thoughts on advent. 2016

I’ve put this annual reflection off, and now it’s Jan 1, 2017. I haven’t wanted to write it because I don’t like to do things for the sake of doing them. I don’t like saying rote things that could be counted as trite, like I haven’t thought about it. Especially to those who are going through pain. I’ve been the recipient of that, and it sucks.

And I’m weary. A lot of people have said that. They have said they are excited to get rid of 2016. But even that makes me weary. I don’t have a lot of hope for 2017.

There’s been quite a few I know who have just been through it. Like you wouldn’t believe. Family members sick, broken relationships, internal turmoil, death … And others  who have been waiting – waiting for jobs, for a change, for health…

And I work for an int’l development agency, and we’re inundated with news of Syria and millions of refugees fleeing. We hear of children trying to cross the border into Texas because of the violence in Central America. And our country is incredibly divided, not to mention our own families at times. And it’s exhausting.

So I want to be careful about saying just words.

As I began this advent, I thought – I’d like to reflect on PEACE. We need peace in us, in our world, all that…isn’t the Christmas story full of peace?

But then I couldn’t find it. Do you know how many times ‘peace’ is mentioned in the Christmas story? Once.

You can’t force a meditation. And truth be told, there wasn’t much peace. Israel was occupied, under another regime.  There’s a lot of waiting. And in that waiting, so much anxiety. So much fear and doubt.

And when I read the part about Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. It hit home. How tired they must have been. Finally getting there and hearing, ‘no room’. Mary had to have thought (well I personally would have thought) ‘of course, this is just about how I’d expect everything to go based on this year…”

How exhausting it must have been for Mary, both physically and mentally. Was she full of doubts? Doubts that others had certainly placed in her. Fears she herself couldn’t help but have.

And when they did arrive to where they expected to: “No room”, landing in a stable, placing this baby – whom they had been told is the Messiah – in a feeding trough, Joseph must have felt incredibly inadequate as a husband and a father at this moment.

I’m sure the shepherds couldn’t have come at a better time, bursting in shouting ‘where’s the Messiah we’ve heard about?”.

I see both waiting (Simeon, Anna, Israel) and journeys taken (Mary, Joseph, the wise men) in the Christmas story. But the process is the same. The emotions are the same. The inner turmoil and questions still exist whether you are stagnant or wandering.

Were the wise men disappointed to find a baby in the end? How many times did Simeon and Anna ask God, “How long, Oh Lord? How much longer?”

And then Mary and Joseph again having to get up and flee for their child’s life – really holding the destiny of mankind in their hands – leaving a weeping town behind them… because of them.

So often, I tend to get into myself, and my path feels tired, full of doubt, unrelatable. And just when I think I’ve arrived where I wanted to go, it wasn’t what I expected or it’s even scarier than I imagine.
Or I never move.
At all.
And everyone else does.
It can feel incredibly lonely sometimes. And very far from peaceful. And the people I thought I could trust – well, they disappointed me.

So what’s left? What small piece can I take with me as I enter into a new year?

I’d like to be like those shepherds. I’d like to be able and willing to show up in the right moment because I took the opportunity – without hesitation, confirming to a fellow wanderer that they are on the right path. So much of the violence, pain and hatred of 2016 may not have been directed specifically at me or happened to me, but if I can come around and just be some one who says, “I’m here with you”; then I want to be that person.

I’d like to continue on waiting (or moving) despite my fears and doubts. So I have to ask, how could all these people do that? How does anyone? Really there has to be a very deep motivation for either one – greater than all our unmet expectations, disappointments and feelings of inadequacies and loneliness.

The wise men, Shepherds, Joseph, Mary – all had a deep pull, that only a very deep calling could keep them going.  Something – that in the midst of the oppression, fears, doubts, weariness, murderous threats, fleeing, loneliness, trouble – something greater gave them a reason to continue. And continue in what may have seemed to some a bold or scary choice. I want this courage and this passion. This I want to remember and hold on to.

Theirs was a deep hope in the belief that Mary carried the Savior of the world, and that he was called the Prince of Peace.
There. Peace.
Let me again repeat this line from that old Christmas carol: “the hope and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight …”

Advent 2015: interruptions and fear

Over the last month, what has stood out to me as I meditate on the Christmas story is perhaps a reflection of what this year has been like both globally and personally: the prolific amount of interruptions in the lives of the people in the Christmas story.

