This reflection on I Thessalonians 5:16-24 was written by Samuel Voth Schrag and originally published on December 17, 2014. Samuel lives in Arlington, Texas, with his wife Rachel and children Jonah and Hannah. He served as pastor of the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship from 2007-2017.
Christmas is a season of lists-
Santa has a list of naughty and nice children that he checks twice, as desperate parents try to cajole children into good behavior for at least one month out of the year. For adults in advent, there are lists of gifts to buy, cards to send, decorations to put up, and events to schedule. As a pastor, I’ve got my list of tasks-is the children’s program planned? Do we have the bags with candy and oranges? Do we know what is happening Christmas eve? Who is preaching the Sunday after Christmas, when I leave town?
I have something of a love hate relationship with lists.
On the one hand, I love to make lists of projects, and then cross them off. On my days off, I go to my mirror, write down a handful of manageable projects in whiteboard marker, and joyfully cross them off as I accomplish them over the course of the day, tasks like ‘make lunch’ ‘keep the baby alive’ and ‘go to the park’ as well as household tasks that I’ve been putting off.
Lists are how I organize my work. My Word Document “Daily Tasks 2013” has now carried me almost all the way through 2014! But I also notice that Daily Tasks 2013 is 10 pages long, and still has some tasks that have been sitting there since I first opened it up 2 years ago, and a quick dive through the backlog reveals some tasks that not only did I not do, I no longer have any idea what they might mean or what I’m supposed to do with them. If anyone knows what the items
About what was lost
might be referring to, let me know. Because otherwise they will exist indefinitely as a dark couplet, embedded between a funny anecdote I failed to complete for my college debate coach’s retirement book, and the name of a consultant I connected but never followed through with as part of my work with Community Mediation Services of St. Louis, a monument to lost tasks never to be completed.
When they overwhelm us, lists are a burden. When they encourage us, they are a gift.
And I have some similar feelings about Paul’s list for us today.
The Apostle Paul was a lover of lists as well. “The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control,” “love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful,” “there is a variety of gifts, but the same spirit…” (Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 13:4, and 12:14 respectively), and here in this text from Thessalonians, we have a list of tasks for the faithful Christian.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks, do not quench the spirit, do not despise the words of prophets.
And I have the same feeling about this list that I do about my list of daily tasks- a good list, sure, but this is an intense list-it is not a list that I can write down, and then cross off when I’ve completed them. Each item is a whole book ready to be written, packed with back story, filled with a history of theological debate and drama that has reverberated through the centuries.
And I’m tempted to wallow in the impossibility of it all. Living in a city struggling with the structures of racial oppression, uncertain about how the kingdom might break though, the cynical side of me wants to dismiss Paul’s list-it’s unhealthy to rejoice always, we must have time to grieve. We can’t pray without ceasing, we are called to relationships with other people as well as with God. Would I really want to give thanks for all circumstances? And who could abstain from every form of evil?
This advent season, that is not my hope!
But if I let down some of my baggage with Paul, and think about this list not as one of burden, but as one of my lists for my day off-an opportunity to take on tasks of joy rather than duty, then this is transformed.
Instead of a list of duties, we might embrace these as Christmas kinds of tasks.
Your mission, friends, if you choose to accept it, is this:
Always be ready to celebrate. Embrace your connection with the divine. Remember the good things you have, because God delights in your joy.
Let the Spirit dance and the prophets speak, dive deeply in what is good, and let the things that do not lead to life go their own way.
Friends, though the world will quake, and life is crazy and complex and unknown, fear not, because the God of peace will personally wash you clean, look into your eyes and name you beloved-no matter how many things you check off your list this Christmas season.
In the name of Christ, may it be so.