Monday, December 26, 2011

Advent Unraveled

I’ve had dreams where I’ve found a loose string in a favorite sweater, and started pulling & pulling until the whole thing was gone-- like being eternally stuck in a Weezer song.

Well, sadly, that’s a little what Christmas felt like this year. All these high hopes of changing the way we celebrate as a little family, bringing meaning and reflection & worship to our traditions, and giving thoughtful, personal gifts. Epic Fail.

It turns out that when you have a toddler, two full-time jobs, no childcare, grad school, a new house in need of repairs & a ludicrous amount of travel in your Winter, giving thoughtful, elaborate & personal gifts is rather difficult. When you add a very sick mama, followed by a very sick, sleepless baby to the mix, it becomes almost impossible. Then add five out-of-town [dearly loved] family members, three houses to travel between (with all the sick-baby gear), and you’ve got some serious anxiety & exhaustion. Then, just for fun, you run out of the supplies needed to finish said thoughtful gift half-way through & travel all over Orange County to buy more (I’ll spare you the details), and last minute (on the 24th) your pup gets attacked & winds up in the pet hospital with some pretty serious injuries (don’t worry, he’s gonna be fine).

When you combine all those things (and maybe just a bit of left-over childhood guilt & people pleasing tendencies), you might just end up with a full-fledged anxiety attack in the middle of the night (wish I was kidding). You might end up sleep deprived & worn out, feeling like a martyr & whining at God, instead of celebrating Him. You might end up reflecting on your Advent readings on Christmas night wondering why our King’s new Kingdom doesn’t look a little more like he said it would.

So, if anyone out there had any silly thoughts that this Professional Christian had her stuff together, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. It turns out that it doesn’t take much-- not a natural disaster or a life-threatening illness, or a major catastrophe-- to make me completely unraveled. No matter how hard I tried to pull it together, I just ended up a big mess, sobbing in the bathroom in the middle of the night.

And I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it? I’m a mess. You’re a mess. This whole world we live in can just go unraveled, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t fix it. We need some serious help. We need to be rescued.

And, to be totally honest, when I’m coming unraveled, the last thing I want is religion, or advice, or wise, pithy truths. I just want someone to sit with me; to walk with me through the mess, and to understand (maybe even without words) what it feels like. I want someone who’s been there to just be next to me.

So, even though I don’t feel much like celebrating, I have a deep & quiet sense of comfort at this whole idea of Emmanuel, God with us. I know that there’s a whole lot more to Jesus coming to earth-- all the theological implications & all that-- but right now, it feels good to know that He didn’t just watch from far away as a few little things caused me to come unglued. He got his hands dirty, entered this big mess we made, and said “I know exactly how you feel”.
Even though I’m tired of cookies, prime rib, and all the festivities, Emmanuel is something I can celebrate today.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Good Word

"Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!

You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."

-Jesus [Matthew 6:19-34]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent: A Confession

I've had some disturbing thoughts lately as I have reflected on Christmas. Deeply disturbing. Extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes I wish I could just turn off my brain.

My desire has been to extricate the stress, materialism, and gnawing hunger for the New & Shiny at Christmastime, and to replace it with the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that comes from celebrating God's arrival. It turns out, though, that when you invite God to rummage around and clean out the dark places, He usually ends up finding more than you are comfortable with. Apparently, making your home in Jesus doesn't involve tidying & cleaning, but a complete overhaul.

About a week ago, I noticed that the contentment I felt with my life & my closet had been replaced by a rather long Christmas wishlist. It seems to happen every year: I start off thinking that I really don't need anything & isn't my life so full, and end up hungry for more, more, more, as I see lovely new things in store (or computer) windows.

And it happened again. When I pulled out my wishlist and tried to cross things off, and carve it down, it was really hard to let go.

Then this quiet thought floated to the top of my brain: I want others to think I am stylish, fashionable and cute. I want it so much that it has taken root deep down and controls the way I spend my money, my thoughts, my desires.

