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.

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.

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.