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scattered thoughts at the end of advent

This will be my last post before Christmas, and probably for a few weeks.  I’m in the South now with my in-laws, and away from my computer. 

As Advent draws to a close, I’m considering why I did this, and what I learned from it.

The “why” goes back to October, actually.  A number of blogs I follow did this #31days challenge, where the authors chose themes and posted something related to that theme each day all month.  At the beginning of the month I thought it was gimmicky and maybe even self-indulgent. But halfway through, I found that seeing something on the theme of “peace” (for example) every day in my google reader was actually working to help shape my thoughts toward peace.

As Advent approached, I wondered if committing to post something every day around its themes might help me meditate better on Christ’s coming.

I didn’t do it in any professional, polished way. If I had, I would have made sure my images moved from dark to light through the month, I would have chosen a theme for each week, or worked my way systematically through certain scriptures.  I didn’t do it to try to grow my blog readership.  And I didn’t do it because I expected it would make some profound difference in your life, Dear Reader.  I did it for me. I did it because I’m not disciplined enough to do it in secret; I needed a star chart, as it were, to mark my progress, for accountability, as we evangelicals like to say. I did it because I’m weak.  And whether or not it helped you, I think it helped me.

Here, at the end of Advent, are the three thoughts still rattling around in my mind, from possibly silly to not silly at all:

1) It’s been a very mild winter, so far, in Indiana, practically snow-less.  I keep imagining our world a thousand years from now, more like a desert than it is today, people reading ancient texts that mention “snow,” and wondering if this "snow" is mythical or real, metaphorical or literal. 

Desert
But then I imagine them still practicing Advent in the desert, and it has nothing to do with winter wonderlands or red suits or hot cocoa or walmart.  It’s just the ancient prayers, the ancient “prepare the way for the Lord! Make straight paths for him,” the ancient practice of waiting for Messiah’s return.  This imagined scene warms my heart.


2) When it comes to Christmas, I’m not the type who gets stressed out, who spends too much money, who exhausts herself with perfect hosting, perfect gifting, and perfect meals.  Though I have my own idiosyncratic standards for myself, perfection demanded here and there, I’m not much of a people-pleaser. If anything, I tend toward another extreme - the Advent Conspiracy extreme, the one who wants to forego all the trappings and secular traditions and spending in place of a more “pure” holiday.

Given my natural inclination, these two articles have helped me remain somewhat balanced in my approach to Christmas:

- Amy Julia Becker’s argument that gift-giving is good because  “it reflects the idea that God has entered into the material world, and through that entrance, God has declared that the material world is good and worth celebrating, if not in excess then at least through extravagant generosity.”   She adds that Christmas can only seem extravagant to us if we modify our lifestyles throughout the year, if we -- say -- stop hitting “buy with one click” on amazon whenever we see something we want.

- Ellen Painter Dollar’s contention that denigrating the tasks of a busy holiday season (shopping, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, hosting) as “less holy” than quiet meditation signals a kind of gnosticism in our approach to our faith.

She concludes: “God came to us in the most visceral, bodily experience known to humankind—that of giving birth, of being born. Christmas is therefore an incarnational holiday, a celebration of God revealed in the physical. We celebrate with palpable, physical pleasures: rich foods, lights brightening the winter darkness. I give my children presents that are both utterly frivolous and chosen deliberately in response to who they are and will become, just as the Wise Men gave to the baby Jesus. Rather than being distractions from the true meaning of Christmas, these are my small efforts to make God’s love real—touchable, edible, visible, audible—in my home and the wider world I inhabit.”  (But read the whole thing - you won’t regret it.)


3. The true light that gives light to everyone is coming into the world!


Merry Christmas, y’all.  Thanks for holding the long vigil with me here.


the active stillness of Advent {guest post}

J.R. Goudeau is a blog-crush turned friend who regularly inspires me with her passion and humor. If this is your first introduction to her, check out Love Is What You Do, where she blogs about literature, motherhood, and her work with Burmese refugees in Austin. I'm grateful for the stories she's sharing here today.


