Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The {In}Comparable Advent

The last days leading up to Christmas, I feel so keenly the hardness of the road to Bethlehem.

It seems easier to identify with the realities of their situation, that venerated but simple couple, than to gloss over it with sentimentality. This is because my life has little gloss and sentimentality. I pursue it of course, with candlelight and delicious smells in the kitchen and having the kids gather round for readings, but daily we hit the wall of arguing and misunderstanding, the surprise of loneliness and the battles against disappointment, the frustrations of pollution and a city in a foreign country and the fact that in all our meager efforts to create unity and contentment, we just can't make it happen.

I find it easy to compare. When you think about all the actualities of the birth of Jesus, it is everything our lives are today: ordinary, humbling, frustrating, fraught with challenges, filled with situations that make you wonder, really, Lord? Is this the way you care for those who follow you? Surely Mary must have wondered that as the doors shut in their faces just when the baby she had born the shame of misunderstanding for, the filling and breaking of her body for, the burden of her whole long life of piercing for, was about to enter the world.

My little girl, in her five year old way of questioning, has asked me a few times in recent days, Mom, do you really believe God is taking care of you? I say yes. And we list the ways we see it. But in my heart, I know if I was really honest, that sometimes I too wonder. Lord, are you sure you got this?

That is when I lose the grip on comparing myself with Mary. And I think I want to. The gift of the Advent of Jesus is that something mysterious and incomparable, incomprehensible and impossible, happened on our earth in real space and time and history. What I need most in my hardest moments, in the day to day grind and the failure of my family, my friendships, my broken and dying world, is for God to step in. I need him to take care of things. To take care of my sinful and wayward heart. To take care of all the wrongs that are being done to innocent children and defenseless people. To turn the hearts of everyone to their Creator, to pour out love on us in such a way that we can do nothing but love him and everyone around us in return. To make me see the earth and all that inhabits it in the way that he does. To fill me with joy.

We all need something entirely outside ourselves to break in and rescue us.

When I think about Mary listening to Gabriel speak unfathomable words, the Shepherds surrounded by the glory of God on the hard ground of the rough earth they trod every day, Joseph gazing at a baby that looked like any other baby but that he knew beyond what would have been very reasonable doubt, was really God, I cannot put myself in that story anymore. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me. In fact, it just plain doesn't happen. It's the most unimaginable story, nestled in the most ordinary, relatable circumstances.

This is our life every day. Ordinary and difficult, humbling and fraught with disappointment. It's the old curse at work, Adam toiling and Eve in pain. But God steps in. He makes a way. Jesus really was born and lived a real exemplary life and died a real sacrificial death and rose in miraculous glory the way only a real God could. And He is really here, taking care of things right now.

So we can join with Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Shepherds and Simeon, and all the millions who have followed along in their steps, believing and worshiping. Immanuel! God is with us.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The {Im}Possible Thing About Advent

I just want to be free of it, is what I keep thinking to myself.

Free of the weight of this baggage of self I carry around all through my days. It's Advent for crying out loud and I love my dark early mornings with the cold and my coffee and the Word both sharp and lovely, but these last few days as the light of dawn breaks through the windows, my own heart seems to slide into its own kind of darkness. I weary of the struggle with my emotions and the battle with my attitude.

I'm doing the work of Advent, the hint of an impatient thought showed its underbelly today as I battled the thoughts that plagued me. I'm paring back and meditating and slowing down and trying to open my heart to the wonder that God could speak into it. I wish that meant less struggle with personal, ugly darkness. 

So here, apparently is my wish for a successful Christmas Season. A tranquil heart. Unburdened by want or need or any sort of pining. Simply content. Happily pouring out and into everyone around me. In short, it seems I ought to become a Buddhist. Just get rid of all that desire, and find the way to inner peace through annihilation and emptiness.

This is where the heart of Advent stepped into my world again today. Our Christmas card this year reads Peace on Earth. Celebrating Emmanuel in China. When we took the picture for the card there was anything but Peace on that part of the Earth. But we like to think of it as a hope for the future peace that will only come when our Savior returns. In that picture taking moment, and in most moments of our days, we are waiting with hopeful longing for that peace.

And in the meantime, we are celebrating the fact that Emmanuel, God with us, is ever true way over here in China. And that is what I need to know and walk in more than ever these days. The gift of the first Advent was the arrival of God putting on flesh, our very flesh, so that he could be with us. And not just with us to hang out, but to understand, to empathize, to relate in the most humbling and of ways. Beyond even that though, the first Advent meant God put on flesh so that he could die in the flesh and make God with us a forever possibility. Or rather, us with God an eternal reality.

