Advent Everywhere

I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.

However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”

So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.

And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”

I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.

Advent & Wilderness

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah

There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.

Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.

But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.

 

Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

 

Rend the Heavens

In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.

It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.

And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.

But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.

Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.

 

Photo by Stephanie Fox on Unsplash

 

That Reckless Christmas

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

Dear John ~ 12 December 2016

Dear John,

I told you that we had to bring down the big, old Ash in our front yard. Years ago some mortal wound pierced its mammoth trunk, and over the years since, the rot and the carpenter ants have done their business. It was a sad day when I watched the crew bring that great tree to her knees. However, yesterday was the day of joy. We were out early, Wyatt and Seth and me along with a handful of friends and neighbors. We were all wearing flannel and heaving axes and gunning a hydraulic splitter. It was grand. There’s something about having work to do, work you are responsible for, work that has defined parameters and objectives: cut the logs, split the stumps, stack the firewood. This was a mother bear of a tree, so the work’s not yet complete – but I see clearly what needs to be done and I know how, if the weather and my back holds, I’m supposed to do it. So little of my life feels this straightforward, this immediate, this grounded. I know something now I did not know when I was younger: I have to stay grounded. I have to be among the trees. I have to be under the night sky.

That’s what connects us both to folks like Kent Haruf or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. They are people who ground us to life, to the hard and marvelous wonder of it all. I enjoyed your letter, as always, but this one was especially educational because I learned a new word, had to look it up: hypethral (“wholly or partly open up to the sky”). Now that’s good, John. You said Mary had a “hypethral theology,” and I can imagine Ms. Mary reading that and chuckling to herself and saying, “Well, I guess so…” And like you, it was this single line from the first essay in Upstream that made me sit up straight: Attention is the beginning of devotion. If there was ever a line suited to Advent, that’s one right there.

Advent holds much allure for me because these are days that give us permission (and perhaps it would be more helpful if we heard it as a command) to stop. I’m not sure that in this helter-skelter world where most of us live so fearful of falling behind or not catching up or somehow getting steamrolled that we think we can actually just stop. In the Church especially–those of us who are supposed to really get this Advent thing–I don’t think we do a very good job of helping people stop. I wonder how many times, as a pastor, I’ve loaded stuff up on people’s weary souls rather than helping them shed the back-cracking weight. Even this idea of waiting and watching can have such a heavy, drag-yourself-through-the-finish-line posture. And on the other hand, our idea of being watchful (or waiting, or hoping) can also carry a hollow ring, evoking a limp passivity. But when Mary says that attention is the beginning of devotion, there’s teeth there. It’s a belligerent hope, but a hope-at-rest. Attention does not happen when I’m up to my eyeballs trying to furiously hack my way through life, but neither does attention happen when I’m just folding all my cards and calling it a day.

You know when attention happens? For me it happens every time I say no to the things that are not mine to do. Attention happens when I feel (as Miska says) that my “carrying capacity” has been met (and right now, I realize it is met, full tilt, time to start cooling down the engines). Attention happens on days like last Saturday, when there were two moments — one each for Wyatt and Seth when I stood back and watched them, for the very first time, take those herculean swings with an axe, determined to make splinters of that stump in front of them. I’d given them a few pointers (after I’d received instructions myself), but then there was nothing for me to do but watch. And I tell you, it was a sight to behold, those two boys of mine becoming men, unleashing their strength.

Those hours with the boys splitting wood and drinking cider were not attached to an Advent devotional, but they were Advent top to bottom. It was me being attentive to this very good life God has given me, these boys, this house, these trees. I watched and said thank you.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Advent: Imagining a Different Day

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

Advent: Waiting for the Magic

night-light-2

Well, here we are again, God. I’m supposed to feel advent-y. Instead I feel weary, a little sadness, grumpy. I’m also hungry, but of course that’s because I haven’t had breakfast yet – so I won’t load that one up on you. The nutritionist told me to make sure I eat something small first thing (maybe a little 90 calorie Yoplait or a slice of cheese), right after I get up and before I go for my run. So there’s another thing I’m supposed to be doing. Yoplait first thing and feel Advent-y. Welp, two strikes.

But here we are again, starting the story for another go round. I’m glad the story moves on whether I’m in the groove or not. I’m glad all I really have to do is get in the vicinity, just ease on to the slow moving train and hold on for the ride until (hopefully) some of the magic sets in. Oh, I know it will. Something unexpected always yanks at my heart – maybe it will be those haunting notes from the Russian State Symphony, maybe some Instagram photograph, like a quiet Nebraska cornfield dusted in white, maybe one of those moments with Miska when she says something wickedly witty and I go rolling, maybe a text from a friend with a line or two that collapses the miles between us. So really, nothing for me to do but open my eyes and move into these Advent days. And wait.

