Why I love Advent and hope you do too

I know they’ve been playing Christmas music on the radio for days.  And I know Hobby Lobby has had Christmas decorations out since July.  But believe me when I tell you- it is not Christmas time yet.  No, seriously.  It’s not.

Today starts the season of Advent- one of my favorite liturgical seasons!  It’s the time leading up to Christmas where we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Christ-child.  It’s a season of reflection, prayer, and peace as we wait expectantly to celebrate God With Us.

Don’t get it confused with Christmas!  Advent and Christmas are linked but they are not the same thing. Christmas is the feast and the party!  Advent is the fast and the quiet time.  Christmas is bright lights!  Advent is the patient lighting of just one candle at a time and sitting in the darkness waiting for the full light to come.    Christmas is crazy!  Advent is calm.

In a world constantly in motion and at full blast, Advent is an invitation to a time of intentional stillness and quiet. 

I have this mental image of a pregnant, teenage Mary just sitting on the hillside of Nazareth.  I was fortunate enough to be able to visit that town this past March.  I picture her sitting under the pine trees, looking down at the town with her hand resting on her pregnant belly.  Still and peaceful as she waited for her son to be born.  I imagine life for Mary was not easy and that her pregnancy could easily have been one filled with worry and fear.  She was an unmarried, pregnant girl in a strict religious community.  She had plenty to fear.  But when I read her beautiful response to the news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah I see a young woman who has found peace in obeying and trusting God.

And Mary said,“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
~Luke 1: 46-55

Each week we light one candle on our Advent wreath.  Each candle represents a different idea- hope, joy, peace, and love.  These are things I want in my life this Advent.  And I know I won’t find them in a mall or a store.  I won’t find them if I’m so busy running around I don’t have time to be still and seek the blessings of the Father.

It’s so easy for us to become wrapped up in all the things that we “have” to do for Christmas.  There are presents to find, buy, and wrap.  There are parties and events to go to and host.  Every kid is in at least 3 different Christmas concerts.  Every church has a full calendar of Advent activities.  There’s a house to decorate and lights to put out.  Family pictures to take and Christmas cards to send out!  There are a million things to do and to get done.  And sometimes all the Christmas cheer can feel like it is just too much.  It becomes an endless list of chores instead.

Dear friends, the world has sold us a lie about the meaning and value of Christmas.  Don’t buy into it.  

This Advent I’m inviting you to lay some of that down with me.  Get out your calendar and write down all the things you plan on doing.  What events do you have going on?  What parties have you been invited to?  Sit down and honestly map out your December.  And then…just pick a few things.  Say no to things that don’t help you connect with the spirit of Advent.  If it doesn’t help you to reflect on the gift of Christ, just politely decline.  I don’t know what those things are for you.  For me, it’s mostly the shopping and decorating.  I don’t feel the need to buy huge gifts for everyone I’ve ever meet.  And I spent a grand total of 1 hour decorating my house for Christmas.  Is it simple?  Yep. Is it still charming and cozy?  Absolutely!  I don’t need 3 days and 20 boxes of decorations to put me in the holiday spirit.

Some things I’m saying yes to:  Christmas craft night with girlfriends, Coffeehouse Talent Show put on by our church’s youth choir, and a young adult ministries Christmas party.  I plan to make as many of my gifts as possible so I’m sure I’ll spend some hours working on those.  I’ve already turned down a couple of invitations that sounded like so much fun but would just be too much for me this year.  I’ve also told some people no, I can’t help with certain events.  I have to say that one is harder.  I feel sort of guilty for not helping but I really believe it is important to say no sometimes (although I always offer alternative names of people to ask).  Just because something is good doesn’t mean it has to make it on your calendar.  And just because you think people expect it from you doesn’t mean you have to give it to them.  Advent is not about meeting the world’s expectations.  It is about finding the hope, love, joy, and peace that come from God as we wait for Emmanuel.

The main thing I’m saying yes to this Advent is some white space on my calendar.  I’m going to take time to rest.  I have a special Advent devotion book that I’m going to read each day.  And I’m going to serve others as best I can.  I want to slow down enough to notice the people around me and offer them help in any way I can.  I want to be extravagantly generous in ways that matter- in small acts of kindness and acts of love and service to my brothers and sisters.

I love the quiet calm and watchful peace of this season.  I love the time of dark knowing that the time of light is coming.  I am overwhelmed with gratitude and joy as I think about the fact that God, creator of all things and author of all life, loved us so much that he came as a human being and lived with us and died for us to bring us back into the family.  I love Advent.  I hope you do too.

Some cool things to check out as you start your season of Advent:

Haley Stewart at Carrots for Michaelmas:  I love this blog and adore their book!  You can read my favorite blog post here and order their fantastic book on liturgical living here.

Simply Wait:  Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent– this is the devotional that I’m using this year.

