Does the Waiting of Advent End on Christmas?

The church historically has celebrated a season called Advent. For most of my life, I thought Advent was simply a month leading up to Christmas with a wreath of candles to light each week. But it turns out that Advent is more than that. It is a month of expectantly waiting, sort of like the woman who is 8 months pregnant and doing that final month countdown.

A lot of emotions and activities make up the four final weeks leading up to the baby’s birth, especially when it is the first child. The month is exciting but it is also nerve-wracking. I remember wondering if I was ready. What kind of mother would I be? Were we financially stable enough? How would our lives change? There was a lot of discomfort in my waiting, in addition to the excitement.

This Christmas I managed to get my shopping done early. I’m not sure how I did it. Thanksgiving weekend arrived, and I decided one quiet evening to organize my list. Next thing I knew I had made a substantial dent in my list. That inspired me to plan a little more, stick with my plan, and voila! Two weeks later my shopping was done and most of my wrapping complete!

I then unexpectedly found my mind stilled somewhat, no longer being bogged down by the usual preparations. While enjoying the space I was inhabiting, my nephew reached out. He was feeling down about the lack of peace in the midst of the season that proclaims “Peace On Earth!” I couldn’t argue with him. He was right. For a couple thousand years we have celebrated the arrival of the Christ child, the event meant to mark the arrival of God With Us. I couldn’t help but wonder… Is God with us?

I went to my bookshelf and found Richard Rohr’s Preparing For Christmas. On the “First Sunday of Advent” Rohr writes that we “live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness” because “perfect fulfillment is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now.” That immediately caught my attention because the general tenor of the christian faith feels like an ultimatum. Each side has the truth and demands obedience to it. Rohr says that the Christian faith, and Advent specifically, is about waiting.

Waiting can be about delaying action. But waiting can also be about readiness for a future purpose, like the 8-month-pregnant woman. The posture of readiness and preparation is what I think Rohr references. Rohr goes on to say that only God can bring perfect fulfillment, Peace On Earth. For those of us who long for that reality, we are to wait by preparing for what we hope will come. And we recognize our limitations in doing so.

Problems emerge when someone determines for others what those preparations are. Imagine if my Christmas preparations were to include telling my family how they could make Christmas perfect. My list would be my view and interpretation of perfection, and admittedly a bit self-serving in that I would gloss over meaningful things that are not necessarily as meaningful for me personally. I suspect we would all end up miserable.

Instead I need to focus on what I can bring to our family’s time together that is meaningful. And I need to give my family space to bring what they feel is meaningful. If one chooses not to prepare? Then so be it. Each of us has a choice when it comes to what we want and if or how we will prepare. And even if we all fully prepare, will it be perfect anyway? No. Because life is not perfect. No family is perfect. No holiday is perfect.

And so a paradox emerges: Christmas can be both wonderful as its meaning is experienced, and imperfect as the full reality has not yet come. Rohr says we are called to full consciousness, and forewarned about the high price of consciousness. In other words, the more good or God or peace we experience, the more aware we will become of the absence of good and peace, and our limitations of experiencing God.

When Christians assume the waiting is over because Christmas has already come, we miss something significant. Actually we might miss the whole kit and caboodle. Consciousness may have begun, but the cost of that consciousness becomes too high. And so we insulate ourselves from what is difficult or those who are suffering. We try to convince ourselves that the waiting has ended, though perhaps secretly, deep within, we know it is still not right.

As my nephew so rightly proclaimed, Peace On Earth has not yet come. And so we wait.

Chatter

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
Frederick Buechner’s words resonate deeply. The chatter is exhausting. Maddening. Deadening. We are a culture of chatter; chatter that chirps day and night, chatter that chips away at humanity – yours and mine. 
I do not even realize the toll it takes until I am so tense every muscle aches, or so utterly depleted that I want to sleep for days.
“Unclench the fists of your spirit,” Buechner says.
I do not think this means to abandon one’s convictions. On the contrary, this is what might enable one to live out deep convictions without losing one’s mind. Or all of one’s friends. What a novel idea.
Once in a great while, I meet a person who embodies what Buechner names. I know it almost immediately – faith, integrity, grit, a calmness that resembles the eye of a storm, and love. He or she embodies convictions without shaming another. He or she inspires change, not demands it. He or she has a full life with relationships that have been tended to and meaningfulness that goes beyond work.
The chatter pulls us further away from what so many of us seek: peace, salvation, purpose. We long for an affirmation that we are on the right path but spend most of our time criticizing the “wrong” path. We fear wasting our lives, yet we waste so much time. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. But we put much of our energy into breaking things apart.
I think it is scary to ease the chatter. What will the silence bring? What do I not want to hear? What if I hear nothing at all? And so we chirp away. We speak even when we have doubts. We speak regardless of who is listening. We speak until we cannot stand the sound of our voices anymore. And we speak some more. Until eventually our souls wither or something shatters, forcing us into silence. Then, if we have an ounce of consciousness left, maybe we just might hear the collective sigh of heaven.

