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Meditations for Advent: 2. Moving Toward Joy

When I originally wrote these meditations in 2017 I had been widowed eight years and I had every reason to expect that Christmas would be joyful. There is no way I could have anticipated a year like 2020, when even those of us who have escaped the ravages of Covid have spent much of our time in isolation. On top of that, we are unsettled and anxious about the political unrest that divides us and leads some to lawlessness and violence. Is it even reasonable to look for joy during this Advent season?

Today we turn to Philippians 2 for directions for the next stage of our journey toward the comfort and joy the angels sang about.

In all of Paul’s writing, he called on new Christians in a pagan world to imitate him as he imitated Christ. Throughout Philippians but especially in chapter 2, Paul paints a clear picture of the Christ we need to imitate. I ask myself, borrowing language from an old hymn, Do others see Jesus in me? and then I recall the praise song from 40 years ago, …and they will know we are Christians by our love.

Last week, at the beginning of our journey, the Apostle Paul’s letter of joy and encouragement led us from grace to gratitude, then discernment and courage and on to joy and unity.

We need to remember that Paul wrote to a congregation—people in community with one another—not to individuals in isolation. What applied to the Christian community in Philippi applies to us today. We are unlikely to find joy in isolation or in disagreement, dissension and division. We need one another. We need community; and Paul’s practical advice applies to our families, our friend groups and those we work with. This year do I dare suggest that we also need to move past the disagreements, dissension and division in our country? We need to be a United States of America.

Once again, the week’s study is divided into seven sections, which you may use as a time of daily meditation and reflection. Whether you carve out time each day or meditate on the entire chapter today, allow time for God to speak to your heart. 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 who models the character trait or attribute I need today?
  • What am I thankful for today? What were my moments of joy?

Last Sunday I stressed the importance of unity within our families, especially in times of significant stress, loss and grief. In Philippians 2 Paul suggests concrete ways to strengthen our relationships with friends as well as family.

1. Encouragement, Philippians 2:1, 2

Within our community of friends and family we should be able to find encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion and sympathy. If that isn’t happening, why?

Paul is referring back to his veiled references in chapter 1 to dissension in the church at Philippi. He advises the congregation that they need unity in order to stand firm against the opposition they face.

Likewise, Paul urges us to seek unity, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

This doesn’t mean we lie down and say “please walk on me.” David Garland explains in his commentary, “One cannot ‘think the same thing’ in isolation from others. [Paul] does not impose on them an obligation to agree on everything but wants them to be intent on one purpose, to have the same priorities.” (214) Can’t we apply that in our civic life as well? Americans face the threat of Covid as well as long-standing enemies abroad. We may not ever agree on how to make our country better, safer, stronger; but surely we can lay aside our personal differences to fight our common enemies. That is how we won two world wars, with enormous personal sacrifice for the common good.

Corporations almost always have written mission statements and core values. Big business understands the importance of everyone being on the same page, working toward a common, clearly defined goal. We need that sense of shared values and purpose. While it may sound impossible, Paul clearly believes that we can find that unity in life together.

2. Unselfishness, Philippians 2:3, 4

The solution is unselfishness—putting others first. Paul’s advice is simple: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Paul suggests that some in the church are watching out for their individual interests, not what is best for the group. Some think they are better than everyone else, entitled to special attention and privilege. That is the killer in family unity, when everyone starts worrying more about their own position and needs than anyone else’s. It happens among friends and in the church and workplace as well.

When I was a child, I was taught in Sunday School that JOY is an acronym for Jesus, Others, You. In other words, to have joy you need to put God first, then others and lastly, yourself. That is too simplistic. We cannot ignore our own physical, spiritual, emotional, social and financial needs; but somehow we must find a healthy balance, treating others with the same respect and consideration that we want.

After Lev’s death, I realized that focusing on my pain and emptiness stripped away all vestiges of contentment and joy. When I took my eyes off myself—when I left the pity party to reach out to others—I lifted my spirits and nourished my soul.

3. Humility, Philippians 2:5–11

How do we acquire the kind of unselfishness that is necessary to build a shared purpose? In the previous passage Paul writes…in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Now he gives us a role model for the kind of humility he is talking about. Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ.

Garland asks, “If Christ did not please himself but gave his life for others, his followers should not please themselves but should conform to the mind of their Lord. Since he humbled himself, how can they be proud? Since he took the form of a slave, how can they seek to dominate others? Since he accepted the greatest dishonor—death on a cross—how can they strive after honors?” (219)

The way of humility is not the way of the world today. We live in a “me first” society full of hubris, egotism and self-promotion. Humility is undervalued and misunderstood. It is not self-abasement and false modesty, where we deny our abilities and successes. Rather, it is our realistic appraisal of both our strengths and our weaknesses. Without humility, we cannot continue to learn and grow.

Humility is not my strong point. I was proud of my independence, of my ability to do whatever I needed to do to accomplish the tasks before me. Then Lev died and I acquired new responsibilities where my best was not good enough. I had to admit that I did not understand. Time after time I had to swallow my pride and ask for help.

