December 24, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’ve been putting off writing a blog post for this final week of Advent because lately, my mind has felt rather like a dry bed of ideas. Any beginning sprig of a thought withers and dies. Then, this morning I cut my thumb on a broken light bulb and found myself barely able to type this meager paragraph, let alone a whole blog post. I decided to see that as a sign and let myself off the hook, but so I won’t have to say I failed in my resolution to blog every week, I’ll share an Advent reflection from last year. Wishing you the merriest of Christmases!
“For nothing is impossible with God.”
The words leap from the page and lodge in my mind. They are the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth.
The angel tells her she will have a son, not by her betrothed Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit. Her son is the not only the son of Mary, but the Son of God.
Well. How many forms of impossibility can I name here? The impossibility of the existence of God; the impossibility of an angel; the impossibility of an angel speaking to a woman; the impossibility of a virgin having a baby; the impossibility of a baby being the Son of God.
Mary sees the impossibility.
“How will this be?” she asks.
“Nothing is impossible with God,” says the angel.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says. “May it be to me as you have said.”
I am struck. Here is Mary, accepting the impossible possibility. How? How?
Because she knows nothing is impossible with God.
I believe a lot of things are impossible with God. I fear God Himself is an impossibility. How many days per week, times per day, minutes per hour, do I doubt God’s presence, doubt God’s power, doubt God’s love? Don’t answer; I don’t want to know.
But the angel says, “nothing is impossible with God,” and Mary nods, opens herself to impossibility, and the Son of God is born.
Mary is receptive. She listens for God, she hears, she receives, and the impossible is made possible within her.
It’s Advent, and I’m thinking a lot about impossible things. I think I see the limits of possibility, a thin line at the border of my life, fencing me in.
But the angel’s words are there in my memory, saying, “nothing is impossible with God,” and something in me stirs. The line begins to blur. Beyond the fence I see a field that stretches on and on, full of green grass gently swaying.
If Advent is about waiting, it’s also about being receptive to what we’re waiting for, and the beginning of being receptive is believing the words of the angel who says, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
December 14, 2015 § 3 Comments
It hardly feels like Christmastime here in Dallas. I’m sitting outside under the leafy oak tree, sunlight dappling the green lawn, birds chirping in the limbs overhead. Earlier, I jogged around the block, enjoying the 70 degree weather in my T-shirt and running shorts.
Though it’s hardly Christmas-like, I am glad for the warmth. There is something sweet in weather like this, something that makes me rather nostalgic for summers in high school, for the excitement of driving down a rarely trodden dirt road, for the pleasure of climbing a hefty low-limbed tree.
This weather is making me feel good, making me feel something rather like joy, something rather like hope.
And of course, hope is at the heart of Advent.
But hope isn’t always so easy to come by, and the thing we have hope in during Advent (namely, that the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby) often seems silly at best and downright mad at worst.
This weather, though, it’s making me look at hope through new eyes. It’s making me pause and wonder, what if?
What if the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby?
And what if He did that so that He could grow up and die?
And what if, in dying, He turned back the clocks, unfolded the sheets of time, threw back the stars in their galaxies?
What if He’s doing that in us now, clawing away our crusty exteriors, breathing fresh air into the dark holes of our being, filling us up with honey and wine?
What if we stepped back from our expectations of what the world is and will be and always has been, and thought, maybe God came to Earth as a little baby?
What if we dared to hope, dared to look around for God, dared to see Him, if just for one brief instant, here in the sunshine of a balmy winter’s day, here, on Earth?
December 5, 2015 § 4 Comments
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” ~ George Eliot
I have a confession to make: sometimes, I twist my prayers during Advent, which should concern the coming of the Lord, into my own personal appeal for the things I want which I don’t have yet.
Advent is supposed to be about anticipating God’s coming, His birth long ago, His return in the future, and His presence with us now. But because Advent is all about waiting for something desired, I tend to confuse waiting for God with waiting for all of those other things I want.
Some of those things are good, some of those things are bad, and some of those things can be good or bad, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, instead of praying, “come, Lord, come,” I find myself praying, “come, would you just give me at least a few of these things I want already?”
