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When I visualize my mother, the first image that always comes to mind is of her with her worn Bible across her knees, index cards and pencil at hand, preparing her Sunday School lesson. Her old King James Version was falling apart, the spine of its cheap leatherette cover peeling off, pages spilling out.[i] But she treasured it because it had belonged to her beloved Aunt Ruby, a spinster who spent her entire life on the family farm in southern Mississippi.

On the flyleaf of her Bible Aunt Ruby had written, Whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. Philippians 4:11. After she died in 1945, her bachelor brother Rod, who lived on the farm with her, gave Mama her Bible.

Mama must have introduced me to that verse and to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi shortly afterwards, because it was a verse, a family story and a lesson that I cannot remember ever not knowing.

Philippians is a short letter—only four chapters, a few pages of text—easily read in less than an hour. But it is a letter packed full of encouragement and hope for a poor, discouraged, divided congregation; and its advice is as helpful today for all those who have experienced darkness as it was 2,000 years ago, when the angel proclaimed to shepherds in the field,

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.[ii]

Great joy? to all people?

Annus Horribilis 2020

The Queen described the year 1992 as her “annus horribilis”—a year when the Royal Family was beset by scandals. I adopted that term in 2017, writing that the year had been too full of loss and that we suffered from empathy fatigue from all the death and destruction caused by natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires.

How could I have guessed that only three years later more hurricanes and far worse wildfires in the west would pale in comparison to the losses caused by Covid-19? Sure 2020 [Dear God, please may 2021 be better?] will be the worst year of all.

I have grown to understand grief as the loss of the tomorrows of our hopes, dreams, plans and expectations. We are all grieving. While I reject the orderliness of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief after the death of a spouse, Americans seem to be moving through denial, anger, bargaining and depression toward acceptance at different speeds. Some of us have fully accepted the reality of the pandemic, while others are still in denial and most of us are somewhere in between.

I swing from analytical acceptance to occasional anger, bargaining and depression. At times I am overcome by stress and anxiety. I do not like spending so much time alone. How dare I complain? I ache for those who have lost a spouse and are having to grieve in isolation. The empty places at my table are—God-willing—temporary. Far too many will have an empty place at the table and in their hearts forever.

Where is the peace on earth the angels sing of? Where is the peace of God that passes human understanding? Where can we find joy in the midst of so much loss?

Why Philippians?

The Apostle Paul assures us that we can reclaim joy, regardless of how bad our circumstances may be. His short letter to the Philippians provides a roadmap for moving from loss to joy.

Philippi was an important Roman colony on the Roman Road near the Mediterranean Sea, in presentday Greece. Paul planted a church there—the first Christian church in Europe—and he planned to return, but instead, he was arrested and imprisoned, chained to a Roman guard. Word reached him that this tiny, young church was struggling. The congregation was a tiny, poor, persecuted minority; and to make things worse, a disagreement between two women in the church led to sharp divisions among the people. Paul’s letter was one of love and encouragement, and his wise advice is timeless.

Whenever I am discouraged or depressed, I reread Philippians. I read it in the early morning hours after Lev died and over and over again in the weeks that followed. Paul’s letter showed me the way to survive the Holidays that first year as a widow, and it is reminding me again this year.

Choose Joy

How can one rejoice in the face of so much loss? This year has tested my faith—my ability to “Rejoice in the Lord Always”—like nothing I have faced since Lev’s death in 2009. I have to be very intentional in seeking joy. Once again I cling to the Serenity Prayer. These meditations are me too.

During Advent I will post meditations on Moving Toward Joy each Sunday morning:

  • December 6—Love Overcomes Fear
  • December 13—Unity Strengthens Relationships
  • December 20—Maturity Brings Wisdom
  • December 24—Peace Leads to Joy

Each meditation is based on a single chapter of Philippians, on specific attributes we need in order to reclaim joy. Paul describes a logical progression; there are steps between grace, where we begin, and joy, where we end. Among the key concepts are the significance of role models and mentors, the importance of relationships, the need to live life in gratitude mode and—of course—joy itself.

This is not a Bible study. Instead, the meditations are designed to provide times of quiet reflection, focusing on the spiritual dimension of grief, allowing Scripture to speak to us wherever we are in our journey.

While each week’s meditation and Scripture can be read in a few minutes, I encourage you to set aside a time each day for reflection and contemplation. Perhaps you need to begin each day on a positive note, or perhaps you need a time to turn off your worries and ruminations before you go to bed. Each of us is unique. Find what nourishes your soul and gives you peace.

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Resources for additional Scripture study:

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Ella’s memoir, RECLAIMING JOY, was published by the Baylor University Press in 2018. Her blogs are often adapted from her book.


[i] On a personal note, I gave Mama a new Bible to replace Aunt Ruby’s on Christmas 1972. Looking for the Christmas story in the King James Version, I picked up that Bible recently and found her notes for a Christmas Sunday School lesson she taught many decades ago. Again, I see her with her Bible across her knees, pencil in hand; and I am overwhelmingly grateful for this moment of serendipity. She was a gift; this moment is a gift.

[ii] Luke 2:9b KJV