I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas music. And I’m definitely not a purist when it comes to when one is allowed to listen. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music all during the season of Advent. I’ve been known to even begin listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving (I just told my students recently it was because there were no good turkey songs). I can even tell that I am truly getting into the spirit of the season when I bust out the Carpenter’s Christmas album. For me it truly is the most wonderful time of the year…and yet for some. Well they struggle with this season more than any other. Often times issues of grief or family drama or financial stress become even more prevalent during holiday seasons. For some this season even becomes the least wonderful time of the year. In a season that is meant to be marked by joy, peace, love, and hope, some find themselves struggling to find these very things in the midst of all the other issues that become more transparent as the holidays take hold.
And on some level I think it all hinges on that last aspect of the Advent practice…hope. The season of Advent, for those who aren’t aware, begins this Sunday and marks the beginning of the church year. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it is both a celebration of the initial coming of Christ and an anticipation of His return. And yet, we so often struggle with finding hope in the midst of this season. Many find themselves placing their hopes in things like the economy, politicians, national defense, etc. and as they often discover; this is no place for hope. When it comes to Advent, our hope takes on an incredible shape. Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” – Isaiah 2:4 The Advent hope of Christ return almost seems too wonderful when we read it in the context of our current situation, but this is what true hope should look like.
In a world of shopping malls, black Friday sales, twitter feuds, international diplomatic escalation, racial unrest, cancer, and the like we struggle to take comfort in the story that Advent ushers in. Sometimes it is too much to find ourselves marveling at the story of a young Jewish mother giving birth to a son in the midst of a small town in Judea. Sometimes we struggle to find hope in the shepherd’s vision or the Magi’s quest or the angel’s songs. These stories are too wonderful and too far removed from our present situation for us to take hold of hope in the midst of a competing narrative. Perhaps what is needed is for us to look forward to the coming Advent that will take hold of the broken systems of this world and redeem them. The hope of Isaiah the prophet becomes realized in the words of John the apostle in that concluding hope of scripture. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:4 May we come to find ourselves caught up in THIS wonderful season and hopeful promise as we anticipate the Advent of Christ once again.
I enjoy riding my bike. When I say that I need you to understand this is a bicycle and not a motorcycle (evidently those terms can be synonymous). The tricky part about my bike riding habits was that for the most part this was an early morning activity. That being said, as it began to get darker earlier (roughly around late June) my riding started to be come a bit more difficult. In fact, roughly around mid-August I gave up my riding so that I wouldn’t injure myself or any number of early morning walkers around the UTPB trail. However, about a week ago I purchased a bike light and all of a sudden my world changed. Welcome back early morning bike rides.
I set out on Monday morning of this week around 5:30 AM for what was sure to be an amazing ride. And I thought that this would be about as easy as driving a car with headlights…boy was I in for a shock. Imagine driving a car with a single headlight that lights up about as much as the width of your car only. Sounds tricky, right? It took me quite a while to get used to this. I am sure it greatly improved others being able to see me, but I really had to focus on being able to see the things in front of me (especially when there were no street lights). In fact, any time I took my focus away from that point of light it made it that much more difficult to get adjusted again. I found though, as I was able to maintain my focus ahead I enjoyed the bike ride all the more and was free to ride once again in the early morning hours.
This past week for me has kind of been a bit like an early morning bike ride. In life, I think that for many of us, it is easy to get overwhelmed by our to-do lists. Whether it is job related, family related, ambition or future plan related, etc. life can be quite a lot to deal with at times. Even in ministry one can get overwhelmed by the to-do’s of running a church or para-church program. And I will let you in on a secret…pastors struggle with stress just as much as non-pastors do. But in the midst of the heaviness of this particular week I was reminded of my bike ride. As long as I was able to focus on that point of light, I was enjoying the ride. Sure there were other things about the ride to worry about, like hitting a rabbit or a pedestrian. But as long as I was focused on that light those other things became part of the background. I was reminded of the verse from Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The “all that” Jesus is referring to? The stuff of life. The to-do lists. The stuff that if we are not careful can rob us of our true focus; God’s Kingdom. So if you find yourself overwhelmed with the to-do’s of life today…stop. Take a breath and ask yourself, ‘Am I following after God’s Kingdom first?’ If you are, then I think you will start to see the other things fall into place behind your true focus.
It’s time for some honesty. Not that this blog hasn’t been about that since day one, but certain events in my life have brought me to a different place…a more raw place. I have always loved the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and I particularly loved the passage on worry. I even finding myself quoting the famous verse from Matthew 6:34 quite often, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” But recent events in my family’s situation have had me doubting whether or not it is quite so easy to live this out.
The preceding text in this passage seems easy enough for me and my family. We have never been too consumed by things and if you know me you know I am probably not too consumed by what I wear (with the exception of the occasional Converse purchase). Our eating needs have never been too particular either…after all, we are a youth ministry family. But recently it seems as if all of the events around us were spinning out of control. It seemed that almost every circumstance that came barreling down on us crippled us in a different fashion. Our family dynamic, shelter, health and even financial security were all threatened within a matter of two weeks and honestly…it was too much.
I’m not saying I lost faith or anything, but I also wasn’t in the best place. Loss of appetite, inability to sleep and troubled thinking were just a few of the symptoms that characterized my demeanor for the last week. And all the while the words of Christ to “not worry” kept coming back to me. How in the midst of physical impairment induced by anxiety am I supposed to “not worry”? To tell you the truth, I was at a loss. In and of myself I felt like I was drowning. But that’s when I came to a certain realization…I wasn’t alone. I had never been alone. Outside of the presence of the Holy Spirit, God has granted us each other as ambassadors of His peace. The words that we speak and the presence we impart to each other are sometimes the way in which God imparts himself to us more fully.
A passage that is often quoted out of context in order to present a household of inequality is Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” We often forget the verse that immediately precedes it, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The anxiety and worry that had been crippling me was also hurting those around me…and I knew it. The hard part for me was giving voice to my inadequacy and allowing myself to admit my shortcoming, even to my best friend: my wife. But through humbly admitting and giving voice to how the anxiety was affecting me, my bride was able to speak peace into my life where I saw none.
And maybe this is where healing comes…in confession, in submission. We are made after all in the image of our Maker who in and of Himself is characterized by humble community (a Triune God who chooses to suffer). Maybe as we live out lives of submission and confession to one another we find ourselves surrounded by God’s peace and free to live outside of the worries that characterize life absent of the presence of God. May you find yourself in need of community this week if only to understand the presence of God all the more.
Grace and Peace