Sarah Bessey

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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My Briar Patch of Cynicism

Photo credit: Creative Commons

Photo credit: Creative Commons

I can’t trace the exact path that led me into the briar patch, but I can certainly remember some of the stepping-stones. Weariness of a broken world, wounds inflicted by loved ones, and although my heart is always bent toward Jesus, I wanted  to distance myself from a group of people who had become more defined by hateful words than the acts of love and acceptance that should define the word “Christian”.

Photo cred: Ricardo Gutierrez

Photo cred: Ricardo Gutierrez

It was uncomfortable at first, trying to manuever my way through the thorny vines so as not to get stuck. The vines slowly became tangled branches and formed a dense thicket where I could hide. As the branches surrounded around me, I felt protected, safe from predators. And after a while, I began to see a

tragic beauty in my discontentment,

Photo credit: Luis Soares

Photo credit: Luis Soares

and although the dense vegetation blocked out the sun, it also provided shade. I found that it was easier to bed down and rest in the coolness than to try and claw my way out of the thicket. My hard began to harden without the warmth of the sun. My friends who tried to pull me out were sometimes injured by the barbs. Other friends were happy I was in the briar patch, because they were living there, too, and they were glad to have company. A few unfortunate friends were injured by just brushing by, as they got stung by the surrounding nettles – a sting that does not fade quickly. The briar patch became a lonely, cold, isolated place, and I longed for the sun on my face.

So now I am now trying to make my way out of the briar patch – 

I am lifting my head out of the shadows and into the sunlight. I am trying to blaze a trail out of the tangled vines, but the thorns are sharp, and I can assure you, I am not getting out unscathed.

image

 

One of the tools that is helping me to clear the path is an author named Sarah Bessey. She paints a beautiful word picture of playing the music of cynicism like practicing on a piano, and the struggle to learn a new song of  goodness and truth, gentleness and beauty, faithfulness and kindness.  She proclaims, “I won’t desecrate beauty with cynicism any more. I won’t confuse critical thinking with a critical spirit, and I will practice, painfully, over and over, patience and peace until my gentle answers turn away even my own wrath. We’ll practice the ways of Jesus over and over, until the scales fall from our eyes and our ears begin to hear.”  You can read her whole post here. (It is part of my new favorite book, Jesus Feminist, of which she is the author.)

photo credit: Michael Coghlan / Creative Commons

photo credit: Michael Coghlan / Creative Commons

So if you feel stuck in the briars of cynicism – if have been wounded, if you are disillusioned, if you have lost hope, you are not alone. But it’s time to break free – wash off your scrapes, bind your wounds, and cut yourself loose from the tangles. Step out of the dark thicket and into the sunshine. Share your story. Look for rays of hope – women who are telling their stories of love and change, people of faith who are working for social justice, wounded warriors who are ready to walk with you, and help you blaze a new trail.

It’s time, sisters and brothers, it’s time.