even in times of crisis and lived purposefully and contentedly. They showed me how to live my new life with courage and hope. This year when I need courage to isolate away from friends and family, I look at my friend Mary Anne, who is a cancer and bone marrow survivor, who lives every day in isolation and yet manages to find joy in her art and who still finds ways to do kind deeds forand speak encouraging words to her friends. If she can do it with no end in sight, surely I can do it for a few more months.

5. Expectations, Philippians 1:18b–20

Just as Paul finds joy in his memories of the Philippians and in his anticipation that they will be reunited, he also rejoices in his anticipation that that he will honor Christ—not be put to shame—in the way he lives his life, with the sure confidence that God is in control.

The great Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis wrote a lot about joy, which he believed was easier to find than settled happiness. He found that joy consists of both memory and anticipation, that once we have experienced joy, we will want it again.

In my journey to reclaim joy, I have found that to be true. I need to balance the good memories of the past with anticipation of good things to come. I need to live my life with expectation and hope. I cling to the belief that if my expectations are realistic and my hopes are grounded in faith, I can find contentment and purpose—even joy—regardless of circumstances.

6. Joy, Philippians 1:21–26

Each time Paul mentions joy, he describes it in a different context: his joy in his memories of the church at Philippi, his joy in the good that comes from his imprisonment and now his desire to live longer, in order to see the congregation reclaim the joy of their faith.

He engages in an internal debate, whether it would be better to live or die. He sees advantages in death, but he also sees that in living, he can help others. He wants to continue to minister to the Philippians. He understands that he has a purpose in life that is greater than himself.

Likewise, when we quit focusing on our own loss and begin to focus on the needs of others, when meeting their needs becomes more important to us than our personal desires, we will find meaning and purpose for our lives. We open ourselves to joy.

7. Unity, Philippians 1:27–30

Yes, love can overcome fear if you…

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind…in no way intimidated by your opponents.

Paul shares his hope for the church at Philippi. He speaks to the church corporately, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, living in community with obligations and commitments to one another. If dissention has weakened the church, unity will strengthen it. Together they can find courage to face whatever obstacles and opposition threaten them.

Nowhere is this more applicable than in our families. Until Lev’s death, I did not realize how fragile families are in times of loss. Everyone hurts. Everyone is stressed, anxious, afraid. No one is thinking clearly. But we need one another more than ever before.

As my minister preached one Sunday, “It is more important to be rightly related than to be right.” Take care of your family. Treat them with the same love, generosity, kindness and respect that you want. Seize every opportunity to bring the family together. Pray unceasingly for your family. Your future depends on it.

* * *

If you missed the introduction to the Meditations, click here, Moving Toward Joy, for background to the Scripture.

Next week, on the third Sunday of Advent, we will meditate on Philippians 2, Unity Strengthens Relationships, with concrete suggestions from Paul on how to nurture relationships.

  • December 20—Maturity Brings Wisdom, Philippians 3
  • December 24—Peace Leads to Joy, Philippians 4
Resources for additional Scripture study:

Personal note: I am not a WordPress expert, and in rewriting this essay, I somehow removed the blue underlines that indicate links. The links are still there; you simply can’t see them. If you run your cursor over the text, you will be able to go to the link. 

Originally posted December 3, 2017.

Portions of this meditation are adapted from Ella’s memoir, RECLAIMING JOY,  published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018.