The Party As Practice

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I share a birthday with my older brother. No, we’re not twins, but we both entered the world on June 8th. I just showed up two years to the day later than my brother. I’ve always thought this was something interesting about me – that I’m not a twin but that I share a birthday with my brother. That doesn’t mean sharing a birthday was easy. For those of you with birthdays close to Christmas, I feel a bit of your pain. June 8th was never just “Troy’s day.” At some point in our childhood, my parents decided that the family would celebrate our birthdays every year, but that the three sons would rotate who could have a party with friends. That meant I had a birthday party with my friends every three years. I didn’t love the idea, but we all just went along with it. It was what it was. As time went on, I managed to get around this because I wanted to have my friends around on my birthday. I threw my own parties, and my parents went along with it.  I don’t know if it’s because of the shared birthday thing or just a personality quirk of mine, but I’ve never been much of one for celebrating. A surprise party? I’d play it off as though I knew what was coming. Dances? You’ll find me by the wall trying to analyze the situation, not on the dance floor freely moving my body. Christmas parties? Sure, I’d enjoy them, but I’ll never be the life of the party. All of these times give me too much time to think, which inhibits any kind of free celebration. It’s taken us three Lents to get here, but this Sunday marks the final spiritual discipline in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, a book that in itself is a master class on relating to God and each other. The final discipline in Foster’s book is celebration. Yes, that’s right. All of the disciplines – prayer, solitude, service, meditation, and the like – culminate in a party. As we grow closer to God, our lives bring forth praise – unfettered joy. Admittedly, this feels like an out of place for a normal Lent. This year’s Lent has been anything but normal with school out, social distancing in, and all of us relating mostly through the phone and internet. Yet, I submit that even now, we need celebration. We need to learn the practice of the party. Or in the words of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  So, how do we learn the discipline of celebration? What does it look like not just normally but also right now? For today, I’m going to be quite direct and give you three main points and then a few takeaways. Let’s just get straight into it. First, when we have the goal in mind, it is far easier to put up with what it takes to get to that goal. Or, to put it another way, we endure because we know joy is the end result. This point is very applicable to right now. I don’t like sheltering in place. I assume very few of us do, but we are doing it because we believe the goal of a society brought back to health is worth enduring this extreme inconvenience.  How many of us have tried learning a musical instrument? It’s hard work. No one sits down at the piano and sounds like Mozart immediately. It’s day after day of practice. It’s a teacher correcting form. It’s the fear of a recital yet getting out there and playing in front of others. That’s what ultimately gets a person in the place to enjoy the instrument. We know this is true because so many of us have given up on the journey of learning an instrument, right, only to enjoy the mastery of others. We believe in a God who is in the transformation business. Here’s how Richard Foster describes this, “But God’s desire is to transform the misery, not bypass it. We need to understand that God does at times give us an infusion of joy even in our bitterness and hard-heartedness. But that is the abnormal situation. God’s normal means of bringing his joy is by redeeming and sanctifying the ordinary junctures of human life.” The discipline of celebration, friends, involves us paying attention to those normal parts of ordinary life and training ourselves to see God at work. I’ve seen us learning to do this, particularly in this season. Gratitude for words of encouragement. Taking lots of walks and paying attention to the sounds of the birds returning from winter. Noticing enough in our pantries so we are willing to share what we have with others.  A few weeks back This American Life devoted an entire show to delight. Throughout that show, the host read sections from Ross Gay’s essays called The Book of Delights. For a year the author journaled on a daily basis about the delights he experienced all around him. These are little things throughout his days that he had taken for granted – the dog who always barked at him when he passed, the fine details of a flower, the fly landing on the handle of his coffee cup pointing out how beautifully designed that handle was. He was teaching himself delight. I checked his book out, and in this season, I’m reading his brief essays as something to be savored. I think we all need more delight in our lives, and perhaps this is the time to find it.  We are in a season of forced slowness and isolation. What are the things we can celebrate even if this season? How is God training you to be more Christlike to yourself, to your family, and to others? Like learning to play the piano, celebration is something we all have to work at until it becomes part of who we are. The work is worth the effort.  Second, joy comes from being in the presence of God. We see that so clearly in our two biblical texts today. Psalm 150 has always been a favorite of mine. It wraps up the psalter with celebration. It’s part of the reason I hope that, in our Presbyterian way, we are learning to be passionately engaged in worship. With all that we are, whatever our situation in life, with whatever we have, our lives are to glorify God. “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord!” the psalm proclaims. Even in our Presbyterian tradition, this is something we cling to. The Westminster Shorter Confession begins with this question: “What is the chief end of [humanity]?” and we are taught to answer, “[Humanity’s] chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” The trajectory of our life is praise and celebration.   