Ready and Thankful

I have not written on my blog for quite some time; over a year in fact. In the past I have often had starts and stops when it comes to writing, times of inspiration and dry spells, times when the words flow and the inspiration is easy, and other seasons where it seems dry and I have to dig deep. But this past year has been – significant. Different. Longer. Shorter. Harder. Better.

I had a child. Moved our family of four across the country. Said good-bye to a church family and some of my deepest friends in the world. Left the city that shaped my call to ministry and justice and academia. Started a full-time pastoral position. Saw my eldest start kindergarten. Presided over a memorial service for several homeless people in my new city. Baptized my niece. Started to fall in love with a new city. Taught a seminary class. Enjoyed summer on the north west coast. Celebrated new births and mourned lives passing. Met 750-or-so people in my new church where I hit the ground running by listening, leading, organizing, following, teaching, learning, pastoring, preaching, and loving these new people who I am now knit together with. I am starting my seventh month of ministry in this new season and I think, finally, the dust is settling and I am feeling ready. Ready to write. Ready to build more deeply. To reflect more deeply. Ready for more.

Not writing this past year has been a metaphor for the truth that I have not had enough space to process, to reflect, to write, to think, to engage, to integrate. Only a few times did the need to write interrupt the fullness of everyday life. I wrote to my baby boy just days before he came into this world. I wrote for his baptism. I wrote some family history. And I wrote good byes and thank you’s and promise to see you soon. For me writing is always integrating, it’s putting pieces together, it’s seeing in a new way, it’s prioritizing. For me to not write in this public space, or much in my own private space, is a sign that I need integration, I need to see anew. And I need to begin somewhere.

So I begin here. I begin by remembering much of what has happened in this last season. Recently I found myself with some time on a plane ride to write out all that our family juggled well (and sometimes not so well) with the changes and transitions this past year or so. I remembered all that we came through, all we were surprised by and grieved over and let go of, and then all that we embraced and rejoiced over and grew into and were able to rest in. We have been provided for in such significant ways. Loved and cared for and remembered. Seen new life and taken daring leaps. Brought alive through worship and tethered deep by relationship. Centered to the core by prayer and community and trust.

There is so much good here to remember, write about, and integrate. So I start by remembering. I start with gratitude. With thankfulness and amazement and praise for being led through, I look back and say, thank you. I pause within the always-moving pace of life and acknowledge. I put back the pieces again, noticing the fingerprints of God throughout. And I remember that even in the messiness of life, maybe especially there, I get to meet God and follow and learn alongside others. I am ready. And I am so very thankful.

The static of the false self…

“God goes after our accumulated junk with something equivalent to a compressor and starts digging through our defense mechanisms, revealing the secret corners that hide the unacceptable parts of ourselves.

We may think it is the end of our relationship with God. Actually, it is an invitation to a new depth of relationship with God. A lot of emptying and healing has to take place if we are to be resopnsive to the sublime communications of God. The full transmission of divine life cannot come through and be fully heard if the static of the false self is too loud.”

– Thomas Keating, from Invitation to Love

Advent: What Do I Expect?

When the nights grow longer and the air gets cooler, I realize that Advent is once again sneaking up on me, surprising me with its demands and its invitation. Last week I looked out the window at the dark sky that settled around the tree branches by 4:45, and I felt the need to, well, prepare. I set up a table at the back of our living room full of wrapping paper and ribbons, and tucked a couple of devotional books, my Bible, and an afghan in the corner chair. I got out some of our Christmas decorations and made plans for when to see friends and family during our upcoming travels. We made lists of gifts for family members and decided when we’d get out the Christmas tree. I looked at some books to use for an Advent Sunday School series I am teaching and helped our three-year old do a crafty gift project. I felt like I was getting ready for something. I was anticipating things that were going to fill our days and I was making spaces for them, ahead of time. I was doing steps that I could do now in order to be ready for the main event soon to come. I felt very proud of my preparations – even baby steps toward being on top of the demands coming our way made me feel self-satisfied this November (which tells you how great I am at thinking ahead naturally, perhaps.) I am not usually one who is good at preparing ahead of time, of anticipating. But I recognize this rhythm that Advent brings; I remember past years of obligations and full schedules and lists to cross off, and I desire to stay ahead of these demands.

