We began, eight days ago, to live this in-between month when the secular calendar is winding down toward the end of the year while the church calendar has already begun its new year with the first Sunday of Advent. Are we at the end of the story or at the beginning in this season in which we remember the coming of Jesus as a baby, welcome his coming into our lives now, and ponder and prepare for his future coming in glory?
It seems fitting that the end and beginning be intertwined as we prepare to welcome the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One in whom past is gathered up and healed and future embraced and secured and both are brought together in the always present love of the One who holds us together.
There is, of course, a very important middle to this story, and we'll relive that middle in a few months. But in this Advent season we're invited to see the full scope: to step back and re-live the beginning and begin again to celebrate the approaching ending.
It’s not only time that’s gathered up into an eternal present in Advent. We ourselves are gathered up, held up, offered—the beginning and the culmination of the gift of ourselves from the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father and of us to ourselves as Christ enters our flesh.
Advent, in other words, shows us both who we’ve been and who we will be, and invites us to live a little further along the journey between the two.
On the one hand, I read the news headlines—and my own journal—alongside the story of the first Advent and I feel so deeply our world’s need—my need—for a Saviour. I’m aware of my inadequacy and sin and smallness. How is it that the holy God who made us, whose heart broke as we turned away, would want to be close enough to us to enter our flesh?
Then I turn the page and in the second Advent I see you and me reflected in a completely different way. This time we are in possession of the kingdom (Dan 7:18, 22, 27). We are princes. we are the Bride, the King's queen, co-ruling alongside the One who has made us his own. In another image, we replace the temple's most holy place becoming the most holy place ourselves, our flesh made holy by the presence of the holy God who comes to make his home not just among us but within us.
Advent season, then, not only reminds us how far we’ve fallen but how far we’ve been raised. We are paupers, and royalty. Sinners, and God’s holy bride. Desperately in need of a Saviour, and grateful recipients of all the life and joy and wholeness that the Saviour came to bring. Grateful recipients of the Saviour himself, the One who comes to us in our low condition, in our sin and need and cowering, not to condemn and shame but to love and save and elevate (John 3:17). The One who will come again, revealing himself as King and us as his bride, his queen.
Could it be that all the ways God comes to us in the present, in this stretch in between his first coming in a manger and his second coming in the clouds, are to help us trust his goodness and love, moving us gradually from thinking and acting like the paupers we’ve been to thinking and acting like the royalty we’re becoming?
The central gift of Advent is, of course, God. Light curling small in the dark, placing himself not in a box under the tree but breaking open our boxes and placing himself in a womb and then a manger in preparation to hang on the tree, lighting the whole world. Without this central gift, there are no other gifts. But with it come dozens of other gifts.
Perhaps the most precious of those other gifts of Advent is ourselves.
This week, these lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Advent Sunday,” and Malcolm Guite’s reflection on her poem in Waiting on the Word have wakened me again to one way in which Christ, in his first and final advents and all the ways he comes to us in between, offers us this gift of ourselves. At Christ’s return his kingship will be reflected in us:
“. . . For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:
His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.
Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,
Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.
Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,
She triumphs in the Presence of her King.
His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;
He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.
He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,
And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.”
As Guite says about the image of Esther triumphing in the presence of her king,
“Here Rossetti seems to be suggesting that acknowledging the kingship of Christ, far from being a demeaning, belittling or infantilizing act on behalf of the submissive Church, is in fact a radiant affirmation of her own royalty.”
(Waiting on the Word, p.3, bold mine)
In Advent, we remember both. Our need and the gift. Our sin and Christ’s righteousness which now clothes us. Ourselves as beggars and ourselves as Christ's bride, serving alongside the God who first came to serve us.
May we kneel—at the manger, the cross and the throne—and give thanks.
Advent. The word means “coming.” For me, the word also holds all the anticipation and longing and preparation for the One who is coming. And the surprises of the way He comes.
I always look forward to Advent—the melodies of Handel’s Messiah, the mirrored surface of the red and gold baubles turning hundreds of little white lights into thousands. The hope that swells as I remember all over again the mystery of a love deep enough to come down and step into my flesh. The candy cane chocolate fudge crackle ice cream which has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming in a manger but somehow still seems a fitting celebration for the arrival of a King.
