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 2017
Surely that doesn’t include me, you may think. This terrible year of 2017 has been too full of loss. We are drowning in a flood of sexual misconduct charges. We are suffering from empathy fatigue from natural disasters—Harvey, Irma, Maria, wildfires in the west—and the cost to the federal government alone is approaching the unfathomable amount of $100 billion. Mass killings at home and terrorism around the globe have robbed us of our sense of safety and security.
On top of that, many have suffered significant personal loss—loss of loved ones, loss of home and personal property, loss of health, loss of income, loss of identity, loss of innocence. The list goes on and on. Grief, stress, depression, anxiety, fear and discouragement are constant companions.
Where is the peace on earth the angels sang of? Where is the peace of God that passes human understanding? Where can we find joy in the midst of so much loss?
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. Rejoice! Paul said repeatedly.
How can one rejoice in the face of loss—loss of relationships, personal identity, home, health or financial security? If this is where you find yourself today—if you are depressed, anxious, fearful, lonely or grieving—perhaps you can find the same help that I did. You can choose joy.
During Advent I will post meditations on Moving Toward Joy each Sunday morning:
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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Much of the introduction comes from my June 29 blog, when I announced an upcoming series of conversations about reclaiming joy during Porchtime at the Parsonage, First Congregational Church, Nantucket.
Resources for additional Scripture study:
- Philippians, online in multiple translations at Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+1-4&version=NRSV
- Dr. Jim Denison, “Studies in Philippians,” Adult Online Bible Commentary, Dallas: BaptistWay Press, 2003. http://baptistwaypress.org/adults/bible-book-studies/ephesians-philippians-colossians/
- Dr. David E. Garland, “Philippians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, Ephesians–Philemon, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
- Ella Wall Prichard, 12 Keys to Reclaiming Joy
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Ella’s memoir, RECLAIMING JOY, is scheduled for publication in 2018 by the Baylor University Press. 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 this morning 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