Aug 22nd, Rejoice Always with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
A Part of the Series:
I was devastated to learn this past week that a friend of mine has COVID and is in the ICU at St Charles on a ventilator. You know, I must confess I experienced some post traumatic stress hearing this news, remembering just a couple years ago when my wife, Laurie, was in the ICU battling to breathe on a ventilator for a month. I remember sitting at her bedside day after day, listening to the wheezing rhythms of the ventilator, thinking what a gift breath is and how we take the gift of breath for granted.
I mean, what a miracle it is and what joy we feel when a baby is born. You know, when that baby takes that very first breath.
Yet every breath is a miracle. Every breath is a gift. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “people usually consider walking on water a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk on water, but to walk on the Earth. Every day.” He said, “we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize. A blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes, every breath, all is miracle.”
All is gift. Be conscious of your breath for a moment. Now take a deep breath with me.
The breath you just took is sheer gift. The Psalmist said, this day is not just another day. “This day has been given to you as a gift. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The degree to which we are awake to the gift of each breath, each moment, each day is a measure of our joy. And gratitude is the spiritual practice that Awakens us. I’ve said it before. It’s not joy that makes us grateful. It’s gratitude that makes us joyful. You know, we think we’ll feel better and be grateful when our fears and our anxieties have subsided.
The truth is that gratitude is the practice that helps us cope with our fears and anxiety and places them in perspective. And I love the story. Leo Pascali tell, when his father lost his job, at a time that they were living paycheck to paycheck. Leo’s father came home and said said he lost his job. And then he asked his wife to go to the store by their favorite food for a feast that night.
Yes, Mother said, what? You lost your job. We can’t afford to spend money now for a feast, Leo’s dad said, we can’t afford not to. Now is precisely the time we need to be grateful and find joy. It’s joy that will see us through this challenge.
You know, grief is a given in this fragile and broken world of ours. And there is so much to grieve right now. It’s important to grieve. It takes courage to practice gratitude and to allow and make space for moments of joy and beauty in spite of our grief. You know, joy is an act of resistance.
Joy doesn’t minimize the realities of pain and suffering. Joy courageously stares pain in the face and says, You’re not winning today. You will not have the last word.
An Admiral on the US Navy, James Stockdale, survived eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnamese prison camp. And when asked who of his fellow prisoners struggled the most and struggle to actually make it out alive, this is what James Stockdale said. It was the Optimists. The optimists, they were the ones who said, you know, will be free by Christmas and Christmas came and went. Then they said, Well, we’ll be free by Easter and Easter would come and go, and then Thanksgiving and then Christmas again.
And they died of a broken heart. Stockdale said those who survived somehow found the resilience survived something as horrific as being a prisoner of war. They tended to have three things in common. First, they faced the brutal facts of their current reality. And second, they had faith that somehow they will prevail in the end.
And third, they focused on finding joy. Finding joy and beauty in the moment, even in the midst of their horrific circumstances. I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, I don’t want to confront the brutal facts of our current reality. I wanted to be like a few months ago when, you know, we actually thought we were on a trajectory where where we could safely gather again, where we wouldn’t have to wear masks to be socially distanced, where we could travel again, where hospitals would no longer be overwhelmed and health care workers could catch their breath.
But those aren’t the brutal facts of our current reality. You know, we can keep pretending and wishing and hoping our reality was different and have our hearts broken over and over again. Or we can face the brutal facts of our current reality, have faith that that love will prevail and and that the worst thing will never be the last thing, and do our best to find joy. Joy in this moment, grateful for the gift of every breath.
Our mental and spiritual health really depends on us accepting reality, not endorsing it, but accepting it. There’s so much grief in our current reality. It’s so important to find space, to grieve, to support each other in our grief and and find the courage to allow moments of joy and beauty in the midst of our grief. Because joy isn’t found in some future reality we’re hoping for, some future reality we’re waiting for.
Joy is to be found in this reality, in this day, in this moment, in this breath, in your life, in your heart, you know, joy may not change our current reality. Joy is the companion that will see us through this reality.
You know, I think the Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote his letter to the Church at Philippi from a prison cell in Rome awaiting trial and probably execution. That was the brutal fact of his current reality. But he said this, rejoice, in the Lord, always again, I will say rejoice, this is no superficial pollyanna, phony cheerfulness. This is something that wells up out of the depths of a person’s soul.
This is the conviction of someone who accepts the brutal facts of the reality and someone who trusts there is a greater reality more real, more powerful than any jail cell, a greater reality, more real than death itself. The conviction that every breath is a gift and that love will prevail in the end. You know, the last few weeks I’ve shared that happiness and joy are really different, distinct from each other. Happiness is based on our on our external circumstances. If good things are happening, we feel happy.
