Advent failure? Meet the Relentless God.

I posted this two years ago, but the title struck me this morning. We are in a similar situation in 2016, and yet God continues to be relentless. Relentless in loving us, in calling us, and in meeting us right where we are.
So forgive the reposting….but the truth remains.

 

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The theme for my Advent Season 2014?

 

Um. Mostly failure.

 

We have not read the Advent books, we have not faithfully made our way through our Advent Calendar. We have not opened the book of creative ideas for inspiring the children through this Advent season.

 

The kids have played too much X-Box and computer. I have lingered on FaceBook longer than I should.

 

The laundry basket just seems to stay full of clothes that need to be put away. Presents are just beginning to appear under the tree.  Not sure everyone is even in what they are receiving.

 

Tamales made that turned out so-so rather than really great. Frustrating.

 

These are the things that run through my mind…little failures where I can see what could be. I can see more wonder and hope and joy and peace and love. I can see more order and more patience, rather than haphazardly bumping my way through the season.

 

More than that though: frustration, anger, impatience, arrogance. Sin. Throughout the season. The reality of my fallenness. The reality of my lack. The reality of the brokenness we sit with as we try to take in the wonder.

 

The reality of a Mom who slips farther from reality.

 

The reality of friends truly struggling simply to have the basics, let alone the luxury of Christmas gifts overflowing.

 

The reality of others struggling with life-consuming illness. Fear. Uncertainty.

 

The realities that sometimes cloud our hope and faith and love and peace and joy.

 

I can slip into a deep awareness of my lack, and be overcome by it. My fears and failures demand attention….and then I realize that God is more relentless than my fear or my laziness, or my uncertainty.

 

God simply will not be overshadowed.

 

Every year, every where we go, God is proclaimed. Maybe it is covered over with too much fluff, and He is made too safe. Maybe the Gospel is a bit softened by the Ho, Ho, Ho’s. Maybe it is a little confusing…and yet, it is still relentless.

 

Beginning in November the stores start proclaiming: Christmas is coming. Maybe they are not aware, but they are also proclaiming: Christ has come.

 

The songs start playing the decorations go up, all around us. The parties start being planned, the gifts being wished for and listed, the food starts being prepared. The performances being. The familiar choruses begin being sung on Sunday mornings.

 

Relentless reminders:  Emmanuel. God has come.

 

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  Luke 2:6-7

 

Every year, no matter the failures or the frustrations, no matter the fears or the angers, no matter the weaknesses on my part…God reminds me He came. I may not make it through the whole Advent season with focused intent and awareness, I may not even make it through with a clean house and presents bought on time. Doesn’t matter.

 

God came.

 

Grace.

 

Wonder.

Hope.

 

Peace.

 

Joy.

 

Love.

 

No matter how your Advent season has progressed,  the reminders are all around us. We can soften them with our trivialities, or be overwhelmed by the demands of the season…but the reminders still stand. Relentless. God keeps reminding us He is near.  Underlying all the decorations and Ho, Ho, Ho’s…the reality that the God of the Universe came. That is staggering, and even though we may be so familiar we shrug off the reality…He keeps tapping us on the shoulder each Christmas season. There is a deep truth that underlies all the decorations, and it is amazing.

 

I am so thankful He is relentless.

 

Buechner sums it up this way, from Whistling in the Dark:

 

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space/time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

 

 

From Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God, Jill Phillips singing Labor of Love:

 

Joy! Flashmobs! The Light has Come!

One of my favorite things this time of year is scrolling through YouTube and watching FlashMobs. The one above, in Seoul, I love because of the language barrier. The songs are still familiar, however the language difference allows me to hear afresh. I love the expressions of the people.

This next one, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, just amazes me. The singer is so talented, along with the musicians, but the words. Oh my soul.

O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

 

This season, the Word of God, the announcement of God with us…it is sung out in the most unlikely places.

This one, in German, stretches my language again while still the music is familiar. Again, Hallelujah’s ring. Again the announcement that Christ has come.

This Advent business is not simply anticipation for us. We know the end of the story. We know He comes, and we know He changes everything. We know that He brings healing, brings hope, brings wonder. This Advent business is about joy alongside the anticipation. We still need to learn the art and discipline of waiting through this season…of quieting our hearts and being aware of our need.

But…sometimes the joy just has to come out. Because this is good news.

 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”” Luke 2:8-15

 

 

 

Never let anyone shrink your Advent down to only lighting candles — instead of you breaking into flame, because our God is holy fire and His people ignite light that breaks into a wildfire of change that breaks the captives free.  – Ann Voskamp 

 

This great mystery of the Incarnation. We need the days of Advent to allow the space and time for this truth to soak us again. The reality of God with Us. Emmanuel. In the midst of dark days, in the midst of loneliness…God has come. Rejoice! Find that balance this season of quiet anticipation and joyful exuberance.

The following poem, from Malcolm Guite’s Advent series last year helps me. I keep thinking on the line “O quickened little wick so tightly curled, Be folded with us into time and place, Unfold for us the mystery of grace.”

