Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Rejoice Always?

Dear Friends,

I was Cleo’s last pastor and every September I remember the day we celebrated her 105th birthday five years ago. Since then, she has left this mortal life to live out her timeless existence in Heaven with her Lord Jesus Christ. But if you had been with me on that day she turned 105, you would have been shocked at how vital, lively and full of life this wonderful woman of God was. For many years, we had been holding a Wednesday service at Cleo’s assisted living home and she had not missed a single service. She’d park her wheelchair in the front row directly in front of me and everyone knew that was Miss Cleo’s “reserved” space! Church was what she looked forward to all week long. The residents knew that Cleo was the person to go to if they needed to talk to someone, had a question about God or needed prayer. Cleo was the oldest person I’d ever known and was the happiest person I’d ever known. When people would ask her what the secret was to her long life or ask how she could be so filled with joy all the time, she always gave the same answer to either question. She would tell you the answer is that she was always grateful to God, for everything, all of the time. And she really was!

One of the most troubling scriptures is, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Troubling because it seems as if God is telling us to do the impossible. Rejoice always? Pray constantly? Give thanks in everything? Impossible we say! But God never asks us to do the impossible and Jesus reminded His followers that in the Kingdom of God: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” Matthew 19:26 And for us pessimistic naysayers who pin the word “impossible” on God’s commandments to us like a badge of defeat, we would only have to look at the radiant smile on Cleo’s face to see that with God, it really is possible to rejoice always!

Much of our unhappiness comes from stress and anxiety that’s created by circumstances outside our control. We are angry, sad, fearful. Today’s level of political and cultural hatred of those who do not share our political beliefs is astounding. Surveys are showing that 70-90% of the people in major cities no longer feel safe living there. Putin is threatening to launch a nuclear warhead and this week we’re reading about newfound major earthquake faults in Southern California and a major hurricane is headed toward Florida. Life in these United States can be scary and stressful and yet God says to rejoice always? Really? 

Yes! Because in the middle of the worst and most fearsome circumstances, when we know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all is well with our soul. But we still may have no internal peace if we live with one foot in the sacred and one foot in the secular. Of course we’ll be unhappy, fearful and stressed during our week if our only time in the presence of God is for an hour and a half in church on a Sunday morning. 

That’s why God says we are not to rejoice just on Sunday morning, we are to “Rejoice in the Lord always..” Philippians 4:4 And here’s how to do that: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 Do you want to “rejoice always”? Then we need to pray “without ceasing” and give our cares and worries to God.

Born the granddaughter of a freed slave, Cleo grew up in the poverty of the South, but as a young girl in church, she learned that despite life’s circumstances, in everything you can find something to be thankful for. We don’t give thanks for everything. We don’t thank God for that devastating diagnosis we just received from our doctor. We don’t give thanks for earthquakes, fires and floods, but the word of God tells us that “in everything give thanks.” The morning after hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey in 2012, a woman was interviewed by a news reporter. As she looked at her flooded house and ruined possessions she said, “We were blessed. It could have been worse.” 

According to the Harvard School of Medicine, being thankful is one of the simplest ways to feel better. According to the Harvard Medical newsletter:

“The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”

Cleo showed us that when we are constantly grateful to God and are thankful in all things, we will find ourselves rejoicing always. Do you want to feel better than you do? Do you want to be happier and healthier? Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   Amen?