One of Advent’s surprise gifts (You won’t want to miss this one!)

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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.

The surprises of Advent: Invitation to a treasure hunt

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?

Woven into Christ (and my new word for 2019)

We’re a week into 2019, a week into new hopes and dreams and intentions, new directions and new words for the year.  As I take my next steps into 2019, I’m so grateful for the church calendar that reminds me that the new year began back at the beginning of Advent, and that the foundation on which to build this next year of my life has already been firmly laid in the story we’ve just lived through with Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
On the first Sunday of Advent, baskets full of ribbons were passed along the rows of worshippers and we were each asked to select a piece of ribbon and personalize it, writing a line of a hymn, a prayer, our name—some little offering of ourselves and our lives. Then, week by week, we watched as those ribbons were woven into banners standing at the front of the sanctuary. The weavers began from the top and bottom of the banners, line upon line of golden shades, then rich reds, slowly working their way in toward the middle. Below the platform where the worship team leads us, where the preacher speaks the words of God, was this steady reminder that as we listen and sing and pray, our lives are being woven into a beautiful tapestry.
For the first three Sundays of Advent, all we could see was bands of gold and red slowly taking shape at the top and bottom of the fabric. Even in themselves, they held beauty, a little of God’s glory imaged in the multi-toned layers of our lives.
And yet, they were somehow empty too. Incomplete. Mysterious. What was taking shape? Were these bands of color—as beautiful as they were—all there was? I was faintly disappointed. But only because I hadn’t waited long enough.
We met two days before Christmas on the final Sunday of Advent, and there,  in the middle of each banner, in white ribbon, the needed centre was finally taking shape. Or, rather, the centre that had always been there but not yet visible began to appear among us in a form that we could recognize. A name on one banner. A title on the other. Jesus. Christ.  Disappointment made way for joy as the centre was filled, the lines of red and gold now shining with new beauty as they took their proper place not as the main focus of the image, but as pointers, our lives put in proper perspective by the One at the centre.
The banners have hung at the front of the sanctuary through Christmas and the turning of the year and on into the season of Epiphany which has now begun. Epiphany—the revealing of Jesus’s glory—isn’t this what we all need every day of this new year? Our small lives gathered up into his, woven into his story, with Jesus shining forth at the centre of our lives and our communities?
I often begin the new year pondering and praying about a word for the year. This year I’ve wondered about several. There are places I’ve become lazy, and I want to grow again in discipline. But what is discipline if my life isn’t marked by love? And the truth is that unless my discipline is rooted in love, unless I really want to do something, my desire fuelled by love, my will-power falls flat pretty quickly. Or gets sidelined by fear.
Love, then. I long for my life to be marked by love. For that to happen I need to keep making my home in Jesus’ love. But as I sit with the word, I find that when it comes right down to it, even love as a guiding word for the year feels empty. It is, of course, a crucial part of the weaving of a meaningful, beautiful life. But even love finds it proper place not as the centre but as a pointer, guiding me back to the only One who can fill that central place, the One in whom everything holds together and from whom love comes. All my hopes and goals for the year, no matter how significant, only have meaning when they take their proper place around Jesus. Without him at the centre, even the best dreams are meaningless, the best goals both irrelevant and impossible.
This, this, is the Word I want written on every piece of my heart, every moment of my days. This is the Word that holds me together, weaving all the bits of life into a whole that makes sense. JESUS.

The secret of doing the impossible


Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”
I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”
The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.
And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.
When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)
That’s all we’re ever asked.
The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)
Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.
The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.
When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”
But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible.
We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us.  And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.
I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.

When you struggle to settle


It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.
Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.
I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.
Gradually I began to understand.
In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.
Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:
A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.
My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
Hallelujah.”

 ____________________
Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.