Friday, December 25, 2015
A silver sycamore stands sentinel,
Watches while my soul drips sore
With grief unwonted, unlooked for;
Ache unmended upended my core
This night, all things but one went well...
The Eve had melted to Holy Day,
When I stood for the last time
This visit, the candlelight sublime
Still burned bright on eye's mind,
As I blinked hard, keeping tears at bay...
Two short years ago I was not alone
This night—I walked down the aisle,
By my side a tiny woman with a smile,
Proud to have her family here a while
Nodded to all around—now she is gone...
Gone from slippery wooden pew,
From the lips and the minds of men,
Who are so quick to carry on again—
But a grandchild starts weeping when
Memories come in waves not a few...
Perhaps Christmas Eve must start
With this wretched, Fall-tainted scar
To remind me of that blazing star
Leading the lowly and wise from afar
To seek the Healer of each man's heart.
Friday, December 18, 2015
Somehow it is December, week three. Does it ever seem like you are waiting for it to feel like Christmas? Do you feel wrapped up in work or events or gift-buying, rather than reflective stillness? Do you go through the motions, sing the songs, yet feel far away from the Christ-child? Are you expecting your favourite Christmas records, films, or traditions to make things feel normal or happy?
Traditions—be they family originals or many-centuries long—sometimes lose the breath of life. Liturgy becomes legalism when the Spirit's spark is extinguished and sanctification depends on human effort. So it is with Christmas. The very celebration of Jesus coming near makes Him seem far away. The very events and customs that result from the gladness of Christ's arrival are hollow on their own. Sometimes we must lay aside every tradition and expectation. We must come to Jesus alone.
Expectations kill. If human relationships have taught me anything this last year, it is this. Expectations kill enjoyment when things don't go as planned, even though they go well. Expectations kill relationships when they go unspoken, and so unmet. Expectations rob us of the delight of unexpected gifts. Expectations set us up for disappointment—even in excellent things—when they are not fulfilled.
So, if you were expecting it to feel like Christmas this third week of December and it doesn't, stop. Stop expecting Christmas to feel a certain way. Stop playing that Bing Crosby record hoping to make yourself feel in the mood for Christmas. Stop stressing about gifts you haven't purchased, the packing you have yet to do, the mound of work waiting on your desk before Christmas break. Stop.
Stop, because it is still Advent, the season of waiting. Stop and breathe. Exhale thanks, inhale joy. This third week of Advent churches and families around the world light the joy candle. Joy. In this season of stress and rushing when do we have time for joy? In this world of uncertainties, arguments, abandonment, and terror that pushes people from their homeland, where is joy? In this bleak blackness of night's final watch, it is colder and darker than ever.
The first week of Advent, sunset hour, we may have had the hope associated with those first seven days. There was still a rosy glow on the Western horizon. We may have had refreshing moments of the peace of week two, like nightly repose. But week three is that fitful, wakeful hour when all is darkness, no streak of dawn appears to relieve us. And this—this is when we are supposed to have joy? Yes, joy in the dark. Joy is not happiness or painting a smile over sorrow. Joy, chara, rests itself in the middle of thanksgiving, eucharisteo. In the bleakness we give thanks. In the blackness we take joy that the waiting is not endless.
When we lay aside our expectations, we begin to see the gifts God wants to give. Israel wanted a warrior-king. God gave them a baby. Even when the babe grew into a man, He was not a rebel, though He was revolutionary. He was fierce and gentle. He was just and meek. And He was killed, not freeing Israel from their oppression one bit. What kind of “gift” was that?
If the Jews had had eyes to see, had laid their expectations on the altar, they would have found that their freedom did not need to be external. They needed internal freedom from a law that had become legalism. They needed hearts of flesh in place of stone. When God became man, He set before every human being the gift of freedom from the curse. This gift was world-wide and history-long—much bigger than the Jews had ever dreamed.
We, too, find our unmet expectations so exceeded by God's gifts that we often fail to recognise that they are gifts. How can we see something vast with eyes so small? We must learn to see. That is what we learn in this third week of Advent, we learn to see joy lurking—leaping—in and out of corners of our lives.
We learn to see both the small and the obvious good things—and our response is thanks to God. It is in those moments that our eyes are able to see the big picture a little better. Our expectations crumble, our feelings are changed, made new. When we ask God to help us know joy and receive His gifts, whatever form they take, we are made new. When we give thanks we know joy as an intimate friend. This gift of God we’ll cherish well, that ever joy our hearts shall fill. Joy, joy, joy! Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high!