The first time I remember really waiting for something, I found out a few weeks before my best friend that her father was leaving her family. I had to wait for her to find out. It’s a long story and the details are not mine to tell; I was 18. I was devastated. It was the first time I fasted and prayed because I meant it; it was the first time I hiccupped into my pillow late into the night begging God to get up, to move, to do something, dang it.


I went and spent a long day alone in a state park nearby. Armed with my huge study Bible, I sat under a tree and read and prayed all day. I watched an armadillo for more than an hour as it dug in the underbrush a few yards away. I left when it was too dark to see.


Nothing changed. He left their family. She was hysterical. I was bewildered.


***
Jonathan and I waited for four months to get to Brazil. We were 23, just married, armed with our Idealism and our Dreams, ready to change the world. We were supposed to leave on September 20, 2001 to be missionaries. On September 12, 2001, we heard from the Brazilian consulate that someone had stolen our passports.


Because it was the day after September 11, nothing was certain. We had to start over, new passports, new visas, new bureaucracy to hold us up. Every week we called and every week we got the same words: nothing.


For four months, we sat on my parents’ couch watching CNN, reading books, and eating. We had nothing to do. Again, I fasted and prayed. Again, it just took forever.


When we finally, finally, finally got word, got on the plane, got there, I looked around, ready to see the secret reason God had us wait so long.


To this day, there is no coincidental story, no glorious explanation, for the waiting.


The waiting itself was the point; it was not the means to the end in which I got some big surprise with a bow on the top. The discipline of waiting day in and day out was what I needed to learn. The trusting, the holding on, the making just to the end of the day--those habits became familiar, the rudimentary movements I would need to make it through my life.

***

Since then, it seems like every few months we have to wait: to get into graduate schools, to find a job, to get pregnant, to have a baby, to figure out what we are doing with our lives, where we will live, how things will be. In the last couple of years, I’ve waited with a friend to find out whether she had breast cancer. I waited with a dear friend for months as she watched her mother die of cancer. I have waited to hear whether marriages would make it or not. I have waited with friends who desperately wanted a viable pregnancy.



In the last five years, I have waited in the NICU or by my cell phone to hear about 11 different children with severe or extremely rare medical needs.


Some of those babies made it. Some of them did not. In all of those moments, the waiting completely changed me.


It is one thing to wait on something I want, a privilege I would like. It’s another to breathe prayer with every fiber of my being as I beg God for the life of a baby or a marriage or a friend. That is the kind of face-down, in-the-dirt waiting which has left me with scars. My heart has been carved in those periods of not-knowing and desperate hoping.


In my life, that waiting has ceased to be something passive and has become something active I do. It is familiar, even if I don’t always (or ever) like it. Simone Weil talks about the Greek word "hupomene," which she defines as “waiting in eager expectation.”


I hold myself still under the heaviness of the waiting. I try to be patient.


Weil says I should be eager.

***

In March 2009, I sat in front of a computer screen, heavily pregnant with my second baby girl. I had been having contractions every twenty minutes for hours. Past my due date, miserable, blimpish, I drank tea and clicked around the internet. I found a website about China Special Needs adoptions. I read almost all night, blogs and articles and chat rooms and forums.



I waited for a baby who would be born two days later, healthy and purple and squalling with life, but I began to pray again, eagerly, expectantly, for another one.

***

Now we are waiting again, this time for our third daughter who will be coming home from China hopefully sometime next year. The home study was in November. The dossier should be finished and sent off in a month or so.



Our case worker said we could be home with a baby in June at the earliest. And suddenly, six to nine months seems like a lifetime.


We’re researching doctors, preparing for surgeries, thinking through the options for whatever her special need ends up being.


There’s no baby yet—we’ll be matched when our dossier is logged into the system in China—but whoever she is, she already exists. It is likely she has already been born, already abandoned, already placed in the orphanage crib. She is going through a winter somewhere without me and I find myself waking up breathing out to God: please let someone hold her, love her, sing her lullabies, keep her safe, please...just…please.


When we hung up her stocking in our house this year, my little one said, “I sure really miss my new sister.” Our whole family waits and prepares and prays.

And we know, when she gets here, everything will be different and hard and good all at once.