Joy isn’t based on our circumstances, but on our convictions on our inner spiritual life, which means we can cultivate joy in spite of our circumstances. Paul says, Rejoice, in the Lord, always again, I say, rejoice, Well, where does Paul find this deep sense of joy in spite of being in a prison? You know, I think a clue can be found in the purpose of the letter he wrote itself. Paul writes this letter from a prison cell to the Church he founded ten years earlier, the Church at Philippi and the Church has sent a member of their community.
Epi.. I can never say that word.
Epaphroditus. That’s his name. The Church sent Epaphroditus to Rome to visit Paul in prison. You know, it’s a six week journey 800 miles away. And Epaphroditus brought money and food and blankets for Paul because in the ancient Roman world, the state didn’t take care of the prisoners, prisoners actually depended on family and friends to care for them.
So Paul receives these gifts from the Church at Philippi delivered by Epaphroditus. And Paul writes a letter back to the Church. You know, he covers a lot of topics, but it’s primarily a thank you note. Paul is thanking them for their care.
You know, here’s what Paul says in verse 18 of chapter four, He’s in prison remember, he’s in prison. “I now have plenty, and it is more than enough. I am full to overflowing because I received the gifts you sent with Epaphroditus.”
And Paul makes it clear that this isn’t the first time the Church at Philippi sent gifts. He says, “you sent contributions repeatedly to take care of my needs, even when I was in Thessalonica”
This was the spirit of the Church at Philippi. I mean, they went out of their way in their generosity to care for Paul to love Paul. And Paul, his heart filled with gratitude. Write a thank you letter. You know, I wonder, I wonder if one of the keys to finding joy, even in the midst of adversity, is being grateful. Expressing gratitude. There was a study of over a thousand married couples trying to understand why their marriages were joyless and full of conflict and hurt.
The study found that one of the primary reasons of unhappiness in marriage was the feeling of being unappreciated and taken for granted. Do we say thank you enough? I know, I don’t know. Ask employees what is the source of low morale in the workplace? And they will say it’s the feeling of being taken for granted, feeling like what I contributed wasn’t noticed or I’m not really appreciated.
You know, it’s interesting that that the Greek word Cara is a word that is at the root of the word Grace. Now, Grace just simply means gift, in many ways, an undeserved gift. And at the root of the word cara is also at the root of the word gratitude. So Grace and gratitude are linked together, and Cara is also at the root of the word Thanksgiving, and it’s at the root of the word joy. In Greek, they’re all intertwined.
They’re all connected in Greek. We cultivate joy when we take the time to recognize the gifts in our life, and we take the time to express our gratitude and to say thank you for those gifts.
You know, how often do you pause and just recognize the gifts in your life? How often do you say thank you? I encourage you to try something for a week. Try that. Try this this week.
Spend this week writing as many thank you notes as you can. Spend this week being intentional, noticing those around you and say thank you. Try to say thank you out loud. Thank you, thank you. Thank you. As often as you can, spend this week writing in a gratitude Journal.
At the end of the day, at least ten things that you notice that day, you know, that you normally take for granted and just pause and and thank God for those gifts. Meister Eckhart said, “the only prayer we ever need is two words, thank you”.
So spend this week the week ahead, practicing gratitude, expressing gratitude, saying thank you. And notice if you feel a shift in energy, notice whether or not you’re surprised by joy. Paul says, rejoice in the Lord, always again, I will say rejoice. You know what Paul says always, he’s actually talking about gratitude as an orientation of life.
It’s an orientation of life that that understands that life can be brutal. Life can be absolutely brutal and it is beautiful. I know for many of you this season, it’s been just too much, just too much. Many in our community are carrying just an unbearable weight. And parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, business owners, frontline workers, caregivers, those facing illness.
And it can feel as though it’s just too much, you know, it is too much. And when Paul says rejoice in the Lord always, you know he’s not being phony or pollyannish, he’s saying, even though it’s too much, there’s still room for your laughter. There’s still room for beauty and tenderness and joy even now, even amidst the pain. In fact, it’s joy and beauty that will see you through this time.
I use a beautiful poem weekly by Jane Kenyan. It’s called Otherwise. I actually use it as a spiritual practice. I read this poem to to interrupt my anxiety and fear with gratitude. Jane Kenyan died of leukemia at the age of 47, and she wrote this poem shortly before her death with with the profound sense that things would soon be otherwise for her. And I’m really hoping this poem, this poem might interrupt any fear or anxiety you might have with gratitude.
It’s called Otherwise.
I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, a ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill to the birchwood. All morning. I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with candlesticks. It might have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls and planned another day just like this day. But one day I know it will be otherwise.
Friends. The brutal facts of our current reality is that life is hard right now, painful, and we don’t know what the future holds. And there is a greater reality that promises the worst thing will never be the last thing.
Love will prevail in the end. And there is joy and beauty to be found. Not in some wished for future, but right here, right now, as we practice gratitude, gratitude for the gifts of this day, this moment, the gift of every breath. And there is joy to be found when our love is the reason that someone else is grateful today.
May it be so.