Dealing with Death and Suicide on Gaudete Sunday

Sudden death gut punches us with the dreaded reality that life will never be the same. This Sunday is going to be especially difficult for one church and several families this year. I just received a report that a wonderful elderly couple was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. They were both great people, and people of faith. I don’t know all of the details, as if anyone can, but the report thus far suggests that declining health may have led to this drastic decision. I hurt for their families and desperately hurt for these precious people.

How can anyone who believes in Christmas joy and Easter resurrection see these terrible acts as a viable option in the face of life’s difficulties? Death at one’s own hand flies in the face of the joy and hope that we Christians profess. I personally know life is difficult, but there is no easy way out for anyone in these situations. The survivors of such actions are scarred for life, including the generations that follow. There are palliative methods to ease life’s burdens through the comfort of family, friends, the church, and hospice, without the necessity of such desperate action.

Certainly I don’t think that suicide is an unpardonable sin. I have known situations where people simply could not see beyond their hands, so to speak. The darkness so fully enveloped them that poor decisions were made. They were momentarily out of their best minds or thinking to a degree, and if human courts let people off due to temporary insanity, how much more will the courts of heaven? God is a God of grace and mercy and that is my firm hope in this situation, and there is little else to go on in this bewildering time. A decision was made, whether with rational culpability or irrational nonsense, and lives and families have been shattered. Who in their right mind would want people to remember the circumstances of their death instead of all the years of faith, good deeds, and positive character traits? It just doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s the point. We will never know the whole story so we’re left wondering and crying.

I just wish that I and others might have picked up on the warning signs, and somehow my mind keeps debating if Christianity as a whole has let such people down. Instead of encouraging an endurance that comes from hope and a joy that is not dependent on circumstances, we have often taught people to count on themselves for supposed solutions. The essence of the Christian faith is to count on God, but we are either too distracted by the world or prosperity-Gospel advocates to know that band-aids and panaceas only mask pain, not defeat it.

Although specifically difficult for grieving families, this coming Sunday is still Gaudete Sunday, otherwise known as “Joy Sunday” with its pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  “Gaudete” comes from the Latin gaudium which means “joy,” and it’s the source of our contemporary word “gaudy.” When I think of something that’s gaudy, I think “tacky” more than joyful. In the face of any tragic news I have to wonder whether we are joyful enough as Christians to be called tacky. Do we dare proclaim faith, hope, and even joy as an affront to the dour and horrible machinations of the forces that would cause pain and suffering? We are fighting a war between joy and despondency, and lights and tinsel aren’t weapons enough.

Jesus, the conqueror of death and despair, is the King who has come and is coming again, yet I’m afraid that we have domesticated his incarnation with decorations and pleasantries so much that we miss the audacious joy, the tacky but unconquerable hope that flows from the amazing news of a Savior who left the safety of eternity and immersed himself in time to be with us in our every trial. As a result we have gotten so caught up in the peripheral trappings of Christmas that we have been less than Incarnational with those hurting around us. We keep silent and dare not be tacky enough to intrude and enter their pain. It’s high time to be tacky once again. This is Gaudete Sunday’s solemn reminder to me in the face of this tragedy.

Someone anonymously said, “The cross leads to joy and not just happiness. There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a checkbook that has money, a car that works, a good date for Saturday night. Happiness is the absence of major hassles, or terrorism or crime; happiness is kids getting good report cards and spouses getting a raise. Happiness is something we know as enhancement or protection of our own lives. Joy comes in connection with another or with Jesus. Joy can happen without money or a working car. Joy happens when we get to the core of life and realize that love is at the center. Joy befriends us; love accompanies us. Jesus is God-with-us and will never leave or forsake us. Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.”

May God grant peace to all those who are suffering that they may know the audacity of Christ’s presence, the essence of joy. Happiness is fleeting while joy endures forever. Perhaps more than ever, we need Gaudete Sunday this year.

Gaudete Sunday!!!

This coming third Sunday in Advent is known for its unusual pink candle and is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is a word from which we derive our word, “gaudy.” While I think of something that’s gaudy as tacky, Gaudete Sunday reminds me of something truly profound – the deeper meaning of joy, hence the pink candle. The day takes its name from the Latin for “Rejoice” which is the first word of Gaudete Sunday’s introit in Latin: “Gaudete in Domino semper…” It comes from Philippians 4:4-6: “Rejoice in the Lord always…” and it comes at a perfect time for me. With two weeks to go before Christmas it is easy for me to panic about gift-giving and go overboard in trying to make sure that everything this Christmas is perfect and everyone’s measure of joy exceeds expectations.

