“Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things.” Joel 2:21
There are times when I read those words in the midst of great sorrow and I wonder who are these rejoicing people? Who are the people of God who feel as though ‘great things’ have been done? Can they not see my brothers who are suspected of crime simply because of their skin color? Can they not see my sisters who struggle to feed their children while working tirelessly at low-paying jobs? Can they not see our mothers wrenched in grief at the loss of their children to harrows of war? Can they not see our fathers demeaned and discouraged at the loss of meaningful work? Can they not see our neighbors and friends spatting endlessly? Where is God in the midst of this crazy mucked–up world? Why would I rejoice?
Between the years of 1992-1996, the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina was decimated by years of warfare and siege. The people who managed to survive the fight and live in the city lost access to water, electricity, gas, and public transportation. In 1993, in the midst of this unimaginable anguish, people of the city gathered in a basement, avoiding sniper fire and held the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant. Participants carried banners that read “Don’t let them kill us.”
Beauty pageants in wartime seem futile and silly. But in 1993 in Sarajevo, the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant was a gathering of hearts and minds in resistance against the evils and anguish of war. It was a moment to celebrate the gift of beauty and life and to remember that life is not mere survival. Taking time to celebrate life told the world that the people of Sarajevo were not giving up.
Imagining life in Sarajevo in 1993 is next to impossible for me, but the wreckage of life isn’t far from my doorstep. Sometimes, the holiday season doesn’t turn my heart towards warm gratefulness, but towards embittered pain. Rockwellian images of peaceful tables full of turkeys and smiling families remind me that life isn’t as it should be, or what I want it to be. Despite these vast differences, the people of Sarajevo remind me that pain, fear and fighting (whether in war or in our families) is not the final word on life. The prophet Joel, who gave us these words to be glad and rejoice, also gives us these words of the Lord, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” (Joel 2:27).
God exerts a real and abiding presence in the midst of Israel, proclaiming that death and sorrow and hunger and fear for the future are not the final word. God does not leave His people in pain, but enters into our pain and bears it with us. This isn’t an abstract idea, but a real and living person in Jesus Christ. We can take time in the midst of our lives and our struggle to be glad and to rejoice because we do not struggle alone. Whether Thanksgiving and the impending holiday season is a time of easy rejoicing or wrought struggle, we can peel back the corners of our daily existence and see that there is God with us, Immanuel. And for this God, we lift up our hearts and say a Great Thanksgiving.
This post originally appeared in the Duke Youth Academy Holiday Newsletter. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.