Whether you turn to the right or to the left,

your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,

“This is the way; walk in it.”

Isaiah 30:21

With laughter in his eyes ...

"Advent begins in the dark and yearns for the light.

Advent aches for the day when we shall not learn war anymore.

Advent yearns for 'the last day, when Jesus Christ shall come in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.'

And when he comes, we shall sob.

Sob with relief at his return. 

Sob with humiliation and sadness at what we have done to one another.

But he shall not turn away to let us get ourselves together. 

He shall gather us up in his arms, with laughter in his eyes, and rise with us to life immortal. 

And our dark hearts will no longer be dark.

Our deepest desire will be to be ruled by him, who rules with grace.

We will love him because he has loved us.

We may long for his judgment and authority because he once visited us in great humility.

The darkness of your heart beckoned him, and he came for you."

(From Faith Once Delivered, by Paul N. Walker)

Unclench your fists ...

I get asked a lot about prayer.

What is it?

How do you do it?

How can I get better at it?

Is there a right way?

Can I take a class on it?

Isn't it interesting that something so seemingly simple as lifting up your thoughts, hopes, cares and concerns to the God who loves you is something we make so complicated?

I think our problem isn't that we don't know what prayer really is.

I think the deeper issue is perhaps that God doesn't do what we "ask" (tell?) God to do and so we want a  strategy. A true blue plan that works.

Well, there is no plan. There is no strategy, no magic, no program, no guarantee ...

I love how professor Wesley Hill defines prayer:

God is 'your Father,' and He already is disposed favorably toward you ... [So] go find a quiet place where you can relax ...

Unclench your fists.

Breathe deeply.

Let your heart rate decrease.

Know that you are already bathed in the Father's love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you're speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction. 

That's what prayer should be.

No class needed for that, friends.

Just a little time.

A little faith.

A little honesty with the  One who is already "cupping His ear in your direction."

Hunger is the best condiment ...

A bit more from the Advent essay I referenced in my last post ...

Author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren writes:

American culture insists that we run at breathless pace from sugar-laced celebration to celebration -- three months of Christmas to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Fourth of July, and on and on. We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun.

But life isn't a Disney Cruise.

The tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier. Many of us suffer 'holiday blues,' and I wonder whether this phenomenon is made worse by the incessant demand for cheer -- the collective lie that through enough work and positivity, we can perfect our lives and our world.

We need communal rhythms that make deliberate space for both grief and joy. For me, the old saying rings true: Hunger is the best condiment. Abstaining, for a moment, from the clamor of compulsive jollification, and instead leaning into the reality of human tragedy and of my own need and brokenness, allows my experience of glory at Christmastime to feel not only more emotionally sustainable but also more vivid, vital and cherished.

I love the phrase "tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration." I feel the weariness of that in my own life after too many big events, too many overflowing platters of rich food, too much loud, clangy music. Too many rounds of The Carol of the Bells, if you know what I mean.

What if we used the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to eke out a small bit of space to reflect?

To reflect on our own internal darkness and need ...

To reflect on the world around us and to work to see it as it really is - achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly broken ...

To reflect on the desperate need of humanity for Someone larger than ourselves to rescue us, to redeem us, to restore this whirling planet to its original intent ...

To reflect on our collective need for a Savior ...

If we can do this - find time to reflect - perhaps the Christmas story of a baby born in a stable on a cold winter's night might strike us as the exact kind of miracle we all need.

Pause and look ...

I read a fabulous essay this past weekend about the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day. (See essay here - https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html)

What struck me most was the author's gentle encouragement, before we break out into our quintessential American frenetic celebration, "first to pause and look, with complete honesty, at the darkness."

She writes:

To observe Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.

Too many of us see the four weeks before Christmas Day as merely an opportunity to buy gifts, decorate, attend parties and prepare for family gatherings. All good things.

But what if that is ALL we do?

What if - due to perceived time constraints - we simply feel we cannot slow down long enough to look around and face our reality?

Even more likely, what if we refuse to face the darkness - within and without - because it is frankly too painful to face? Because it makes us feel too much existential angst?

If we refuse to face the darkness, I believe, as does the author of this essay, that our celebration of what Christmas stands for, the event it celebrates, is dramatically diminished. There is a falsity to it. A fakeness. It becomes merely a shallow dip into overindulgent materialism and phony merriment.

There is much darkness all around ... hungry refugees, war, political antagonism, climate catastrophe, family estrangement, disease, denial, corruption.

There is much darkness within ... arrogance, selfishness, greed, lust, meanness, hoarding, a coarseness toward the poor, toward our neighbor, toward those we love.

I know it may seem morose to ponder these things. I get it.  Yet the invitation this challenging essay offers compels me to sit in my own darkness for a season and to ponder my powerless over it; to ponder my powerlessness over the darkness all around me.

I need to stare all the darkness squarely in the face.

Only then will my soul "exceedingly rejoice" when Christmas Day breaks afresh.

Jesus, the light of the world, the only light strong enough to defeat the darkness without and the darkness within ... Jesus is born.