Searching for Sacred

I Really Want to Love Advent

*Disclaimer: Writing about how sometimes I don’t love Advent does not mean that I don’t love Christmas. Just as writing about my longings for changing the church does not mean that I don’t love Jesus. Just as writing about how my marriage could improve does not mean that I don’t love my husband. Just as writing about my hopes and dreams for my children does not mean that I don’t love them. You get the idea.

I want to love Advent. Really I do. It is not something we practiced growing up. In fact, I had never heard of Advent until I was a young mother, and heard a talk about it at a MOMS group as a meaningful alternative to the commercialization and Santa-frenzy of the Christmas season. It sounded good. Taking time out of the chaos of the holiday season to focus your heart each week to prepare for the spiritual reason for the season – the coming of Christ.

Oh Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you as the day rises to meet the sun.

What is Advent?

It is part of the liturgical church calendar, beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this usually falls the Sunday after Thanksgiving). The season focuses on the expectation and the anticipation of the coming of Jesus. Often there are four candles placed around an Advent wreath, with one candle being lit each week on Sunday, representing hope, love, joy, and peace. There is sometimes a candle placed in the center to represent Christ, and that is lit on Christmas Day. As each candle is lit, there are readings, hymns or songs, and scriptures for each week, often meant to be read together as a family.There are variations of the practice of advent, but those are the basics.

It sounds lovely, and it can be. There are times that I really appreciated being reminded to push pause and reflect. I particularly loved getting up early Christmas morning and lighting the center candle and just spending some quiet time praying and reflecting before everyone else got up and the busy day began.

But honestly, it often felt like one more thing to do during the Christmas season. And three little boys weren’t particularly keen to sit quietly and participate in readings (unless it was their turn to light the candle). Most of the time I was unprepared when that first Sunday of Advent rolled around, because not only did it mean putting away my fall decorations, it meant finding and putting out my Christmas decorations, or at least my Advent wreath. To add to this pressure, two of my boys have birthdays the first week of December, so we often put off decorating for Christmas until after we celebrated their birthdays. And when I finally got my act together and had everything set up, it often felt like a forced ritual, rather than a meaningful time of reflection. And if I’m truly honest, it was sometimes a source of pride and self-righteousness that I was practicing Advent and down-playing Santa. Yes, that is the ugly truth of it.

O come, O come, Emmanuel : and ransom captive Israel

So as I’ve started my search for the sacred, I am trying to look at Advent with new eyes. And evenso, I was not ready for the first Sunday of Advent. We moved across the country this summer, and I had to find my Christmas boxes among the piles of boxes up on the third floor. (And also, the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead was on). Ummmm. Yeah, so there it is.

But by the first of the week I had found my advent wreath and bought my candles and started reading each day. In my journey to discover the meaningfulness behind the church calendar, I have been reading Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and I am trying to rid my life of some of the distractions so that I can learn to focus on what is important.

Praise to you who lift up the poor : and fill the hungry with good things.

Which is truly difficult for me – I am strongly ADD and my life is centered around distractions. I thrive on them. So this learning to be still and focus and remove distractions and have discipline is scary, uncomfortable, and very, very difficult at times. It does not come easily for me, but I am slowly learning.

There are many readings that go along with Advent – some are quite formal, others a little more laid back. If you have never practiced Advent, or like me, sometimes just went through the motions, I encourage you to look at Advent with fresh eyes and an open heart. There is something truly sacred about pausing and reflecting, not as a duty, but out of a sense of wonder. This year, along with the readings from Common Prayer, I am following Sarah Bessey’s writings for Advent. I love her writing  because she speaks hard truths with a sweetness and gentleness that draws me in. So if you’re a late starter, like me, you can begin here:

Week One:  Hope

Week Two: Peace

You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face” : your face, Lord, will I seek.

Lord, help me to learn to turn from the many distractions that, although they may be good, serve to distract me from the best. 

Lord, help me learn to be still and quiet, so that I can hear your voice. 

Lord, give me open eyes to see truth, and a mouth that can speak truth in love as well as hold its tongue for the sake of grace and peace.

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Google Search: Hipster Church, Louisville, College Kids

I can’t pinpoint the day when church made me want to run screaming, but it did. For many years. There are reasons that I won’t elaborate on, but it has to do growing up in a performance-based church with a legalistic upbringing and little experience of God’s grace, as well as some deep church wounds that were difficult to heal.

And even though for a time I couldn’t walk into a church, or stand to listen to people talk ‘Christianese’ at me, or sometimes even listen to others pray,

I still longed for community, I longed to be a part of the body of Christ that loved one another.

