Advent: Preparing the Way of the Lord

The four weeks leading up to Christmas are a season in the church that we call Advent. The word comes from Latin “adventus”, meaning “coming toward,” and the season denotes a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. The season of Advent is not merely about the warm fuzzies that many of us get on Christmas morning; it is mired in uncertainty, uneasiness, restlessness. The call of Advent isn’t a call to rush headlong into Christmas–God knows there’s enough rushing this time of year. The call of Advent is the call to slow down, find stillness and centeredness. To prepare. It is a call that we find in scripture:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)

Fifteen years after the death of Augustus Caesar in a stately Roman palace, a very different sort of man appeared in a very different sort of place. John, a man of poverty, began to proclaim the coming of the Christ, not from the imperial palace or from the governor’s mansion, but from the wilderness. His cry echoes in every age, and into every heart; a voice crying out from a desperate place: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

In this busy season, we often find that there is no end to the preparation. There’s so much to be done!  Decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, traveling. Between it all, it can be hard to find time to prepare the way of the Lord. And to be completely honest, Christmas is going to come whether or not we are prepared for it. The Lord has been born. The angels did sing. And come December 25, you can settle into the presence of Immanuel, God with us, the savior of the nations.

But the advent of Christ will not let us rest easy. That cry from the wilderness calls us into deeper expectation for the imminent divine. It calls us out of our palaces of complacency to the desert of desperate longing. For John, the banks of the Jordan were a threshold of repentance; to prepare is to turn away from all that holds us back from receiving the Christ child.

So, I am inviting us all (myself included) to practice repentance in the coming weeks. Repentance really means to “turn around,” and retread our path in the opposite direction. It means to make amends for the actions and ways of being that cause harm to others, creation, and self. And we all need this repentance.

Because within us all is the path of the Lord. We all have valleys and empty places that need to be filled in. We all have mountains of haughtiness and hills of pride that need to be made lowly. We all have crookedness and deceit within us that need to be made straight. We all have rough edges that are in need of polishing. And then, all people will know the salvation of our God. So in this season of preparation, let us not forget that Christ is born into the world whether or not we have prepared, but Christ is born into our hearts only when we invite him in.

Come and Find the Quiet Center

I consider myself an extrovert, but I absolutely hate parties. The combination of the commotion and the multiple conversations and the music are a bit of a sensory overload for a person with ADHD. I find myself unable to filter the numerous inputs that come into my head, and I end up not being able to focus on anything because I can hear and smell and see everything. It all blurs into one cacophony.

While this experience is, as far as I know, pretty much limited to people on the spectrum or with ADHD, it seems to me that more and more of my friends are suffering from sensory overload. In the city, it can be impossible to get away from noise pollution, and with long commutes and long hours grinding it out in such a competitive job market, many people find that they just don’t have the time or energy to de-clutter their space. If you live in a small apartment like me, our cultural drive to consume quickly results in having too much stuff. We are constantly surrounded by clutter and chaos. Continue reading

why the blame game is so tempting but doesn’t help us heal

It seems like we are blaming each other a lot more these days.  Well maybe not more per se, but definitely more publicly.  There’s not a day, or heck an hour, that goes by that I don’t see someone on my Facebook feed blaming another person (or group of people) for all the problems we’ve got.   I find it to be pretty anxiety producing for me to even get on my Facebook/Twitter account these days, and yet I can’t give it up.  I like to pretend it’s because that’s where ministry happens and I need to stay a part of the conversation in order to try to foster real Christian community through these social media mediums, but, that’s only part of the truth.  The other part of the truth is that even though I get a little bit of anxiety going onto Facebook to see who it is I am supposed to hate, shame or blame today, I also get a little bit of satisfaction from it too.

I’m not above admitting that sometimes it nice and easy to know who’s wrong and who’s right in the world.  It’s comforting to believe myself to be superior in my thinking and judgment to all those other people who are gullible, susceptible, or misled.  My ego likes to believe in my own infallibility and in my own ability to see so clearly why everyone who disagrees with me is just so stinking wrong about everything.

The only problem is that it’s also a lie and an illusion that really only ‘satisfies’ for a fleeting moment.  I can’t be right about everything just like ‘they’ can’t be wrong about everything. And if I’m not careful I’ll end up becoming everything I despise about the other.

The truth is blaming others for all the problems in life fails to recognize that we are bound to one another in this mysterious tapestry of life nor does it make my inner life more balanced or whole.   It usually just makes me feel resentful, bitter and cynical, which doesn’t help me work toward co-creating a better world.