I also have a hunger to follow the invitation underneath these familiar to-do lists. I have a thirst to be able to drink deep from wells of wisdom, to reset the busy and mundane by the lights of the Advent wreath, to reorient our family rhythms around the nativity creche and the promise of the baby God-Man coming to earth. When night draws near through my windows and I am wrapped in my afghan, I long to pull apart the rush of the day and rest, to read and remember the story, to refocus and realign my heart. I recognize that I am tired, and I know that this season has something to say to me underneath the loudness of productivity. I am so often driven but not satiated, so often propelled forward but not rooted deep in my days. And I don’t want to live this way – not during Advent, not during the rest of the year.

Advent has all this weighty, theological meat to it – during Advent, we wait on Christ’s coming in expectant dependency, re-enacting our year-long, indeed life-long, posture of waiting for Christ’s final coming. Advent also has all this practical, real life busyness to it – if you’re in ministry, a teacher, a parent, a family member – heck, if you are a North American involved in any level of relationships or work or holiday prep, Advent is a crazy-full time. Advent comes right during the whirlwind when one season ends and another begins, of papers to grade, concerts to attend, worship to plan, plays to rehearse, leaves to bag, snow to blow, choirs to practice, pies to bake, family to visit, children to tend, friends to invite over, assignments to finish, sermons to write, etc. Of course Advent is already busy, I always think when I see the calendar get obscured by black ink; it’s a wonderful, festive, full time in the church and in our family’s life. It should be full, right? But what does it fill up with? What kind of preparations am I making, and for what big event am I really expectantly waiting?

Most people I know are torn between these demands and this invitation – the seasonal realities of Advent that put us in tension with real life busyness on the one hand, and the crack that opens up and invites us to wait, really wait, and make space for God to be the One doing all the Doing, on the other hand. Each year I feel this tension, as assuredly as the dark wraps around our home and the chill in the air settles in, I remember once again – life is not supposed to be about doing, or accomplishing the lists, or even serving in the name of God. Advent, like life, is really about the crazy, miraculous, displacing scandal of a God who came to us as a vulnerable baby, who broke from heaven to wrap earth’s skin on, whose life and death and resurrection ultimately points my life to its eternal big event and meaning.

What do I expect this Advent, truly? Do I expect a lot of events and schedules to keep on top of? Do I expect myself to meet the expectations of others? Do I expect to get by, or even just look good while getting by? If I am honest, I want more this season, I hunger for something else during this dark and invitational time. I expect a crack from the other world to make a jagged fissure into places of cold stone in my life. I expect the miraculous and the scandal of Jesus to surprise me and be made known to me again. I expect the waiting and dependency of heaven to escape, wrap itself around me and pull me into its truth this season, just like a warm blanket. I expect a lot, truth be told. To be honest, a part of my heart is worried to expect, to hope, to be ready for more, because a part of me is scared that I won’t find a deep miracle this season. What if tip-toe toward the manger only to find more of the same? What if I ask for more, wait expectantly, endure the silence, and only find endless schedules or expectations or disappointments that fill the void? What if nothing fills up my low places, what if pain still haunts the manger scene, what if the darkness seems to be taking over?

I want to be brave enough to expect a lot this Advent. I want to journey toward the light, reset our families rhythms so that like a table ready to wrap gifts, our minds and rooms are waiting and ready for God to show up. I want to try to ready myself, so that if a miracle wrapped in the everyday comes to visit, I will be prepared. And I want to notice if God comes to me in the form of a drooling, hungry baby in the midst of over-booked accommodations and stinky animals in my space. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It was always meant to seem like an in-breaking miracle disrupting the everyday, I suspect. I pray it always is.