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
"Why me?" I hear her moan;
"Why this broken mess?"
"Why am I all alone—
toiling daily, while he's free?"
"Why, why, why, God?"
"Why me?" I look above;
"Why do You never quit?"
"Why do You love, love,
love me? You never flee,
You take delight...Why, God?"
"Why me?" I hear her cry;
"Why all of my friends?"
"Why doesn't someone try
to love me in all my debris?"
"Will no man choose me, God?"
"Why me?" I look around;
"Why his lavish love?"
"It overwhelms, astounds,
builds up, inspires, sets free."
"Why" I whisper, "Why, God?"
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Waiting. We do a lot of waiting at this time of year. We queue up to buy gifts—and to mail them. We wait for Amazon orders to arrive in the post. We wait in airports, traffic, and coffee shops. We wait for Christmas break to wrest us from our studies, our work, our loneliness. Sometimes we wait at a tremendous pace, as if filling our days with work or parties or consumer pursuits will make time gain speed.
Waiting...Israel was waiting for a Messiah in the days of Caesar Augustus. Waiting for a Deliverer, like in Egypt long ago. Israel was waiting for freedom. In those same days, a woman named Elisabeth was waiting to deliver her first child, though she was old and infertile. A young, unmarried girl was also waiting quietly and patiently. She was awaiting the promise given to her by an angel of God. Waiting to see what her belovéd would do when she told him she was pregnant. A virgin giving birth to a child, it sounded like a silly sham, a cover up for fornication. Yet the prophecy was there in Isaiah, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name [Emmanuel]."1 There they were—Elisabeth, Mary, and all of Israel—waiting.
Nine months of waiting brought forth John. The same length of gestation wrought the King of all creation into a creature Himself. Then came the patient, silent years of growing—like a seed underground, waiting to break into the sunlight. After thirty years of quiet growth, John paved the way for his kinsman, Jesus, and for three years all of Israel waited to see what would become of Mary's son. You know the rest, He was killed and His disciples waited three days in fear of the Romans, in fear of the Jews, in fear that all their hopes had been placed in the wrong man. But their hope was fulfilled. The anticipation was exceeded. The waiting dawned in resurrection.
Awaiting the arrival of the Messiah is what the season of Advent is all about. We have stepped into that waiting period. The fasting before the feasting. The season of darkness is upon us, like it was upon Israel.
In preparation for celebrating the arrival of the Messiah, I began to think about the advent seasons we go through in life at times. Sometimes they are long, unyielding periods. The darkness is thick, we see no light of hope at the end of the tunnel. The Messiah seems far away. We cry out, "How long, O Lord? How long?" with seemingly no answer. Israel sat in crushing darkness, hope draining out of her that the long awaited Messiah would ever come. Nearly all Israel had no inkling that the dark night of their fallen existence—and the agony of waiting—was about to end in dawn. Often we do not sense that the approach—the Advent—of God is near at hand, either. But the truth is that:
"Because of God’s tender mercy,the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,and to guide us to the path of peace."2
The light at the end of the tunnel may not come in the form we would like, or hope for, or expect. Jesus did not come as a mighty warrior, He entered Israel as a fragile baby. He did not enter Jerusalem in triumph, riding a white charger, He rode in on a humble donkey colt. So, too, our hope may be realised in ways we didn't foresee: in an encouraging friend walking alongside us through the daily grind; in having a good job—when we didn't expect we would have to be the sole provider for our family; in the welcoming embrace of our parents—rather than a lover; in strength for this day, when we thought we were depleted yesterday. Hope is sometimes realised in a change of heart, change of mind, change of plans that looks like a faithful friend. The dawn comes in shades of colour we never anticipated, sometimes after we have given up looking for the light. The daystar rises at the right time—even when it seems late—because of God's tender mercy, because of His kindness.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [understand or overcome] it."3
Whether you are waiting in line or waiting for something in your life to change, let the longing to be finished with waiting remind you that you are being cultivated. Like a seed underground, like John the Baptist and Jesus in the decades before their life's work began—the waiting produces patience and strength of character. The waiting gives you roots so that you may also grow upward and produce fruit. The waiting is not wasted, it ends in the dawn of resurrection.
1. Isaiah 7:14 (ESV)
2. Luke 1:78-79 (NLT)
3. John 1:1, 4-5 (NKJV)