I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Can you imagine the complete change in Elizabeth and Mary’s plans – on both ends of their lives? But they welcomed the (unusual) interruption with a willingness and an anticipation that I doubt I could have.

Then there’s the innkeeper. All the inns in Bethlehem were full (a good problem for them of course), and he could easily turn away this interruption as others had done (that most likely wouldn’t benefit him). But he didn’t, and we remember him as the man who didn’t turn away the Messiah.

Then the shepherds, living their regular daily lives, watching their sheep. Probably frightened out of their wits when an unbelievable amount of angels filled the skies. Sounds story-book really. Still, after the sky emptied, they went to the manger and found Jesus there – just as the angel had said. And from then on: lives interrupted, never to be the same. But they ran to welcome this Messiah everyone had been waiting hundreds of years for.

True, this was about a good interruption, for a hope that brought joy and peace. But it still meant the unknown, a change not planned for, fear, possible rejection, a pause for an indefinite amount of time or a completely new direction. For the wise men, they packed up everything in search of something they weren’t even sure of.

And the list goes on: Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph again on their way to Egypt, Herod. oh. wait. Herod. This guy… like them, he was also interrupted and also afraid. And out of his fear, insecurity, jealousy, he reacted in the opposite extreme.

But here’s the crux – where it hits home, because sometimes I’m more like Herod than Mary. No, I’m not killing toddlers, but I have often responded to fear with fear. And that isn’t a solution. It only creates more fear in us and others.

Honestly, most of the interruptions in our lives aren’t the good kind. Most of them don’t promise good news, hope and joy. Most of them do bring fear, the unknown, possible rejection.

When I read the Advent story, I’m also comforted by the amount of times Gabriel has to tell everyone “Don’t be afraid”. Because Mary was. Zechariah was. Joseph was. The Shepherds were. Who wouldn’t be? Who isn’t when it’s the unknown, the unpredictable, the unplanned?

These are the words I cling to in my life. And the fact that they were afraid – even in the face of good news. Like it’s okay.

The thing is -we’re going to be interrupted. By outsiders – like Mary and Joseph did to the innkeeper. Or personally, like Joseph who found himself marrying a pregnant girl (not with his child).

And being afraid is natural.

Maybe that’s why the words of “o little town of Bethlehem” have really caught me this year:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”

We’re not alone. I believe there is One who meets our fears, takes our fears, and in the end, changes it to hope. And if you don’t believe in the Christmas story, the essence is still true – we’re not alone and we are – in the end – part of what the Christmas story is also about: hope. Our response to our fears is so key.

It’s finding the willpower, the fight to respond to that fear with “let it be” (Mary), or respond with the right thing to do even though others around you may whisper against you (Joseph), or it inconveniences you (the innkeeper), or you don’t understand it (Zachariah)… Or maybe you make the choice to hurt others (Herod).

I know it’s not profound. I know that this can sound over-simplified. I know I haven’t faced the situations that others have, but I hope that I will not add to their pain by reacting wrongly out of my own. I can only hope (and I know not always, not always will it work out so easily) that I can bring hope for others.

I pray less now

I’d like to admit something. I got tired of praying. My prayers? They annoyed me.
If you didn’t grow up in the church or are part of a contemporary one now, you may not get what I mean (or totally get what I mean!).

I found myself saying the cliche “I’ll pray for you” and cringing. It became a habit, like a catch phrase for when we have nothing else to say. You know that kind of silence when you’ve heard from your friend about how her dad has cancer or that she just found out she’s lost her job. And it’s a pause. And she’s sniffling. And it’s like a reflexive reaction in your throat to fill any space.. .Nothing..to…say…what … do… aaahh-“I’ll pray for you!”

Or it’s one of those moments when you just want to close the conversation. You’ve heard your friend go on about the issues at home and it’s really just a punctuation compunction flung out… “Hey friend, I-gotta-go, but-I’ll-be-praying-for ya’.”

Yeah…

I honestly believe that words have power. (If you don’t believe me, ask me about the story of how I prayed my brother-in-law into existence…). And I want to mean it when I tell some one that I’ll pray for them and not use it flippantly. And I want to be aware of what I’m praying for like who says “traveling mercies” in real life these days? And why are we asking God to “bless our conversations”?  Like we’re hoping no one will be offended by the mean things we are about to say.

