Tag Archives: advent

Joy amidst despair

It’s been a few weeks since we lit the Advent candle of joy and here we stand, poised to celebrate another Christmas Eve.  And yet, the world is dark–ravaged by war, injustice, insecurity, and violence.  And so perhaps you do not feel it.  At first, I did not feel it.  At first I was wont to ask, where, how can I find joy this season?

But we do not find joy.

We do not carve joy, just as we do not carve prayer, peace, patience, or goodness of our own devices.  We wait, as we have for at least the last twenty-seven or days, if not much, much, much longer.  We wait on God for joy.

As we studied the words of Isaiah’s prophecies these past weeks, we were met with a world full of judgment, impending doom, violence, and war.  And yet, God, through the words of Isaiah, called the people not to ally with foreign forces but to wait upon God for Emmanuel.  Hundreds and hundreds of years later, the terms of the census, the reign of Herod, and the world Jesus was born into were inhospitable to him and to his family.  His parents struggled to stay together in a culture that shunned their out-of-wedlock pregnancy; and when they made the pilgrimage toward Bethlehem, they probably did so with not joy but great inconvenience, with great fear and awe and worry.

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Hold onto joy.

The Christmas joy we want and we expect, that burst of joy from the heavens, joyous singing, harmony, and peace is not how I know God to have made joy biblically or in my own life.  Rather, God in God’s almighty wisdom seems quite wont and capable to carve joy from the most unlikely of circumstances, to bring joy when despair is the currency of the day.  Perhaps this, rather than trumpets and fanfare and glee, is what the birth of Jesus is really about–about God’s will to bring light to a dark world when it seems so bleak, so impossible, so, so, so difficult?

Look back on your own life and think about the moments were joy peeked inexplicably, unexpectedly, impossibly through the veil of sadness, despair, and fear.  Think about the breath and the beauty of light in a world or a room filled with darkness.  And care and coddle and nurture that kind of joy this season.  Welcome and look for and do not dismiss that kind of radical joy that finds the world and finds us in the midst of despair.  In fact, strive to remind the world that that kind of joy is not only possible but present, and let us live with this joy not only one day, on Christmas, but each day, even if the world remains dark.

 

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Quiet in Advent

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This clever sketch with its caption, “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans, or refugees,” has been circulating on social media.

This season I’ve been intentionally quiet, quiet mostly in the mornings but also quiet on the blog.  This Advent, I’ve tapped back into my practice of Lectio and Centering Prayer.  I’ve been reading the prophetic scriptures from Isaiah and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke as the Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles, lives are lost, and great fear reigns throughout our world.

I haven’t known how to respond to all the darkness, have you?  

I should speak out, I think, say something like Isaiah, the prophet, reminding us how to follow a God who is not of this world, a king who is not violent, but gentle and humble and an outsider.

Is silence surrender in the face of such great evil, especially in a season that proclaims resounding joy, reconciliation, and peace?

I strive to work for justice in fits and spurts, donating, signing petitions, calling my congresspeople, but in the mean time, in a faraway land from where our savior was born, I hope that my silence meets God’s faithfulness.  You see, what I have always found so powerful about centering prayer is that I’m not doing anything–and that’s the point.  Because if prayer is just one more thing that we do, let alone one more thing that I presume to muster of my own wisdom and accord, then it is anything but a holy offering or a right relationship to God.

And so as we wonder how to respond, I wonder, whether as always, if it isn’t less about us and more about God–God’s saving action in the world?  I am patient in this season to listen but not to listen without responsibility.  I listen and trust and charge God with all God is always doing to offering healing, respite, and reprieve.  And I wait for God to give me the words, the actions, and the steps to be an instrument of peace this Advent season.

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My little setup at the new home.  My photo.

If you’re interested, there are over 30 posts in the category “Centering Prayer” on the blog.

Here are also a few posts from past Advent reflections and practices:

This Advent, Share Joy.

Advent and Breaking In

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Thinking on Advent

Mary’s Song: Advent Expectations

God can take it

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who are struggling in waiting this season.  It strikes me that waiting and silence feel particularly cheap in a season where this so much violence and need.  What is God teaching you?  Where is God leading you?

 

God can take it

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a particularly sobering Advent.

