Tenth day of Advent: fog

December 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_3462Fog covered Dallas this morning. Driving to work, I couldn’t help but spontaneously stop to take it in, to capture a few poor quality photos on my iPhone. I like the fog. There’s something mysterious and romantic about it. Staring into the gray haze I think, isn’t the fog a little like Advent, a little like our time on Earth? We don’t see clearly now, but we will when the sun shines. In the same way, we don’t understand our selves or our God or our relationship with God now, but we will later.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12

 

Ninth day of Advent: wonder

December 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

“This holiday season, give the gift of wonder.”

They are words on a billboard, advertising a children’s museum. I see them in the morning on my way to work, glaring down at me in bright red and green letters.

I don’t have time to stop and wonder. I’m late. But the light turns red and I’m forced to pause beneath those words that say, “the gift of wonder.”

What is wonder?

When I use the word, I usually mean something like, “I have a vague interest in something-or-another.” Like when I say, “I wonder what we’ll have for dinner?” or “I wonder what that means?”

But there’s another, and, I suspect, more correct way to use the word, as, “this amazes and overwhelms me, and even, perhaps, makes me a little bit afraid.” Like when I say, “The stars are wonderful tonight,” or “Seeing the great horse filled the little girl with wonder.”

The billboard says, “give the gift of wonder.”

I don’t know how to give the gift of wonder, but I do know Advent is making me wonder more and more every day.

I read in Isaiah the reading for the second Sunday of Advent. It’s a promise that God will clear a pathway through the desert for the people of Israel. It reads, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”

Every valley filled in? Every mountain made low? Impossible. And yet…the power of God could do such a thing. I read those words, I meditate on them, I picture mountains leveled and valleys filled in, and I’m filled with wonder.

What is more wonder-filling than a tiny baby? What is even more wonder-filling than a tiny baby who is the Son of God?

I think about that, and those mountains and valleys, and am filled with wonder. Amazement, yes, and a little bit of fear.

Eighth day of Advent: waiting

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I bought a candle for Advent. It’s not a traditional Advent candle set or anything; just a regular candle. It’s tall and cylindrical. The thick wax is green and smells like pine trees. There’s something peaceful about its white flame in my dark room, Christmas lights shining through the window.

I have few words this evening. I had few words this morning and this afternoon, too. I thought if I waited until this evening, I would well up with words to share, but now it’s late and I’m tired and I have few thoughts on Advent today.

I do have this Advent candle, shining steadily beside me.

I want to say something about penitence and faith, words for Advent, but this candle keeps distracting me and I keep thinking about a phone conversation I had with a friend earlier and all the things I have to do tomorrow.

I want to say something about how this is fine; how it’s fine that I can’t find words for tonight, because Advent is about waiting and waiting isn’t about saying things or doing things, it’s about waiting to say or do things, and that’s fine. That’s Advent.

I peer too close to my Advent candle and accidentally snuff it out. It still smells like a forest in my room. I look out the window at the blue and green and red lights on the house across the street. I relight my candle. I like the candle and the Christmas lights along my street. I like this sitting in the silence and in the dark.

Seventh day of Advent: preparation

December 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

I heard once from a friend who used to live in Canada that in the winter, Canadians sludge through the snow to their driveways where they warm up their car engines with machines called block heaters before turning them on. It’s so cold outside, if they turned on their cars without first warming them up, they would damage the engines. I’m told people who live in cold climates do this in the winter all the time.

I’m not a mechanically minded person. In fact, I avoid everything that has to do with mechanics. Right now, my tires are low on air and have been low on air for the last three weeks because I don’t want to drive to the gas station, push up my sleeves, crouch on the cement and fill up those tires. When people talk about mechanics to me, it pretty much goes through one ear and out the other.

But for some reason, the image of needing a block heater to heat up a car before even turning it on, let alone driving anywhere, stuck, and I can’t help but think it’s a good analogy for Advent.

Advent is the period of days leading up to Christmas when we prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ and what the birth of Christ means. We know the birth is a great and glorious thing, but before we can receive this immeasurable gift, we must prepare our hearts for receiving it. In the same way a car engine can’t be ignited until it’s been warmed, our hearts cannot understand the gift of the birth of Christ until they have reflected.

On this seventh day of Advent, I’m thinking about preparation and reflecting.

And now that I’ve written this, I guess there’s another thing I’ll do this seventh day of Advent: go fill my tires with air.

Sixth day of Advent: that fickle heart

December 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

What is the attitude of the heart during Advent?

The ordinary attitude of the heart is fickle. It wants certain things that are good, and other things that are bad. It wants some things more than it wants other things. It wants some of God. It thinks it wants all of God, but doesn’t know what all of God means. It wants God less than it wants other things that are bad. It wants God less than it wants other things that are good. Sometimes, it wants one thing; another time, it wants another thing, and another thing is never enough.

This observing of days, this looking and listening, reveals to me my fickle heart.

But what is a fickle heart but a hungry heart? A heart that’s unsatisfied. A heart that jumps from a good thing to a bad thing in the vain hope that the good or the bad thing will satisfy its craving.

