This is the second entry of a multi-part collection of posts exploring the spiritual disciplines entitled, "Old Ways for New Days.” These essays are here to help give us something to grip that will yield real, substantiated, integrated life in this ever-evolving, often troubling, immensely confusing, time in human history. These time tested habits have endured Roman persecution, crusades, wars, the dark ages, plagues, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and every sort of natural disaster. They’ve proven to be worthy handles to help people steer through the discovery of “the new world,” pandemics and epidemics, world wars, holocausts, civil rights revolutions, and terrorism. They now face the challenge of equipping people to overcome misinformation and fake news, rumours of war, economic downturns, idea wars, ideological fragmentation, and another pandemic, all in the microcosm of unprecedented globalization through a digital network that has connected every people and nation. Will they be up for the test of our times? You decide.
The Practice of Celebration: Strengthen Your Days with Thanks and Praise
I was around thirteen years old, and it was a beautiful early spring day when my eleven-year-old cousin and I decided to venture out on the river for an early afternoon paddle in the canoe. We had been enjoying the scenery and an overall sense of adventure and freedom as we traversed the glassy calm Saint John River when suddenly an east wind came roaring up the river, seemingly out of nowhere. It wasn't long before the glassy surface of the river was chopped up with small waves, but they were nothing that these two young sailors couldn't handle, so we continued on our voyage. At a certain point, we came up to a fishing buoy, eels to be specific, so we decided to paddle over and investigate. We hauled up the eel cage to our ten-foot vessel and enjoyed the wriggly contents for a few minutes before letting the cage, and a handful of eels, sink back down to the bottom of the murky waters. Somewhere in the commotion of reaching for the buoy, my cousin Shawn and I leaned too far to one side, and the canoe tipped over just far enough to start filling with water but not capsize completely. As we threw our collective weight in the other direction to right the ship, we simultaneously lost our paddles. So there we were, in our grandfathers' now half-sunken, old town canoe, soaked, and quite literally "up the creek without a paddle."
However, this was no creek. This was the widest part of the Saint John River, and the wind was beginning to howl. Within 15 minutes, the wind had pushed us out into the middle of the river (about a nautical mile), and the waves were no longer chops but full swells. It was a scary situation for two young boys, as not only was it too far to swim, but the water was only a few degrees above freezing at that time of year. All there was for us to do was hang on, fight to keep from capsizing (a challenge when your boat is half full of water and taking on waves) and pray that our dads would come to rescue us, or that by some miracle, we blow safely over to the other side. Up to that point in my thirteen-year-old life, this was the most harrowing situation I had ever been in. The fun conversation and joking had stopped, and Shawn and I were both silent, hearing only the howling wind and crashing waves around us, he in the front of the canoe, and me in the back, holding on for dear life. Everything about that day changed so fast.
Isn't it incredible how quickly life can change? One minute it's sunshine and smooth sailing. The next minute, you can find yourself alone, afraid, and out of options.
After a long time of silence between us had passed, I suddenly heard Shawn begin to laugh in seeming hysterics. "Hoo hoo hoo...he... he ... oohhhh... hoo hoo." Laughing at a time like this? The sound of his hoots coming from the front of our boat set me off, (I was already angry with him for tipping us, which, in hindsight, I'm confident our capsizing was a group effort, but there's nothing like a little blameshifting to take some of the pressure off of ourselves, am I right?), and here he is, having a good old laugh when we could at any minute be underwater heading toward the bottom to be with the eels. I yelled at him, "Shawn, this is NO TIME FOR LAUGHTER! What are you doing?" In my mind, THIS WAS NOT THE TIME FOR JOY! This was no time to celebrate!
What I didn't know is, there, in the middle of the rough seas and no sign of help was JUST the time to celebrate.
What if I told you that there is a counterintuitive practice in the life of a believer, that has a power that works to displace the fear, anxiety, sorrow, or anger we feel in any given moment, time or season of our lives? Did you know that there is a discipline, an action we can do, in the most difficult, harrowing, lonely, painful, frustrating or disappointing circumstances, that has the power to overcome those crippling feelings, and deposit power, peace, hope, and joy within us, regardless of the situation? That activity is a discipline called "celebration." It is the act, or the art, of giving thanks and releasing praise.
