Advent is my favorite season of the year. It’s the music that is always playing, the dark nights with candles glowing, the storytelling with awe and mystery, anticipating my son’s Advent birthday… breathe in, breathe out. Advent beckons us to notice more, expect more, give thanks more – the word itself means to anticipate, wait, and prepare. Advent reminds us to pause. To feel all the honesty of this life and the bumps and bruises of it, and receive the truth that my faith is not always neat and predictable, but arises out of a deep hunger for hope, meaning, truth, healing; and that longing is always met in God With Us, Emmanuel. During advent, everyday moments often bring me to tears – I hear a familiar chord, or hear my 4 yr old re-enacting the Christmas story, or read cards from friends across the country – and I feel it, I sense it again, this weighty truth and significance of this celebration of God With Us. I am reminded over and over again of all it means, that Jesus came here, right where we flailing followers of faith were at, entering into mess, doubt, fear, grief and pain, to be With Us. 

Advent is always a gift, but this year I find myself working harder to reconcile the promise of this season with all the struggle, grief, hate, and fear that is at work in the world. This season is heavy with promise and presence, beckoning us to prepare our hearts to let Christ enter in – this year, perhaps more than any other, I am aware of our world’s need for this life-giving, promise-keeping presence. I sense and soak in this presence of God’s Spirit all around us, always asserting the miracle of Emmanuel against the pain of this world. In Advent Jesus pushes against my present weariness to proclaim the most hopeful, world-altering truth there is: I came to be With You, I lived and served and proclaimed life With You, I beat down death and then empowered you with my Spirit, I am still With You, and I will not leave you. I recognize this truth again and again and I can hardly contain the power, the joy, the hope of this truth while I cross off shopping lists, plan events, attend to church business. The everyday is punctured with this extravagant gift – this life given to bring life – this promise to become With Us and for us. Do we really see this gift for all that it is? Do we make room? Do we prepare, do I receive this heavy promise containing the very ingredients for life and peace, joy and hope? Advent feels like a thin place, a season where the holy gets closer to the mundane, the Kingdom of God’s reign seems almost touchable, almost reachable even in the middle of struggle. Advent can be a feast of abundance, every twinkling tree light an interruption of the darkness, every melody hummed a protest of life against hopelessness – but I have to have eyes to see it. 

Because the way that Jesus came to be with us – the how of Advent, is part of the miracle, an integral part of why we have so much hope. God chose to enter the story of this earth, of the church, even my story of faith, in a certain way; vulnerable, small, and among the marginalized. Jesus showed up in a stable as a needy, dependent newborn, one who left majesty and authority to be with outsiders – smelly shepherds, a young but fierce teenage mom, a faithful but questioning earthly dad, and a city/nation/political power system that would fear, reject, and ultimately kill him. God chose this introduction, this form, this human messiness, and it is part of why I am in awe. This way of being With Us also meant fulfilling the waiting, longing, and hopes of the people of God, those outsiders and exiles who for generations, for centuries – waited. For hundreds of years, wandered and struggled. Think of the welcome, the wonder, the overwhelming gratitude of receiving Jesus for those who first met him, those who heard the Good News that Emmanuel was – finally – born. From this week’s Advent reading:

“But you, Bethlehem, David’s country,
the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.
His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes
until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back
home to the family of Israel.
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!

And if some bullying Assyrian shows up,
invades and violates our land, don’t worry.
We’ll put him in his place, send him packing,
and watch his every move.
Shepherd-rule will extend as far as needed,
to Assyria and all other Nimrod-bullies.
Our shepherd-ruler will save us from old or new enemies,
from anyone who invades or violates our land.”
Micah 5:2-5 (The Message)

This Advent I recognize that I need to be re-centered, to fully enter into the awe of God With Us so that I can remember what it is that Jesus enters into. The “how of Advent” is that God chose to meet us in the mess, to engage and reclaim all of the worldly kingdoms – even our current divisive political reality – through reconciliation and forgiveness, through prophetic truth and righteous anger. Jesus is not only in the manger, or the ornament on the tree, or mentioned in a song Sunday morning – Jesus enters in to all of our world, so it is Emmanuel who helps us re-define and heal the grief, anger, fear, and hate at work in the world. God With Us is our only hope to see the truth, and to know we are not alone. Advent does not tell us to turn our eyes away from the political stress in our country, but reminds us to see it with new eyes. Advent does not proclaim power and privilege have the last word, but proclaims that God chose outsiders, vulnerability, and courageous women to bring Christ to this planet. Advent does not encourage ignoring or turning down the sharpness of the evil we have seen empowered through the political realm this season, but presses us look through the lens of Jesus Christ who entered in even the mess of politics in order to embody the Good News, that God is With Us.

So let us be clear – whatever our political persuasion, however we live out the details of our faith, if we follow Christ we are following the way of a Middle-Eastern man who grew up in Palestine, who was then a child refugee in Africa, who never stepped foot on the Americas, but spent a lifetime loving women and men on the edges – those on the margins, overlooked and abused, who were ethnically, culturally, religiously very diverse. THAT is who we follow. And Christ gave his own life for his enemies, for you, and for me, and for our world. That is who came down to the manger, that is the scandalous “how of Advent,” and that is why the promise and challenge of this season rests in us seeing and following this very particular Emmanuel. We who follow Christ cannot be intoxicated by any other version of religion, culture, political platform, or financial motivation. The “how of Advent” is that we are invited into following this God who is With Us – and the prophets proclaim that “the us” God came to be with are first the outsiders, the powerless, the ethnically oppressed, the women and children, the orphans and immigrants, the smelly shepherds and a teenage mom. Will we receive this Emmanuel? Will we make room, and let Advent’s power enter into all of our world this season? Church, our world needs Good News; we know the answer, and we have met the Messenger – God With Us, Emmanuel. May God help us live like this extravagant gift of Advent is true, this season and every day of the year. Amen.

