First Week of Advent: Rest-Time

For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed it — that is, made meaningful — time itself.
{Alexander Schmemann}

One of the subversive affects of following the Christian calendar is how this way of marking time intrudes upon us. Jesus’ claim is that he is Lord over all. Lord over our money. Lord over our politics. Lord over every human kingdom. Jesus is even Lord over time. There are few things we consciously think of less – and few things that (though we barely ever consider it) rule us more overtly than the way we live and measure our days. Whether your prevailing calendar is an academic year or a fiscal year or a retail year (and will someone, for God’s sake, please stop Black Friday from swallowing up that one small space of quiet we had left – Thanksgiving) or merely a plodding-along year, the Church’s calendar stands there, quiet and solid, resisting every competing claim for our devotion.

Our calendars mark our time and, with each tick, remind us to get moving (faster) and to get planning and to get working – because, of course, ruin awaits if we don’t rule our minutes well.

The Church Year, however, does much more than mark time; it tells a story. The Church Year invites us to enter, each and every year after year after year, the central narrative of our history: the story of God come to us in Jesus, living, dying and living again – and now ruling over the universe and moving toward that moment when all God’s creation is good and peaceful once again.

And this is crucial for us to remember – God’s time always begins with rest. Each week begins with sabbath, the day where we rest from our labour, content in the fact that since God is working, we don’t have to. Most humans view rest as reward. After we’ve exerted all our energy and emptied all our resources, then finally we can collapse and receive a moment’s rest and try (at least for a nanosecond) to recoup without guilt. This is a miserable way to live. This is also a very secular, human-centered way to live.

God’s invitation is to begin each week resting first. Each week, we acknowledge that we are not Lord of the Universe. We do not make anything happen. The sun will rise and fall without us. We cannot, when all is said and done, control our fortunes or secure our family’s well-being. We do our part; but we are completely reliant on God doing God’s part first. We work from rest, not the other way around. And this practice takes shape at every level. In the Hebrew daily rhythm, the day begins at sundown. In other words, the day begins with sleep. You sleep first, resting while God is at work; and then, you awake to join God in whatever activity God has already been up to.

It makes complete sense then why Advent is the beginning of the Church Year. Advent is a time of waiting, resting and being quiet. In Advent, we don’t do much of anything … other than sit and wait and hope and pray. Our attention is turned fully toward God. For four weeks, we have a long sabbath. We rest in anticipation for all God has been – and is now – doing.

Let us Welcome the New Year

And now let us welcome the new year – full of new things that have never been ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Another fresh start. The Christian year began with Advent, and now the calendar tells us of still another beginning.  We’ve purchased a new calendar for the wall – our old one finished, filled with scribbles and reminders and names, each mark reminding us of birthdays and evenings out and family deaths and dinners with friends. Reasons to celebrate and reasons for sorrow, but mostly celebrate.

And we begin again. This is one of the things I am most thankful about in the Christian way of seeing the world – we are always beginning again. The night never stays; the morning is always new – in fact I think one of the psalmists pretty much said just that. Whatever has been, good or ill – newness comes. Recently, in a distressful moment, I told Miska of my fear of an upcoming experience, fearful because of how miserably I had traversed just such an experience a few years ago. Miska looked at me with that light smile she offers to counter my overblown heaviness. “Oh,” Miska said, “isn’t it great – you get a do-over.”

Another year to see what grace holds for us. Another year of new things that have yet to be.

Advent, the Fourth Week

This weekend, we had 36 hours of snow and snow and snow. The boys have some nice sled runs carved down the hill behind our house, and Seth even took to riding his snowboard style (pretty well, I must say).

But now we are here, this morning where the pinkish-orange sky rises above Carter’s Mountain and the fiery sun comes to take back more of the whiteness that covers everything. We are here, in the final week of Advent. And I want to touch on one idea that has been hovering with me for some time.

As we all know and as most of us have grown accustomed to saying often, indeed, greed is a problem. Indeed, rampant, thoughtless consumerism plagues us. Yes, we ought resist the lust for more! more! more!

Still…

The very heart of the Good News is reckless generosity. The gospel is immensely powerful, reality-shattering, because it declares a truth so extravagant that it borders on the absurd: God, Creator and Ruler of all, came to us…to us. And came as a squalling, helpless baby…a baby. This moment Bruno Forte describes as the impossible occasion “when the Whole, the All, offers itself to us in the fragment, when the Infinite makes itself little.” Extravagance unbounded.