It was the timing of Shawn's laughter that bothered me. In my mind, the appropriate reaction to this circumstance is howling and tears, not hooting and laughter. It turned out that Shawn wasn't laughing, he was indeed crying, and I was mistaken by the sound of it and thought he was having a good chuckle at our dilemma. This was not the case. That said, as I have followed Jesus for the last three decades of my life, I have learned that we would have done well to start celebrating, to begin to practice praise and thanksgiving to God at that moment. Had we begun to do this, we may not have seen the waves stopped, or bailed out the water from inside of our canoe, but I know one thing to be true: the moment we begin to practice celebration, to give thanks and sing praise, the Spirit of God moves our way and begins to displace the spirit of fear, anxiety, frustration, dread or anger.
This is the power and the purpose of the practice of celebration in the life of a believer. To not only be a reaction to God's kindness, goodness, and greatness but to serve as a mechanism to strengthen and empower ourselves when we are overwhelmed by the storms of life. Shawn and I made it back to shore that day (fortunately for us, our fathers got the boat out of winter storage and came to our rescue), but it was decades later before I realized the power of the practice of celebration.
If you're like me, you tend to think of praise and thanksgiving ("celebration") as something reactive in its essence. In life, you tend to say "thank you" when you have received something, not before. We praise after something good has happened, or something beautiful becomes visible, not before. In this world, celebration is something that happens after a good thing, it is reactive. It is a response to something that has happened. However, in the kingdom of God, celebration is something we do by faith, in response to who God is BEFORE anything has happened. Even though we as followers of Jesus have ample opportunity to celebrate God in reaction to many good things we see "in the land of the living," for a believer, thanks and praise are best used proactively, in advance, before the good thing happens. Celebration for the follower of Jesus is a faith discipline, one that has unimaginable power.
Praise and thanksgiving are celebratory activities of faith that a believer does to bring God's presence and power into our minds, hearts, souls, bodies, and circumstances. Of all of the disciplines, celebration may both be the most counterintuitive and the most immediately impactful.
You see the importance of this practice throughout the scripture, the life of Jesus, and the history of the church.
In the book of Genesis, Abel is affirmed for his sacrifice, where Cain's sacrifice is rejected because of his attitude and general disposition of self-preservation. It is clear in the earliest pages of the Bible that God is drawn to, and shows favour to praise and thanksgiving. This principle is again demonstrated in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
When God gives his people the law to Moses (Exodus/Leviticus), He commands they practice thanks and praise, diligently, consistently, and intentionally through festivals, Sabbath, the sacrificial system, and perhaps, best seen through the command of jubilee (the command to designate an entire year to celebrate God's goodness and provision through rest and festivals). Let me reiterate, celebration unto Him was something God commanded His people to do, regardless of the circumstances of life. It wasn't a reaction to something that had or hadn't happened, primarily, it was commanded as a disciplined faith-response to Who God is.
The Psalmist also reiterates the power of celebration, imploring the hearer/reader to "enter his gates with thanksgiving, enter his courts with praise." This is THE way we come into the very presence of God, celebrating Him.
David, in his darkest hours, didn't lean on his skill, strategy, or strength, but sacrifice, song, and sonnet. It was David who commanded his own soul to "Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name." (Psalm 103) Don't miss the power of the fact that David knew that commanding his soul to praise God was the key to strengthening himself in the Lord.
When Jesus fed the 5000, He gave God thanks before the miracle, not after.
Paul and Silas, when in prison, did not sulk. They sang. The book of Acts records that the two men sang hymns and praised God in the dungeon before the power of God rushed in and broke them out.
The principle is clear in scripture from beginning to end, celebration is a game-changing practice of our faith, one that Christians for the past two thousand years have proven, and something I have found to be true in my own life.
I am convinced that there are very few things as powerful as praise and thanksgiving. When we see celebration as proactive rather than reactive, it can become one of the greatest weapons in the battles of this life, and a tool that can build joy and peace any time or season.
Given the fact that God has commanded us to practice this discipline, and the fact that scripture models for us the importance of it, I suspect the practical benefits of celebration are both numerous and mysterious (not easily quantified) and beyond the limits of my explanation. That said, here are a few things I've observed that happen when we celebrate in God through the acts of thanksgiving and praise.
Celebration through thanksgiving:
1. Thanksgiving produces gratitude.
When we practice thanksgiving, not simply in our heads, but when we give voice or action to our gratitude, strangely enough, it produces more gratitude. Generally, when you give something, that thing is gone, but there is something supernatural about giving thanks: the more of it you give, the more thankful you are.