I just didn’t see a lot of it. And I became very cynical, so that even the genuine and grace-filled people in my life became tainted in my mind with the pain from my church wounds. My faith, at least in terms of ‘organized religion’, had been deconstructed. I wanted no part of any of it. And I know that countless others feel that way, too. I hear others talk about it all the time. Believers are disillusioned, and non-believers feel that their judgements of believers are confirmed as they see some of them behave in ways that are anything but loving. (A post I wrote a year ago, “Why Church Breaks My Heart“, was my most popular blog post to date.)

But my heart still clung to Jesus, even though my face was turned from his people.

I was (and still am) so disgusted by the beliefs and actions of many who claim to love Jesus. But I slowly learned that the church is messy, and that it’s just not going to always be beautiful messy as I had hoped. Sometimes it is even ugly messy. And what was I going to do about that? Stay away forever, or jump in and get my hands dirty?

To be honest, I still don’t know that answer to that question. But my wounds are healing to the point that I can talk about my God once again. I can listen to people pray without cringing. I can listen to people talk about their faith without judging them and doubting their sincerity.

It was quite the ugly place to be.

I feel like I can once again have hope for God’s people, for his Church. I have found other people of faith who are open and exploring social justice issues and are trying to  truly discern what it means to Love One Another as opposed to just towing a certain political line. We don’t always agree, but we can agree to disagree and listen to each other. And once again I can believe that Love Wins.

We had found a church in Portland, Or that we thought would be our church home – they were involved in helping the homeless, improving race relations, serving refugees.

And then we moved from the Pacific NW to Louisville, Kentucky –

the middle of the Bible belt, the heart of Southern Baptists, which sometimes represents the very type of ‘Christian’ that I had been trying to distance myself from. How could we ever find a church home? Did we even want to? We weren’t even sure that we were going to stay in Louisville, so was it even worth trying to find a place?

I talked to people about their churches, at work and in my neighborhood. We live in Clifton, a close-knit neighborhood, and I really hoped to find a church close to home. Like within walking distance. We tried a few, but they didn’t seem like a good fit. I attended a book study with women from a local mega-church, which was okay for a small group, but I really wanted to steer away from the mega-church mentality. I started googling the terms that were important to me: missional, social justice, homeless ministry, addiction support. One thing I was also hoping for was a church that was integrated – not just a bunch of white people. This is a very diverse city, but the churches we had attended were not diverse.

It is fortunate that most churches now have their services online, so you can ‘try out’ a church by listening to their podcast before attending. That won’t tell you everything, but it’s a start. My husband and I really have a heart for college kids, and I liked the Portland church’s vibe, so I googled

“Hipster church, Louisville, college kids”

Yes, seriously.

I scrolled past the extra-large churches and came up with a couple of names. (Honestly, I’m not sure how I found the names, because if I google it again, I don’t come up with the same results). I listened to their sermons, and one of the pastors, Matt Ness, did not make me want to run screaming. So we decided to try that church.

The Avenue Church started about five years ago as a ministry to University of Louisville students. They hold services in space in the middle of an office building/small business center. We walked into the small room with less than 100 people, where we saw a stage with a background of pallets, blue lights, and a pole in the center of the room. I was intimidated at the small size of the group, and I might have left, but Craig said “Let’s stay”. During the welcome time (and can I just say – WHY do churches still do that? but I digress) the pastor introduced himself and told us a little about the church. They recently decided to merge with the church that meets in the same space directly after them – a church called The Soul Center. This church is predominantly black, and the two pastors and congregations had decided to combine the two and become an integrated faith community.

How cool is that?

The two churches are forming a new church together, which will be called One Church. And it is just in the beginning stages – the first official combined service was to be in a few weeks (which will be this coming Sunday, December 6). AND they are involved in helping the community. They support an organization called the Family Scholar House, which helps single parents attending college. The Family Scholar House states their mission is “to end the cycle of poverty and transform our community by empowering families and youth to succeed in education and achieve life-long self-sufficiency”. AND they are involved in an organization called Eyes That See, which works with women in Ethiopia who desire to leave the sex industry.

From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of college kids and families. Not a lot of us ‘mature’ couples (yikes) but maybe we can offer something to this newly formed church. For the first time in a long while, I am excited about attending a church, being part of a church body, and finding a church community.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes . . .

 

Reining in My Wild Heart

You know that feeling – like change is coming, but you don’t know what it is?