I groan and hold still in the heaviness. With Mary, who waited for a baby and then waited for that baby to die, with the angels who quiver with waiting for the sons of God to be revealed, with all the mothers with empty arms who long with every fiber of their being for babies to come, I wait. I am reminded this week especially that not all waiting is good, that sometimes we wait for a grief that is more horrific than we can prepare for, and I am humbled by the weight of their incomprehensible waiting.


For those who wait in grief and those who wait in hope, I pray this season, as we wait together in all the active stillness of that holy word.



J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at Love Is What You Do.

I was born for Advent {guest post}

I've known Ramon Chaparro since high school, when he was the only Afro-Rican in the mega-churchy youth group we both attended, and for as long as I've known him, I've been impressed by his insights into the life of faith. He's been a faithful friend and encourager to me. I specifically asked him to share something for our advent series so that we could all be blessed by his words. Enjoy.

This time of year is always a little strange for me. I grew up in a pseudo-Christian sect (cult?) called the Worldwide Church of God that emphatically warned us against celebrating so-called Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, which we were told had irreversibly tainted pagan roots. In fact, I don’t really remember hearing stories about Jesus at all until I was a teenager. Throughout my childhood, both the Christian narrative and the commercial trappings of Christmas were mostly alien to me.  The Christmas season had the allure of the forbidden, but it was never very familiar.


As strange as Christmas has been to me, my relatively recent introduction to Advent is coming much more naturally. I still have not been initiated into rhythms of the liturgical calendar and had not heard of the Hanging of the Greens until attending my goddaughter’s dedication in Chicago last weekend. However, I feel a deep connection to the heart of the Advent season because I find I have an unexpected familiarity with the biblical narratives of exile and hope which Advent is attached.


In some ways, it is natural for me to identify with the longing of Israel for a Messiah, for the end of exile. My father’s parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in search of better economic opportunity, an opportunity afforded them by legislation which gave Puerto Ricans access to U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, to this day Puerto Rico is not free. Call it what you want – commonwealth, territory, colony. The plain fact is that though the people live in the land, the land does not belong to them. The island of Vieques, a popular tourist destination, was used as a naval bombing range throughout years of protest until it was finally shut down in 2003. Now, the U.S. Navy is balking on some of the cleanup efforts. The island has also suffered from the effects of a thriving drug trade which is said to have contributed to 70% of the 1,136 homicides in 2011 (an overall murder rate that is five times the U.S. national average). Increasingly, many of the pristine beaches are becoming accessible to tourists at the expense of locals, as resorts and expensive beach houses proliferate. During Advent, I am glad to hear talk about justice being born in the abandoned places of Empire, but I have not once heard Puerto Rico mentioned in that context. The remnants of my family that still live on the island know what it means to live in exile.

On the other side of the family tree, my mother is African-American, born and raised under the legacy of Jim Crow in Little Rock, Arkansas. On her second birthday, the Arkansas National Guard was deployed by the governor to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision for integration in Brown vs. The Board of Education (a defiance which was answered by the deployment of federal soldiers). 13 years later, my mother would briefly attend Central before finding the environment still inhospitable to black students and transferring.  
www.nps.gov

I know that she and my grandparents have numerous stories that they have never told me of what it was like to live in that place, in those times. Nonetheless, there is a palpable pain in their silence. There is also a lingering weariness from the long injustice of living as second-class citizens in their own home, a weariness that gave birth to tears for my grandparents when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States of America. They too know how it feels to live in exile.


As Amy mentioned in an earlier post, the music of Advent in the church is not familiar to me. I have instead found powerful expressions of the Advent narrative’s darkness before the light in the music of Nina Simone. Writing, singing, and performing throughout the Civil Rights Movement, she captures so well the raw emotions contained in the tension of despairing of hope in the face of oppression and violence, and yet longing for freedom with every fiber of one’s being. 




Three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Simone and her band performed a raw, newly written composition in his honor called, “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” at the Westbury Music Fair (it’s long, but please listen to it in its entirety). She sings:


He had seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop,
always living with the threat of death ahead.
Folks, you'd better stop and think because we're headed for the brink.
What will happen now that he is dead?