So for awhile, I quit. I quit volunteering to pray before meetings. I quit praying before meals (Was I actually thankful for my meal as I shoved it in my mouth watching Jeopardy?).

And I have to go back to what my grandpa said a long time ago that prayer is about getting to know Christ. It’s a conversation. Not a list, not an aside or a wish or a quick dashed off text “what’s up?”. Not just bubbles that roll off my tongue and float away, empty and unsubstantial.

I know it’s simple. You’d think I’d get it by now. But it’s something I have to remind myself constantly. I have to actually be intentional about. Kind of like how I would want my friends to be with me. How I’d like to be with my friends.

So. I’m trying to pray more honestly now. And I admit, I pray less because of it. Sometimes I don’t pray at all because sometimes I have no clue what to say.

But I don’t want it to speak Christianese. I want to ask myself, ‘do I really mean this?’ “Do I really know what this means?”  “Am I honest in this prayer?”

Telling friends “I’m praying for you.” Well, I don’t mind saying those words, but today I check myself and ask myself, “am I really going to pray for them?”

Sometimes I just say nothing at all but sit with them in silence.

35 and grateful

I just celebrated my 35th birthday.

Recently I had a friend say to me “I hope you are truly happy”. At first I felt defensive, like “Of COURSE I’m happy – what? Do I not seem happy?” You know … how we do. Step back.

She probably didn’t mean anything by it, but it did make me stop and ask myself.

Am I truly happy? And what does that even mean? And is that something that I should be striving for?

On the one side, I work for a relief and development organization. What if I say ‘no, I’m not happy’? Where on my spectrum of “happiness” would that then place the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram or those in Nepal who have lost their homes and family members in the earthquake?

I feel embarrassed to claim unhappiness in the light of them.

But – am I lower on the spectrum than my friend who asked me? Which made me wonder – does my life seem like an ‘unhappy’ one to her?

Their expectations
She seems very happy and often, I think, our happiness becomes relative to others’ expectations for us.

What does her life look like? She is married with a son and another child on the way. She lives by her family, in her home state in the town she grew up in. I think she would say she is happy. She is honestly living her dream. And I’m glad she is!

But she is not living my dream.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about this and has a mantra she says: “Not my dream”. I do not want to live in a small town next to my parents and be a stay at home mom with two kids. I’m not saying anything is wrong with that, but I think that personally I would be unhappy.

So – at this new age of 35 – what does make me happy? Am I living my dream? Is this current dream bringing happiness?

My expectations…
Really, I think when I’m unhappiest is when I tell myself my life didn’t turn out like I expected.

To be honest,  I expected to be in a different place, different stage, different weight!, different experiences (there are some I wouldn’t wish on others).

I can guarantee that’s where my unhappiness most often comes in.

I don’t like the word ‘happy’ though. It’s too transient. It’s emotional. It’s too simple for our lives at this age, honestly. So when I stop and look around me, I wouldn’t trade where I am or what I’ve experienced for what I expected my life to look like.

I’d like to use the word ‘grateful’ – which really stems from contentment. I used to never be content. The grass was always greener where I was before. Or I’d be looking for another place to go – never really present.

But somehow – in Baltimore, the most unlikely place I expected – for the first time in a very long time, I’m content. This is strange to me. I’m not used to that feeling. In fact, it’s unsettling. I wonder if I am actually complacent or apathetic. Don’t I need to be looking to the next thing?

That can become a terrible habit, so this time around, I’m choosing to stay present. I’m enjoying my current job, my current apartment, my current friends, this current city, this current day.  All in all – it feels odd to be good with where I’m at. Is this an age thing or finally learning the ability to live in the present?

Am I happy all the time? No. I have hard days, frustrating days, discouraging interactions, hopeless feelings, sickness, grief, pain, annoyances. But what I value, I do have. And I don’t know why I get to have them.

I have good friends, a strong support system, a family who loves me (and I love them back), a roof over my head, a job where I like my boss and the people we work with. I even have a gym at my work that I can visit at lunch (okay, that makes me happy).

But it’s not my goal. It’s not even in the Bible (if you want to get spiritual). I’ve never read anything that says “Blessed are the happy”. It’s blessed are the merciful, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (or ‘justice’). (Those who have it hard? That’s another post )

So – my takeaway to this musing …

First, I should let other people live their dream. I should let them not be bogged down by my expectations of what a ‘good life’ is.

