Advent: The starts and stops of waiting

The progress has been moving through stages of starts and stops for weeks now.

Stage 1: It's time! We're going to do the house project!... Wait for weeks while the contractor goes through the back and forth of getting a permit from what is apparently a very picky city office.

Stage 2: Wow! Look at that! A whole segment of our house was just torn down in a matter of hours!... Wait for what seems like forever for the late fall rains to stop so the ground will be stable enough for digging.

Stage 3: Hooray! They are digging the foundation!... Wait for the cement workers to have an opening to build the walls... wait for the city to come inspect the stability... wait for the walls to be fortified before filling the dirt back in... Oh, and wait for the rain again. Walk out the door to a huge dirt/mud pile sitting in the driveway for the entirety of this stage.

Stage 4: Look at that! They are building walls!

The temptation now, in the progress of this stage, is to forget the stops that will come after this start. There is such obvious movement now. After all, framing is actually a pretty fast process of house building, relatively speaking. But there are sure to be more weather events out of our control, or delays because of the holidays. There are also times coming where the work being done, like running electrical lines, is important, but more hidden.

What will be tempting next, in the waiting of this stage, will be to forget the progress that will come after the delays . 

Waiting is not static. It runs through cycles of hope and despair, forward movement and frustrating stillness. We anguish that the quiet stage we are is the place we will die, never seeing the end of the wait. We get pulled onto the momentum train, wishing for the wait to end sooner than is possible.

This is the struggle of Advent. Christ has already come, and yet, Christ is still coming. We celebrate God's redemptive work in ourselves and in friends who have found new futures we wouldn't have thought possible. We learn about the systematic injustices pushing people down and wonder how we might ever start to climb out of this pit. We see a beautiful sunset and marvel at a God who takes our breath away. We see death and pain and sorrow and sickness and lament to a God who seems too inactive. Already and not yet. Our faith cycles through times of feeling either word more tangibly than the other.

That's what waiting feels like. That's what Advent feels like.

I wonder if this Christmas, we can let ourselves feel both. Experiencing the joy of celebration does not mean we are callous to the pain of oppression. Lamenting the brokenness of a  messed up world does not mean we have to forfeit the simple pleasures of playful presents and delicious food. 

What helps me bear the starts and stops waiting is not ignoring the feelings of either, but by releasing my grip on the outcome. There is so much of life that is beyond my control, weather patterns being chief among them. No matter what I do, I cannot make the end come at a certain time or in a particular way. So holding the process with tight-fisted stubbornness does me no good.

The best I can do is to be fully me, to rest where I should, to engage where I can, and to let things unfold as they will. And to pray, pray, pray to a God who is good and trustworthy.

Wherever life finds you this Advent, I hope you can do the same.

Marking Time and Seeing Emmanuel

I cried in the car yesterday. I was just barely able to keep the tears back from the kind of full-blown weeping that would have made driving dangerous. 

The day before I had loaded a favorite Christmas song on my phone. I had anticipated how much I would enjoy hearing it, but I wasn't ready for the gush of memories that would flood me as I listened. 

Christmas seems to have unique role in helping us mark the passage of time in our lives. Few other parts of the year have us doing the same things on the same days over and over again. Every December, we put up a tree, and can't help but remember all the years of trees before this one. We hang ornaments and decorations, and think about who gave them to us or who made them, or how they looked in previous displays. Memories of pain, joy, and transition seem to attach themselves to objects, songs, and even the weather. 

On that drive, as the tears came, the recollection of how much in my life has changed over the last five years came with them. I thought about the three different states in which I have lived, the job I started and resigned, the old friends I left behind, the new friends I met, and the kids I have watched grow from toddler to big kid status. 

In this marking of time, I worshiped. I became overwhelmingly cognizant of God's presence with me through all the twists and turns, joys and sorrows, of my story.

Perhaps this is part of how the concept of Emmanuel can come to life at Christmas. We can look back and see how God has in fact been with us, even in places where we couldn't see it at the time.  