My heart is hungry for something it can’t seem to find, so it searches and searches until it’s exhausted.

My heart is fickle during Advent, just as it was fickle in November and will be fickle next month.

But the attitude of the heart during Advent is supposed to be patience, patience as it waits for the one thing that will satisfy, that all its frenzied searching won’t find.

My fickle heart doesn’t want to wait in patience during Advent. My fickle heart is fickle, and so as soon as it pegs its loyalty to God, it reverts and pegs its loyalty to another thing instead.

But the other thing doesn’t fill my fickle heart. My fickle heart still grumbles with fickle hunger.

So my fickle heart returns, returns to patience, returns to rest, returns to waiting, waiting for the good food, waiting for the living water.

Fifth day of Advent: impossibilities

December 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

“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 son of Mary and 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 in 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.”

Fourth day of Advent: darkness

December 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Driving through downtown Dallas this evening, I’m struck by the imposing skyscrapers around me, jutting up against the black and starless sky. The city is bright with electricity, but darkness is on my mind.

Anywhere there is man, there is evil.

In the newspaper, I read a story about 36 innocent people killed in a terrorist attack because of what they believe. On the Internet, I read a blog post about a boy whose mother died of starvation. This evening, I hear about a war photographer who was ambushed and murdered.

It would be easy to succumb to despair. It would be easy to say, there is no God in this muck. Look, see that, see that, that darkness, that evil? That proves the nonexistence of God. Even if there is a God, He doesn’t love; He doesn’t even show up for dinner.

But I won’t. I won’t because I know there was darkness on the road to Bethlehem too. It was a long and hard journey, and no one would open their doors to let the young couple in.

Darkness doesn’t disprove God; darkness affirms our need for Him.

It’s because there was darkness on the road to Bethlehem that we need a savior. It’s because of the darkness in all the men in all the cities in all the world.

Third day of Advent: discomfort

December 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I see a string of days leading up to December 25, each made singular by this practice of getting up, pouring coffee, sitting down, and writing. I’ve always loved writing because writing takes the muddy thoughts in the back of my mind and moulds them into coherent sentences. By writing about Advent, I better understand what Advent is.

If Advent is about waiting, what are we waiting for?

This question scares me. I’m not sure I want to mould the answer, because moulding the answer means staring the answer directly in the face. And when I lock eyes with it, I have to reckon with its truth – and wrestle with my doubt that it’s true.

The answer is, we wait for Christ.

It’s an innocuous answer, if we don’t think too much about it. We know the story of the birth of Christ. We read it at Christmas Eve services and reenact it in nativity plays. We know the story of the death of Christ, and His resurrection too. We also hear that Christ will come again.

But then we think about it more. God, a being more infinite than the expansive sparkling blackness of outer space, more powerful than an avalanche roaring down the side of Mount Everest, more loving than all the love of all the mothers that ever lived combined. God, moulded into the form of a tiny, helpless baby laid on scratchy, smelly straw?

I suppose it could have happened as long as it happened long ago in a backwards time that I don’t have to know too much about or think about too often. I suppose.

I suppose it might happen again as long as it doesn’t happen this century while I’m enjoying my slick silver laptop and jetting off on airplanes to visit friends and shopping for organic food at Trader Joe’s. I suppose.

But it’s Advent, and I’m writing about Advent, and while I’m writing about Advent, I’m thinking about God being born as a tiny baby in a manger on a night in the past and I’m thinking about God returning to Earth sometime in the future, and all this thinking about God being born on Earth once and maybe twice is more than I’m used to and it’s making me uncomfortable.

After all, this is the 21st century. In less than an hour, I’ll be zipping down the highway into the center of a city of towering skyscrapers. This talk about God and God being born as a baby doesn’t fit my modern world.

Advent is making me uncomfortable.

But beneath the discomfort, I know a deeper, paradoxical truth: discomfort is good.

Discomfort is a crick in my neck that I ease by stretching. It’s a hunger in my belly I satisfy by eating. It’s a branch in my side I remove by moving.

Discomfort leads to movement, and spiritual movement leads to deeper understanding. This moulding of muddy thoughts and facing the truth is hard, but good.

So just for fun, and just because it’s uncomfortable, I’ll answer the question again.

If Advent is for waiting, what are we waiting for?

The answer is, we wait for Christ.

Second day of Advent: sowing time

December 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

What was I thinking? What was I thinking? I can’t come up with a cohesive thought about Advent every day for a month! One day, yes. Two, maybe. But 25?! On top of everything else I have to do?! There’s not enough time! What was I thinking?!

It was easy yesterday, but yesterday I was filled with exuberant spontaneity and in possession of a long and empty Sunday afternoon. I had time to think and pray, time to tinker with words and sentences. Today, I have work and a full evening and a long to do list. It doesn’t seem right to squeeze God in a few minutes here, a handful of seconds there. And what a waste if all I can eek out are a few tired thoughts already said more eloquently by others before.

But okay, I want to observe Advent. Okay, okay, okay, okay.