101 Days of Christmas:  Don’t be fooled by the title.  This book is full of some great recipes and craft ideas for a fun and easy Advent.

Is United Methodist just a punch-line?

“The church is full of oxymorons.  Want to hear one?  United Methodist.”

I laughed.  It was funny.  But I also winced.  Because it’s painfully true.  Our unity as a denomination, as the church universal, has been a joke for a long time.  I can’t imagine what it looks like to people standing outside of our Christian community.  Well I sorta can.  I’m sure it looks ridiculous.  I’m sure it looks like we are haters and liars.  We say one of the marks of the church is unity…and then proceed to fight it out Jets and Sharks style (we do have some awesome songs and hand motions).

When I was younger, although certainly old enough to know better, one day I got mad at my sister.  She was annoying me even after I had asked her repeatedly to stop.  Finally I started yelling at her and then…I tried to choke her.  Not my finest hour.  I quickly realized this was a bad idea…like super quickly…and stopped.  I hadn’t consciously thought “Oh I should choke her now” but I was just so ticked off!  I was a kid, I was mad, and I had zero impulse control.  I don’t really remember what happened after that.  I remember letting go and backing away.  I remember her crying.  I remember my mom staring at me in disbelief as my sister had told her what happened.  But I mentioned it to my mom the other day and she doesn’t remember it.  My sister doesn’t really remember that much of it either.  But I remember it very vividly as one of the most shameful moments in my life.  I am the big sister.  My job is to love and protect and encourage.  But I got angry and it got ugly.

My sister and I are very close now.  We talk most days, although we both have very busy schedules so we don’t get to talk every day.  We definitely don’t agree on everything but we do respect and love one another too much to let that be an issue in our relationship.  We are sisters and that comes first.

I recognize that the bad blood and difficult divisions between our denominations and our church members run much deeper than anything that exists between my sister and I.  We don’t have centuries of animosity and bitter fighting between us.  But scripture tells us to love each other as brothers and sisters so we need to look at how families interact when they are at their best and try to learn from that. That means being respectful even when we disagree.  It means listening even when all we want to do is get up and walk away.  It means agreeing that no matter what we disagree on we are still family; we still love each other.

It doesn’t mean finding creative new ways to separate ourselves.  It doesn’t mean choosing sides and throwing separate parties during annual conference.  It doesn’t mean congratulating ourselves on our ability to be “mostly civil” when radical, familial love is the standard we are called to.

One of the fundamental parts of the Christian life is the celebration of the Eucharist, although some of us call it the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table or maybe something else I’m not yet familiar with. We don’t all celebrate it in the same way, look at it in the same way, or celebrate it at the same time.  This fundamental ritual (sacrament, ordinance) of our faith shows the seriousness of our divisions.

Jesus sat at his table and blessed the bread and the wine in the presence of his actual enemy, Judas.  Yet as Christians we can’t come together over this same holy meal because we cannot agree on theological issues.  Don’t misunderstand me- the divisions in our denomination and the church universal run deep and a long way back.  I respect that these divisions are real and are often heartbreaking and critical for people.  Hear me clearly: I don’t deny that these divisions are real and important.  What I am denying is the idea that we can’t find a way to still be one church.  Really?  We can’t all agree that Jesus is Lord?  We can’t come to his table?  We can’t disagree with someone and still worship with them?  Still exist as one church?

It gets easy to separate from those who disagree with us when they aren’t people that we know or love.  And that’s hugely problematic because loving our neighbor is the second greatest commandment we have.  Is there any debate there?

If instead of seeing division and debate we saw people what would happen to our church?  If we picture it as one big feast with all the members of our church family seated at the table what would happen to our view of the church universal?  Could you stand on your chair and cast them out?  Could you refuse them a seat?

I’m not saying we have to agree.  Because frankly I’m not going to agree with everyone and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.  But I don’t want to be the church without Africa.  I don’t want to be the church without Asia, Europe, South or Central America.  I don’t want to be the church without women, men, or children that don’t look like me.  I do want to try to love people as Christ loves them and see them as Christ sees them.  I want to find ways to compromise, to agree to disagree and to let that be ok.  Because I don’t want to not be in community with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

This first semester in seminary has been a struggle for me.  I’ve struggled with the sheer volume of differing thoughts, doctrines, and opinions.  How can we possibly hold all these things together?  And the truth is we can only do it if we hold them with an open hand.  If we close our hands and decide that these things alone must be right then we will have to let go of the ideas and people that don’t fit.  But if we hold them with an open hand we are able to stay in community and conversation.

I don’t agree with you.  I think your theology is sketchy at best.  But I love you as my brother/sister.  I love you because you too are made in the image of God.  I don’t want us to be divided.  Can we talk about it?  Can we each be uncomfortable so that we can at least be together?

I don’t have any real answers.  I only have a burning desire to take seriously our calling to be a united church.

I want to come to the table our Lord has set for us, together.