Our text in 2 Samuel is one of my favorites. Let me set the scene so you have a better picture of why David is dancing so vigorously. Back when Saul was king, he lost a battle to the Philistines, and they took the Ark of the Covenant as part of the spoils of war. The Ark, you may recall, was built by the Hebrews in the exodus wilderness. It contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. The very presence of God rested over the cover of the Ark. (If you’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, then you’ve seen a modern retelling about the significance of the Ark.) So, the Philistines took the Ark, but all sorts of bad things happen to them. It’s such a problem that they bring the Ark back to Israel and dump it off in the first house they can find along with some gifts to appease God. The Ark ends up staying in the house a man named Abinadab for a couple of decades.  When David replaces Saul as King of Israel, he remembers the Ark and wants to bring it back to Jerusalem. It’s a power move, frankly, but it is also about bringing God back into the center of the life of Israel. In our text, David is celebrating the return of the Ark to Jerusalem with a parade that makes our Coast Guard Parade seem dull. David is like the drum major of the Grambling University Marching Band, leading all the people in dancing as though no one is watching, banging drums and cymbals, and celebrating like this is the greatest thing to ever happen. The presence of God is returning, and with it comes unabashed joy and celebration. As they get closer to Jerusalem the celebration gets even more serious. Every six feet the parade travels, the people sacrifice another animal, purifying their way and showing what a big deal this is. David continues dancing with such vigor that his wife, Michal, who was one of Saul’s daughters, is embarrassed that a king would act in such a way. It’s the text signaling that David gets how significant this is and how much the old regime was out of touch with God’s presence. Finally, the Ark is back where it belongs, and David leads the people in a big party. Joy comes in the presence of the Lord. Do we look for joy in God’s presence in that way? Do we worship with such restraint that we’ve closed ourselves off to the joy that comes in being in the presence of God. As St. Iranaeus once said, “the glory of God is a [person] fully alive.”  Third, celebration is the result of gratitude. We know this to be true in our lives. We celebrate birthdays because we’re grateful to be alive. We celebrate graduations because we’re grateful for milestones. (This is yet another reason why this pandemic is hard for so many – it has cancelled these important celebrations.) The same desire to celebrate comes in right relationship with God. Listen to Richard Foster’s insight on this, “Celebration adds a note of gaiety, festivity, hilarity to our lives. After all, Jesus rejoiced so fully in life that he was accused of being a winebibber and a glutton. Many of us lead such sour lives that we cannot possibly be accused of such things….It is healing and refreshing to cultivate a wide appreciation for life. Our spirit can become weary with straining after God just as our body can become weary with overwork. Celebration helps us relax and enjoy the good things of the earth.” So, we know why we celebrate, but in this season, what can we do to celebrate? Well, let’s by becoming more childlike. What do children do naturally when they celebrate? They smile and laugh. They play. They get excited over things like cake and ice cream. (We adults just start worrying about how many calories are in the food.) Let’s let this season be one where we become more childlike. We can learn from children. Let’s not hang the weight of our stress on our kids. Perhaps it’s time for us to slow down and learn from them. Celebration is playful, and we have much to learn from children when it comes to playing.  Let’s also laugh more. Laughter is beneficial for our bodies and our souls. Jesus encouraged laughter and even some of his teachings are intentionally funny. When was the last time you laughed so hard that you cried? It’s probably been too long, I suspect. Let’s learn some good jokes and share them with each other. Let’s lighten up. Relish good comedy. It is balm for the soul. Foster encourages us, “Learn to laugh; it is a discipline to be mastered. Let go of the everlasting burden of always needing to sound profound.”  Finally, in this season let’s take time for small moments of celebration. Why not celebrate the end of online school this Thursday evening with a nice meal? What not schedule a day to celebrate the people you love with a phone call or a nice note? Or, here’s something I’d like all of us to try tonight – have a party in your own home. If you need a reason beyond this being the first time your pastor told you to party, then use this one – that you, too, are a human being fully alive, giving glory to God with your life. I’d love to hear that dozens of households of First Presbyterian a sheltering in place tonight with a celebration. Bake a cake. Eat some fatty food. Don’t count the calories. Play Twister. Dance by yourself to some guilty-pleasure music. Since we’re most connected online at the moment, I’d love to see your pictures and videos of how you decided to celebrate tonight. So, on Facebook or Instagram, use the hashtag #fpghcelebrates to share your celebrations with others.  Joy gives us strength for living. Joy is rooted in God’s love for you and for the whole world. We have the option to choose joy today and every day. Friends, God loves you. Even in this season, life is worth living to the fullest. Celebrate, for when we celebrate we are getting in good practice for what eternal life is like.