As I walked through my day, talking with the Lord in my head, pouring out my heart and my battles, my confessions and my questions, my thanks and my worship, I was struck by how precious it is that He walks with me. My struggle with sin doesn't stop because of Advent or any other special time with the Lord. But this special time of reflecting and thinking upon His Birth and His breaking into our world makes me more keenly aware of my need and His meeting of it. For what are we without God? Phantoms, wraiths, walking souls with insatiable desires that go unmet and grow greedy with the consumption of what does not satisfy. But with God? God with us? We are like springs of living water, whose well will never run dry.

A true celebration of Advent seems impossible sometimes. It is too plagued by real life and real people. Even when you do all you think you can do (and even the things the books tell you to do) to put yourself in the position to really value and experience the true meaning of this beautiful, weighty, all-important holiday season, the truth is that any Advent is impossible from our side of things. Real Advent is all about God being with us. It's the central message of the gospel truth all over again. You can't get to him on your own merit.

The Possible thing about Advent from our end is worship. God is with us, and plagued by the darkness of the world and our own hearts, we cling to His Light all the more. The shepherds came humbly, the magi came adoring, we come thankful, in awe, needy and leaning in close to the God and Savior who is no distant idea or statement of Four Truths or cold, lifeless statue with a fat belly. He is Spirit, who put on flesh. He has a name and he knows each of ours.

If it feels impossible to get yourself all cleaned up and heart-ready for the celebration of the first Advent, you are just about right. With man this is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The {Un}Interesting Thing About Who Gets Picked for Advent

If the season of Advent is all about waiting and watching, and slowing down enough to enter into the story of the Birth of our Savior, so that you can be changed and renewed again by the words of the Word who became flesh, then you have to wonder...

Who are the ones who hear that Word? 
Who gets spoken to during Advent? 
What kind of person do you have to be to hear His voice and feel the weight of the story anew in all its grime and glory?

There was Mary of course, penitent and willing, sublime and submissive. But even she asked, "How can this be?" 

Joseph, stalwart and self-righteous, careful and caring. Did he bend his ear to God or was he bent by the Word that bore down on him?

Zechariah, pious and prayerful, set in his ways and waylaid by the message that jarred him from his righteous slumber. He thought he was ready to hear from God, but was he?

The Shepherds, alert and eager, responsive and rejoicing. They did nothing glorious, but the glory came to them and shone all around them. Were they prepared? And yet they received it like the gift it was.

Simeon, devout and desiring, filled and foretelling. He was ready, as ready as one can ever be. Was he any more blessed than the surprised shepherds?

Anna, old and graying, worshiping and praying. 

The Men from the East, wise and generous, seeking and relentless.

Herod, devious and envious, murdering and scattering.

You think of all the ones He came to. Was he really that picky, that concerned with a correct posture towards himself, coming only to those who were ready and willing to accept Him and his messengers? Or was it all an act of pure grace? To some who were looking and ready, he was received with gladness, but others with doubt and surprise. To some who were not looking nor ready, he was received with gladness, but others with doubt and dismay. 

Is the posture we take all that interesting to him? Or is He the interesting one, the arresting one, the one to be reckoned with, coming in a humbling and generous act of grace to each and every one of his choosing, not because they were ready-- but simply because He wanted them to know Him.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Inconvenient Advent

Having a house full of sickness was not my plan for the first couple weeks of December. It set back plans I had for a December Photo Project (after three days of pictures with me on the couch, knitting needles, and a sad kid face in the frame, I gave up), it scaled down preparations I was making towards hosting and all put an immediate stop to any kind of shopping. It meant our daily advent plans have many days gone unattended, and my own personal reading has been sporadic in its rhythm. But as I wrote yesterday, it has created quiet and space in a different way than I had envisioned, and that has been its own kind of gift.

There is an Advent discipline that I have heard encouraged, where you try to place yourself within the Nativity Story. In this way, there is the hope that you can experience anew some of the realities that may have become old hat, or rote and sterile after so many years of hearing the words read in church and sung at Christmas concerts.

Last night my oldest boy was expressing some sadness as he thought about all his grandparents and extended family never being able to be with us at Christmas. We realized we could relate somewhat to Mary and Joseph being far from their families during one of the most important moments of their lives, the birth of their first child. Were they better able to wonder and worship because they were alone? And anyone who has had a surprise pregnancy, perhaps at what appeared the most inconvenient time, can (albeit to a much smaller degree, but a degree just the same) feel the tremor in Mary's question, "How can this be?"

I want to share the following chapter from a book I have lying around my house and like to read now and then during these Advent days. I share it in honor of someone near and dear to me, who just told me yesterday she is very unexpectedly expecting her fourth child, and is feeling more the burden than the joy of it just now.