Friday Favorite: A Good Life

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – – that is a good life.

Annie Dillard, A Writing Life

I first came across this quote a few months ago, and it still lingers in my mind. In particular, two points have stuck with me. First, that a life of the spirit requires less and less. I have thought a lot about what this looks like. Is it less stuff? Less recognition? Is it feeling increasingly content and satisfied? All of the above, I think.

Second, that by talking of one’s life, I believe it will need to be worked on throughout my life. It takes time, intentionality, mistakes, lessons learned, vulnerability, patience and grace. Life is measured as a whole. I can look at its parts and evaluate how I am doing. But to look at my life, I must step back and examine the whole of my life – self, relationships, work, interests, thoughts, contributions, and so forth.

I would like to some day look back on my life and think of it as good. For there is no shortage of good days. But a good life is hard to come by.

Saturday Mornings

Cooler mornings are beginning to return.

So many mornings are regimented. There are things that must get done.

But today will be different.

With my cup of coffee I head to the porch.

The rocking chair allows me to see both the hummingbirds who will visit the feeder and the squirrels who will play along the base of the trees.

I bring a book. Annie Dillard is my choice today. I drink her words along with my coffee.

My cat joins me, perched on the dry sink to have the same view as mine – hummingbirds and squirrels.

I read as much as I watch.

I drink my coffee.

I sit still and am content.

This is how mornings should be.

This is how to begin the day.

I love Saturday mornings.

 

America’s Beatitudes

Blessed are the powerful, for they will dominate the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of others, for they will be filled with self-righteousness.

Blessed are the theologically merciless, for they will be merciful to themselves.

Blessed are the sure in heart, for they will think they are seeing God.

Blessed are those who wage war, for they will call themselves children of God.

Blessed are the powerful who consider themselves persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of The End That Justify The Means.

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Empty Nesting

Well, friends, it has been quite a few weeks. We dropped our baby off at college and are settling into a new normal of empty nesting. I remember when we lost our beloved dog of nearly 15 years, I would find myself going to feed her, only to be jolted into the reality that she was no longer with us. I would then tear up and sometimes just weep from the loss. Eerily similar, I get home from work and am about to call up the stairs to tell my daughter I’m home, only to remember she’s not in her room. She’s not in the house. And she won’t be coming home for awhile. But I don’t find myself tearing up, most of the time that is. I find myself feeling grateful for who she is and where she is.

Raising a child these days is no easy task. What they face, what they know, what they see, what they deal with is a lot. Helping a child navigate childhood into adulthood can be overwhelming and hard. Neither do I take for granted the young woman I left at her new college dorm nor all the people it took to help us get her there. I didn’t raise perfect children and I didn’t raise them perfectly. In fact I made lots of mistakes. But I feel proud of the job I did. And I feel proud of the adults my children have become.

In reflecting upon how we got to this place, I have been thinking about what I think I did well, and not so well in my parenting. The efforts I put into being a better parent has made me a better person. There are many things I could share, but I thought I’d focus on just a few.

First, what I think most often got in the way of my being a good parent was my impatience. It was easier just to do something myself. It was easier to pretend I didn’t hear the 15th question. It was easier to redirect for the sake of getting to the point rather than allow them to meander through their thoughts and ideas. I cringe at some of the moments I can recall. Sometimes I would catch my impatience, stop, apologize, and do better. Sometimes I would realize after the fact, go back and apologize. And far too many times I’m sure, I moved on without realizing what I had done and how my impatience must have felt sharp and judgmental. Both of my children are very gracious when I share my regrets and offer an apology. I have definitely improved my patience, but have a looooooooonnng way to go.

What seemed to come naturally for me was to love my kids unconditionally. It has been the most natural relationship I have experienced. And loving them has helped me to love others better. So I can take no credit for this in my parenting. I have heard of others struggling to love their kids unconditionally, often because they have never experienced that kind of love themselves. I am thankful that I could love them unconditionally, meaning it was never their job to love me or care for me. Correction was given for the sake of their learning to be better people, not because they owed me anything or needed to do anything to keep my love. I believe we all need to be loved unconditionally, and the sooner that can be felt, the better.

