The Spiritual Discipline of Celebration

December 24th, 2019
This article is featured in the Intentional Spirituality (Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-20) issue of Circuit Rider

The following article is an excerpt from an upcoming book on intentional spirituality from Abingdon Press. Printed with permission. 

What comes to mind when you hear the word celebrate? Do you imagine a birthday party with friends and family, balloons, gifts, and a cake? Perhaps your first thought is holidays such as Christmas, or dinner out because you got a raise in pay. There are religious celebrations, too, within the liturgical year and in the sacraments. In most of these forms of celebration there is joy because they are attached to experiences that feel good.

But what does it mean for us to practice the spiritual discipline of celebration when we do not feel joyful, when we did not get the raise we hoped for, when our son did not stop taking drugs, when we lose our job, when the test results come back and our world is turned upside down? While it might seem counterintuitive, the Christian practice of celebration is most potent and most healing at times like these.

The central reason for Christian celebration is that God in Christ is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Jesus shows us that God is for us and not against us. God is with us and not absent. In Jesus, God “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). God keeps moving into the neighborhood of each of our lives and communities. We are not alone.

Having said all of that, this is the first time I have written a book that I absolutely did not want to write. I even tried to get out of it, but it was too late to do so.

I believe in the spiritual practice of celebration, to be sure. Celebration is an important part of the Christian life and central to the liturgical calendar. The sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion are celebrations that ground believers in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My resistance had nothing to do with my beliefs about celebration. The fact was that months after I had agreed to write this book, when it was too late to change my mind, I was unable to write because I was depressed. I had no creative energy for anything. As anyone who has experienced depression knows, symptoms include emotional flatness, an inability to enjoy activities that are normally life-giving, disrupted sleep patterns, and apathy. Depression isn’t the opposite of happiness; it is the opposite of feeling. And how could I write about celebration when I felt nothing except exhaustion?

My depression was what medical professionals refer to as “situational,” caused by a convergence of extremely stressful events including my mother’s death and the decision to leave my tenured faculty post. I was so numb from stress and exhaustion that, when my mother died, I was unable to cry or to feel anything. My body was so full of pain that at times it was difficult to walk. I took a sabbatical to help my body release the trauma it held. 

I am profoundly grateful for the support of my husband, family, and friends, and the homely chores of tending our small farm as I began to heal. The non-agricultural part of our property is a beautiful forest with soaring pines and hardwoods, trails, abundant flora and fungi, and wildlife. Over the next few months my previous pace of seventy-hour work weeks gave way to forest walks, tending chickens, making soup, therapy, reading, and sleep. Spring slowly came to the farm after a long, cold winter. Finally, with the blooming of the redbuds and my mother’s favorite, the dogwoods, my heart slowly opened to release the buried pain of loss. I began to feel again.

Grief is crazy-making. One day you have energy and creativity. You almost feel like yourself again, so you schedule a dinner party with friends for the following week. But when next week comes you can’t bear to see or talk to anyone, much less hold a dinner party. Everything that used to seem solid now feels tentative, fragile, uncertain. You second guess yourself about the smallest matters. You find yourself sitting in a chair staring into space wondering if you’ll ever be yourself again.

It was on one of those hard days when the dogwoods were in bloom that I decided I was unable to write about celebration. But I realized that celebration was the spiritual practice that had kept me going through many hard days. Celebration was the spiritual discipline that was, even then, slowly bringing me back to life. Over the next many months I wrote, section by section, and continued to heal. Today I am well. Writing this book was a significant part of what helped me to heal.

This book, then, is about the spiritual practice of Christian celebration, which is always focused on God making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Celebration is always bound to brokenness, loss, and lament. Just as the resurrected Jesus’ promise to make all things new was spoken in the fiery apocalypse of Revelation, celebration bursts forth from us Christians in our personal cataclysms ushered in through a death, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or a dark night of the soul.

In the pages ahead we will visit narratives from the Bible and people in our own day who learned to celebrate in hard times because they trusted that God was making all things new. We will listen to their pain, marvel at their stories, find ourselves in their struggles with shame, fear, depression, trauma, and loss, and learn from their hard-won wisdom. We will do this so that we, too, can know and celebrate the wondrous goodness of God. No matter what.

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