But, as is proper in any Advent song, her songs do not stop in the despair. My prayer for Advent - for the native lands of my family and the many others in the world suffering under oppression and violence – are the lyrics from Nina Simone’s performance of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”:

Oh I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say  ‘em loud, say ‘em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bonds that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
Then I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d sing ‘cause I know
And I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free

waiting in the dark {guest post}

Today I'm guest posting at There Is A River, where Christie has been writing every day through Advent just like I have (some of my favorites from her series are here and here.)

This is something straight from my heart, and I hope you'll click over and read the whole thing. It starts like this:

Advent is a season of darkness, of waiting for the light; but I’m warier of darkness than I used to be.

When I was a teenager, I revelled in darkness.  I don’t mean that I loved bad things.  I loved complicated things, facing the realities of our broken world,  anything that seemed deeper and truer than the sparkly cliches I found on tv and in commercial christian products.  My teens were when I read Thomas Hardy and Pascal and Kierkegaard, when intellectual doubts were hitting me for the first time, when I first traveled to a third world country and recognized the excess of my own lifestyle. I was in my teens when Dad took me to see Good Will Hunting - despite the language - because of the redemptive themes, and I too wanted to recognize truth like a troubled genius or a holy rebel. I needed a faith that was honest about darkness.

Becoming a mother was what changed me.


Read the rest here.

the daily heroics of love {guest post}


I happened to sit next to Christie Purifoy at the Festival of Faith and Writing last spring, only to discover that we had attended the same college (Texas A&M), studied in the same department (English), and been active at the same church (Grace), just a few years apart from each other.  I've enjoyed getting to know her more through her posts at There Is A River, and am so happy she's sharing this with us today.


I know that Advent should include repentance. In fact, repentance is supposed to be an integral part of any advent observance. The idea, I think, is that we must prepare ourselves to receive Christ.

I’ve mostly avoided thinking about it.

I far prefer to meditate on ideas like wonder or anticipation.

If I think much about sin at all it’s to imagine the sin out there. For instance, the dark injustice of human trafficking or the world orphan crisis.

I’d rather not confront the darkness in my own heart.

Until the parents of twenty first-graders walked into a nightmare.

The day of the shooting I sent my own first-grader to school in tears. I yelled, “What is wrong with you?”

It was day eight of his dad’s business trip. I’d been up since 5:30 with the baby. He’d misplaced his shoes, and it seemed likely he would miss the bus. He has misplaced his shoes every single week since school began in August. We’ve taken to charging him a dollar if we find them first.

None of that matters.

On Friday, I realized that it wasn’t important if my son continues to lose his shoes every day of every year for the rest of his life.

All day I cried and prayed, “Thank you, thank you for giving me another chance.”

I might not have had that chance.

We like to describe our love for our children as the most natural, instinctual thing. I’ve never quite understood that.

Love feels much harder to me. Yes, I would run into a burning building for my child. That actually seems quite easy. The hard part? Biting my tongue when I haven’t had enough sleep. Being patient even when they make the same mistakes again and again.

And the biggie? Laying aside my book, getting up off the couch, and slicing the apple they’ve asked for instead of making them wash it themselves and eat it whole. Because even I know that an apple sliced paper-thin tastes so much better.

There are too many mothers wishing they could slice one more apple. Wipe one more runny nose. Search high and low for lost shoes.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner.

I told myself the darkness in my own heart was not that big of a deal. I was wrong. The good news is that I don't have to wait for a burning building to give my children the very best of my love for them. I can do it now and every day. I can do it in a thousand little ways.

Because the grandest, most beautiful kind of love is revealed in the smallest, most insignificant forms.

Like a baby. A baby born on the ragged edge of an empire in a room smelling of animals.

No heroics. No burning building.

Just love.

Christie Purifoy is a Jesus-follower, a writer, a wife, and a mother to four. Raised in Texas, she earned a PhD in English Literature from the University of Chicago and now lives in an old farmhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania. Christie blogs regularly at There is a River  where she finds poetry in the ordinary pain and joy of daily life.

