A reflection offered at Hobart North UCA for the third Sunday in Advent
That phrase intrigues me: “Keeping it real”.
Often said as “Yeah, just keepin’ it real, bro”, or similar.
Sometimes it’s said by sportspeople & commentators and comes out something like “we’re concentrating on keeping it real for the boys” (It usually comes somewhere between “full credit to the boys” and “we’re just taking it one game at a time”!)
“Keeping it real…” I really do wonder what it actually means.
Strangely though, it was one of the phrases going around in my head as I prepared for today’s Witness, so I’m beginning to think it might mean SOMETHING!
It was in my head, as I thought about the word JOY… and all that that word seems to take on, in the preparation for Christmas.
Perhaps perversely, I found it really hard to prepare worship around the theme & idea of JOY, not because I don’t like the idea, but because it’s becoming kind of a strange word, in the way it often gets used.
It’s not one I hear a whole lot outside religious circles.
It’s used a fair bit within those circles, but sometimes in some odd ways, methinks.
As I began to prepare the liturgy for the Advent candles, I did a bit of looking at what others were doing. (part of creativity is, after all, knowing where to find the best ideas to steal!).
Reading some christian reflections on joy left me struggling a bit, because they were saying things like: Joy is GOD’s desire for us, but we keep putting our own desires in the way, or doing stuff that blocks GOD’s desire. OR Only GOD can give real joy, and we can have joy all day every day if we just follow GOD’s plan for us.
Now I’m quite comfortable with the notion of joy as a gift of GOD, but what I was reading sounded awfully like “well God wants you to be joyful, but says that you have to try really hard to do what God wants, and if you’re not joyful then you’re probably not doing the whole Christian thing properly”.
And my response to that (tidied up just a little!) is “Rubbish!”
Putting aside the fact that it ignores divine grace, I have two concerns with this sort of statement.
Firstly, it gets mixed up between “joy” and “happiness”.
At college, my New Testament lecturer laid down the law to us one day as we were translating Matthew’s gospel into Greek ( a skill that has long since left me!)
“There is” he said, “a special corner of hell reserved for people who translate the Greek word “makarioi” as “happy”, as some translations of the beatitudes do”. The word is “blessed”, he said, “and don’t you people forget it” Clearly, given that that was 21 years ago, I HAVEN’T forgotten!
His concern was not only that ‘happy’ was a wrong translation, but that it was a weak translation.
Jesus was making a deliberate and important statement about GOD’s passion for people in the midst of real and difficult human situations, not trying to cheer up people who were sad about their lot in life.
“Happy” didn’t come close to “blessed”. And I believe we get the two mixed up a fair bit in our society today. Happiness is good. Happiness is great, I like being happy! But if the quality of my life is to be defined by how much of each day I feel happy, well… I think something’s missing. (in my case, possibly a few extra tablets might do the trick, but I doubt it!)
I never had the conversation with my teacher about ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’, but I think the same logic applies. Happiness is only a part of joy, and the feeling of happiness only a partial indicator to presence of joy in our lives. This is reality… keeping it real, if you like.
Because reality tells us that we are not always happy, not even at Christmas!
Now I KNOW that’s not what we’re told in all of the advertising, storytelling and images that are all around us as we get ready for “The Big Day”, but it’s true… it’s real.
Sometimes, even at Christmas, (or maybe especially at Christmas) it can be really hard to be happy, for all kinds of very good reasons. It can be really hard to get into “the Christmas spirit”
I think the people in the house on the right know what I’m saying…
Sometimes, even often maybe, life gets in the way of happiness. But I’m not so sure it gets in the way of joy, quite so much…
I mentioned a second concern with the kinds of christian statement I’d read about joy.
It follows the first, and concerns the idea that GOD wants us to be joyful, and if we’re not then we’re not trying hard enough, or perhaps being unfaithful, or even, to quote a dreadful phrase I’ve heard occasionally, “not letting GOD have his way with us” (!)
This is drivel, and needs to be named as drivel! It’s not only ungracious, but unscriptural. (Quite apart from the fact that that expression is the language of rape!)
Within all of life’s realities, good, bad and indifferent, we remain held in the love of God in Jesus Christ, as we’re reminded by Paul Romans 8:38-9 “There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of GOD in Christ Jesus”.
The story of Jesus tells of the one in whom we believe we see a unique vision of GOD with us in all the circumstances of life and death.
Jesus never promised his followers all-day-every-day happiness, but he did promise things like deep joy and abundant life! Keeping it real…
As I finally got to writing the candle liturgy the words “we remember Jesus, who believed in joy”, came to me, and have spent time in my head ever since.
They’ve had me remembering and looking at stories where we see him believing in joy, and living it
There are many, and they don’t all involve great happiness! What they DO involve, almost always, is relationship with others, compassion, vulnerability, and love.
Now please don’t think that I’m saying today that happiness is not a good thing, or important. As I said earlier, happiness is good. Happiness is great, I like being happy!
But joy, in the context for which we light a candle and pray today, goes way beyond happiness, and way deeper as well.
It IS a gift, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But like all gifts and fruits of the Spirit, whether we ‘have’ it at all times, is not a sign of GOD’s favour or lack of it.
It is a gift to be claimed, however boldly or hesitantly…
A gift to be believed in, and lived… Some days in small steps, other days in big steps.
A gift of the Holy Spirit of GOD, with us in the big steps and in the small.
A gift to grow and to celebrate, with graciousness, courage, and sometimes with great happiness!.
A gift which keeps us real…
Today we remember Jesus, who believed in joy, and we dare to follow his way!
May we be blessed on the way, and be a blessing to others, in the name of Jesus. AMEN