I know this isn’t what Advent is supposed to be about, but it has me thinking: when is it okay to say, “all right, God, I want You, I really do, but I’d rather like this other thing, too?”
Because that’s really what I want to pray, and am already praying, but I worry that’s rather like saying, “God, sorry to break it to You, but You’re just not enough.”
And that can’t be right, can it?
I hear Christians say all of the time (and say it myself, on occasion), “God is enough.”
But what, exactly, does that mean?
Some days, I find it doesn’t mean anything. Those are the days when I’m not praying or listening or sitting in silence with God, when I’m distracted by my to-do list, by my worries, by my fears. Because after all, how can God be enough for me when I never think about Him, when I don’t invite Him into my sorrow, when I don’t ask Him for discernment navigating my life?
But even when I am in communion with God, there are still times when He feels distant, even nonexistent. And there are other times when the struggle I face isn’t eased or removed by His presence.
In other words, times when God doesn’t seem like enough.
But then I remember something important. I remember that God is an infinite love, a love greater than anything I could ever imagine. And I remember that I am like an ever-emptying cup, longing to be filled.
My never-ending desire wants something that is infinitely satisfying. Anything less would prove disappointing in the end.
And though I don’t receive understanding and fulfillment all at once, through spiritual discipline, through prayer and longing and searching and listening, I draw near to Him, and He slowly, wonderfully fills me up.
Maybe our cups will never be full until the Kingdom of God appears. Maybe that’s why all of these other desires seem so appealing to us now. Maybe that’s why waiting for Him to come again during Advent is so important, because then, only then, God, revealed in His fullness, will finally be enough.
But what about all of those other things I want? What about that fiery word, desire?
There are so many good and beautiful things in this world, and I would very much like to experience them all, or at least as many as I can.
And I think I should. I think you should too.
I think there are many desires laid in our hearts by God, and sometimes those desires become twisted with sin, and sometimes those desires drive us mad, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they weren’t exactly what we wanted after all, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they fill us up with more than we ever thought we could hold.
None of these desires need detract from our love of God. Many of them can even bring us closer to Him.
After all, He is not only infinite love, but infinite beauty and infinite goodness too, and we see glimpses of Him in the loving, beautiful, and good things of this world.
Perhaps, then, God is a lot more intwined in what we want than we might think. Perhaps, then, God is revealing Himself to us all of the time, even through the unfurling of our desires.
December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
As some of you may know, I rather like Advent.
Last year, on an impulsive whim, I wrote a blog post for each day of the season, a spiritual practice that proved healing and expansive for me.
This year, I’m not so ambitious. Instead of writing about Advent every day, I’m reading about Advent every day, using the wonderful book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
May I suggest it to you? It’s chalk full of great writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle and so many many more. I’m only a day into the season, and I’m already smitten.
But despite my decision to read instead of write this go around, I can’t resist the urge to jot down a few minor thoughts about Advent, loving it as I do. So, here goes: a thought (or two) on Advent.
During Advent, people talk a lot about waiting. That’s because Advent, which means “arrival”, is the season in which the people of God wait for the arrival of God, both the celebration of His birth long ago and the promise of His return in the future.
We are all familiar with waiting. In fact, waiting makes up a good portion of our lives. We wait in traffic, wait at the doctor’s office, wait for emails, wait for packages, wait for dreams to come true.
Implicit in the idea of waiting is the belief that something is coming.
One doesn’t sit around waiting for someone who doesn’t exist to pop over for dinner. One doesn’t sit around waiting for rain in the desert. One doesn’t sit around waiting for money to grow on trees.
These things just aren’t going to happen.
But one does sit around waiting for a friend who promises to stop by after work. One does sit around waiting for the first snowflakes to flurry in Michigan. One does sit around waiting for the cherry blossom trees to bloom in spring.
These things will happen in a matter of time.
But what about God? Was God really born to a virgin in a manger? Was it really true when God promised He would come again? Should we wait for these things, or is that just so much insanity?