I think what I did well was decide from very early on that I would know my kids. I don’t just mean superficially. Or know what I want to know or think I know. It has taken time and effort. It requires hearing sometimes what I don’t want to hear or know. It is both humbling and at times frustrating. But this is what allowed me to see them as individuals from the very beginning. Not an extension of me or my husband. Not someone to do what I wish I had done. Not someone who would live into my expectation. Rather to see them as their own entities with their own ideas, dreams, flaws, and needs. This has enabled me to allow them to follow their own paths, and to make their own mistakes.

And it is what has made our empty nesting feel so right. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my kids. When my son came home for my daughter’s graduation, my heart felt like it might burst from joy. I miss my daughter, and I have teared up several times. But my children were never mine to keep. They were mine to raise and then share with the world.

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Mr. Rogers Is My Hero

I will confess that while I grew up with Mr. Rogers, I was more of a Sesame Street fan. Maybe I preferred its pace to the more methodical pace of Mr. Rogers. But this isn’t a comparison of the two. It is merely to point out that it took me almost 50 years to recognize the brilliance and prophetic nature of Fred Rogers.

I took my daughter to see the documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I left that experience realizing how hungry I was for kindness, which seems to be in short supply these days. Rogers was a man who lived his convictions beautifully and sacrificially. He respected people and acknowledged their whole selves, which included their thoughts and feelings. He knew their value wasn’t in what they could do or who they had been born to, but simply by being themselves. Fred Rogers embodied the command to love God, and to love neighbor as oneself. And he didn’t ever have to quote scripture to do so.

I have since immersed myself in the theology and philosophy of Fred Rogers. I am finding so much inspiration for my spiritual journey. I see now that it was his simplicity that caused me to miss his depth. I could write about it. Or you could see if for yourselves.

Click here to watch this clip of Mr. Rogers from his television show, introducing Jeff Erlanger to his neighbors. It is long in this day and age of 10 second clips. But I encourage you to watch it in its entirety. And listen to what is shared and explored. Imagine what this meant to Jeff and to the many children (and adults for that matter) who may look different or do things differently, and yet aren’t so different.

Now click here to watch another clip, years and years later, when Mr. Rogers is inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Watch him climb to get to Jeff. Listen to his words of gratitude. See his face of appreciation and care. You can’t fake that level of love and selflessness. Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

While he received many accolades, Fred Rogers was also often the butt of many jokes. Perhaps it was his singsong voice, his methodical approach, or his childlike enthusiasm that invited these jokes. But when we laugh too quickly, as I believe I used to do, we miss the truth he embodied. And let us note, and be thankful for the fact that he never wavered. I suspect it wasn’t easy. There are glimpses of his doubts and fatigue, when you look closely enough. But he forged ahead anyway. And how wonderful to hear that he did so with his real family in addition to his television family. As I said already, Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

I wish I could say thank you to Mr. Rogers, for his message, his courage, his resilience, his convictions. I am glad so many people over the years did just that. Mr. Rogers, you are my hero.

Milestones

This past week my daughter graduated from high school. I was able to spend time with my adult son and both of my parents in addition to my husband and daughter. I had lots of time with friends too. One of the things that struck me was how many of us had different takes on this milestone’s meaning, what was important or not as important, what to celebrate and might come next.

I got to thinking: Who is right? Should I have been sadder than I felt? Should I have enjoyed the pomp and circumstance more? Was I wrong to relish most the time spent with those I love? What did I miss? What will I think months from now when I look back? The process of exploring my perspective along with the perspective of others is another reminder of how much I value diversity of thought.

We live in a time where most of us find diversity scary. Our ideological differences are at odds with what feels like potential significant changes in outcome. And when we think of those differences in big arenas such as politics or religion, diversity doesn’t seem feasible. One side must be right and the other side must be wrong. One side must be chosen and the other rejected. There will be winners and losers. But the reality is, most of life isn’t spent in a large arena. Most of life is spent doing our jobs, loving our loved ones, talking with our neighbors, spending time with friends, raising kids, taking care of pets, supporting those in need. Most of our time is a collection of small, seemingly insignificant acts, decisions, thoughts and responses each and every day.

I was reminded of this poignantly with the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. He was a man who spent time understanding and learning from others. I admired his approach, which felt both simple and profound.