 

(You may click on the title to hear Malcolm read the poem, and I highly encourage you do so.)

O Emmanuel

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

We Only Hope When We Are Needy

One of the deepest realities of Advent is an awareness of our need. Part of the waiting, part of the anticipation, we sit with our need and become more aware of the longing within us. We make the space to contemplate and to listen, to be still and recognize our need.

 

When we rush to Christmas morning, we miss the longing. We rush right up to the birth and think of how cute Baby Jesus is with the cows and camels nudging him softly. We ooh and ahh at the nativity scene. He is familiar and good and sweet.

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We miss the longing, we miss the absolutely stunning wonder, that God has come in our midst.

 

 

The Jews had waited. The years between Malachi and the coming of Jesus were filled with warfare and kings, from Alexander the Great to Ptolemy to Antipater and Pompey. Ultimately Antipater’s son Herod the Great sits in rule over Judea. The people had been tossed and turned between violent men. Their identity had been questionable as some of them assimilated more with Greek culture or tried to legalistically hold on to what made them distinctively Jewish.

 
They had to be a weary people.  I have read that Jerusalem has been battled over, conquered, destroyed and captured 27 times. The area of Palestine has been fought over countless times. The people were weary. They needed hope.

 

In the midst of this, think of the whisper of hope, fulfilling prophecies they had to think were crazy.

 

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  Isaiah 7:14

 

Mary. Visited by Gabriel. Bringing forth the Son of God. In the midst of such a weary time, how must that have sounded to her. Not another king coming in battle, but something so completely different. A rescue so contradictory to everything.

 

Have we lost sight of that a little, in the rush of the holidays? In the rush of life. Have we lost the awareness of a deep longing within us for things to be set right? Have we looked at the babe in a manger with oohs and ahhs rather than stunned amazement at the plan of God?

 

Before we can rejoice in the hope we have to know our need. Sometimes that is as simple as recognizing our lack of belief. Sometimes that is as simple as rolling out of bed and being aware of the challenges of our life again. The suffering around us and the sorrow within our own families. Sometimes, though, we need the help of our poets to spur us toward prayer and anticipation.

 

We’re only six days in to Advent. There is plenty of time to listen, to wait and to hope. Settle yourselves and allow the need to be present so we can rejoice in the hope that God has ‘come to us here, who would not find you there’. Malcolm Guite helps with this, and you can click on the title to hear him read.

 

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

Oh Lord, Widen My Imagination This Monday Morning…

Distracted. 

The weekend has worn me out, along with the three-day-old headache. Mondays following a travel hockey weekend always feel distracted. The need to get my footing back in line with the normal routine.

December is not normal, though.

December is laced with wonder, alongside the stress of holiday preparations. They seem to compete through the month. It is difficult to maintain imagination and wonder when you are stressing about holiday events, food planning and parties. These things which should add to our wonder sometimes, well, wear us out.

So. Advent.

Yep, again, the season of Advent tries to quietly draw us in to something different. Something more centered in peace and allowing the space to as fully as possible grasp the reality that God is with us.

The holiday season of culture is filled with noise. There is delight and fun, but oh my soul is it noisy.

Looking outside the sky is grey today and there is a stillness that is trying to get my attention. Trying to get through the distractions and settle my soul in to listen.

Advent does not yell and force our attention. We have to be quiet enough to listen and pay attention.

That is difficult on Monday mornings with pounding headaches  and dirty dishes, running out the door to the next appointment. Still, even there…there is space for quiet. For imagination. For Advent.

Stretch a little today. Stop the noise and turn your attention to the need we have for a savior. The need we have for redemption and rescue. Turn your heart toward what Mary might have been thinking and experiencing. Turn your heart toward the wonder of Advent.

“A Widening of the Imagination

“It came to me, recently, that faith is “a certain widening of the imagination.” When Mary asked the Angel, “How shall these things be?” she was asking God to widen her imagination.

All my life I have been requesting the same thing-a baptized imagination that has a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason, or analysis, I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, images that will open up reality and pull me in to its center.

This is the benison of the sacramental view of life.”

Luci Shaw

9 Months of Anticipation

Waking up in a hotel room this morning makes focus on Advent a little more challenging. I miss my front porch, sitting and sipping coffee in the chill of the morning. I miss the routine of being home and all that is familiar.

There are no decorations here. The room is the usual stark older hotel room, lacking personality. This space does not draw me in to contemplation and anticipation. It draws me in to slumber and little else.

Still. This is Advent. Here in this space. I wonder in those months leading up to Jesus’ birth what the anticipation was like. Joseph and Mary. A God in her womb. How do you even begin to anticipate that reality.

I remember each of my pregnancies, and with the first I remember a moment of near panic attack. The realization that this baby had to come out; I had to give birth and there simply was no turning back. I remember the drives to the hospital and the building anticipation of meeting this new little person. We did not know the sexes of our babies, so there was always a deep anticipation and excitement, wondering who this little one would be.

Can you imagine the anticipation of Mary? How overwhelming that must have been. She must have wondered if this baby would look different than all other babes…this little infant who carried Divinity. This little One who would change everything.

