I realized that it’s only fitting that I started blogging again yesterday during Lent, because as history serves, Lent has lent (I just can’t help with the puns…you know Easter is on April Fools, right?!) a good portion of inspiration.
So I’ve compiled, just in time for Good Friday, a dose of Lenten posts for your contemplative reading.
I pray that this season has been meaningful and full for you and that you find so much comfort and hope and peace even at the sight of our wounded savior on the cross. May we linger on that cross and the grave with renewed passion and waiting and expectation of the hope to come on Easter Sunday. Amen.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
I remember that moment in my college studies when it was pointed out to me that history was hardly static and that periodization, the act of splicing history into reasonable, succinct bites, necessarily altered the meaning of those events it sought to contain.
The stories of our own lives, our own journeys, are told and retold. We re-imagine the significance of certain events in light of others, and every once in awhile we feel blessed to look back and see what we believe to be the hand of God. That type of perspective is other-worldly, not because God only blessed us with bite-sized intelligence, but because God and life only lends each moment with bite-sized grace.
If you’re like me, you try to gobble grace in bigger bites. You get really gluttonous and really greedy, and you think you could live life a bit better, certainly more faithfully, if God would just give you that kind of landscape, big-picture, historic panorama vision. I feel like this most of the time.
And then there are the days when I sit in silence and listen for God, and I know, fully and with great freedom, that these seasons that supposedly lie in between that we all feel, these days of waiting, these are God’s, too.
I know this because other faithful people around me confirm it and live it, and they struggle, too.
I read a line on facebook the other morning that said, “Perspective: Abraham waited 25 years, Joseph 13 years, Moses 40 years, Jesus 30 years. If you’re in a waiting season, you’re in good company.”
What a comfort to know that we’re not the only ones who wait and wonder and…stumble.
Just the other day I mentioned to a professor that a paper I’d written and been proud of had become a stumbling block toward developing my dissertation. The realization of the fact was freeing–perhaps I could now move forward. She responded differently, jubilantly, with a line I’ve never heard or thought I would, “Oh that’s good, stumbling blocks are good!” she purred.
We can’t really learn anything if we don’t stumble, but we’re also remiss if we think we’re bound for a life where we stumble no more. This morning a friend of mine told me that after a loved one died, she was told there’d be suffering, followed by healing, followed by victory.
We began to muse together that, what if while we’re stumbling, while we’re waiting, there is also resurrecting? What if what’s in between is victory? What if this moment isn’t between what’s next, what’s holy, and what’s God’s, but this moment accepted, embraced, and faithfully swallowed is grace incarnate?
But all the while you’ll have been looking to the horizon, to the mountains, onward and forward, when God was right beside you offering a hand, a shoulder, and rest for your weary head. Friends, look around–you’re in good company, you’re already victorious, you’re being offered a sliver of grace.
So don’t miss the resurrecting in the waiting, the stumbling, in the seasons between.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And so it begins again, our story of redemption, unsettling, unconventional, and really, when you think about it (haha), beyond all imagination.