Now, I'm not making any blanket statements here about the evils of wanting a new sweater. I just realized that this seemingly simple, even benign desire has marbled it's way through the corners of my heart & mind, and the reason I know it because it is so very difficult to let go of.

Here's what I mean: There are millions of people in this world who are starving. I've read the statistics, I've taught seminars on poverty, and I've even lived in a refugee camp. I'm not trying to go all emotional, desperately-pulling-on-your-heartstrings or anything. It's just a simple truth. I have personally met people who have been kidnapped by rebel armies, whose children have been malnourished, and I have held a baby who just died of malaria. This isn't some infomercial out there, it is something I claim to care deeply about. So there's that.

Then, on the other hand, I have three black sweaters in my closet. But I don't have the right black sweater to wear with several of my shirts, and I really, really want a new black sweater. And a pair of skinny jeans that fit better than the other two pairs I own. And a few other sweaters, tanks & loungy pants that are on my list. Even though I already own more clothes than I know what to do with, they are old and make me feel frumpy, out-of-date & self-conscious. I feel uncomfortable all day long when I wear something like that. I look at other girls who are stylish & fit and compare myself. I try on seven different outfits in the morning & never quite feel satisfied. I worry about what others will think of me, and hear in my own mind the things that they must see in me. It's a pretty deep insecurity that I've carried around for a long time.

I could ask for clothes from my [extremely generous] parents for Christmas, or I could literally donate a cow to help feed those Ugandan girls I love. I could even ask for half the amount of stuff, and give the rest away. But every time I try to let go, there's just one more thing I need. I thought about fasting for a year from buying new clothes (not that we have that in our budget, but our families are always very giving for Christmas & birthdays) to help loosen the grip this stuff has on my heart. I'm honestly not sure if I could do it.

But really, what would happen? If I were to keep wearing those things that make me feel frumpy and old, would people love me less? Would friends stop spending time with me? Would my husband leave me for a trophy wife? Would my work with college students diminish? Would my personal worth or value as a human decrease? Would anyone even notice??? Wouldn't people rather spend time with someone who wasn't so concerned with their image & appearance, who was centered & free from insecurities, and focused on others rather than themselves?

What would it look like to let go-- to follow Jesus and walk forward into something that is [embarrassingly] difficult for me? I want to let go, and I don't. I want to move forward, and I don't. What would it look like to follow Jesus while holding on to something I knew he was asking me to release? Is that what I want?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Saving Christmas

"And that was the year that Buddy saved Christmas..."
There are some pretty fantastic movies out there (and, I admit, some pretty terrible ones-- exhibit A) about an unlikely hero who steps up to save Christmas from certain disaster.

Looking back over the last several years, I've had these high hopes & big aspirations for what Christmas could look like. If you think about it, it has the makings of a great story: there is something pure, wonderful and good that is at risk of being corrupted & overrun by stress, consumerism & greed. Our chance to celebrate the arrival of freedom, peace & hope stands against an army of gingerbread men, Holiday sales, and tense trips back & forth to relative's houses. Pretty high stakes there.

Every year, I come up with a plan for preserving the meaning behind Christmas and holding it in my heart-- and every year there comes a point when I realize that my plan isn't working so well. This year, the plan was to blog everyday during advent, to reflect on Scripture from the advent readings, to keep in mind the significance behind each of our activities, and to simply set aside time for what was important. And as I lay in bed with a nasty cold for weeks, I realized that my big plans to save Christmas were crumbling.

The sense of contentment with my stuff has been replaced by a haunting siren call for new shoes, sweaters & skinny jeans. The desire to donate Christmas money to our favorite non-profit has been replaced by a hunger for things shiny, new & fashionable. The desire to spend my after-baby hours blogging, reading & reflecting has been replaced by a need to address Christmas cards, bake cookies, answer emails, make gifts, and order stuff on Amazon.

I can feel the tension, the weight that pulls me away from what I had hoped for & intended, and I feel tired & lazy. So the question is: What will our hero choose? Will she be able to save Christmas? Or will she end up disappointed, stressed out & a little gluttonous (with a really cute pair of black ankle boots)?

