“The Shepherd’s Song” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1891). Public Domain.
Philippians 4:1-9 1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?” This question was my favorite professor’s refrain every time our class stumbled across some great insight about faith, community, or doing good.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?”
So, we are about six months into the 2020 pandemic. As of today, about 35 million people have contracted COVID-19, and over 1 million have died from it. Millions upon millions have faced insecurity in housing, food, employment, and child care.
In the United States, communities struggle to address the embedded inequalities and violence aimed at people of color. Statues of slave-holders have come down, bigoted CEO’s have stepped down, and protests have continued. Violence and property damage have occurred in some places, carried out by a few opportunists or right-winged extremists.
Wildfires on the West Coast have displaced over 200,000 people and thanks to the second most active hurricane season on record, thousands more in the Gulf Coast.
We cannot forget, of course, that 2020 is an election year.
2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and it’s not over. No wonder some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters of faith have seen apocalyptic overtones in 2020, hailing these days to be the last days.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
But there’s an additional problem.
A few weeks ago, my sons Simon and Miles brought home information about town soccer. But the problem was, the K-2 soccer team in Starksboro did not have a coach. I got a call that very night by another parent asking if I would co-coach with him. K-2 soccer.
Now I’ve never played soccer or coached, but that’s why we have Youtube. And wanting my boys to participate in a fall sport after spring sports were canceled, I said yes and then went to my computer and googled “How to coach soccer.”
Luckily the other coach didn’t know a thing about soccer either, so, at our first practice, one of our drills was an army crawl, a technique I have yet to see us use in a game. We did study up on the pandemic precautions for youth soccer, and now have a good set of drills to keep us busy. But it was good to hear from a more veteran coach that this age group is a lot of fun, and coaching kids this age is a combination of keeping a positive attitude and herding cats.
And I’ve had a blast doing it.
And then, last Friday, at our game in Bristol, I realized that I was full of joy. If you haven’t been to a K-2 soccer game before, imagine a small field with one ball and 47 legs trying to kick that one ball all at the same time. Goals are being scored mostly by accident while defenders find worms, throw grass at each other, or catch bugs. There’s a lot of little boy energy on the team, so kids waiting to go in on the sidelines mostly practice karate or talk about Minecraft.
But because my brain never seems to stop these days, sometime toward the end of the game, I was reminded that we are in the middle of a pandemic, social unrest, political distrust, wild fire-y and hurricane season. Am I even allowed to feel joyful these days?
“What do we do, knowing what we know?”
In some ways, Philippians attempts to answer this question.
In the early 60’s CE, the Apostle Paul writes to the first church he founded in Europe at Philippi in modern-day Greece. Paul has spent time among the community, and there is evidence of mutual support. We also know that Paul is writing this letter from prison, awaiting sentencing in Rome. He has likely been held in confinement for over two years. And yet, the tone of the message is overwhelmingly positive. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is attempting to mend a fracture in the community. Two leaders – Euodia [U – O – DEE – A] and Syntyche [SIN – TIE – KEY] have been disputing, either with each other or with Paul. Paul reminds these two leaders that they are on the same team and encourages the congregation to support these women through whatever rift there is.
Then Paul does something interesting; it seems as if he changes the subject. He calls on this faith community to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Further, he calls on the community to “Not be anxious, but to go to God in prayer and be thankful.” These practices will, he claims, bring this community peace.
Finally, Paul drives home his point by calling upon the community to think about those things that are beneficial for living together, being truthful, honorable, justice-oriented, pure, beauty-seeking, worshipful, and excellent in a Bill and Ted sort of way, I imagine. This, too, focusing one’s thinking on good things, also brings peace to the community and everyone in it.
Are we allowed to feel joyful during 2020?
There is so much illness, disaster, and distrust in the world right now.
And yet, for the Apostle Paul, as he sits in prison and pens a letter to one of his struggling faith communities, he writes about joy. He calls the Philippians his joy, even when all is not well. He’s even optimistic, hoping to be released soon, excited to send his partner Timothy to help them, and expecting to visit soon.
It seems to me that the Apostle Paul’s position on the matter is that joy is something we choose and practice. It does not dismiss the problems and conflicts people of faith encounter. Instead, it fully acknowledges them, openly and also prayerfully. In fact, practicing joy looks something like taking our deepest concerns to God, trusting that God is working in our lives and in this world for good things.
Being joyful then has something to do with trusting God. As we know, trust is a practice, something that takes time and energy, and devotion. This type of joy perceives that even in the challenges and turmoil that this world has to offer, God is actively working in concrete ways to change the story. Joy is our response to this reality. To have joy is to practice imagining what good is possible, over and above what is, to focus your attention on what God is going through us and through others throughout the world.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
The poet Rumi writes that “sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Even in 2020, we can be joyful. We can see our children and grandchildren grow leaps and bounds. We can be thankful for victories in our lives and in this world, both big and small. We can imagine all those that continue to work hard to find a vaccine, officials, and community leaders that have worked together for social equality. We can also be thankful for firefighters who risk their lives to contain wildfires and the countless workers and volunteers that help those displaced by the recent hurricanes.
And we can be hopeful that regardless of judicial appointments and election outcomes, good people are working in our communities and states and nation to make life more tolerable for everyone. They tell the truth. They fight corruption. They promote freedom and responsibility. They use their words wisely, decline the photo op, and stand up for those on the margins.
And most importantly, we can trust that God continues to bend the history of our human race toward something loving, and caring, and just. Our God hasn’t taken 2020 off or walked away from this mess. Rather, our God is more active, present, and available to us now than many of us have ever experienced.
We are allowed to be joyful in 2020. Practicing joy would probably make us a little healthier, inside and out, and would bless those around us during this troubling time. So, consider the good around you. Take your concerns always to God. Watch a little kid’s soccer game. And practice trusting in our good, loving, and always active God. Amen.