Part of me says it is. Part of me, the lonely part of me that has known God’s absence, the cynical part of me that knows promises are broken all the time, the hard part of me that says this is silly and can’t be true, those parts of me say it’s insane.
But another part of me, the peaceful part of me that’s been filled with God’s love, the hopeful part of me that knows God doesn’t make promises He doesn’t plan to keep, the warm part of me that’s moved by the idea of God making His way to Earth, those parts of me say, okay, I’m ready, I’m waiting. I may not understand it fully, but God’s mysterious and ineffable – it would be trite if I did.
So, how is this waiting thing going to go?
December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I began these Advent reflections, it was a spontaneous response to a small but urgent voice in my head whispering, “Wait.”
Standing at the end of these 25 days, on the eve of Christmas, having practiced this spiritual discipline of waiting, the voice is still there.
Which makes sense. We are, after all, still waiting. We were waiting last month and we’ll be waiting in January, too.
But there’s something else here now, besides the admonition to wait. There’s something that I’ve learned from this spiritual practice of waiting.
I woke each morning with nothing to write, knowing I had promised myself I would write; every day I would write; every day I would open my slick laptop and type a blog post.
Most days, I had nothing to say, and, having nothing to say, I could only wait for the words to come.
And they did.
It’s a testament to what happens when we open ourselves, palms empty to receive, and wait. He will come. He always comes. He will come again, too.
I have drawn strength from these Advent reflections. I hope you have, too. And if you’re popping in on this last day, I hope you’ll look at some of my favorite reflections. There’s one on love, one on signs, one on power and weakness, one on impossibilities, and a few (well, 21 🙂 ) others as well.
Merry Christmas, friends!
December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
I see the curve in the road ahead and know that just beyond the curve is the end. But the road curves, and because the road curves, the trees block from view the place where the road ends.
Advent is almost over, which means this spiritual practice of waiting comes to a close, but it strikes me that, while I’ll pass through Christmas in only two days, I won’t be turning the corner. Not now, at least. I’ll pass through Christmas Day and find I’m still on the long road, with the curve still up ahead, blocked by the trees.
This waiting is open-ended; it doesn’t stop on Christmas Day.
I’ll be honest with you: my heart sinks a little at that. I want the waiting to end. I have seen a glimpse of the end through the leaves on the trees, and I want to be there already. My legs are sore and the sun is hot and why can’t it be the end yet? Is all this waiting for nothing?
I’ll confess to you: I secretly wished this observing of Advent would be like a magical spell, that each word and sentence penned would be like an incantation that would dissolve every trouble and fulfill every desire. But Christmas approaches and I’m still longing for these things, good things and bad things, some of God and some of not-God.
I think of Mary, pondering what happened in her heart. I think, though she may wear simple clothes and lay her head on a bed of straw, her thoughts are like gold, glittering treasure in her heart. She knows that love, that being, that God Himself is with her there, lying beside her in the straw.
And don’t we know it, too? Don’t we know that love, that being, that God Himself is here with us? We may not have reached the end, but we have gold in our hearts already.
A friend introduced me to Sandra McCracken last year. I have been listening to her some this Advent. The Wait is a good Advent song. So is Dynamite, which I’ll share with you here, partly because it’s the only one I could find on YouTube :P, but mostly because it’s a good song about desire.
Those who have ears, as the smoke it clears
will see things as they are
to bend the will, you first must change the heart
December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning, I drink coffee from a white cup with green holly and red berries painted on the side. I light this green candle with its wax clumpy and melted from use. On my dresser across the room are lined stiff Christmas cards painted green and red and gold, baring words like Joy and Love.
Christmas is soon, this very week, only three nights away. This string of days, each checked off daily, each pressed through patiently, comes to a close.
Can you hear the plod of footsteps approaching Bethlehem?
Can you see the star shining bright on the darkest of nights?
Can you smell the pungent stench of straw and manure in the cold?
Do you feel that thing, that some thing, that hard sense beneath the ribs, that warmth in the stomach, that thing, that some thing that says: an extraordinary and unexpected event is about to happen?