When the angel came to Mary, he offered a gift, to her and to the world. A gift beyond our wildest dreams. A gift we could never have arranged for on our own. And God gives this gift still…now. This Christmas, in honor of and in the spirit of the Great Gift, I’ll be giving gifts too. I want to give more of my time, myself, my attention and words and prayers and hugs. But also, I’ll be giving two boys a few gifts that are unnecessary, things that make them laugh and jump up and down and run around the room like someone lit a fire to their tail. And I’ll be giving a gift or two to Miska (though less than I’d like this year), gifts that tell her that she is loved and desired and that if I had a kingdom to give away, it would all be hers.

Because I know a King who does have a Kingdom, and we see what he did…

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And I want to give another gift away here, too. This will be our final drawing, so jump in. Scot McKnight has written a wonderful little introduction to the Church’s practices on prayer, Praying with the Church. Here, McKnight offers an overview of the various traditions on prayer and guides us into our own rhythms for following Jesus via prayer. As last week’s book, I think this will be a helpful resource for the new year.

So, leave a comment and a way to contact you – and you will be in the drawing. Per the usual, the deadline is Tuesday night at midnight. Check back here to see if you’ve won.

Advent, the Third Week

We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming, he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him who they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one, in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. {St. Bernard of Clairvaux}

Life and mystery, pain and joy, something opening and something closing – do you sense the action all around us? This Advent, we are waiting, but this is an active waiting. The anticipation builds. Like violin strings stretched taut, we crane our neck to see what might be coming. We’ve had enough of the muck, enough of the fear or self-pity or selfishness, enough death. We want life. We want death to go, and we want so much for life to come.

And though Jesus is a thousand things, he is this first of all: Life.

Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us that Jesus has come, and indeed, one day Jesus will come again. But Jesus is appearing (adventing) now. God, in Jesus and by the Spirit, is appearing now, all over the place. God appears in a friendship you thought was dead and done. God appears in the child who says, “Daddy, let’s pray for the poor people.” God appears in the form of new courage and fresh hope. God appears when we say we are sorry. God appears when we laugh. Peer deep in the faces you pass. Open your eyes and drink in the sounds and lights and words and smells swirling around you – Life is breaking in. Jesus is appearing.

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This week’s Advent gift will be one of my favorite Eugene Peterson titles, his classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This will be a wonderful read for a new beginning in January, a fresh opportunity to see God appearing.

So, if you want to be in the drawing, post a comment and make sure I have a way to contact you – or check back on Wednesday.

Advent, the Second Week

This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child. {Madeleine L’Engle}

I believe that if something (anything) is going to happen, I’d best push and pry to make it so. I take comfort in my rightness, in my well-formed opinions, in knowing when to speak or even when to shut my mouth – but always me knowing (correctly, precisely) the when for either. I think what all this truly means is that I love illusions. I love the bewitching notion that I have a firm grip on the steering wheel of my life, my identity, whatever will come of me – if only I manage better, twist harder, figure another puzzle out.

And then there is Advent.

Was there anything:
~Mary could do to have the Son of God formed in her womb?
~the Roman Empire could do to stop this rival King from arriving?
~Israel could to do to hasten the coming of the Redeemer?
Is there anything, really, that I can do to manage all my chaos?

Doesn’t it seem insanity: to take inventory of all that must be done – all that needs to be tended to, fought for, worked out – and just simply wait? Madeleine was certainly right. In every way, this is a most “irrational season.”

No matter how many ways we turn it, we won’t be able to make sense of God appearing as a fragile, helpless baby. The logic of divinity taking shape in humility will not emerge from any formula or theorem I’m familiar with. With John the Baptist, God speaks from the wilderness, the fringes. With a Cross and Resurrection, God speaks the preposterous and the unimaginable. With his arrival in a filthy manger in the womb of a teenage girl, God holds out the improbably, the ludicrous – and asks us to wait. And believe.

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Last week’s Advent gift (a copy of Touching Wonder) went to Dayna Schoonmaker. Hope you are enjoying it, Dayna.