"A Plan Behind the Pain"
(excerpt from A Christmas Longing by Joni Eareckson Tada)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world... And everyone went to his own town to register.

"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born..." (Luke 2:1, 3-6).

The distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is no Girl Scout hike. It spans over sixty miles of rough and rugged terrain.

We can imagine Joseph packing a few belongings and beginning that journey on foot or donkey-back with Mary-- well into her ninth month of pregnancy. Talk about unpleasant circumstances! How Mary must have suffered on that journey. Joseph, too, may have been gripped by anxiety over the situation. Can you imagine his thoughts as they traveled toward Bethlehem?

Why did this census have to happen now? Of all times! What if the baby comes while we're traveling? Where will we stay when we get to Bethlehem? What if the inns are full? When the time comes, what if there is no one to help? Will I be able to assist Mary? Will it be terribly hard on her? Will the child be in danger?

But it was necessary to make that several-day journey to Bethlehem-- for more reasons than one. Hundreds of years before, God prompted His prophet to name the town of the future Messiah's birth. The city of David. God used external circumstance, the Roman census, to have His Son born in His ancestral city.

Now, certainly, it was a great inconvenience to both Mary and Joseph. But unpleasant circumstances often have a way of becoming the best part of God's magnificent design. Despite the heachache and hardship, the inconvenience and discomfort, God's sovereign timetable was ticking off right on schedule.

This Christmas story has a lesson for us today, because sometimes you and I make the mistake of thinking that only the "right" things or comfortable things are a part of God's design. A good job, robust health, close friends, a comfortable house, money in a savings account-- all give us the impression that we must be doing something "right." Then, when the inconvenience or discomfort or hardship hits, we wonder what "went wrong."

Maybe nothing went wrong.

Maybe we simply need to realize that our most unpleasant circumstances, much like Mary and Joseph's, often have a way of becoming a beautiful portion of God's magnificent design.

God's sovereign timetable is working in the life of your family, too, hard as that may be to accept at times. Despite the hardship, despite the inconvenience, despite our lack of understanding, God has something in mind. He is in control, and He has a design for your life this Christmas season... and through all the seasons of your life.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The {Im}Perfect Way to Start Advent

I tend to think that the days are slipping me by when I don't write on here. But I think there is some part of me that wrongly starts to feel guilty and twitchy, like something is missing if I haven't shared about it. The truth is that life is probably best lived in the secret, in the quiet. When I am disconnected from updating, I am assuredly more present in the living. So lest I ever think of this space as another place to upload my life, please remind me: Life isn't slipping me by because I haven't written about it. This is a place for pondering, thinking, and working things out through the written word. If it's done with any regularity that just means my brain has not been sucked dry by life with four kids or trying to figure out how to speak one of the hardest languages known to man.


It is Advent season and the days-slipping-by theme seems to be in full swing. Now you must know, I love Advent. Love. Love. Love. I am a Think Deeply About Themes kind of person so give me a book and some Scripture and tell me how light and darkness and hope and expectation and lament and rejoicing all weave together through stories and symbols and I am going to jump on that bandwagon and ride it til the cows come home. So the fact that we are now on Day 9 of the Advent calendar and five out of four of those days have gone Un-Observed because of some family sickness has not been easy on my Advent-loving heart.

Yes we have been sick and more sick around here. Almost 10 days now of off and on stomach serious nastiness and fevers and colds and children lying all over my house in various degrees of compromised health. I was thankful and proud that our Christmas decor was all arranged a few days before Thanksgiving. But then the Sick hit us and as my dear daughter pointed out with a grimace in my general direction the other morning, the tree has lights but nothing else. We didn't do our tree decorating cozy evening yet. We didn't hang stockings. I barely got the advent calendar up. We've spent a few nights reading our daily portions and lighting candles, but at this point if feels disjointed at best.

But as in so many things in life that go this way, I think in the end the days of sick may just be the way we need it this year for Advent. If these few days of preparation are meant to help us open our minds, enlarge our hearts, and allow space to ponder anew the coming of Jesus, to see what He is doing in the world and to recognize how he is speaking in our lives, then being home without much to do but care for needy kids is one very pared down way to do that.

Because even in preparing for Advent-- the very season to ready you for the coming of Christ-- you can get caught up in the preparations, in making sure you are doing all the right activities, becoming either somewhat frenzied or at least particular and controlling about the ways in which you will create a space to experience the real meaning of the season. And then once again, the Person you are trying to meet gets missed, or smothered.

If the space and time I need to think about the darkness of this world and the hope of the Light that has come into it, is created by sitting with a fevered, wimpering child all afternoon, then iso be it. In some small way, this is my point of entry-- at least this year-- into the mystery of the Bethlehem Story and all it's inconveniences that birthed a Savior into the world.