While we’ve entered this season of hopeful expectation sometimes I feel positively hopeless in the face of racial injustice, gun violence, and torture at the hands of our own government.  I want to believe that God is doing a new thing, but I am doubtful amidst the evils of the world.  My faith fails me.  I do not wait faithfully.  Instead, I heave great sighs, I mourn, I turn away from God.

But do you know what I’ve realized?

God can take it.

God can take our anger, our sorrow, our pain, even our distrust.  In a poignant reflection, Alece Ronzino talks about how even after several years of what she calls “spiritual detox,” God was still there, big enough to take her rejection, her skepticism, and her doubt.

Sure, Advent is our season of hopeful expectation in the Church, where we prepare our hearts for Jesus, where we wait as the ancient world once did for the birth of a savior, but isn’t it just as much about how God waits on us, faithfully and patiently, no matter how often we turn away in fear, anger, or sadness?  Even as the prophets and the kings and the ordinary people in the Old Testament waited on God, God out-waited them.  God out-waited their faithless acts, their petulance, their mistakes, and their fears.  Despite them, God made something new, God brought a savior to this world, God redeemed and redeems, so don’t you think God can take it?

Washington, DC.  Fall 2014.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Washington, DC. Fall 2014. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think we are the ones who can’t take it–we can’t take the paralyzing intimacy that God desires of us.  We’re the ones who back away, not only from God, but from one another, convinced that it would be better to give up, than to be failed or to fail one another.

But God does not fail us.

God waits on this world just as God prepared the ancient one for thousands of years.  God’s love is steadfast.  And no matter our sinfulness or our betrayal, God does not turn from us, but rather accepts, forgives, and waits out our indiscretion.  So as God waits on us and this fallen world, what would it be like this Advent if instead of turning from God, we turned toward God with all our anger, sadness, pain, fear, doubt, and even indifference?  What if we threw all of our hopes and fears onto God and waited for God to do a new thing in and amongst us?

God can take it.

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Our church is quirky and I love it.

It’s a place where people show up late, they won’t stop greeting each other during the passing of the peace even when the pastor’s screaming to get their attention, and just about anything goes.

We also do cool things in the liturgy.  Our prayers of confession aren’t staid and silent, but often full of passion and hope.  This Sunday, as we read the following words, I realized something:

In this place of confession we are shaped by hope:

In our brokenness, we know your blessing.

In our pain, we touch your promise.

In our longing, we discover your love.

You are making things new in our lives and this world.

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I realized that God’s love is transforming, because God makes weakness holy.  God doesn’t just give meaning to our suffering, but God enters into it and makes something new from the residue of despair, longing, and pain.

That’s why we Christians are people who live, especially in this season, with deep hope.  We know that it is not up to us to change the world or its brokenness, but that God, despite appearances, is already redeeming all this messed up humanity and making things new.

It’s really hard for me to trust that on these dark days of injustice, but I imagine it was equally hard for the shepherds and the wise men and the Jews.  This season I’m asking God to give me eschatological vision: to believe that in great longing, there is great love, that in pain, there is promise, and that in brokenness, we will know blessing.

This week I have been struck by how deliciously novel Advent feels, despite it being the 33rd year I’ve celebrated it, and the 2014th year the world has done so.  I take this as evidence that 2014 years later, God is, indeed, doing a new thing.  We may not perceive it, we may not see it, but I’m praying that God will help me to believe, and to trust that our weaknesses will be made holy once again.

Amen.

Epiphany: Pondering it all in our hearts

Christmas has come and gone.

In this season, paradoxically called epiphany, we ask our neighbors, “how was your holiday?,” we un-trim the tree, dismantle the decorations, put away the nativity, and resolve to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

But what are our regularly scheduled lives and how do they fit with the violent breaking in of our God in advent, the not so sterilized versions of that stable birth, a season of unadulterated joy, and a baby savior who takes away the sin of the world?  Isn’t the meaning of epiphany, “the manifestation of God,” enough to send us on grand pilgrimages like the wise men and change us forever?

This past advent, our pastor preached passionately about the need to take the nativity off the mantle, to become acquainted with a rather inconvenient and culturally inappropriate pregnancy, the messy squalor of the stable, and welcome this paradoxical savior and all his rupture into our neat, little worlds.  It pains me that we, who have experienced the greatest hope and joy of this season, can think of nothing to ask our children but “what did you get for Christmas?”  How have we really taken the nativity off the mantle if our lives look the same in this holy season of epiphany?  And how can we welcome epiphany if we resolve to go back to our regularly scheduled lives?