The source of love, she thinks, is mourning


Fra Filippo Lippi, Annunciation, 1445-50








The Annunciation
This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear. That as the pink-robed angel
bends before her pure with the power of lightness
she wants to turn away, she cannot look
into the angel’s graven face. Because the child
meant to form in her will change her.
Because all she has known will dissolve,
pulling back from her like water.
For there is so little softness in me,
she thinks, and my hands are simply empty,
my hands that don’t know how to fill.
I am no more than these shadows now
darkening the garden, no more
than these rigid, frightened hands.
She bows her head; her arms are crossed
against her brittle ribs. The lilies
should have closed by now, she thinks,
and still they have not closed.
Look how they breathe, such white hungers,
white mouths. And she, who must enter
the fear of her waiting, the door
of her waiting, no longer wants to see them
breathing, their smoothness like the angel’s
steady face. She would lie down on the stone floor
and curl up there without thinking.
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow; the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
That wordless loss by which we come to see
the opening of these lilies, this doorway
arching onto gardens, the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
Laurie Sheck

the candle of joy

Blowing out the candles after dinner, these three pause to sing and smile.

Incline Thine ear to our prayers, O Lord, we beseech Thee; and make bright the darkness of our minds by the grace of Thy visitation. Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

sufjan plays christmas songs, but my church doesn't

By the time the three-hour Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice finished last night, my desire for Christmas music had been more than sated. Sufjan, Rosie, and the band covered it all: holy hymns in hushed four-part harmony, spectacular costumed performances critiquing American culture and "christmas," and jolly sing-a-longs of tunes chosen by the "wheel! of! Christmas!" I wore my handmade "christmas unicorn" shirt and ate fish-n-chips beforehand and tried not to think about children being gunned down in kindgergarten classrooms, but when in encore Suf sang To Be Alone with You, and then John Wayne Gacy, Jr., what could I do?

But back to what I wanted to say, about Christmas music.  Did I tell you that last year, we didn't sing a single Christmas song at my church?  I didn't understand it, because for my whole church life, the first Sunday of Advent has been the first Sunday for Christmas carols, and sure, maybe we'd just start with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but each Sunday we'd add a few more, until Christmas Day and then All Christmas Music All the Time.

You probably already know this, but I didn't: that in Catholic and Episcopal church traditions, at least, there is a distinct difference between the music of Advent and the music of Christmas.  My episcopal church didn't play any Christmas music last year because it was playing the songs of Advent - I had just never heard them before, and didn't recognize them.

And, actually, recognizing this difference in music has helped me understand better how to celebrate the season of Advent.  I told you that in the past, I've always felt like observance of Advent meant achieving some deep meditative state contemplating the image of baby Jesus, and that it never worked for me.  Writing through this season of Advent, and listening to Advent music, is helping me understand that the joyful focus on baby Jesus is for Christmas, and that the focus of Advent is wholly different.

I like it, now, that my church doesn't play Christmas songs until Christmas day. I've long been infatuated with the idea of following the church calendar, but I think my infatuation is maturing into a deeper appreciation of its value, maybe especially as a way to disconnect our holy day from the materialistic, commercialized holiday season that reigns in America throughout December.  

Maybe next year I'll remember that the day after Thanksgiving isn't the day for "Joy to the World," just yet. Maybe I'll put up Advent decorations that weekend, but not Christmas decorations.  Maybe we'll celebrate St Nicholas and St Lucia, and wait to play Sufjan's Silver and Gold album until Christmas Day, and the twelve days of Christmas following. (There's a nice post along these lines at The Other Journal, if you want to click over and read it.)

Sufjan seemed utterly exhausted last night, really even before the show began. He admitted at one point that he hates Christmas.  Being the Christmas unicorn is exhausting, after all - chasing that mythical Christmas of your personal nostalgia, wearing a credit card on your wrist, attempting to be this thing which is pagan and magical and American and hysterical and Christian, all at once.  Maybe the long wait of Advent is part of the answer.


{PS: I have a little work-in-progress spotify list of Advent songs, calm and quiet for your Sunday rest. (If you're in a Reader/email, click through to see it.)}