It’s like a humid summer day, and you see the gray and green storm clouds billowing on the horizon. You know a thunderstorm is coming. You can feel the electricity in the air, you can sense the barometer change. Part of you dreads the storm, but you love the thunder and lightning. It’s beautiful and exciting. You know it will bring relief from the humidity, but you hope it doesn’t turn into a severe storm, or worse – a tornado. And my heart is the tornado – wild and unpredictable.

peter_and_harrison_ellenshaw_a_very_blustery_day__97423__19383-1312387649-1280-1280That is how I’ve been feeling this past month. What started as “Tut-tut, looks like rain” is shaping up to be a blustery day, in the words of Winnie the Pooh.

And the difficult part is that my life has been in flux for over a year. First being open to the idea of change (for us, it was moving across the country), then waiting to see if the change would happen (the interview process), then the actual move, only to find out that more change might be coming (another interview process and more waiting).

But this change on the horizon, this beautiful and terrifying storm that is coming is in my heart. Before I attended the Storyline Conference (a conference where you create a life plan so that you can live a better story), I could sense a change in the barometer, I could feel the electricity in the air. Storyline served as a weather report. A confirmation that yes, a storm is coming. A storm that will shake my core and water the seeds that have been planted.

A storm that might even stir my life and heart like a wild tornado.

Regardless of what is happening in my life – where I am living, where I am working, how I am feeling emotionally – there are things I am needing to do. Things I NEED to do, to weather the storm. To water the seeds that have been planted so that they can grow and be harvested.

This morning I was reading Shauna Niequist’s devotional “Savor“, and she talked about having a theme for each season. My theme for this season is ‘work’. Ugh, I know. That sounds so boring, and, well, like work. But hear me out.

There is work I need to do to plant and nourish the seeds that need to grow in my life and in my heart.

To be honest, I have spent much of my life avoiding the hard work of my heart.

Yes, I am great with the passion – the big, emotional, explosive, exciting types of work. But I am weak in praxis – the daily practice and structure that provides a foundation for seeds to grow, and be nourished, and produce good fruit. In some ways, I feel like

I am being called to the mundane in order to build a foundation for the extraordinary.daisy-712892_1920

I am not sure what this will look like, but it’s becoming more clear each day. I believe it is going to involved these things: As you read this, if you know me, you may think,”Oh my gosh, she has gone off the deep edge!” I tend to agree. I have gone off the deep edge, but I think it’s something that has been needed for a long time

to rein in this wild heart.

  • Creating a spiritual framework to provide structure for growth – I want to learn about the church liturgical calendar, and start keeping a daily office. For those of you from the evangelical persuasion, this basically means having a daily quiet time and learning about times of the year like Advent and Lent, and how that can shape one’s spiritual discipline.
  • Starting and ending each day with mindful breathing and meditation on God’s word, to focus myself each day, and to manage anxiety and distractions. (This also means NOT starting and ending my day on my phone or computer, which has become a habit for me.)
  • Writing each day, first thing in the morning, while my mind is clear. Putting on instrumental music with no words, finding a peaceful and comfortable place, clear of distractions, and practicing the craft of writing every single day.
  • Searching for spiritual direction and mentorship: I am looking to learn from those who are further down the road than I am. I am considering a silence retreat at a monastery close by (I know, you are thinking NOW SHE HAS REALLY LOST IT. I agree, I can’t even be quiet during yoga class.) I am also looking at working with a spiritual director. To be honest, I heard this idea and it spoke to me, but I am not even sure exactly what that means. I am still doing research on what is a spiritual director and how does one find such a person? Maybe I will build a prayer labyrinth in my back yard. Send for the white coats now. 
  • Closing in my circle – focusing on the 12 or so most meaningful and significant relationships in my life, building deep connections with those in my closest circle, those who will gather around my death-bed (I’m not anticipating that this will happen anytime soon, but those relationships take time and great care).
  • Limiting my time on social media. Yes, I know that is how we all connect during these times, and I know that it can be a good thing. But I also know myself, and the difficulty I have with balance. So I am still contemplating what that will look like.

 

I am going to spend the next few weeks praying, writing, meditating, getting wise counsel. I am anticipating a start to a new season in my life, and I had thought January 1 would be an opportune time, but then I read that the church calendar begins at Advent, which this year is November 30. So I have some contemplating to do in the next few weeks. And for the first time in a long time, I am excited to do the hard work, to build the foundation, to plant the seeds that bring change.

To embrace the mundane in order to build the foundation for extraordinary.

To rein in this wild heart, so that I can love extravagantly and purposefully.

And as much as I’d like to edit the hell out of this essay, I just need to push publish and move on.