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.

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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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.

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.

 

What Is Normal Anyway?

normal |ˈnôrməl|

adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected: it’s quite normal for puppies to bolt their food | normal working hours.

I think the idea of what is normal or what should be normal messes a lot of people up. “Normal” gives the impression of certain guarantees. As one prone to analytical thinking, I recognize predictors of outcome. But I rarely see a solid 100% guarantee on any outcome. When an expected outcome doesn’t occur, it can cause a person to question who is to blame for what went wrong. After all, wasn’t the person entitled to a normal outcome?

If I love a certain way, I will be loved in return.

If I save a certain amount of money, I will retire the way I want.

If I parent a certain way, my kid will become the kind of adult I hoped s/he would be.

If I work hard enough, my efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.

I could go on. Maybe some come to mind for you?

There are several religious systems that support this kind of thinking. In my faith tradition it goes like this: “If I obey God, God will bless me.” Even if that is true, I don’t know that we do much work to wrestle with the ideas of what it means to “obey God”, and what “God blessing us” means. Rather we tend to define it in ways that suitably fit us. If or when they don’t, we go somewhere else.

Normality makes dealing with anything perceived to be abnormal as difficult or worse yet, a failure. The goal tends to be to pull or push or force or squeeze or shove what was happening into some kind of “normal” explanation. For example, when my friend died tragically, I couldn’t reconcile her death. “It shouldn’t have happened!” I cried out to God. Her death had no part in my perception of normalcy. Part of my journey through the grief was having to face the reality that there is no normal. I became increasingly aware that tragedy exists everywhere. I started to see how sheltered I had been from it up to that point. It didn’t make my loss easier, but somehow it made more space for the loss and all my feelings that went with it. Instead of judging whether or not it should have happened, I learned to deal with what had happened.

Believing in a norm can provide comfort. However I find the people who have deeply immersed themselves in normalcy to be fragile. They wall themselves off from anything or anyone that might challenge their norms. Their worlds get smaller as their voices get louder regarding what is acceptable, or what is right, or what should be normal. The thicker their walls, the more demanding of others they become. This is where their fragility becomes most obvious. The demand isn’t, as they surmise, for the betterment of others but rather an ongoing “Hail Mary” attempt to protect themselves. The problem is, superimposing one’s norms onto another can be ignorant, and even quite hurtful at times.

I have seen walls obliterated with one tragic event though some have the luxury of maintaining those walls for a lifetime. And honestly, I guess we all build walls to a certain extent. But for most of us, walls eventually fall down or get torn down. The conclusion I have come to is that “normal” is entirely overrated. Instead of building more walls or repairing old ones, maybe we could pour that energy into what is actually going on in us and around us. Rather than spending time wishing for what we have defined as normal or telling others what should be normal for them, we can spend time navigating what is meaningfully and healthily. That, for me, is the “new normal” or in other words, there ain’t no such thing as normal.

Honesty Isn’t Easy

A close friend recently said to me, “Some people will say something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ You on the other hand are more likely to say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, but we are going to get through it together.'” Initially I was surprised by what she said. As I continued to think about it, I realized this was an insightful observation.

Some people – maybe many people – don’t want to deal with the reality that life is fragile and unfair. Instead we want to believe the age-old adage that if we do the right things, it will all work out in the end. I am not pessimistic or overly cynical. I have simply learned that life doesn’t often work that way. People die prematurely. Bad people sometimes win. Health-conscious people develop cancer. Some are born into great families while others are born into terrible families. Poor decisions can sometimes have no negative consequences and good decisions can sometimes lead to trouble. And on and on and on. You can imagine how popular I must be, especially at parties.

The downside to being honest is that one then has to face the implications of this honesty. And this is why I believe many people prefer the easier-in-the-short-term answer of “It’s going to be okay.” They can keep doing what they have been doing and believe at some point that the outcome will be different. But what if the outcome never changes? What if you wake up tomorrow and things are exactly the same?

Believing everything is going to work out alright is really just a procrastination. Acknowledging everything might not be okay invokes decision-making. Instead of waiting for change, one seeks to change what one is able to change. We see this in nearly every survivor story, nearly every heroic story: letting go of the outcome and do what one can do in the here-and-now is often how we see a person make a difference for the better. But that takes work, painful work often.