Some of you might be in a season like that right now, a time when God feels absent. Perhaps hope could more easily be found in the past than on the future, through remembering how God was with you before. 

For me, I got out of that car with renewed sense of gratitude and faith. Though there still many things in this world I don't understand, and ways I wish God would act, I cannot deny God's realness when I look at my own story. 

Emmanuel. God has been with us. God is with us. God will be with us.

Emmanuel. God has been with us. God is with us. God will be with us.

P.S. If you're looking for some ideas for Advent and Christmas songs, here is a Spotify playlist I put together of some songs I really like. It includes the one that made me cry- Come and Worship by Bebo Norman.

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On Failing at Advent

On Failing at Advent

We have a beautiful set of handmade Jesse tree ornaments at our house. Beginning in Genesis on December 1, each day we can place an ornament on our little tree, read a Bible story with our kids, and talk about the message of God’s love that culminates in Jesus, but has been told since the foundations of the world. It’s a wonderful routine to practice in Advent, for kids and parents alike.

It is December 15, and we have hung six ornaments. We hung four of those ornaments in one day, only reading the Bible stories for two of them. 

The truth is, with kids ages 4 and 8, a routine like this is difficult for us. In the morning, our oldest has to be to the bus stop by 7:15, and our youngest doesn’t get up until after he leaves. Plus, adding something else to the craziness it is trying to get out the door seems insane. In the evening, because of the early rising, we try to get the kids in bed by 7:30. A little dinner, homework, and playtime, and the night disappears in a snap.

In theory, Advent practices sound amazing. In real life, they can be surprisingly difficult to complete.

What do we do when we fail at Advent?

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One small detail of the story of the wise men visiting Jesus caught me off guard when I first noticed it. 

When the magi arrive from the East, the first place they go is Jerusalem. Whatever is happening with the stars is really more like a map than a GPS. The wise men have an idea of where to go, but they don’t know the specifics. They assume since they are being led to a king, they should go to the palace. So they end up in a conversation with Herod about where to find the baby.

Herod doesn’t know. But he wants to find out. So,

When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied. - Matthew 2:4-5

The religious leaders know where to find the Messiah. And yet, when travelers show up looking for him, they don’t follow. Their spiritual practices have become an end instead of a means. The routines that were meant to help them learn about who God was became such a strong focus that they missed God when He actually came.

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There are many wonderful spiritual practices that can become part of our Advent routines. Yet these practices themselves aren’t the goal of this season any more than Christmas trees or songs or shopping or any other tradition.

It’s human nature to judge ourselves based on our ability to successfully complete tasks, especially for someone like me who struggles with being an achiever. But this is not the point of Advent practices.

The point of Advent is to make space in our lives to recognize our longing for Christ. That sense of longing may come during a Bible reading or a candle lighting, but it may also come in times or places when we least expect it. If we get caught up in our sense of failure for not doing Advent right, we may miss the opportunities to connect with the longing of Advent when it does break into our lives.

Christ’s coming is not dependent on my emotions or actions or obedience. As was true thousands of years ago when Christ was birthed in this world is true today when there are opportunities for his presence to be birthed in my life. His grace has always been and will always be a gift, not a reward.

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Our Jesse tree still stands prominently in our living room. We will do what we can to hang the ornaments and tell the story in these last 10 days before Christmas. I don’t know if we will get it done.

But maybe an incomplete Jesse tree tells the story of God’s love just as much as a full one. The empty spaces of an unfinished Jesse tree tell the story of a God who comes not because we do all the right things to earn His presence, but because He is the fullness of love incarnate. It’s all the story of His grace.

Like Christmas day in the story of the Grinch, He comes just the same. Somehow or other, Christ comes just the same. Christ comes without candles, He comes without tags. He comes without ornaments, readings, or bags. 

This Advent, I am longing for a Christ that comes just the same. 

Grace, grace, grace.

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