Here, my friends, is the climax of our story. Let's see how it unfolds...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent Sunday: Joy

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
-Isaiah 9

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent: Peace on Earth

Peace is kind of a funny word. Despite thousands of years of deep meaning and significance, when I hear the word "Peace" today, I think of Birkenstocks, long hair, VW buses, and the corner of Haight/Ashbury.

It's one of those words that is used at Christmastime a lot, on flowery cards, cute little knicknacks, and in carols. I'm not sure, though, that I've ever stopped to think about the relationship between Christmas and Peace.

To be honest, Christmas is one of the last peaceful times of the year. Most people are stressed out, overbooked, overfed, overspent, and at war with at least one family member as they rush from obligation to obligation. I am definitely no exception. Christmas has always been about cramming as many family members into a 24hr period as LA freeways would allow, and as much as I love it all, I generally end up in a ball on the floor crying at some point in the festivities.

One of my goals this year is to be more intentional about eliminating stress and adding Peace to Christmas. I am going against every fiber in my body and not hosting a Christmas party. Instead, the plan (we'll see how it goes) is to bake cookies for the neighbors, and go door to door meeting them. The idea behind that is I still get to do the baking & Christmas cheering that I love, without the pressure of having a clean house, cute dress, 12 hors d'oeuvres & desserts and zero meaningful conversations while playing hostess. Plus, we get to meet & love on our neighbors. We're also having more friends over for dinner/brunch in casual settings to spend a little more quality time.

We'll see if any of these plans accomplish my goals. Really, those are more structural tweaks than deep heart-level peace. My hope this week is to meditate more on how Jesus' birth invites peace into my real, everyday life. Because I can cut out & rearrange my Holiday plans as much as I want, but I'm not going to find what I'm looking for without that. And I guess that's the whole point.

Wish me luck (and Good Luck to you, too) ;)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent (kind of)

Well, my plan to reflect on Advent each day has been foiled by a nasty cold.
But, it has given me the opportunity to watch Meet Me in St. Louis while lying on the couch, which just happens to have one of the greatest Christmas scenes/songs.
Skip to about 1:45 sec & enjoy :)
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent, Week 2: Peace

This Sunday night, as we sit in front of the advent wreath-- now with two candles burning-- my head is fuzzy, my voice is gone, and I can't breathe out of my nose. And although I wanted to just go to bed, rather than try to be spiritual (and especially rather than trying to scrape together coherent thoughts into a blog post), it does feel good to have this small discipline.

This week's advent candle is Peace, and the verse we reflected on comes from Isaiah (written out below), and gives, like last week's verse, a beautiful imagery of the Kingdom that is both Here and Yet to Come. The picture is one of Peace, saying that when the Messiah comes, he will teach us to walk in his ways, and we will beat our swords into plowshares.

The first image that came to mind was of a piece of art called The Tree of Life (pictured above) I had read about in the British Museum:
"During Mozambique's civil war (1976 to 1992) millions of guns and other weapons poured into the country and most of them remain hidden or buried in the bush. The project is an attempt to eliminate the threat presented by the hidden weapons. Mozambicans are encouraged to hand them over in exchange for items like ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines. In one case a whole village gave up its weapons in exchange for a tractor. Once the weapons are decommissioned, they are cut up and turned into sculptures by the artists in Maputo."

So, at Christmastime, we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 2:1-5

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days

the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent: The Peacable Kingdom

This is the final reading from the first week of advent. It's a poetic & mysterious picture of what our world will look one day when Emmanuel returns-- a metaphor for the future reality for us to put our hope in.

I was pretty excited to search around for artist's representations of this scene, but was disappointed to find that it really only captured one guy's imagination-- over, and over & over again. Instead, we get to use our own imaginations...

Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent: Hoping for Emmanuel

"... and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:23)

We have joy now over a promise that is still to come...

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!

Oh come, Thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'ver the grave

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!

Oh come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Drive away the shades of night
And pierce the clouds and bring us light!

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!

Oh come thou key of David come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Where all thy saints with thee shall dwell
Oh come oh come, Emmanuel!

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!
Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!