I imagine all of us from time to time are too tired to really be honest, especially with ourselves. But if we avoid honesty altogether, we will find ourselves living superficial lives. And the superficiality is the first thing to go when life throws us a curveball. Maybe this is why I have found it helpful to be honest when things are relatively calm in my life. What do I like about my life? What is missing? These questions help me to see how I might reprioritize or what I would like to change. That begins with an honest look at how things are actually going. No bullshit. No excuses. What is working and what isn’t working? In this process, I am exercising the mental, emotional and spiritual muscles needed when tragedy does hit. Tragedy is still incredibly hard and painful. And it is a lot of work. But I have begun the conditioning that will help me through.

I don’t fault those who walk away from honesty. Perhaps if I could believe everything will always be okay, I would choose that too. But I have noticed that those who walk away take their pain with them. I have also noticed that the folks who espouse everything will all be okay rarely get their hands dirty, so-to-speak. They are supportive from the sidelines. I have been left behind by “supportive” people. I want people in my life who will stay beside me no matter how uncomfortable that space is. Hopefully you know what I am talking about: The friend who will sit with you as you ask the unanswerable questions. The partner who will hold you even when you are inconsolable. The family member who doesn’t take it personally when you lash out in your darkest moment. These are the people who will inhabit that difficult space with you. These are the people who provide love and hope when it is most desperately needed. I suppose that is why my mantra is twofold: I don’t know if it’s going to be okay and we will get through it together.

Yeah, I believe my friend was right in her observation. This has been a guiding principle of mine for most of my life, and I couldn’t really name it until she stated it so simply and matter-of-factly. I am so grateful for her honesty, which she has demonstrated time and time again. May we all have at least one person who chooses honesty over ease. Or better yet, may we be surrounded by many who do.

Mind, Matter & Hurricanes

This summer, a good friend of mine took me out for a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. The experience was somewhat challenging and totally exhilarating. In the midst of a very busy time in my life, I was reminded of how time spent outside was so good for my mind, body and soul. What normally takes effort – recalibrating the mind to a sustainable pace; broadening my perspective beyond my problems; connecting with something larger than myself – seems to occur naturally and without mental effort when out in nature. It’s like the physical challenge of navigating a natural environment helps reset my mind to what is healthy and natural and sustainable. Maybe that is because the environments we build tend to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy…

Perhaps a counterintuitive idea to consider in light of recent events. Two major hurricanes devastated parts of the US, putting nature’s power on full display. People lost their homes and all of their belongings. Some are without food and water. Others lost their lives. Maybe what differs between physical challenges and the mental ones is that the physical challenges are straightforward. The line between life and death is clear. But when we delve into our minds, the line between life and death blurs. What aids in our wellbeing can be ignored. What kills us – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – does so slowly, and without notice at first. And by the time we do notice, we might be too numb to change anything. Or too deep in denial. Or too entrenched in what we have always done and perhaps will always do. To help someone devastated by a hurricane is much easier to navigate than to help a person who is overcome with anxiety or depression. Identifying excess in nature is not debated, while we rarely agree on how much is too much when it comes to our own excesses. Physical malnourishment is significantly easier to recognize and address than spiritual malnourishment. The mind cannot cover up signs of under eating. But the mind can be quite good at hiding the signs of a dying soul. As human beings we rise to the occasion in the wake of a natural disaster. And on a daily basis we cause great destruction to ourselves and others through our thoughts, attitudes, and opinions.

I know not everyone responds to nature as I do. And I don’t believe that being outside equals healthiness. But there is something about the natural world, however that might be experienced, that differs from the world we tend to create.  And that might be worth pondering for awhile. Maybe we have taken the expression “mind over matter” too far. In our admiration for the power of one’s mind, have we forgotten the limits and sometimes the destructiveness it also holds? I am beginning to see, deeply see, what it means to find the answer beyond my own self. The mind is a wonderful gift. And the mind has its limits. Finding that space where mind and matter intersect seems to be where I find my whole self.

Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.