By Barbara Milligan
Recently I was sitting with my eyes closed, listening to a friend read aloud a familiar passage from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone…,” and so on through several more verses. A few friends and I were doing a lectio divina (“sacred reading”) exercise; the idea is to listen to (or read) a passage of Scripture and notice what word or phrase stands out for you, and then what’s stirring within you, and finally, how God might be speaking to you about your life through that word or phrase.
Although I love doing lectio divina, this time it was difficult for me, because the word rejoice kept getting in the way. Nope. Wrong word. Not during Lent. I was looking for something more somber, in keeping with this season of Jesus’ suffering and death. But no matter how hard I tried to make a different part of the passage jump out at me, I could imagine it only as 7-point type, a size that even a 20-year-old can’t read without glasses. And yet when my mind went back to rejoice, I kept seeing that ill-fitting word as colorful, illuminated calligraphy on a grand scale.
Rejoice during Lent? Is that what God was inviting me to do?
I had two prejudices that made me want to resist that invitation. First, I rarely hear the word rejoice any more, except in a Sunday-morning sermon and other formal contexts, so I don’t often expect whatever is being said about it to be something I can relate to. In everyday American English we talk about being happy, and we might talk about feeling joyful. But not really about “rejoicing.”
My second prejudice is that Lent is a time that we are invited to become more aware of our own weaknesses, limitations, and sins and draw closer to Jesus, who loves us deeply, forgives us, heals us, and changes us. That’s a lot to be thankful for and to anticipate being joyful about on Easter as we celebrate the Resurrection. The idea of experiencing joy during Lent, though, didn’t quite work for me. I already find it too easy to avoid my sins without getting the wrong kind of help from Scripture. Besides, if I’m increasing in my awareness of my sinfulness during Lent, isn’t that “a time to grieve,” as the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes says?
Part of my struggle with being joyful during Lent is no doubt due to some bad teaching I had as I was growing up. In my church youth group whenever we sang, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” and I was anxious about an exam I was having the next day, I figured that if I had any joy in my heart it was down too deep to do me any good. And I wasn’t helped by hearing church leaders describe joy as something deep inside you that you don’t necessarily feel. They said we must always be joyful even when we don’t feel like it, and the feelings would follow. I tried that a few times before realizing it isn’t entirely true. Also, people I knew who practiced that belief didn’t seem like real people who could empathize with those who were in distress.
But to avoid being joyful because of bad teaching, and especially when God is inviting me to be joyful, would mean missing out on some good things God wants to give me. So I’ve been contemplating reasons to be joyful throughout this Lenten season. I’ve discovered that one important thing I can be joyful about is the sense of freedom I have as I learn to let go of the things I cannot control.
Now, letting go is a slow, ongoing process for me. I want to be in control, and I want my life to fit my expectations. Although praying the Serenity Prayer often helps me let go of my expectations, prejudices, agendas, and desire to be in control, and helps me give those things to God (for the moment, anyway), old habits take time to break. Sometimes my actions suggest that I’m replacing the line “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” with my secretly preferred version: “God grant me the serenity to change the things I cannot accept.” But I know that when I try to change things that are not my responsibility, I end up disappointed and frustrated. When I manage to give the responsibility to God, however, I am free. Free from having to measure up to other people’s expectations of me. Free from having to measure up to my expectations of myself. And free from having quite so many things to concern myself with. My burdens become lighter.
And that’s a cause for being joyful. For feeling joyful. So joyful that I want to laugh.
I do believe we can experience grief and joy at the same time—grief over our sinfulness and joy over the freedom that God is creating within us. Or at least we can experience them within the same season.
May you discover reasons to experience joy during this Lenten season.
Barbara Milligan is a spiritual director and the author of Desperate Hope: Experiencing God in the Midst of Breast Cancer.
“Spirituality & Recovery” is a new blog, cohosted by Barbara Milligan and the Rev. Dr. Kim Engelmann, pastor of West Valley Presbyterian Church, in Cupertino, CA. Kim is the author of Running in Circles: How False Spirituality Traps Us in Unhealthy Relationships (IVP, 2007).