As I’m filling the time I should be observing Advent by worrying about not having enough time to observe Advent, I’m reminded of a meditation by Dorothy Day. Day was a journalist in the mid-20th century, and so plagued by the incessant time constraint that affects journalists everywhere: the dreaded deadline.

One day, a Catholic priest gave Day some advice about time management. She took it to heart, wrote it down, and I found it in her book of meditations several decades later.

Here’s what she has to say:

“‘The only way to have more time,’ says Father Lacouture, ‘is to sow time.’ In other words, to throw it away. Just as one throws wheat into the ground to get more wheat. It must have seemed madness to throw that first wheat away – but more wheat sprang up a hundredfold.

So each day, start out by saying, there is plenty of time. And so to discard time, to throw it to the winds, to disregard all the work there is to do, and go sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour, to divest oneself of these accursed occupations – all in order to reap time, for those things which are necessary. Press day is a very good day for that.”

Press day! The very day journalists are most aware of that encroaching deadline, Day suggests going off to pray!

I have shared this quote with family members and friends before, and in response they all say something like, “Well, I kind of get it, but I’ll have to think about it some more…”

Yes. Me, too.

I kind of get it, but as soon as I think I do, its slippery meaning escapes my grasp.

I’m thinking about it today as I wish I had more time, time for Advent, time for God, time to write, time with friends and family, time to cross off the items on my to do list, time to work, time, time, time.

When we sow time, we reap time.

Like all good meditations, this one can be fractured a hundred different ways. Here are a few:

When we spend time with God, we sow the seeds of time in fertile ground, which means no matter what, we will reap the fruit of His Spirit.

When we throw away our time by spending it with God, we will see the necessary obligations of daily life in renewed light, seeing their purpose and our place in that purpose.

When we toss time into God’s outstretched hand, He catches it along with all the worries tangled in its net. God untangles worry from time, and hands time back.

When we sow a few minutes with God, He returns those minutes not as seeds, but tulips and roses and daisies and daffodils.

And after we’ve sowed time with God, it’s not as though He goes away.

I don’t have to squeeze God in here or there, like a woman scheduling a hair appointment; instead, I can open my heart to Him all the time, everywhere, like a lover who can’t stop thinking about her beloved. God’s presence is here, when I’m at work, when I’m out in the evening, in every item on my to do list, slipping into spaces of silence, moulding the words from my mouth, in my bones, in the mild Texas December. God doesn’t appear only when I think about Him, only when I pray; He’s always there. I don’t have to worry about having time for God; He’s a constant companion.

And look at that: I didn’t have time to write today, yet here it is, here’s a second blog post for Advent!

P.S. I’m still wrestling with this remarkable quote. If you have a thought about it, please share!

First Advent

November 30, 2014 § 8 Comments

Advent never meant anything to me until this year. November 30th was nothing more than an ordinary day to be muddled through and crossed off. The December days leading up to Christmas were festive and fun, but their meaning ended with a ribbon tied around a final wrapped gift and the last “Fa La La La La” playing through my car’s radio.

This year is different. This year, I observe Advent.

Advent snuck up on me quietly and took me by surprise. I wasn’t planning on observing it. This December would be as stressful and rushed as the last six months. Except, I heard a quiet voice whispering to me, “Don’t be afraid,” and “Wait,” and what are these but words for Advent?

I’m going to try this. I’m going to try writing a blog post for every day of Advent. I wasn’t planning on doing this until I sat down at my computer this afternoon and read a blog post written by another writer who did the same thing. I love the idea. I want to try it. I wasn’t planning on trying it, but I am now. I wasn’t planning on being a Christian either, but here I am.

That’s why I never observed Advent in the past. Pinpointing the exact moment of my conversion is impossible. Christ speaks to us continuously throughout our lives, sometimes as loud as a megaphone, other times as softly as the wind rustling the leaves outside my window. My conversion was so subtle and nuanced I hardly realized it happening.

But it did happen, and because it happened, I want to observe Advent.

Which is ridiculous, really, because what is Advent but waiting? And what do I hate more than waiting? I’ll do anything to avoid waiting. I leave for work at odd hours of the day to avoid traffic jams. I bring a book everywhere I go in case I have even a few minutes of down time. I purposely leave late for appointments and parties so I don’t have to wait around for other people to show up. And still, I feel like I’m always waiting. I’m waiting to hear about job prospects, to hear from editors, to hear words from friends, to hear from God. I hate waiting. Waiting feels like a waste of time.

But it can’t be. Advent is about waiting, so it can’t be a waste of time.

When we wait, our attention is directed toward the object of our desire, what we want to happen, but hasn’t happened yet. As we wait, we contemplate the object of our desire. Our understanding of it and our longing for it grows, so when it comes, when it happens, we are filled with an even greater joy than if we’d gotten it immediately.

Still, I’m scared of waiting because I fear if I wait too long what I’m waiting for will never come. I think I must do something, anything, to get what I want before it’s too late. But the quiet voice couples the word, “Wait,” with the admonition, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s a reminder that we don’t have to be afraid of losing out when we wait. Waiting is good. God never has us wait without reason. The object of our desire will come in time. We don’t need to rush. In these Advent words, we can rest.

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