I always look forward to Advent. And mid-way through, I often find myself wondering why. It seems, for me, that there’s often discomfort in this month. One year, darkness and fear accompanied the unexpected need to look for a new home and the prolonged search for anything suitable. More often it’s the grief of feeling like the noise and bustle of the season is swallowing up the closeness that I want. It starts early. With Black Friday emails pressing for attention, reminding us of everything we need to satisfy our longings, we forget that the only true saving happened on another Friday when for three hours the world went black.
Sometimes even the selection of Advent devotionals sitting on my shelf and pouring into my inbox feels like pressure. I simply want to be still, to come closer, to walk the road with Mary, to kneel at the manger with the shepherds. I want to hear myself, too, called "highly favored,” to feel Jesus’ life moving in me. Sometimes the longing is so deep I think I’d settle for being a fly on the wall, or the donkey who carried Mary who carried Jesus. I just want to be there, somehow, with Him.
One year not too long ago this tension that I often feel in Advent began to make sense. I’d gone to talk with the friend who helps me listen feeling like I was missing Advent. I wasn’t feeling the joy or the hope that I wanted and expected, only painful longing. But as we talked, she helped me see: I wasn’t missing Advent at all! God’s coming just looked different than I’d been expecting. The longing was a healthy, holy discontent, a sign of God at work in me, stretching out space in me for the One whose life grows in each of us who are His.
Turns out God has come differently in each of the Advent seasons I remember.
In the winter of house hunting, God gave himself in a friend who went with me to look at apartments and another who packed when I couldn’t, and in a song I heard my brother sing to his children at bedtime.
In my little village in Afghanistan, a woman on a donkey became for me a vivid image that God was there, the holy family once again part of the pilgrim train walking to Bethlehem as Jesus waited, carried and curled in the darkness but present and coming nonetheless.
Why am I surprised that God comes to me differently each year? Of course the Creator who shapes each snowflake, each fingerprint, each personality with its own unique beauty won’t settle for less when it comes to His own ongoing drawing close to His beloved children. The creativity of his coming is part of the gift.
When we were children, Dad hid our main gift and wrote clues which we had to follow to find the gift. I’m sure the gifts themselves were lovely and I enjoyed them immensely at the time, but of the gifts waiting for me all those years, I only remember one: the playhouse Dad and Mom built for us under the stairs. What I do remember is the pondering and deciphering, the running from room to room testing out whether we’d rightly understood the clue, the sense of lovedness that someone had put that much effort not just into choosing or making a gift but into the creativity and fun of giving it and helping us find our way to it. The gift wasn’t just waiting at the end of the hunt; it was in the fun and suspense of searching for it together. Inherent in the search was the promise that the ones giving the gift loved us, that whatever was waiting for us at the end would be good, and that there would be fun and togetherness in enjoying the final gift just as there was fun and togetherness in searching for it.
How might this season be different if I approached Advent as a treasure hunt in which God is not only the infinite gift waiting for me at the end, but also the One writing the clues and following me from room to room, eyes sparkling with shared delight as He says, "Colder, colder . . . now you're getting warmer. . . "? What if I entered this season remembering that Advent is not just about Jesus' past coming or his future coming but his present coming, bringing the gift of Himself and His creativity and freedom and wholeness into each moment of each day? Can I be open to the surprise of Him coming in whatever way He wants to offer Himself to me this year, knowing that He is good and what He gives will, ultimately, be good?
This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”
I have resisted.
“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.
And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power.
But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”
I'm realizing that the word "worthy" always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?
I'm realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.
Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.
Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.
Lived: And we're called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).
In case we're tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God's love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.
And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).
Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word "worthy" is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?
- Both Jesus and Paul use the word "worthy" more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
- As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”
- As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don't think carefully about what we mean by "unworthy," we can easily slip into the error of equating "unworthy" with "worthless." And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we've been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.
No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.
What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God's love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?
Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.
He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).
"With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith" (2Thes. 1:11).
 Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.
As I lean forward over the handlebars of my bike, tiny arrows of rain slant under my glasses and sting my lower eyelids, my upper cheeks. A laugh escapes as I savor the joy of this morning’s adventure, feeling a cool rivulet creep down the front of my jacket, and the puddles that have formed in the toes of my shoes sneak a little further back with each press of the pedal. I’m alive! For this half hour, I’m out in this beautiful world. And, most wonderful of all, Jesus and I are on this adventure together.
