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.

What worship leaders can learn from Asaph

Psalm 81If you were charged to write songs about God, what would they say?  

Would the words wax poetically about His creative power? Would the melody rise as an anthem to His mighty works? Would it be a tune that put quotable phrases and feel-good imagery on repeat in the brains of its listeners?

 

Many tend to think of the Psalms as that kind of music. We say things like, “I just feel so good when I read them.” We take one verse from one poem at one moment and expand it to describe the whole book.

 

We fail to listen to the music the Psalms are singing to us.

 

Asaph was charged to write songs about God. He was given that duty by David in 1 Chronicles 16. Many Psalms are attributed to him, which means those feel-good quotes of the Psalms are often lines from his works.

 

The problem is, when we quote Asaph’s Psalms one verse at a time, we hear the tune of his chorus, without hearing the layers of his composition.

 

Psalm 81 begins,

 

“Sing for joy to God our strength;     shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” -Psalm 81:1

 

A classic start to a Psalm if there ever was one. This could easily hang as a plaque on the wall of a church, beating the obligation of joy over the head of each passersby.

 

Yet, Asaph hasn’t always written words like these. He has experienced the breadth of emotions this life of faith puts before us and written about them all.

 

O God, why have you rejected us forever?     Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? –Psalm 74:1

We praise you, God,     we praise you, for your Name is near;     people tell of your wonderful deeds. –Psalm 75:1

God is renowned in Judah;     in Israel his name is great. –Psalm 76:1

I cried out to God for help;     I cried out to God to hear me. –Psalm 77:1

How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever?     How long will your jealousy burn like fire? –Psalm 79:5

Restore us, O God;     make your face shine on us,     that we may be saved. –Psalm 80:3

 

So, when Asaph shouts for joy in Psalm 81, I am ready to listen. I know that shouting is not his only volume and joy is not his only theme. He has cried out in agony, and whispered the fear of being abandoned. He has talked of his hope and pleaded for restoration.

 

Asaph has earned the right to call us to joy. He has not glossed over life with fake platitudes. Nor has he missed noticing the way God is at work in the midst of it all.

 

His poems to the Lord are reflective of the depth of human experience and the fullness of God’s goodness all at once. His music invites us to a concert with a richness that extends beyond one quotable lyric.

 

If I were charged to write music to the Lord, I hope I would learn from Asaph.

 


That was my reflection on Psalm 81. Please link up with your own reflection below. Then come back next week to reflect on Psalm 82. (Email & RSS readers, click over to my website to add your link or read the links of others.)


On Lent, Vacation, and Humility

  airplane wingLent arrived the day I left on vacation.

 

I boarded a plane headed south to warmer temperatures, and noticed a stewardess with ashes still on her forehead from an earlier service. As she wore her dark forehead, we displayed the light-hearted smiles of a family taking a trip.

 

It was an unavoidable collision of dates, really. Ash Wednesday hit right before days off from school for teacher conferences and President’s Day. Like most parents of school-age children, we wanted to travel during a time when minimal classes would be missed.

 

But the result of this collision was a frustrating contrast for this contemplative faith blogger. While others were thinking about what Christ gave up, and what they would forgo in remembrance, I was pondering what my family would consume and do as we enjoyed our extended time together.

 

This contrast brought a word to my mind. A word that might not be the first to pop into your head, but that burst forth in mine with a new understanding.

 

Humility.

Jesus Said Lent Series Button

As I have done with other periods of the church calendar, I will do a series on this blog to honor this Lenten season. Once a week, I will post about various teachings of Christ with the series, “Jesus Said… A Series for Lent.”

 

So, here is something Jesus said about humility:

 

Anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. – Matthew 18:4

 

There is one particular way I see my children living out humility: they experience life as it is, in real time. They know they are not in control of all that happens to them. And though this can lead to fist-pounding hair-pulling temper tantrums, it can also lead to a deeper experience of their days. Not their days as they should be, but their days as they are.

 

Children stop to cry when they skin their knees and they pause to wonder when they see the petals of a flower. They are loud and quiet, somber and joyful as they respond to what is happening around them. They experiment and learn and fail and grow.

 

Children feel their way through each day. Because that is all they can do. They can neither control their emotions nor determine their calendar. Children are forced into the humility of experiencing life as it comes to them.

 

As adults, we get so consumed with our expectations of what should be, or goals of what could be, or nostalgia about what was, that we don’t respond to what is. We worry and regret and strive and control and work until we have exhausted ourselves in pursuit of something we do not have.

 

Jesus wants to release us from all that.

 

Jesus told his disciples to have the humility of a child when they asked who would be greatest in his kingdom. This response is freedom. In God’s kingdom, you don’t have to struggle to achieve something or strive to control an outcome. You can receive Jesus’ grace, bask in Jesus’ love, and experience life as it comes to you each day. That is a gift that requires humility and trust to open.

 

And so, as I think about my last week, how I began the season of somber reflection by flying off on holiday, I trust that it is okay. I could not control my circumstances to what they should have been. I could only experience them for what they were. They were wonderful, and I don’t have to apologize for that.

 

My faith is not about performance, or living up to some external expectation of how I should feel or what I should do. My faith is about my love for and trust in a Savior who gives me grace for each day.

 

Perhaps vacation was an appropriate beginning to the Lenten season after all.