Taking today to think back on the births of my children and the emotion embedded in that experience. Thinking today of how each of those births changed our lives. Thinking today of the anticipation that marked each birth. Thinking of how amplified that must have been for Mary.

The following poem from Luci Shaw helps me. Draws me in to the fact that Jesus was in Mary’s womb for 9 months. That is something I rarely think of…I always meet Jesus right at his birth. Mary knew, though. She had that 9 months of anticipation.

Even in a sterile hotel room, the reality of God with Us can change everything.

Made flesh
After the bright beam of hot annunciation
Fused heaven with dark earth
His searing sharply-focused light
Went out for a while
Eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
His cool immensity of splendor
His universal grace
Small-folded in a warm dim
Female space—
The Word stern-sentenced to be nine months dumb—
Infinity walled in a womb
Until the next enormity—the Mighty,
After submission to a woman’s pains
Helpless on a barn-bare floor
First-tasting bitter earth.

Now, I in him surrender
To the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
Was closeted in time
He is my open door
To forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
Find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
Slips through death’s mesh,
Time’s bars,
Joins hands with heaven,
Speaks with stars.

Luci Shaw

Hunting for Mystery

Day two of Advent!

 

It is there, just below the surface…that little tiny bit of flame that is beginning to burn. That slight tingle in my soul. The smile that creeps up unexpectedly.

 

Day two. We still have 23 more days…and the beginning working of mystery is happening.

 

Last night driving home Maddie was on the look out for Christmas lights. Shouts of delight when she spotted some. They are not everywhere yet, and that is good…we have to hunt for them a bit.

 

The house is not fully decorated yet, but there is anticipation as each new decoration or light is added. My mother always said that our house came alive during the Christmas season. Everything has a shine of mystery and delight.

 

I know…not everything.

 

I know that we have an ache within us as well. I have friends who simply do not enjoy Christmas at all. And they have valid reasons to want to skip ahead to December 26th. There are those who struggle with mourning in this season, and I think of friends this year who have just lost parents. Others who have tragically lost friends and family through accidents and fires and sickness.

 

The mystery is not so shiny bright for them. The pain is deeper and clouds the mystery. There is so much to say about that, and as we move through Advent that will be one of the themes: Our pain and our restlessness are a vital aspect of Advent. If we were well and healthy and without need, Advent would be a fun story and a delightful season, and little else.

 

candlelight

 

The reality that we are broken and rebellious and in need…that reality casts Advent in the correct light. We desperately need a savior, and the reality of the stunning way God came to us shouts that everything has changed.  Let the decorations and the twinkling lights and the songs stir our hearts. Even in our pain…we have to look and see that there is healing.

 

proggressive3

So, wherever we are in this second day of Advent…let the mystery strike. In our pain, let the whisper of hope settle in our soul. In our loneliness, let the reality of God with Us settle in our soul. In our fear, let the coming of God to rescue us settle in our soul. In our delight, let the wonder of the Incarnation overwhelm our soul.

 

Like Maddie on the hunt for Christmas lights as we drive…I want to be on the hunt for mystery this season. I want to pause and anticipate the arrival of the coming King. We are not trained in our culture to wait and to lean in to something that takes patience and discipline. We are not taught to seek mystery.

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Let’s change that some this season. Pray. Listen. Look. Anticipate, and feel that stir within our souls.

 

 

“The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery…. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.

Bonhoeffer

Immensity Cloistered in Thy Dear Womb

We made it last night. At least a little. It was not a hot chocolate bar and twinkling lights (I’m shooting for that next year!), but we read the Elf on the Shelf book and we talked about Advent. We paused, at least for a moment.

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We set up the little red Christmas tree in the youngest two’s room. There were giggles and delight as they put the ornaments on and watched the tree light up the room.

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Wednesdays are notoriously hectic for us. The older boys were up until ridiculous hours finishing work for their tutorial. We are always, always, surprised when we hit Wednesday and the work is not completed. Last night was not stellar. We were up quite late, although the mood was good. Still, we meet Advent morning waking before dawn and rushing out the door.

The younger ones will do some coloring with me from Ann Voskamp’s resources. We will talk about this season. The older ones will have to get caught up tomorrow. Right before we leave for the hockey tournament.

So Advent is forced to come in the midst of life. We seek that pause and that moment to wonder, but we have to find it in the midst of Chemistry assignments and Ancient History. There is something right abot that, though: the pause of Advent is accentuated by the busyness of the season.

The pause reminds us of the enormity of this coming. I love the line from John Donne: “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.”  Sitting with that thought today, holding it near and thinking of the anticipation of the Savior come. How incredible this had to be for Mary, how beyond her imagination.

We need to hear it afresh, every year. We need to sit with the knowledge that the King of all Glory came to meet us, came to be present with us so we could know Him. So we could be known and salvation could come. 

Whatever your morning has looked like…the hectic sprint out the door, or quietly watching the day unfold…pause and think on the immensity of this wonder we celebrate.

Annunciation

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

John Donne