This week, our gift is super yummy. One of our new Charlottesville friends, Lisa Procter, makes the most delectable scones – and she sells her hand crafted mixes at Queen of Puddings. So, leave a comment here by midnight Tuesday night – and we will have another drawing (managed by the security firm of Wyatt and Seth). The winner will receive a scone mix of your choice. ***Please make sure I have a way to contact you – or check back on Wednesday where I will leave a comment naming the winner.

And I must add, these scones would make wonderful Christmas gifts. They taste fabulous – and the boxes they are packaged in are beautiful. You don’t even need to wrap them. We bought a couple for the boy’s teachers as Christmas gifts (I really hope I didn’t just ruin a surprise).

Advent, the First Week

I stood at the front of the church in Little Rock, Arkansas that Saturday morning, September 20th, 1997. I was breathing heavily, sweating a bit. For three and a half years (long years, Miska would say), we dated. Finally, I got my act together, strapped on my courage and asked Miska if she would take a big leap with me. And now it was happening. I had been waiting so long. She had been waiting so long. The pipe organ swelled with Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the two grand wooden entry doors at the back opened, and…

I have a friend who’s had a truly treacherous past few years. His world came unglued, and the life he has now is nothing he would have imagined. Pain of every sort has stretched his body and mind in unthinkable directions. He has cried. He has almost given up. He has cried some more. But in it all, he has prayed. And waited. He has waited so long. In recent months, glimmers of a new day have trickled in through all the broken pieces. He sits poised, wondering – might there be a hint of life again – waiting, and…

As Advent began yesterday, we stepped into God’s dramatic pause, God’s long and… Advent means “appearing,” and in these weeks, we wait for the celebration of God’s appearing – and we remember that the whole of our lives are in fact a waiting for God’s movement, God’s healing, God’s appearing. In this time, we learn that little of true value comes quickly. Ruin may bear down swiftly, like the wind; but redemption is a long, long work. This is not to say that God lumbers along, turtle-like – just ask Pharaoh who was chasing down Israel in the Red Sea or blind Bartimaeus who longed to be healed whether or not God ever moves immediately, with haste.

However, even when God demonstrates his agility, it is not because God has a sudden whim. God’s prompt, decisive movement rides freely out of the long, long story he has been writing. Pharaoh caught the brunt force, like a hammer dropping, of a God who had been redeeming his people ever since a disaster in a Garden. Bartimaeus first saw the color of the sky and the color of his skin on the day Jesus touched him by the roadside – but God had loved Bartimaeus from his mother’s womb. And Israel, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cried out, “Hosanna! Son of David!” For hundreds of years, God’s people had waited for the Rescuer to come, the “Son of David.” Now, the crowd gathered, the prophet Jesus made his way into the city – could it be?

And…

Each Monday, we will gather here for a short reflection on Advent, as our way of entering God’s dramatic pause, God’s and… Do join us. And join in.

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Also, each Monday, I would like to offer an Advent gift – my way of celebrating this time with you and my way of saying “thank you” for reading. This week, I am eager to give away (and tell you about) my friend John Blase’s book Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas. Christmas books can represent the very worst of the religious publishing industry. Not this book. John is a true storyteller, and his fresh narrative, lively imagination and literary artistry provide a wonderful Advent companion.

If you leave a comment, your name will be thrown in for the drawing for a free copy. You have until midnight on Tuesday, drawing Wednesday morning. If you don’t win, I have two suggestions: (1) buy John’s book – a good gift idea, by the way, and (2) come back next week to for the next gift.

Second Week of Advent

God is coming!
All the element we swim in, this existence,
Echoes ahead the advent.
God is coming! Can’t you feel it?

{Walter Wangerin, Jr}

Can you feel it? Can you?

Advent, waiting for redemption, is an exercise in hope. Hope can be a tricky thing though. Hope has a number of enemies. Here’s the enemy I’ve been most aware of lately: cynicism. Cynicism smirks when others smile. Cynicism holds back when others open up. Cynicism pulls you into darkness whenever your spirit craves the light.

Cynicism and Hope are mortal enemies. So, then, this makes cynicism and advent mortal enemies. Where is advent asking you to hope? I’m really asking…where?

For me advent, is asking me to hope in the that God is forming something strong and beautiful in me, even if I feel weak and pretty much a wreck. Cynicism offers the constant sly whisper that all I will ever be is what I am. Advent tells me different.

What about you?