Practicing Joy

Many churches that observed the third Sunday of Advent last Sunday celebrated joy.  It is a turning point in this season of anticipation.  The more solemn first two Sundays of the season focus more on prophecies and preparation and even the need of a Savior.  The third Sunday begins to turn toward the actual celebration of Christmas itself.  Advent wreaths surround a central white candle known as the Christ candle.  In the circular wreath are embedded three purple candles, a more penitent dark color, and one pink candle that is seen as brighter and more hopeful.  That pink candle represents joy.  The church with whom I  worshiped Sunday observed the day by lighting the third candle of the Advent wreath, gathering children for a “Ministry Moment” in the service that was planned just for them, and by listening to a special presentation of music and recitations by the church choir, chamber orchestra, and a group of children.

Worship leaders are sometimes confronted with a bit of consternation when challenged to stir up a spirit of joy in worship.  Such a challenge is not limited to the season of Advent as such pressure may be brought to us by pastors desiring a celebrative atmosphere that will attract outsiders, or by church members who simply want church to be happy.  There is tension in most of us over a need to be authentic about the actual emotional state of worshipers including our own state of mind and heart on one hand; and the need to present the joyous truth of Christ’s birth and all that means on the other hand.  Try as we may to be forthright about our feelings, the fact is sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down.  It may feel hypocritical to seek to stir an atmosphere of joyous praise when we feel “down in the dumps.”  The fact is that our affections are certainly engaged and involved in our worship practice, but maintaining focus as to the object of our affections is an important aspect of what worship is all about.  As James K.A. Smith says, in worship we aim our love and the consistent practice of aiming love results in actions that are in keeping with that love.

Two thoughts come to mind to help us through such tensions in seasons when we are called upon to be joyous, but find our feelings conflicted.

#1 It does not hurt us to practice the liturgy of joy.  By that I mean that going through the motions of joy is not a bad thing, even if we do not “feel” so joyous at the outset.  While the objective of our worship should never be a mood, we may nevertheless find quite often that a byproduct of our worship may be a joyous spirit.  And this joy, not a sanguine melodramatic kind of schmaltz, but a discovered joy rooted in the truth of God’s Word, the fellowship of the church, or the sense of purpose serving His Kingdom, which is so much larger than serving our personal desires.  In worship we read joyous psalms, sing joyous songs of Gospel truth, and encourage the joy of believers’ fellowship as the body of Christ.  The psalmist reminds us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37:4)  Most of us have heard many sermons on this passage reminding us that when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our hearts change.  As a worshiper and worship leader, please note that there is an action of affection on the front side of this premise.  Part of our responsibility as worship leaders is to remind worshipers of the goodness of God, the reasons why we might find such delight in Him.  Ultimately, this is not just so that we might give it consideration as we would negotiating a consumer item, but rather so that we might affix our very affection toward Him.  Delight yourself in Him.

#2  Be certain our joy is truly in Christ and not just in feelin’ good for its own sake.  Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”[1]  One of the reasons we walk away from one service of worship feelin’ good, and from another not so much, is that our hearts may still be restless as our joy may be seeking itself as an end in itself.  Worship is formative.  One of the reasons I appreciate what I call “slow burner” forms of worship expression (you can quote me), is that longer trajectories of worship expression may form us more fully, engaging our whole person; mind, body, and soul.  Let me further explain; an inspirational thrill is momentary.  As a musician I recognize that muscle memorization takes place over a longer period of time.  What might be difficult, even frustrating, at first may slowly become richly satisfying.  Musically, something gets “in us” along the way of that learning.  We find a deeper joy of making music, hearing it when someone else makes it, and all that allows us to experience it at a different level.  Worship has some of those same tenets.  Memorizing a psalm may stretch us at first, then find its way into our minds where it resides for our meditation, perhaps serving as a ready tool for the Holy Spirit to bring to conscious thought as needed for our living.  Even if we think at times that we (or our churches) are “just going through the motions,” it is important to continue going through those motions and holding high the Word of God as unchanging truth.  Singing that has lost some of its joy will only rediscover the real joy when it once again remembers that the joy is seated in the Christ of whom we sing!

Last Sunday the pastor at the church I attended asked us all to tell one another, “Joy to the world!”  We also sang that carol.  I had several people speak to me after the service who shared a perfunctory “Joy to the world.”  One child said it with eyes to the ground as mom looked on.  It was obvious momma made her do it.  Nevertheless, in each instance the repetition seemed to break the ice to a longer conversation available to us.  Even the little girl ended up laughing out loud as I kidded her about swallowing her smile.  We laughed together when I challenged her to say it with me; “Joy to the world!”  I told her we should both keep practicing.  Indeed, we should.

            Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns;

            Let men their songs employ;

            While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

            Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy

            Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!

                                                –Isaac Watts



[1] Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1

Explore posts in the same categories: Leading Worship, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

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