Sorry for the delay this week! Weeks of family illness took their toll, and there’s no better time to jump right into the discipline of celebration!

Definition and Context

It’s odd that celebration should be a discipline, isn’t it? Celebration by definition should be spontaneous; any celebration that someone “makes” you do seems an oxymoron. But I think most of us know that celebration needs to be a discipline, simply because it’s too important and foundational to our identity to leave to chance emotion. I think we all know that Christians have irrefutable intellectual reason for great joy: the Messiah has come. The thing all the prophets were desperately watching and waiting for has happened; all the core concerns of our lives are resolved. We have no need to be anxious anymore for any reason, because we have been unified and reconciled with God, once for all. Nevertheless, simply knowing this with our mind does not always translate into feeling celebratory, much less actually living a celebratory life. Thus the need for discipline, or regular practice.

Interestingly, God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate together on a scheduled basis, three times a year – and biblical descriptions of these thrice-yearly festival times indicate that these were full-blown, fully public celebrations that including dancing, singing, and free-flowing wine for seven days. They might have been commanded, but they were hardly cursory.

Yet knowing that God actually thought celebration was important enough to command doesn’t necessarily make me want to make time for it, either. Celebration is indeed a true discipline for me. I am someone who has always found it easy to practice self-denial, because deep down I believe that life is hard and serious and you have got to be on your toes or you will be left behind or crushed or just not make it. And to my great relief, I’ve found that the discipline of celebration has not required me to change my personality into someone extraverted and fun-loving, but it simply requires me to remind myself of the truth of my release. Jesus has declared that the captives of anxiety and perfectionism and brokenness and poverty have been RELEASED. I do not have to try to make it on my own in this life, but I have been grafted onto God’s story and God’s larger plan. And I need to not just remind myself of that truth of release, but I need to connect that truth to my daily feeling that life is a serious burden. For me, the discipline of celebration is a discipline of letting go, of experiencing bodily release – simply because it’s true, whether I feel it or not.

Celebration isn’t just a discipline in itself; it’s the lifeblood of every discipline. If we don’t have in mind the goal of any discipline we practice, which is enjoying an intimate relationship with the living God and fully participating in the kingdom of God, it will all turn into fruitless, exhausting effort and will be easily abandoned. Richard Foster points out that the only reason anyone can take on learning a new skill is because it somehow brings them joy – either the process (the actual doing of it) brings them joy, or the hope of mastery (what it will be like when they finally are able to do it) brings them joy. If you don’t like playing the piano, and you don’t much care about effortlessly playing the music that moves you on the piano, you’re not going to stick with playing the piano. The joy of the Lord is our strength. Without joy we will grow weary and faint along the way. If we aren’t inclined toward celebration, we need to learn how to do it, because the joy it brings is invaluable along the way. It’s the only thing that will help us do the hard work of denying ourselves – it has to be worth it, it has to eventually result in joy.

The Practice of Celebration

Have no anxiety about anything (Phil. 4:6). I first memorized this verse in college, mainly because I couldn’t imagine it could really be true. How can you have no anxiety about anything? The simple truth is that for Christians, anxiety is a lie. We can fully trust God with everything (even as the sparrows do). Anxiety results from the belief that God is standing distant from us, watching to see if we’re going to rise to the occasion, and we really might not. Anxiety is feeling like it’s up to us to make things work. And it’s not. Anxiety disappears when we develop a humble and light view of our own abilities and an all-encompassing, superlative view of God’s abilities. The more we can be completely free from anxiety, take every anxious thought captive and shake off that burden, the more we can freely practice celebration. Celebration is impossible when burdened by anxious thoughts.

Choose to think good thoughts – whatever is lovely or whatever is true, think on these things (Phillippians 4:8). This is the positive version of the first point. Remove anxiety; add good thoughts. This is also a discipline of simply believing what is true, because ultimately the good things are the only eternal things. Everything that is broken and dirty and ugly is just temporary and will have its day of destruction. I try to teach my five-year-old son this, because he’s prone to nightmares. If we pray about God filling his heart and mind with good dreams and good thoughts, he tends not to have nightmares. This discipline applies to me as well – there are so many negative things I could fill my minds and daydreams with. Why not fill my mind with good things? Why not focus on the good in my life and grow it, rather than the bad? Why not become fit for heaven while I’m here? Why not recognize and dwell in the things that are eternal, rather than what is destined for destruction?

Become part of a community. Staying connected to other people, even if just vicariously through reading a good book, seeing a good movie, or attending an enlivening group event. It gives us perspective and keeps us from taking ourselves so seriously. The thing that saved me from total self-annihilation as a mother was getting together with other moms – I saw that we’re all in this together, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we can all laugh. We’re all going to be OK. You can’t come to that conclusion when you’re isolated and self-critical constantly. You need to know that if you utterly screw up, it’s OK. It’s not just OK – it really doesn’t matter. We are not to care about it.

Fully celebrate common holidays – and make up your own with ritual acts of celebration. Make family events into times of celebration. Celebrate everything and anything good – just this week, I was delighted to hear of a friend who threw a “Not Dead Yet” party during a particularly overwhelming period of her family’s life. This develops that discipline of seeing the good and not just the bad!

And even and perhaps especially now, when we all have limited budgets, I want to emphasize that although celebration doesn’t require us to spend money, we do need to feel free to spend it. Not just because we can trust God to provide materially for us, which he will, but because material spending and material gifts can be valuable and not superficial. God loves physical and tangible celebration. It’s a wonderful gift he wants for us. He wouldn’t have instituted the festivals for the Israelites otherwise. He ordered their life in a good and life-giving way. This is a lesson I am learning very slowly. I am not someone who gives gifts easily, or who cares much about receiving gifts. I realize this may be unusual: in our culture, celebration always equals gift-giving! Yet I would much rather spend time in deep and meaningful conversation with someone than receive a gift from them. But as I consider the fact that festival times were commanded – during the good years and the bad – I’m trying to look at even tangible gift-giving as a mark of celebration, of freely giving as we freely receive. Gifts can cost us much in time or energy but virtually nothing in dollars. Whatever we’ve been freely given, we can freely give. That’s also how we celebrate our God who is the giver of all things.

Exercise

This week, I’d like you to choose one of the above suggestions to incorporate into your mindset or practice. Or if you were inspired with another idea, by all means, use that one. Intend to replace criticism with compassionate laughter (in private, if necessary!). Throw a party for the unlikely silver lining. Or take up that beloved art form you’ve always been too intimidated to try. Find tangible ways to celebrate this week, and to live out the truth in a new way.

As always, feel free to post comments or questions, or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com. And enjoy!

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