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” [Anthony Bourdain] said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

His questions allowed anyone to enter into the conversation, regardless of background or experience. That in and of itself is noteworthy. But then, and probably more importantly, he listened. Listening – really listening, deeply hearing, staying curious, open, respectful – is what allows diversity to not only be feasible but rich and rewarding.

And yet Mr. Bourdain failed to find the hope to live one more day. The stories poured in following his death, of how he made people on the margins feel heard and valued. What he was able to do for others, he was unable to receive for himself. I wish his life hadn’t ended with suicide. I wish he could’ve let someone in, really let them in, the way others let him into their lives.

I could mark the milestone of my daughter’s graduation by how the ceremony went, by who came and didn’t come to various events, by the event in and of itself. Or I could commemorate it with the nearly 18 years of life and all of the countless, insignificant decisions that led us to this milestone. All of the good things and all of our failures and everything in between brought us to this place. I had prepared for the milestone as best I could, was present in it to enjoy it as much as I could be, and I learned from others through their thoughts and experiences.

Graduation is a big deal. But when you think about it, isn’t every day a big deal? An important milestone? Each day has value. Life is an ongoing, marathon-style, do-your-best-because-that-is-all-you-can-do kind of experience. Be proud of what you do well. Learn from and let go of what you wish you had done differently. Listen to others. Share with others. Don’t measure your life or worth against another. Instead, celebrate what is worth celebrating and work on what could be better. I’m not suggesting we diminish the value of a milestone but rather we see the countless opportunities in every day to take one step forward, which is in fact a milestone.

This picture was taken right after her graduation ceremony. But honestly, with the exception of her attire, it could have been taken on any given day. And whether graduation ever came or not, that is one of the most important milestones of all.

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Friday Favorite, 3.23.18

There is an unsettling story in which Jesus tells a potential follower to sell all that he has and give it to the poor first, if in fact he wants to follow Jesus. Some cite this story as what it costs to be a christian. Many christians are quick to say that the story is but one facet, and to make this the litmus test of faith is taking that story out of its context.

Robert Gundry has a different take, and it is his words that I sit with today.

” ‘Jesus did not command all of his followers to sell all their possessions’ gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”

When I use my conviction of faith to diminish or judge another, I have missed the point of that conviction. My convictions should make me uncomfortable, not be used to make you uncomfortable. Your convictions belong to you, and are yours to do with what you choose. When we come to different conclusions in our convictions, one does not diminish the other. They are simply different.

I don’t think giving away all that I have would be the most unsettling question asked of me. What I hold onto the tightest, what would be nearly impossible to give up if asked, that is what I am pondering today.

 

Today’s Goal: Underachieve

We live in a competitive culture. And on most days, I love it! You say “A friendly game of Words with Friends?” I say, “Game on!” For me, it is typically not about winning. It is all about the competition. When my kids were young and we would play a game, I would try to come up with a way to handicap myself in order to make it more competitive. They didn’t know what I was doing because it was strictly for my enjoyment. I love a victory, but I have to say I also love a loss, when it was well fought and the match remained competitive to the end.

I love competition so much that I am always seeking opportunities. Can I make the sourpuss barista laugh? Can I find a quicker way to get from point A to point B? How close can I get to spending $50 at the grocery store without going over? Can I diagnose my cat’s ailment before the vet tells me what is wrong? Just thinking of these examples has quickened my heart rate. I LOVE a competition, even if I am the only competitor.

Yet I know that I need to not be competitive from time to time. While competition has its value, it also has a dark side. Winning can easily become the point. And when that occurs, no longer is it about the enjoyment of a competition or the lessons that could be learned. It is solely about beating one’s competitors. And when we find ourselves there, we become masters of justifying our actions for a particular outcome. We not only forget the humanity of others, but we lose our own humanity as well.

I have learned how important it is for this competitor to step out of the competitive ring on a regular basis. I make no apologies for the opportunities I take to sleep in when I am able, to periodically be non-productive, to simply rest even I am not feeling that tired. I remind myself that I do not need to excuse my underachieving days. If I find myself feeling guilty with what I am doing (or not doing), I remind myself that this is not the norm for me. It is on these days I remember some things I may have gotten fuzzy on: I am human. I have limitations. Competition can sometimes counter intimacy. Winning/losing isn’t what defines us; how we “play the game” i.e. live our lives, does.

And so today, I proudly share that it is 5:30pm and I am still in my pajamas. I have less than 1000 steps on my Fitbit. My back is a little sore from spending a lot of time lying in or sitting on my bed.

It has been a good day.

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