I can’t see the detail of the leaves beside the path today, but I know what I’d see if my vision wasn’t obscured by dozens of convex droplets, each their own little lens, changing the shape of the lenses I need to correct my vision. I’ve been watching the leaves on the thorny thimbleberry vines that creep along beside the path and climb into mounds of tangled vines. The berries are long gone, and since the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, the leaves have begun to change. But each leaf is dying differently. One still clings to its summer green except where tiny paths of gold creep along the veins and a rim of red tints the pinked edges.
Another is almost completely crimson, with hints of peach tracking each vein.
Another is turning from the tip, red creeping down into the center of the dark green leaf like a fire intent on consuming the whole.
Is it always in the dying, in the ceasing to cling to our lives, that we become most beautiful, most freely and fully ourselves?
This week I’ve been pondering Paul’s statement:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12).
What was this secret that he knew? And why didn’t he share it with us?
Or did he?
I trace my way back through the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi and find that right at the heart of the letter Paul lays out the secret, and only at the end of the letter does he tell his readers that he has given them this treasure.
Right there in the middle of the letter is this:
“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and may be found in him. . .” (Phil 3:8)
The secret to being content no matter what life throws at you? Want Christ.
Get to know Christ deeply enough that you learn to want, more than anything else, the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world, and that no one and nothing can take away from you.
We can’t make ourselves want something or someone by willpower. We can only get to know someone and let that Someone teach our hearts to love. It’s like a marriage, or the decision to have children, or to write a book or grow a business or pursue a vocation: you give up your independence in order to commit to something or someone. And, in the best cases, you do it not because you have to but because something is burning in you and you’ve discovered that you can’t live without that person, or you don’t want to, or that book just has to come out. In every choice, there is cost. But still we choose because we believe the gain is greater.
So get to know Christ, Paul says. Choose Him, and you’ll find that what used to feel like losses don’t bother you as much anymore because you’re in this together, you and the One in whose love you have made your home.
But Paul offers his readers more than simply telling us the secret of contentment. He offers us behind-the-scenes steps to help us get to know Christ in that Christ-matters-to-me-more-than-anything-else kind of way.
Our part comes down to two simple steps: Focus, and enjoy. Keep looking for the fingerprints God leaves on our lives, and celebrate those signs of His love. Or, in Paul’s words, “Set your minds,” and “rejoice in the Lord.”
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1).
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8).
“Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).
For me, “focus” starts with a few sentences in a journal each evening. What am I most thankful for today? Where did I notice God’s presence and God’s good gifts, in my day? No matter what the day has held, there are always places I can rejoice in God’s goodness to me and his presence with me. And then I pause to enjoy resting quietly with God in that place of loving and being loved. And over time, the focusing creeps off my journal pages into my day and the enjoying follows even into rainy Sunday mornings.
And the moments and days I find it hard to keep my mind focussed on Jesus? There’s good news here too. First, from a neurological point of view, what creates new pathways in our brain is not the perfect maintenance of focus, but the turning again and again back to focus on God (Blanton, Contemplation and Counselling, p. 11). Refocussing helps retrain my mind to move naturally in that new direction.
Second, it’s not all up to me—thank God! As I keep choosing to turn my mind back to God, bringing my requests and my thanks to God, He’s right there protecting and helping me, surrounding me with his peace (Phil 4:6-7). As much as I want to keep growing in knowing Christ (a sure sign that God has already been deeply at work in me), He wants it more, and is right alongside, eager to help me notice His kindness and settle a little more deeply into His love.
I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.
There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.
On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.
I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.
I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).
I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that's because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands.
But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?
Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.
"This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels" (Eph 6:12, The Message).
Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.
Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).
"Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . ." (Deut. 8:2).
“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).
God doesn't command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.
But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt" (Deut. 7:18).
I look and remember—yes, there's a war, and I'm in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.
And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.
I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him.
I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).
It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him?
This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I've long stumbled over:
“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.
I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.
So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”
Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.
Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call.
Jesus' vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.
In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).
Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.