But joy isn’t an extrinsic purchase! It’s the difference between joy and happiness. I can’t even explain it with a worthy analogy, but I think I know the difference. The closest I can come in explaining what I mean is that being happy represents a second-rate emotion dependent on external circumstances while joy is a first-rate intrinsic sense of extreme well-being regardless of surroundings. As someone put it, “Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.” Isn’t this the real meaning of our celebrations? We wait for the Lord’s advent with joyous expectation by commemorating the first and anticipating the second! So, whether well fed or hungry, employed or unemployed, laid aside or ranked with whomever – joy is a gift of God independent of pomp and circumstance.

This will be a tough year for some to try to manufacture happiness. Some may be like me who have faked our way through the tough financial times of the last few years. I have kept up a good appearance, determined that Christmas would not suffer. I have been one of those who has been, in the vernacular, “been robbing Peter to pay Paul,” to live as if the Great Recession didn’t occur. I’m ashamed to admit that in the last few years I hit my pension plan, insurance cash values, and maxed out credit cards to create a façade of normalcy in the midst of stress and less. Now the truth hurts and there is no safety net left. It will be a lean Christmas in things, but not in joy or love.

Cindy and I went to a famous Scottish restaurant to celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary the other night and purchased our celebratory gift while we were there. The name of the restaurant is “McAlister’s” headquartered in Oxford, Mississippi, and famous for their sweet tea and sandwiches all around the South. Frankly, even this sandwich shop is a little too pricey for our budget right now, but we splurged. We spent $20 or less sharing sandwiches and the price included a $4.95 gift to hang on the Christmas tree. It’s a reminder of this year – a year without much fanfare, but large on joy. We purchased a McAlister’s ornament for our tree – a miniature plastic cup with “McAlister’s Deli” emblazoned on the side with fake ice and lemon in what I suppose is fake tea. Hey, it might be the real stuff.

I am reminded that the real stuff of Advent and Christmas is joy – not the absence of gifts, and not even the absence of any sign that Narcie’s brain tumor has grown. Joy is sensing the intimate presence of God, the underlying awareness that comes from worshipping a loving grace-filled God – the incarnate Word become flesh in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Joy is the imperceptible inner glow that rises from the core of faith and gives hope and light to every cell of our being. This joy is often seen most clearly from a vantage point not of this world.

Seeing the big picture reminds me of traipsing off to Atlanta with my two older brothers as a small child. I have a few memories of the experience, one of which was that I had more money than the two of them put together. I think that’s how I got invited! Older brother Carlee rented a motel room for two as he and Ralph pushed me down into the floorboard of the car so the manager wouldn’t notice. I vividly recall middle brother Ralph throwing me into the pool to teach me how to sink or swim. Even as I recall all of the assorted tidbits of the trip, a sly smile creeps to my face. Now that’s joy. When all around you is crud or despair, think about the bigger picture – the memories and persons that make your heart grow strangely warm. If I picture Enoch, Evy, and Kaela who are our precious grandchildren, wow, does my heart sing!

It takes a larger view of life. One of the best things that I remember about Carlee, Ralph, and I going to Atlanta was going to Grant Zoo. The animals were cool, but what most impressed me was the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta painted in 1892 by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine and August Lohr. Cycloramas literally go full circle as they tell a story, and they use diorama effects around the painting’s base to give it a more three-dimensional feel, inviting viewers into the scene and “experience” the event depicted. Most cycloramas were created in the late 19th century before the advent of motion pictures which were the cause of their demise. But, however dated, the Atlanta Cyclorama was instrumental in forming my love of history, and it made a little boy see that “playing army” with plastic soldiers was a horrible farce when faced with the brutality of war set before my very eyes in the life-like scenes of the cyclorama.

It was eye-opening and cycloramas have a message for me this on this coming Gaudete Sunday. I read that cyclorama artists stood on platforms in the middle of the actual terrain of their histroic scenes while they conceived their paintings. This gave them a bird’s-eye view so they could be as accurate as possible in their work.

This speaks volumes to me. To reclaim Advent joy as the one of the most sublime gifts of Christ I have to climb out of the mire and take a higher and wider view of life. It isn’t pie-in-the-sky or unrealistic. It isn’t purchased at a mall and put on a charge card. Joy is that warm smile that is sheer gift. It rises in the throat, warms the heart, and though unexplainable it is as tangible as a tear. You can’t make it, purchase it, or fake it. It’s a gift from the God who says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)” That’s music to my ears and brings real joy to my heart!