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Fighting for Self-Care: Reset in 2016

As the new year begins I have been motivated to take inventory and reset my intentions for 2016. And the number one area that has been on my mind, heart and spirit is the issue of self-care. I have been reminded in so many ways during this past year that self-care is integral, woven throughout, indeed required for healthy, strong leadership. And I’ve also been reminded of the truth that self-care shapes our capacity toward and commitment to faithful discipleship, marriage, parenting – you know, life! As I finished out a too-full season this past year, and found myself basking in the refreshment and rest over the holiday break, my soul cried out to me, “Hang onto this space of rest, this renewal, this place of pause from rushing so that you can savor – YOU NEED MORE OF THIS.” And I’ve decided that in order to continue on and pastor well, love well, parent well, just to fully and healthily be me – I am going to listen to that cry.

It’s not that the importance of self-care is new information for me – I’ve long understood and worked toward self-care as part of being a healthy leader, woman, mother, activist. And I know too well when feelings of burn out, despair, or fatigue settle in and replace my sense of calling, passion, and capacity – then I am not able to do much of anything well. What feels newer and more deeply impressed upon my soul in this particular season is the reality of how much work, preparing, protection – even fighting for it – self-care requires. It is of course one thing to affirm the truth of self-care being a good thing; it goes to a whole other level when self-care gets written into my day timer, inserted into my time and mind, protected before and in front of other demands that will and do surge over my life. When I am committed to in this coming year is becoming more aware of, and doing the work that is required in my season, of actually protecting self-care. Right now that looks like actualizing the hopes and intentions into hours with my pen and my journal, walks during my lunch break, saying yes to true things of nourishment in my life and saying no to the rest. Before burn-out draws near, I’m committing to having the hard conversations, going on more dates with my hubby, eating more vegetables, having more fun, and celebrating and praying through who God has really made me to be as the new year begins. And it already feels amazing.

Starting over the holiday break I spent a lot of time thinking, planning, and praying around self-care in this next year. I started several spiritual practices that became obvious to me I was in need of, and I charted out plans to reset and reformat different areas of life over the coming year. Yes, I decided to take a whole year to reset portions of life that are in need of more self-care and focus – instead of underestimating the time or intention that this work might require, which I confess is often my usual method when it comes to self expectations. I redid much of my daytimer and my personal rhythms, taking some realistic inventory of my commitments, goals, health, and projects – so that I could say no to some things, plan ahead for other things, move some things back, and limit some things. I have to say, it felt like a tiny revolution to significantly move around my time, to prioritize and decide for myself what was most needed, most nourishing, most where the Spirit was calling me to be! One of the most refreshing parts of this reset was building in protected time each day that I now call “nourish time” – time where I pray, read, write, journal, listen to God, connect with my people, enjoy music, exercise, and enjoy my husband and kids. Every single day I do something in this category – often most things in this category. I’m already sensing that this planned-ahead-for “nourish time” is easily my biggest accomplishment of this month. Forget crossing off my to-do list, I actually redid what got on my to-do list! Because I am realizing more and more that without structure, preparation, and form being given to my value and longing for self-care, it simply WILL NOT HAPPEN. Period. Self-care happens in real time, within the heavy work load, the parenting crisis, the spiritual lament, the painful and the joyful. Other things will continue to be asked of me and expected of me, because there is no break from it all to reset and find self-care – I have to make it happen, create the space, fight for it to happen.

Maybe you’ve been on this journey of planning for and protecting self-care – what can you teach the rest of us? Or maybe you’re tired and overwhelmed and haven’t yet identified what self-care even looks like for you right now – maybe you need to fight for more self-care. Maybe you wrestle with the idea of taking time for your own care, or where that fits with a full job, serving others, justice work, parenting, or just M-F reality. Whatever season of life you’re in, if you’re longing for more of something, space for something, protected time for something – even if you already agree with the value of self-care, my prayer is that we encourage each other toward protecting, and fighting for the actual work of self-care in this coming season. Sharing ideas, tools, resources, or hang-ups with self-care are most welcome – I am sharing two tools below. This is the first of many thoughts and steps lived out around self-care for me, and I am excited to learn alongside others in this journey. I can already feel the shifts taking place internally and the spaces opening up. I can’t wait for more. Reset to fighting for self-care – ready, steady, GO!

Two tools I’ve loved this month:
The Book: “Take Time for Your Life,” by Coach Cheryl Richardson, http://www.cherylrichardson.com/store/take-time-for-your-life-introduction/
Blog and newsletter reflections from Dr. Chenequa Walker-Barnes, https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/journey-to-self-care/

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Wisdom on Resentment

“Resentment is a product of a self-centered approach: unless you are doing and being what I want you to do and be I am offended. Living for God’s glory frees us to value and appreciate rather than resent one another…In fact, there can be no real unity without diversity.”

– Susan Hunt, “Spiritual Mothering,” p. 103

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