Thinking on Advent

I am self-described morning person.

I think better in the morning, savoring my morning cup of coffee and basking in the morning light.  I love to write in the morning when meandering subconscious thoughts of sleep reappear as precious gifts of creativity.  And especially over the past few months, despite the difficulty of leaving and missing China, it’s been impressed upon me, back in the rhythms of university life, how blessed I am to genuinely love what I do.

Architecture on the Princeton campus. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But there are also plenty of mornings where despite the time of day, I’m not sure I’m at my best, because I have trouble prying myself from the warmth of the covers, my to-do list looms large and formidable and my usually disciplined morning mind wanders uselessly.  I start to doubt the magic of the morning light, routine, or worse, my abilities.

Over the past few months, my spiritual director has helped me to see the perils and the promise of having one’s primary mode of being as thinking.  I get so jazzed by good intellectual conversation, ideas, accurate writing, and scholarly innovation–there is a euphoria that often hits me in the midst of reading, writing, and talking that is real, sincere, and good.  In fact, it’s my commitment to learning, teaching, and growing, not just as a scholar, but as a person, that has gotten me to where I am today.  It’s humbling and inspiring to be blessed with gifts that serve the pursuit of knowledge.

Plymouth Harbor in the late morning.

But the other sides of being a thinker are over-thinking, brooding, retreating into oneself, paralysis, and judgementalism, just to name a few.  They’re not pretty because they’re a rare combination of self-serving and self-reviling behaviors, and they are so because they’re a whole slew of thoughts that attempt to rationalize an elementally indiscriminate and spiritual world and stand in for feelings, needs, and the other great stuff about being human.

So if you’re like me, sometimes you rise in the morning with the best of intentions and find God spooning you healthy doses of humility, reality, and surrender.  And when you finally get over yourself enough to realize that the sun is still shining just as brightly as on any other morning, and there’s more to life than your own thoughts, you find yourself writing this kind of a blog post, sheepishly grateful for the most seemingly inconvenient reminders of grace.

Last year at this time of year I found myself feeling ill-prepared for the advent season, disoriented, perhaps, by the solitary business of celebrating Christmas in a foreign land.  This year I’m unsettled by the feeling that China is slipping further away from me everyday and by the perpetual uncertainty of what a life in this country–books, people, faith–truly entails.

Ellisville State Park, Plymouth, MA.

But this season, I recognize that unsettling and I embrace it as emblematic of the advent ethos and I take heart in waiting.  I’ve gotten better at it with the practice of gradually finding a rhythm in China, which at one point seemed altogether impossible.  I’ve gotten better at recognizing that my future rests firmly in my God, not myself, or others, or my failing plans.  And I’ve gotten better at seeing my thoughts for what they are–gifts of inspiration and expressions of joy–and what they aren’t–wisdom, fate, or altogether important.

What appeals to me, then, about seemingly wasted mornings and the advent season, are the faultiness of our minds and God’s power to do great things and break into the ordinariness of ours, Joseph and Mary’s, and the world’s expectations.  It’s like that mantra I found in the midst of my re-acclimation, not to let go of thoughts or dreams, but rather to resolve to listen, to feel, and to expect everything.  

So as the sun blazes on this winter morning, and the seasons and China retreat as distant memories, I resolve to trust in the certainty that things are not quite what they seem, just as a baby was not the expected valiant king, but God’s perfect answer to humanity’s quest for peace, love, and joy.

Low tide on the harbor.

And so it begins again, our story of redemption, unsettling, unconventional, and really, when you think about it (haha), beyond all imagination.

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