Real Joy


The Robin in this snow photo from earlier this year reminds me to rise above the din of consumerism and enjoy the heavenly heights as peaceful as a snow-muffled day. That’s joy to me! The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is an Old English word for “joy” that comes from the Latin, gaudium, which also means, “joy.” Our focus this week, therefore, is upon the joy that Christ’s coming brings. The essence of Christmas is joy!
Wow! What a revelation! Here I am with Christmas about to kill me, and it’s about joy? My trip to the mall just about did me in. I found out the truth about Santa. He comes to us under many names: Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, and MasterCard.
The Jackson family went to the mall to shop for Christmas presents for one another. Before they all split up to shop on their own, the father said, “We’ll meet at the car at 6 o’clock, so we need to synchronize our watches.” As they adjusted their watches, mother nudged father, then stretched out her hand and said, “While we’re at it, let’s synchronize our wallets, too!
Christmas joy is doled out in monetary amounts by well-meaning people, but where is the joy? Payments and bills are inevitable, and what’s to show for all the expense of time or energy?
You can’t fake the wonder of a child’s face at hearing and understanding the message of Christmas for the first time. The joy of Christmas can’t be bought and sold, it’s a climate of the heart.
Some time ago I read one of those handyman columns in the newspaper. It went: “Dear sir, Where can I buy aluminum Christmas-tree needles to spread on the carpet under my aluminum Christmas tree? I want it to look natural, as if they’d fallen off the tree in the old fashioned way.” Of course it was signed, “Sentimental.”
The answer was better than the question: “Dear Sentimental: They aren’t available right now, but a satisfactory substitute is to buy a few boughs of natural evergreen, allow the needles to dry and fall off, and then spray paint them with aluminum paint. They look just like the real thing!”
I want real joy, not store-bought spirits and fake needles. There is no satisfactory substitute for real Christmas joy. Maybe that’s why we keep being suckered into malls every year when real joy is found at the altar? Read Isaiah 55:1-3 and compare it with Matthew 11:28-30! Here is the source of true joy!

Gaudete Sunday

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is an Old English word for “joy” that comes from the Latin, gaudium, which also means, “joy.” I like this Sunday’s pink Advent candle. It’s pink because it’s Gaudete Sunday, and we shift for a moment from penitential purple to a joyful pink. The essence of the Gospel and of Christmas is joy! Someone said it well, “Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.” That echoes John Wesley’s last words, “Best of all, God is with us!” Advent is all about Emmanuel – the God who is with us through turbulent times and ones that are triumphant. I need Gaudete Sunday.
But, joy is a difficult emotion for many of us to elicit at this time of the year. There are so many unfulfilled dreams, too much poverty, family tensions, grief, and personal difficulties that deflate our sense of joy. I read about a man who just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in with his charts in hand and said: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.”
Too many of us have heard a report like that. The news hasn’t been kind to us with the economy in the tank. There are unresolved contingencies that concern us to the point of extreme fatigue. Our supply of joy is at or near empty on the fuel tank of our lives. Jesus, however, is the one described as “the joy of heaven to earth come down.” A father asked his child why she liked her Sunday School teacher so much. She answered, “Because her eyes twinkle like she’s laughing inside all the time.” If Jesus is our joy the corners of our mouths can perpetually keep turning upwards.
As much as I believe that statement, it sounds too trite and too easy to my ears. Joy, as I have experienced it, isn’t something that can be manufactured. It most often just happens! Nevertheless, I do know some things that anyone can do to help the process along. One thing to do is to help somebody. Remember that the “Grinch who stole Christmas” had a heart “two sizes too small.” Doing something altruistic for someone else enlarges our heart enough to not only let others in, but also joy.
Another idea for joy-enhancement is to associate with people and places that warm your soul. I’m not talking about being raucous, but surrounding yourself with events and people who are heartwarming. I have to hand it to television at this time of year. Some of the holiday specials actually make the holidays more special. Christmas caroling with the family or church group is another way to spark your heart’s ignition. Christmas Eve Candlelight Services has been a source of peaceful joy since my first recollection of one as a child. Every year I try to attend one. It fills me with a true sense of worship and joy.
Another big help for my holiday blues is a computer analogy. I have the ability to delete emails that I receive and either don’t want or need any more. What I have found, however, is that deleting them doesn’t really get rid of them. They’re just moved from my sight and placed in a “Deleted Items Folder.” What that means is that I can get back to them at the click of a mouse. If I really want them to completely disappear I have to hit not only “Delete,” but also “Purge.” Let me tell you, this image has helped me get rid of a lot of stressors in my life. To recapture joy I have to hit “Purge” or the ugly head of worry rebounds. Deleting things doesn’t finish them off enough for my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, so I hit “purge” as often as I can in order to preserve joy and foster happiness. This holiday season, no matter what you do or how you enter into a new state of being, my prayer is that all of us will experience joy!