Of course, that’s the point – to wait. To open our groggy eyes (or wake up from our slumber, as St. Paul told us on Sunday) and turn our groaning bodies out toward the dark night so we can watch for the light that, soon enough, will burn away the midnight, burn into our world, into my soul. I guess I’ve actually never heard you say anywhere that I’m supposed to feel Advent – I guess that’s the kind of expectation we put on ourselves (why do we do that?). Instead, you just tell me to wake up and move closer in. I think I can handle that. I can turn up the Bulgarian National Choir. I can read a bit of old Isaiah, a bit of Merton. I can ask for you to help me today, to watch over our boys, to watch over this weary world of ours. I can invite neighbors over to split wood for all the fires that will warm us and enchant us through winter. I can try to put a few more words on the page. I can dance a little with Miska in the kitchen.

I’ll do the waiting and the watching, God, and you do the Adventing. I assume you’ll do it on your own schedule, that seems to be the way it works.

 

The Gentleness of Advent

snow light

On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.

Trembling Hope

lighted alps

I wonder, when we’re praying our Advent prayer (Come, Lord Jesus) if we have any idea what we’re meddling with, if we have any sense of the power we’re invoking. I pray this prayer, and I think I mostly believe it. I cling to this hope because I can not escape the sense that our world writhes in convulsions, and I am unable to imagine any solution we humans could muster to ultimately fix the mess we’ve made. During Advent, we utter an honest confession: We are full of good intentions but weak at keeping promises; our only hope of doing God’s will is that You should come and help us do it… Painful as they are, these words ring true.

And yet, when we ask God to come, to act, we are not tinkering with some plaything we can maneuver to our own bidding. We’re dealing with the God who burns, the God who holds the world together, the Holy One. I hear the quake in the prophet Malachi’s voice: Indeed, God is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? Malachi continues: And don’t be so foolish as to think that when God’s justice lands, it only lands on those you think deserve it. We’re all in trouble, and we’ll all be healed together. We all need to be reborn. We all have to go through the fire. I wonder if we pray our prayers for justice too easily, aimed at everyone other than ourselves?

God is the God of endless generosity, boundless joy and unfettered delight – I believe this. I also believe that the God powerful enough to make such things true (the God strong enough to heal all wounds and silence all oppressors) exudes a furious love. A love that is for us. A love that will not let us go. A love that will not leave us to our own devices or abandon us to wallow in our narcissistic stories.

Good St. Annie (Dillard) says it right: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?”

We long for God to come, as we should – this is our hope. But this is risky business. This is a trembling sort of hope.

Thanks, Santa

vintagesanta.2

In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, before we turned out the lights and cast a final gaze at our stockings, we’d leave a few cookies, perhaps a brownie or a chocolate covered cherry, on a plate next to a glass of eggnog and a short note:

Thanks, Santa. Stay warm.

P.S. Be sure to share with Dasher, Dancer and the Crew

And every Christmas morning, even into my college years, mom and dad would place one gift for my sister and one for me, out in front of the tree, set apart from the rest of the packages. On each of these boxes, scribbled across the front: Merry Christmas, Santa. I’d always hug my folks, grin and say Thanks, Santa.

We say Father Christmas isn’t “real” — fine I suppose, but there’s something very real happening here that won’t let us loose. With some folks, Santa’s taken a knock, either out of frustration with crass commercialization or due to religious concerns (and if you have such scruples, you really should read the tale of St. Nicholas). However, we don’t know these stories merely because Madison Avenue wants to milk us for billions — that’s just a perversion. Rather, we tell these stories over and again (and they stick with us so powerfully) because we are in constant search for a language to express all the wonder, all the gratitude. We need true myths because sheer facts or flat logic are not enough.

We return to these stories because somehow we know there is a true magic (call it grace, if that helps) woven into this world. In our depths, we know that our life and all the goodness enveloping us arrives as pure gift. We know that hope and faith and love are essentials. We know a mystery, a holy haunting, pulses at the center of things. Somehow, our soul knows that if we experience no awe or wonder, we are paupers.

As Advent commences, we wait for the Christ child. We lean forward, in anticipation. We watch for wonder. St. Nick can encourage us in the same direction. Maybe St. Nick holds open a space, a longing or a child-like imagination, a space that will eventually be filled by the deepest magic of all.

///

G.K. Chesterton, our apostle of mirth, says it far better than me:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. {G.K. Chesterton}