In fact blaming others is typically a function of my imbalanced inner life working itself out on someone else.  In other words when I’m desperately grasping to my desire to be right about everything it’s probably because I’m living in fear and lost sight of the real aim of a spiritual life; which isn’t about winning but about experiencing a redemptive love that liberates, saves and sets us free.  It’s not about being right but about being humble enough to recognize the tug of God’s transcendent compassion at work which exists for us all and to extend that to the other who might disagree with me, trusting that we can both (or all) share in the healing and wholeness that comes when we receive grace (unearned love).

Unfortunately, when I blame others I find it far too easy to dismiss, dehumanize or objectify ‘them’.  It’s like Mother Theresa said ‘if you judge (or blame) others you don’t have any room (or time) to love them.’  All I know that love is the better way, the humble way, the Jesus way and the only way things will get better.

why God works slower than I would often like

So I just got back from a conference in Portland about transformation, innovation and the future of the church.  It was a really cool conference where we learned from some secular innovators about design thinking and leadership through the unique challenges of the creative process.  It really was pretty great and often inspiring.

But, having said all that, there was something that was kind of nagging at me the whole time: I felt a certain sense of anxious, fear-driven urgency to the whole thing.

This was probably because we talked a couple times during the conference about the United Methodist ‘shelf-life,’ or about how long we have until it all our institution kind of implodes in on itself.  This was not new information to me as I heard it all through the ordination process, as older generations in the church have been ‘Princess Leiaing’ me and other young clergy for years, i.e. ‘help me, Obi Wan, you’re the only hope.’

But, as we sat and listened to these wonderful and inspiring stories of innovation and creativity there was this underlying narrative at work within me (and maybe it was only me): ‘well you better do this quick and fast and big or the whole thing’s going to fall apart.’

The funny thing that occurred to me in hindsight was that the presenters never talked about rushing the process or about instant results.  In fact, they often talked about just the opposite. They talked about patience, perseverance, stability, and longevity.  The story of their companies and their ability to innovate weren’t about a quick fix, a one hit wonder, or a time where everything just kind of blew up in an instant.  They presented a different pace of growth, a growth that happens over years of cultivating an idea, a process and a way of life.

As Christians, I believe we are called to resist the narrative of quick fixes and instant gratification.  We are called to cultivate lives of patience, stability, and longevity over a lifetime.  As Eugene Peterson once said, ‘discipleship is long obedience in the same direction.’  Perhaps we in the church need to be committing to the long haul of sustaining innovation instead of jumping from one thing to the next in hopes that eventually it will blow up and save the church because, in the end, the church doesn’t need another savior, it’s already got one.

So I feel resolved at the moment to keep trying to do what we are doing at simple church, to tweak, to pivot, to respond, to innovate, to respond faithfully to the creative call from God, but to remember that my timeline is far less significant in the grand scheme than God’s timeline, captured by these words of Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”

 

Why walking through Holy Week can make a difference

I was talking with someone yesterday who went to 6 Holy Week worship services in three days for the first time ever.  After assuring her that this meant she would definitely receive extra gold stars in heaven, the conversation drifted to her insights and spiritual learnings from her intentional walk through this the Holiest of Week.  She relayed that this experience opened her to receive the good news of Christ’s resurrection in a way that she had never experienced before; the story had moved from sort of swirling around in her head to making a home inside her heart.  It was an enlightening witness to the power of Holy Week and the spiritual practice (discipline) of intentionally walking through all the different movements of the week.

It brought to mind a line from our Simple Church Easter Vigil as we were preparing ourselves to hear a series of readings focused on God’s saving acts throughout all of history.  The line says: Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, and pray that each of us receive the fullness of this grace.

Walking through Holy week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Sunrise and Easter Sunday Sanctuary worship, grants us the opportunity to digest the fullness of the story of God’s undying, life-giving love.  It takes us to places within ourselves we might otherwise prefer to ignore or avoid; i.e., empty promises we make, our moments of betrayal, the denial we carry, the isolation of living in this hyper-individualistic culture,  the darkness of the tomb.

But when we fumble around in the dark long enough we will eventually find that which we can touch, and feel, lean on to and grab ahold of.  If we sacrifice enough time from our busy and overscheduled lives to allow the fullness of this story to work on our hearts, we can start to open ourselves up to receive the fullness of this grace.  We can humbly remember that this good work of God’s saving love began long before we ever came into being and will continue on into eternity.  We can fit our small and beautifully ordinary story into this larger landscape.  We can give our entire self, every part that is slowly unearthed during the journey of Holy Week, over to the resurrecting love of God, whose best work is done while we fumble around in the dark.