Joy to the world?

This week I am speaking at Edinburgh University Christian Union on the title "Joy to the World" - the 18th Century Carol by Isaac Watts [Wiki link]. But is this your experience at Christmas time? Maybe you feel anything but joyous - sad, worried, grieving, guilty, lonely? What might 'Joy to the World' mean to you? If you suffer from depression, Christmas can be an especially difficult time, full of demands that society and [lets face it] Christians put upon you to grin and bear it ;-)

Part of the problem is that the church has made being a Christian synonymous with being happy all the time, despite the fact that Jesus exhibited a full range of emotions. He shed tears [Luke 19v4], He was filled with Joy [Luke 10v21], He grieved [Luke 14v34], He was angry [Mark 3v5], Sadness came over Him [Matt 26v37], He felt sorrow [Luke 7v13], He showed astonishment and wonder [Mark 6v6, Luke 7v9]. He felt emotional distress [Mark 3v5, Luke 12v50]. Next time someone tells you to smile like Jesus tell them to read their Bible again!

Another part of the problems is that we have an overdeveloped sense of the Gospel being about Guilt - a common symptom in depression. The Angel Gabriel said to Mary that 'He will be called Jesus because He will save people from their sins' [Matt 1v21] not make them guilty. When Jesus rocked up 2000 years ago, I don't recall people being gripped with guilt. They were grateful because he was a perfect 'Lamb' to replace the year-on-year lamb slaying that had preceded Him. To them, He spelt the end of guilt - not the beginning. We still have some way to go on this one - future posts coming! [Or come along to Edinburgh Uni CU on this Friday!]

But 'Joy to the World' still means 'Joy to the World' without having to do that awful theological trick of, 'Well, it depends what you mean by Joy' and 'World'. Does the Christian message have anything positive to say about our emotions and mental health other than just trying not to cause too much damage? Here I can only provide a hint of an answer, but this is to look to the Negro Spirituals and the music of the African Slaves take to America. Here you see joy in slavery, singing in sadness and love among hatred. 'How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' - answer that one and you will have come some way towards understanding 'Joy to the World'

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing...

Isaac Watts [1674-1748]

None of this changes the fact that for some [many?] Christmas remains a sad time. Joy to the World will always be to some extent an aspirational phrase. For those who struggle, here are some practical tips [the first three borrowed from Depression Alliance Scotland, who also have a great page on Seasonal Affective Disorder]:

1. Talk about how you feel. There are helplines available over the Christmas period like the Samaritans 0845 790 90 90 (open 24 hours a day) http://www.samaritans.org, Saneline 0845 767 8000 (open 6pm to 11pm daily), http://www.sane.org.uk, and Breathing Space Scotland 0800 83 85 87 (open 6pm to 2am week days and 24 hours a day at weekends), http://www.breathingspacescotland.co.uk,

2. Let others help. Are you the one who cooks the turkey, buys the presents, takes the kids to parties. Can you ask for help from somebody else? Can you make your apologies for some social events? If you feel guilty, ask yourself: would you feel as bad if you had a broken leg and were unable to do things? It is easier said than done, but try and let go of some of the burden.

3. Please yourself. Whatever your situation, try to plan at least one thing that you enjoy. This could be a small thing like a bubble bath or lighting a scented candle, watching your favourite TV programme with a box of chocolates or a walk in the park. If it's hard to think of something you would enjoy, try something that you used to like which isn't too strenuous.

4. Explore your feelings. ReJesus have a great page exploring some alternatives to 'false joy' like I mentioned at the beginning. Their combination of meditations, Bible verses and Christmas recipes will help lift your soul, warm your heart and fill your stomach.

However you spend the festive season, I wish you peace and good health.
Rob Waller, 10/12/2008