2. Thanksgiving broadens our perspective.
Thanksgiving creates awareness. It helps expand our often linear, self-centered ways of thinking away from ourselves, on to others, in this case, namely God. Thanksgiving creates a heavenly perspective in us. It rightly aligns us with our creator by acknowledging the fact that there are things in this world that are beyond us, bigger than us, and simply out of our hands. It reminds us that we are not self-sufficient and that fundamentally, we need help. His help. Thanksgiving gets us in touch with our neediness, and the fact that we’re not the ultimate source of provision, and we're not at the center of the universe. To give thanks is to rightly identify God's greatness above us, and goodness to us.
3. Thanksgiving humbles us.
To say "thank you" to someone is an act of humility. This is why some people have a very hard time doing so (we also struggle at times to say "I'm sorry," "you were right," and "I was wrong," among other things). This is because thanksgiving, along with the admission of wrongdoing, is an act of humility, which in the Kingdom of God is a powerful recipe for life.
4. Thanksgiving positions us for promotion.
When we give thanks we are humbled, our perspective is aligned with Him Who is greater, and we are filled with gratitude toward him. We are then positioned as His children for more. Thanksgiving unlocks the favour of God like nothing else. God is a perfect father, and He treats His children as a perfect father would. In my parenting, I reward my children with more freedom, resource, or opportunity, when they are grateful, humble, and demonstrate perception and awareness of the world around them in a growing way. In the same way, God manages our lives accordingly, giving us an increase in resources and options in conjunction with our attitude, actions, and assumptions.
Thanksgiving is a powerful generator of God's favour.
Celebration through praise:
1. Praise takes us "up."
When we praise God, it has an uncanny ability to transport us heavenward. What I mean by that is that praise doesn't just lift our perspective (like thanksgiving does), praise, quite literally lifts our spirits. When we start to worship God (again, practicing it, not just "in our hearts"), we will very quickly find ourselves being moved into God's presence, where there is freedom, the fullness of joy, assurance, and peace. Praise has the power to lift our spirits above the circumstances of life.
2. Praise brings God "down."
When we praise God, it draws His presence to us. The scripture tells us that God inhabits the praises of His people. This means that He will enter our proximity on the back of praise. It is truly an incredible experience when you are in a hospital room, and moments later, because of praise, it's holy ground. Wherever God is praised, in the prison cell, the oncology ward, the unemployment office, or the Tim Horton's drive-through, He will come and occupy that space.
3. Praise breaks us through.
Because praise draws the presence of God, it means wherever or whenever you start to praise, anything is possible. Praise is the number one predictor of breakthrough. If praise is being lifted, walls, chains, and strongholds are coming down. Read the Bible and you will see that most great moves of God that led His people to victory and liberty are preceded by some form of praise.
4. Praise creates joy.
In the same way thanksgiving produces gratitude, praise has the power to produce joy. When we praise God, in faith (faith is the substance of what is not seen), it produces joy. Often we think of praise as something that comes after joy (picture a stadium erupting in joy and celebration after a goal was scored, and then turning to applause), however, in the life of the kingdom, the applause and celebration come first, in faith, which is followed by joy. Start doing the activity of joy in faith, the feelings of joy are soon to follow.
Praise is a joy generator.
When we practice the discipline of celebration, we generate the joy of the lord and draw the favour of God into our lives. Celebration is a discipline in the Kingdom of God, it is something we do proactively. Celebration is a tool we can grab on to and use to build strength into our lives in the here and now.
If you are in a stormy season in your life, up the creek without a paddle, this would be the perfect time to start celebrating.
Here are a few practical guides for practicing celebration
1. First things first: Give thanks for anything new.
A new relationship, a new day, a new car, a new meal, anything that has been set before you, give thanks.
2. Don't wait, celebrate
See it as a creative force, not a reactive feeling. It will feel counterintuitive, and it will take all the strength you have to begin, but I promise you, if you start praising God, His presence, power, and peace are not far behind.
3. Keep it going
Live a life of celebration, seek to be constantly mindful of God's presence, His goodness, and His greatness throughout your day, thanking Him and praising Him for anything and everything. If you do, you will find his life growing much stronger and healthier in you, as He draws closer and closer to you.
I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. Psalm 34:1