Second, am I ‘truly happy’? Nah. Life is a little too complicated by now. But I’m content.

And I don’t regret any experiences I’ve had or the unexpectedness of my life. It’s made me who I am.

Third, all that helps me be okay on those hard, frustrating days. It helps me not give up. It helps me help others.

It helps me be grateful. I have so much to be grateful for.

I think Anne Morrow Lindberg sums it up when she says:

“Don’t wish me happiness
I don’t expect to be happy all the time…
It’s gotten beyond that somehow.
Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor.
I will need them all.”

I will need them all.

Thoughts on Advent 2014

As most of you know – I try to reflect on one very small part of the Christmas story each year – to keep it fresh and personal.
Honestly, this didn’t feel like a super productive year: no big changes or crazy trips. And maybe that’s okay 🙂 – It has felt like a year of Being – of digging in, rooting down – in friends, in faith, in self-awareness, in an ever-growing dissatisfaction with easy answers and a striving to be comfortable with complexities.
As is usually the case, I don’t seem to choose the direction Advent takes me. This Christmas (again), the name “Immanuel” kept coming up – this idea of the longing of of a Holy God to be present with us – a poor struggling human race. And this year, the name took on a deeper meaning for me.Part of my self-learning has not been pretty. I’ve realised that I hate being weak. I hate being vulnerable. I would rather be the one comforting some one else. I don’t like needing help. I don’t like pity and I feel uncomfortable with sympathy.
But I’ve slowly come to value true empathy. What a gift understanding is. What a comfort a simple act of presence is. What an odd relief to hear “I’ve hurt too”. And what beauty can happen when you yourself open up to others.
I can’t help but think that the Christmas ‘story’ really is the ultimate act of empathy. The incarnation is even deeper than “Immanuel – God with us”, but it is “God was us.”
“He knows our need” “To our weakness, is no stranger”. He truly knows our struggles. Not just because he is God. But because He became man.Perna Chodron, a Buddhist nun, wrote “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”This is so beautiful – and yet I didn’t truly appreciate it until I read it from the perspective of the receiver. Compassion means so much more when it comes not from some one reaching down – deigning to give but when it comes from some one reaching across out of his or her own pain and struggles.
 I’m still trying to comprehend it. God. as a baby. Every year, it becomes more and more miraculous to me – and every year it becomes more and more precious.
The Creator wraps Himself in mud and sin and pain and weakness – to reach out to us so we could be part of His light and love and grace.
For many people I know, this year hasn’t been the easiest. And I can’t even begin to comprehend what happened in Pakistan last week or what has been going on in Syria for years.
But the story of Christmas came also at a time of oppression, conflict, murder, loneliness, silence, poverty…
It’s why Jesus came to earth. To know us. To save us – in the deepest most empathetic way possible – He “made Himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
I’m not Catholic, but I have to quote Pope Francis on this:
“God’s becoming man is a great mystery! But the reason for all this is his love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us.”Understanding and empathy gives us just a little hope that it’s possible to go on out of our own darkness, our own struggles – some one has been there before. Sometimes that’s all we need in order to see just a little bit.  We can make it one more day. Some one understands. Someone is here. There is a light in our darkness. There is hope.
That’s what we celebrate in December.And the thing is – is that when it comes to experiencing this, I find that this love, this hope is revealed in us and to us through others – through each other. I’ve seen this Immanuel “God with us” sense through people – those who for that moment put aside their own lives in order to better enter mine.
Just as Jesus entered our world, we enter in to the midst of each other’s pain (AND joy!). What I can do now for those around me is to be with, a presence, some one who becomes part of their present. With this gift of understanding, of grace, the “I’ve been there” – well, it becomes bearable. That’s what so many have done for me.
So this year – my reflection is less a lesson or platitude, but it’s really a song of gratitude. I can’t help but be grateful for so many who have sat with me. Given me hope. For those who I have gotten to sit with – allowed me to enter in to their vulnerability and weakness. That in itself is a gift.  I’m grateful for my friends and family and even strangers who have been “with me” and I with them. For a God – who somehow became a baby just like me, because of a love for a broken world.
Whether I just met you this year or I haven’t seen you in forever (and really whether we have the same beliefs or not), you have in so many wonderful ways revealed that Christ child and His presence and hope to me.
A heartfelt thank you.
Merry Christmas to all of you!