In this holy season of afterbirth, joy, and wonder, I encourage you to stop and reflect on the gift of a savior.  I encourage you to ask not just about travel, family, and presents, but the epiphanies that others have experienced in light of the grace we have received.

As Mary pondered all these things in her heart, so might we ponder how Christ has been reborn in us, and how because of this, 2014 will never be the same.

Peace: A Christmas Prayer

Pine boughs and berries.  All photos mine.
Pine boughs and berries. All photos mine.

Why do we rush around this time of year as if we can accomplish the impossible, as if we are our own salvation, as if the turning of this world depends upon us?

Why do we crowd the precious gifts of the wisemen, the shepherds, and the manger with cheap imitations of praise, hope, and love?

Why can’t we find it in our hearts to praise the King of Kings, while we can find time to wrap, to bake, to travel, and to make merry?

I think it’s because we fear that the absence of control is chaos.  

We fear that if we surrender the Christmas season to God, let God take the reins, then nothing will get done.  It seems such a simple, but difficult thought, to give God this Christmas season, to let God reign.  It’s not putting Christ back in Christmas, because like all the best things in this spiritual life–we don’t do the work, God does.  Instead, we do the waiting, the watching, the wondering, and we start to feel something that passes understanding.

I learned this year–that if we live life by faith, the absence of control is not chaos, but God’s sweet, sincere peace. 

The view from our window.
The view from our window.

So this is my prayer for you this season–that as you go about your busy lives that you surrender your greatest plans, your deepest desires, yes, your hopes, your dreams, your everything to the baby Jesus.  And that in so doing, you find that living life with God at the reins lends a deep sense of peace.  May you find the space in your life to contemplate not only the gift of our savior this Christmas, but what gift God is calling you to place before our King.

Amen.

Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.

 

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Advent is the season of waiting and expecting.

Candles on Christmas. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And I realize I’ve written a lot about expectations on this blog.  Inspired by a post on Zen Habits and shaken by a professional disappointment, in China I wrote about the freedom that comes with tossing one’s expectations into the ocean.  Then, a year later in the midst of culture shock and making a new life in this country, I wrote about the sense of hope that comes from being a forward people and being able to rest in a God who promises more than we can possible imagine…or expect.

Lately in preparation for the courses I’m teaching on Cross-Cultural Family Systems, I’ve been reading a lot about lowering one’s expectations when it comes to dealing with difficult family members.  Such a directive doesn’t seem to jibe with the orientation I want to take to humanity and family, which is more along the lines of investing in people, and sharing real struggles in order to reach a place of deep communion and better communication.

As this dissonance swirled in my mind, it also brought up the varying engagements with expectations that I’ve been pondering and writing about–tossing, lowering, and raising–and I wondered what this range says about theology, consistency, myself, or God?!

Boats on Plymouth Harbor.

At present, I’m drawn to the conclusion that not only are tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations, and expecting everything perhaps relevant to different life seasons, but they all clearly involve a reorienting of expectations, in which we hopefully allow God to return to the center of our lives.  To explain, are not tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations when it comes to family members satisfying all our needs, or expecting faithfulness and promise from God all deep acts of faith that recognize God’s supremacy and our humanity?  

It’s funny, because taken from this angle, lowering expectations, when it comes to family (which is particularly relevant during this season!), is perhaps neither glib nor maudlin, but rather a recognition that our tendency to attribute our failures or unhappiness to others is our problem, not theirs.  Investment in our friends and family, then, becomes the radical practice of sharing, not because we expect others to fix problems for us or fix themselves, but simply because we love and trust that relationship itself is life-giving.

Our bonzai Christmas tree in China, decorated for the holidays.

So this Advent, whatever your expectations may be, whether you’ve tossed them, lowered them, or raised them, may God be your guide and your center.  May God be at the helm of your reorienting and may we all be powerfully changed by a God who is wholly and holy relational, and with whom, we find both radical hope and freedom this season to love those in our midst.

Amen.

P.s.  This great little post on five advent reflections may have gotten buried in a previous post.  There’s so much about God’s reorienting work in these reflections- enjoy.

P.p.s.  Gretchen Rubin’s tips for getting along during the holidays!

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.