I also prided myself on my emotional strength and self-control, and I was not able to admit my fears and anxiety—even to myself—for months. When I finally acknowledged that I needed help from others, my relationships with my family and with business associates improved markedly. At last we could work together toward a common goal.

4. Serenity, Philippians 2:12–16

In humbling myself, in accepting the fact that I was not capable of doing all that I wanted done, I began to find serenity, an absolute necessity before we can reach joy.

I have suggested that you identify the keyword or phrase in each passage of Philippians that speaks to you. The section headings I use here are the words that have spoken to me since 2014, when I first carved Paul’s letter up in preparing the outline of my book. Most of the time they are explicit—words taken straight out of Scripture—but not always. This passage is one where the keyword is implicit—my personal understanding of the underlying message of verses 14 and 15—Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent…

Paul first advises the Philippians to continue to obey his instructions. They need to work together—and to allow God to work in and through them—to carry out God’s mission and purpose. Then he tells them to do this without murmuring and arguing so that they can shine like stars, light in a dark world.

When we have suffered loss, we must accept the reality of our situation, whether it’s loss, Covid or an election outcome we didn’t want.  Often, we cannot change our circumstances. We can only change our response. I began to pray the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

5. Again, Joy, Philippians 2:17, 18

Only after we accept our circumstances can we move to the kind of joy that Paul describes here—a joy that flows from gratitude in the midst of loss and depression. Because the theological language is difficult here—poured out as a libation—I am going to quote from The Message, a popular modern paraphrase by Eugene Peterson.

Even if I am executed here and now, I’ll rejoice in being an element in the offering of your faith that you make on Christ’s altar, a part of your rejoicing. But turnabout’s fair play—you must join me in my rejoicing. Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me.

While not all theologians agree that Paul is talking about his death, the message for us is still the same. We can find joy in our circumstances, which open doors for ministry and service for others. That is selfless gratitude!

Try praying, Thank you, God, that my situation has given me the opportunity to….

It took me four years to get to that place. First I had to quit running from my grief, filling every second with busyness. When I went alone to Nantucket, where I knew no one, in summer 2013, I found the peace that only comes in solitude. That was the moment when I first realized I could claim joy if I shared my journey through grief with others in a memoir, using Philippians as my guide. It has turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.

6. Friendship, Philippians 2:19–24

Paul proceeds to demonstrate his unselfish love for the Philippians. We learned in the first Meditation that Timothy, whom he regards as a son in the faith, is with him in prison, serving as his assistant. Now out of his concern for the Philippians, who are allowing divisions in the group to rob them of their joy and unity, he is sending his most trusted friend to them. That’s a huge gift of sacrificial love!

He writes, I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. Timothy becomes another role model for us. Consider again the virtues of encouragement, unselfishness and humility. Those are the characteristics of genuine friends. What kind of friend are you?

Almost every widow I know has described her surprise at those who were not there for her after her loss. True friends are there for us in the bad times as well as the good times. They are there whether it’s convenient or not. They demonstrate genuine commitment, not mere interest.

After Lev’s death, I was humbled by the single women who reached out to me in friendship, even though I had not reached out to them when they lost their husbands through death or divorce. They taught me how to be a friend. They are my mentors and role models.

7. Hospitality, Philippians 2:25–30

Again, the message I receive from these verses is implicit, not what the theologians write about in their commentaries. Epaphroditus, a Philippian, is also with Paul, and Paul is sending him back home, where he believes he is more needed. He instructs the Philippians, Welcome him…with all joy and honor. Be hospitable.

I hear a lot about the gift of hospitality, but Paul never lists hospitality among the gifts of the Spirit. He writes in Romans, Practice hospitality. It applies to all of us. It’s how we nurture the relationships we have. It’s how we build new relationships. We reciprocate. We initiate. Instead of throwing pity parties, we throw parties for our friends.

As the marker dates approach, we can plan events that build in anticipation. Here’s where joy = memory + anticipation. Whether as the sender or the receiver of an invitation, we can have days or even weeks of anticipation, and afterwards the good memories. In hospitality, we share our joy with others.

That is the challenge of Covid. How can we reach out to others safely? How can we maintain friendships in isolation? How can we keep our family connected? Let’s have a conversation.

I invite you to share ways you have found to maintain the bonds of friendship and keep the family connected during the pandemic.

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

  • December 3—Loves Overcomes Fear, Philippians 1
  • December 10—Unity Strengthens Relationships, Philippians 2
  • December 17—Maturity Brings Wisdom, Philippians 3
  • December 24—Peace Leads to Joy, Philippians 4

Resources for additional Scripture study:

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Author’s notes:

I realized last week that I am a week late posting these meditations. Counting the introductory blog, there are five and this is the third. However, I numbered them to match the chapters of Philippians. They will conclude on Christmas Eve.

Since June I have had the privilege of writing monthly opinion pieces for Baptist News Global, a national moderate Baptist news service. You may read my essays here.

Portions of these meditations are adapted from my memoir, RECLAIMING JOY: A Primer for Widows, published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018. To learn more about the book or to order a copy for yourself or a friend, click here.