We’ve had 24 hour news coverage here in the US since January 1, 1980 when CNN first launched on cable. That’s more than 42 years now of hearing news updates around the clock. And you know as well as I do that most of that news has not been of the feel-good variety. Rather it’s a lot of bad or even awful news, with a heavy dose of fear to go with it. That’s a lot of negativity even when there isn’t a major catastrophic event like what’s currently taking place in Israel and Gaza.
A sermon based on Philippians 4:1-9.
82% of us Americans get some form of our news online, and on average we spend close to 8 hours a day on our devices—not all of that’s news related, of course, but still. News stories get pushed to our home screens unless we turn them off. We are bombarded with negativity, fear, and disheartening news at all hours of the day. And while it’s important for us to remain aware of current events and what’s impacting our world, we don’t need to remain up to date minute by minute throughout all hours anxious of all that’s going on. When we allow a fear-based news media the ability to infiltrate our lives at any moment, we shouldn’t be surprised if we become more worried about things, or begin to believe the narrative that the world is much more dangerous now than it used to be. (It’s not, by the way. We just consume too much negative news, so we think it is.)
“Don’t be worried about anything,” St. Paul writes to the Philippian Church, clearly showing he didn’t live with the plethora of 24 hour news stations we now have access to. “Rather,” Paul says, “through prayer and giving thanks, let your requests be made known to God.” Do not worry about anything. I can’t help but hear Stevie Wonder in the background crooning, “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.” But before you start thinking Paul had some sort of easy life in order to be telling the Philippians not to be anxious, you should know that he wrote his letter from a prison. Paul had been tossed in the slammer because of his faith in Jesus, and now he was writing to his fellow believers that they shouldn’t worry about anything.
He also tells them to rejoice in the Lord always. To celebrate in God. To dance around and jump and be excited—with some gentleness thrown in as well; Paul didn’t want some wild church. But he’s clear that they need to always rejoice no matter what was happening to them. He wants them to delight and revel and crow and be as pleased as Punch in all things.
Delight. It’s one of the hardest things we humans can do, it seems. Or at least we Americans. Because we’re busy. Because we focus almost exclusively on the negative. Because we are under an immense amount of stress which causes us to shut down emotionally. We’re tired and overworked. And we spend way too much time online which has the market on making us disappointed, angry, or unhappy. Why? Because the neuro-technicians working for social media companies tapped into the reality that when we’re upset about something, we’ll stay online longer. “Did you hear what those people across the political aisle did yesterday?” starts the headlines, and off we go down a rabbit hole of clicking and scrolling while ads keep popping up and billionaires get richer.
But what brings us delight? It’s not something we often think about. A few years ago poet and essayist Ross Gay decided to spend a year—from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd—looking for delights and writing everyday about one of them in a short mini-essay. In the introduction to his collection called The Book of Delights, he writes, “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study. … Which is to say, I felt my life more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows—much like love and joy—when I share it.”
He writes about all sorts of little things that delighted him. Like a praying mantis that sat on an empty pint glass at an outdoor cafe. And the “do-over” cry during a children’s game. He waxes poetic about the cut flowers someone placed in the hands of a statue. And the time he found an abundance of public restrooms. He noticed someone cradling a tomato seedling on an airplane during one of his trips. Small things, many of them. But powerful. Life-altering.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I’ll say it, Rejoice! Finally beloved, whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, or commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” “Find delight!” Paul implores that church. Engage in it. Spend a day in it! Each and every week. Because God simply tells us too. Because life is too short and too full of sorrow not to do so.
And friends, we need to especially do so during weeks like this one. With the utter tragedy in Israel and Gaza—with the loss of many lives, and the horrific things that have happened and will continue to happen—why shouldn’t we engage in the sweetness of friends around a table or in a walk in the woods to remind us that life is not only about sorrow.
Myra Sack and Matt Goldstein welcomed their daughter Havi into their lives in September of 2018. She was perfect. And they took her everywhere that year to visit friends and family all over the country. But soon they began to notice that she was a bit delayed in her development. She wasn’t pulling herself up by her first birthday, and she wasn’t babbling much, so they saw a specialist. They received devastating news: Havi had a rare neurological disorder. One with no cure. It destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal column and symptoms progress leading to death between the ages of two and four.
While they were devastated by the news, they chose to fill her life with love. They decided to hold a birthday party for her every Friday shabbat—every sabbath—as a sort of shabbat birthday. They called them “shabbirthdays” and they invited all their friends over each week. And they came bearing gifts and warm challah and new outfits. Havi loved every minute of it as she giggled and giggled. Myra describes how “no one pretended the heartache wasn’t there” but they celebrated anyway. She writes, “We were learning to live alongside grief, appreciating its power to keep us close to Havi. We were learning that pain and love could coexist. We weren’t risking our hearts, we were expanding them.”
Their family grew with the addition of another daughter, Kaia, and Havi made it to her 57th shabbirthday. They ate her favorite food that Friday—blueberry pancakes—and she was hugged by one family member or friend and then passed to another for more hugs. She died a few days later when she was 2 years, 4 months and 16 days old.
Myra writes, “By letting anguish and celebration run together, we continue to live with Havi. We strung hundreds of photographs around the house. We transformed her room into a haven that continues to give us strength and energy. We toast to her every night: ‘To Hav,’ [we say]. Kaia is now almost 2, and she lifts her sippy cup and says Hav’s name with us before we eat. We honor Havi every Shabbirthday with challah and music.” They allowed all that is true and honorable and pleasing and pure to permeate their lives even when they could have given into the fear. They chose—and continue to choose—delight. (You can read their story from the Boston Globe Magazine here.)
Let us do likewise. Let us in all the days of our lives choose to look for the good and beautiful and exquisite in our world and delight in them. Let us think about them and ruminate on them and allow them to run freely in our minds and into how we live. And let us not worry about anything, but make our requests known to God, who longs for each of us to find true and utter joy even in the midst of hardship. Rejoice in the Lord always! I’ll say it again, Rejoice!