December 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
“I don’t know what to write about today.”
“Have you written about fear?”
“Write about fear, then. Fear is awesome. That’s an Advent theme, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“I just sparked brilliance in your mind, didn’t I?”
Yes, you did, little brother, yes you did.
And that’s how I came to write about fear on this twenty-second day of Advent.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel says to Mary. “You have found favor with God.”
Gabriel is talking specifically about God’s blessing on Mary to be the mother of Jesus, but couldn’t Gabriel just as easily be talking to us?
I am often afraid. I am afraid about my future; I am afraid some terrible calamity may unexpectedly befall me or the people I love; I am afraid of what I don’t understand; I am also afraid of what I do understand. I think a lot of other people are afraid too.
But Gabriel says not to be afraid, and gives a reason why: “You have found favor with God.”
And isn’t that enough? To know that God has looked on us and said, “I love you.” Knowing that we are known and loved, that is a reason not to be afraid, that is a solid reason to stand upon and stare whatever beast we fear directly in the eyes and say, “I am not afraid. I have found favor with God.”
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.
P.S. You can read my October story about what’s going on in the brain when we’re afraid and how to prevent fear from overwhelming us in The Dallas Morning News here.
December 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“How badly do you want Christ this Advent?”
It’s a question posed in an Advent reflection, and it stops me cold because I know the answer, and the answer’s not pretty.
The answer is: not very much, not as much as I should.
It’s the twenty-first day of Advent. It’s the weekend of the fourth Sunday of Advent. Next week is Christmas.
I ought to be feeling my need for Christ and Christ’s fulfillment even more than when I started these Advent reflections, but this morning feels like an ordinary day, a day like any other. I want Advent to be an orderly progression, a gradual opening of the heart over these twenty-five days, a linear strengthening of the heart’s desire with each post penned, but it’s not.
I think maybe I can go into the living room, which my grandmother has decorated with Santa’s house on the coffee table and a small tree in the corner and a red and white hat lying on the couch for anyone to try on as they please, but what will that get me, really? It’s in my heart where the seed of desire lies.
How does one desire God, really?
God, who is greater than the gray ocean that swells and falls; God, who is more powerful than thunder; God, who is more beautiful than the face of a beloved; God, who is more loving than a mother to her child.
How do I fit God into my mind, which is buzzing with small worries? How do I fit God into my heart, which is darkened by splotches of sin?
Every morning I’m relearning the truth: I don’t need to fit God anywhere; He molds Himself for me, and if I don’t desire God, I can pray, and God will meet me.
How often I doubt the power of God.
The writer Annie Dillard says we ought to wear crash helmets in church to protect us from the power of God, and I think, that’s right! Yes! Yes, we should!
So, on this the twenty-first day of Advent, I pray the simple, short prayer repeated many times in many churches across the world, put on my figurative crash helmet, and wait:
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
December 19, 2014 § 2 Comments
In the last few months, several people have asked me why I converted to Christianity. It’s a difficult question for me to answer.
I’m fully aware that arguments for the existence of God only go so far. I don’t have perfect rebuttals to the arguments against the existence of God. I’m okay with a high level of uncertainty; I realize that much about God is mysterious.
Nor did I have a Road to Damascus moment. And I certainly didn’t answer some kind of altar call (ask me how I feel about those sometime and you may get more than an earful!).
No, my conversion was more subtle and nuanced than that, growing slowly over time, like the sturdy oak tree outside my window.
In fact, it was rather like the magi’s journey.
The magi travel from far away to see the newborn Son of God. Why? Because they are drawn by His beauty and love. And their response when they see Him? They present Him with the richest of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I’m struck by their response. They immediately understand that the incarnation of God into vulnerable, pink flesh is a pure act of love. They are drawn to it, and know the only appropriate response is to worship in return.
And wasn’t that how God drew me in, with His love? And isn’t that how He draws us all, like gravity tugs toward the center of the Earth, like a river pulls downstream?
This Advent, I’m hit all over again by Love.
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter…and arriving at evening, not a moment too soon, finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
– T. S. Eliot