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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Advent and the Vulnerability of Hope

Our relationship with hope changes as we grow older.

When I was a child, the anticipation of the Christmas season filled me with excitement. My heart would dance in joyful wonder in the presence of trees and lights, my tastebuds would water in expectations of cookies and cider, and my mind would swirl with the possibilities of presents and parties. I never worried that these expectations would fail to come to pass. 

The hope of Christmas was tangible and good.

By the time we reach adulthood, our experiences of disappointment have stacked into a giant wall. Times we have been left waiting, dreams that never became reality, results that weren't what we wanted, and relationships that have fallen apart, all these come together to form a barricade around our desires. It begins to feel safer to stay inside than to break through. We know all too well how horrible it feels if our expectations aren't met. 

Sometimes hope feels less like goodness and more like danger. In a wide open space filled with possibilities, we know that one option, sometimes the most likely option, is that we will be hurt. 

Advent is a season of longing for Christ. We travel back in time to wait alongside those who lived before Christ came, and we sit in the present time to wait with the world for Christ who is still coming. We notice the brokenness of this world and the jagged edges of ourselves, and allow ourselves to anticipate the Savior who is coming to make us whole.

At Advent, we enter into a season of hope. At least, we try to.

Because, honestly, it feels like too much to believe sometimes, doesn't it? That God came to earth as a baby? And that He will come again to make all things right? Because He is actually real and He actually loves us? 

What if we hope, only to have our expectations dashed once again, like they always are? 

It feels safer to sit in the darkness, behind our wall, than to break through and believe in the possibility of the light. 

I wonder if part of the waiting of Advent is to hope that we don't have to be the ones to break through. Because at Christmas, God showed us that He is the type of God who breaks through on our behalf. That His love can push through our walls, pull us out from hiding, and hold our hands as we walk in His light towards something new. 

Maybe at Advent, God is showing us that in the vulnerable space of hope, we don't have to wait alone.

The risk of hope feels tangible to me this Advent. Come January, I don't have a job. Like a crazy person, I left my current position without a plan for what's next. (You can hear more about that in the message at the top of this page.) In an amazing way, God made Himself tangibly present in that decision, and yet I find it difficult to continue to trust Him here, in the waiting space.

As I've talked with God about what is next, the scariest things to pray about haven't been my fears. The most difficult truths to admit to God are my desires. What if I build up these hopes and expectations only to have them dashed? 

Hope pushes us to confront what we believe about God's character. Do we believe that He is good, regardless of our circumstances? Do we believe that He is at work, even when the world is such a mess? Do we believe He cares about our desires?

In Mark 10, when Jesus comes across the blind man Bartimaeus, he doesn't simply heal him on the spot. He starts with a question,

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” - Mark 10:51

Do we have the courage to answer Jesus question, "What do you want me to do for you?" To answer that question for ourselves and for the world?

Do we have the courage to hope?

Just yesterday, when I was doubting God's presence in this waiting space, when hope was feeling too risky, God broke through and pulled me out from behind the wall. In an amazing way, He reminded me that He is here and He sees me. I am not alone.

The beauty of Advent hope is that though we wait in longing for the Christ who is still coming, we also worship the Christ who has already come. Having eyes to see Christ at work in our present can give us the courage to name our desire for Christ to work in our futures.

This Advent, let's dare to hope.

Longing for an Unforced Advent

Advent seems to come like an unexpected visitor. We can anticipate its coming by the calendar. And yet, we cannot chose what will be interrupted when the season thrusts its way into our lives.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” - Luke 1:28

I wonder if Mary had been having a good day before the angel came.

Did she wake well-rested from an evening dancing with lovely dreams? Was her time around the table with loved ones the night before still lingering in a feeling of fullness? Was she walking with the lightness of a day bursting with possibilities?

Or did Mary wake up on the wrong side of bed, having one of those days that plunged deeper into a hole with each step? Did she exchange harsh words with her parents? Were her arms fatigued from carrying water and her patience exhausted from having no choice but to do it again? Did she have one of those knots in her shoulder that irritated everything else she tried to do?

I wonder how Mary felt in the moments before the angel broke into her life. Like so many things that followed, it was a factor outside of her control. 

Advent seems to come like an unexpected visitor. We can anticipate its coming by the calendar. And yet, we cannot chose what will be interrupted when the season thrusts its way into our lives.

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Life does not come one feeling at a time. Births and deaths, miracles and disappointments, abundance and need, friendship and loneliness… all these and more mingle and meander through our days and weeks. 

There are times when this Advent longing feels like just the right season. The events of the last week highlighting more clearly than ever our need for the Prince of Peace to break into this world with His justice and love once and for all. We long to see shalom restored. We can feel to the depths of our souls that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be.

But there are others times when this season of Advent longing feels forced. Though we know this world is in need, those realities feel distant. We are keenly aware of our blessings, and stuffed full with the richness and celebration of the Christmas season.

And at those times, we can feel guilty. Honestly, Advent longing sometimes feels like a big religious “should” heaped upon our fluctuating December emotions.

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Yesterday, I was edgy most of the day. I was feeling vulnerable, and it came out sideways as irritability. Not quite the feelings I hoped to carry into the first Sunday of Advent. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them to turn.  

Yet, I wonder if Advent is not as much about forcing certain feelings at it is about carving space. Advent is about finding space to notice... Where do we feel Christ’s presence in our lives and where do we wish He would show himself a little more clearly? Where does the world seem to reflect His goodness and where does He seem far away? 

Then, we can pray. We can read the Scriptures. We can look for ways to serve our neighbors. Even if we can't enter into Advent longing with feelings, we can do so with our mind and actions. Sometimes the emotions may follow, and sometimes they may not. And either way, it's okay.

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I wonder how Mary felt in the moments after the angel broke into her life, as she anticipated the birth of her Son. Pregnancy is looong. My guess her emotions fluctuated through fear, joy, longing, sadness, disappointment, boredom, excitement, gratitude, and grief. Perhaps sometimes even cycling through a multitude of those feelings all in the same day.

Regardless of how she felt, it didn’t stop time from moving forward. The world’s longing for a Savior stepped closer to fulfillment with each passing day.

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Advent is about making space to notice Christ. Thanks be to God that His coming is not dependent on my emotions.