I am among those waiting for snow because I like to skate ski. I don’t want to do it all year, but the 12 weeks or so that it is practical I love to do it. By the end of the winter I am as happy as anyone else to see the snow melt, but this time of year I live with anticipation and the first few skis are pure magic for my soul. I believe the wait is crucial to the enjoyment of skiing, at least for me.
Waiting builds anticipation. The more you knowingly wait for something the more you desire that something and (hopefully) the more you will enjoy it when the waiting is over. Advent is about waiting, waiting for the messiah, waiting for the return of Christ, waiting to to sense the love and goodness of God.
I want to offer the simplest of practices:
Place something you desire in front of you. It could be an orange, a good whiskey, or a chocolate n.b. or whatever else it is you desire (and which you are willing and able to safely consume).
Look at it carefully, if you selected on orange notice all the tiny pulp inside the translucent skin, if you chose whiskey notice its colour and scent, if a chocolate appreciate its shape and scent.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself consuming the item.
Think about the pleasure it will bring.
Is there anyone you want to share it with?
Sit still for 15 minutes with the item in front of you.
Look at it.
Permit yourself to feel desire.
When you finally consume it can you do so in a controlled manner?
Can you truly taste and appreciate it?
Did the wait make it all the sweeter?
Like the barren women of the bible, all creation waits for the one who will make things right. For those of us familiar with pain we wonder why the wait is so long. (I can’t answer that). Still, as I encounter more and more pain in the world I look all the more forward to its cessation.
Advent is about waiting.
About noticing what the messiah is going to make right
Feeling the hardships such that we desire the messiah all the more.
I know it is hard, but can we embrace the slowness and submit to the wait?
The Book of Psalms contains many laments (Psalms that recognize the hardships in life). These poems and prayers call out to God naming the pain, troubles, and struggles of the writer and asking God for help. One clear theme in the bible is that God loves to hear from his people, loves to hear of their joys and of their pains, loves when we reach out him with honesty no matter how raw.
It occurs to me that this is also true in life. I often feel closest to those who are most vulnerable and raw with me. Those willing to guffaw at something most people wouldn’t find funny and those who are willing to cry with me or tell me about their currents fears. When one man speaks to another of the struggles in a marriage, the disconnect between father and child, or concerns about their status at work, the two men become closer instantly. It also permits the listener to feel more courageous in sharing what is truly going on in their own life. When we do this we interact as God would have us do.
I believe there is something divine that happens when two people meet with truth and get beyond the mundane gripes of the world. In Ottawa this means getting past politics, the LRT debacle, the Convoy, the Senators, and many other such topics and getting into topics about how we are actually doing. What struggles and fears, what joys and hopes, what changes and adaptations are we going through? Getting to this level is a gift to the person we are speaking with.
Sure, this can be a weird form of manipulation and no one likes that, but such a conversation would be a caricature of what I am writing about. I am not speaking of trying to control each other but of trying to connect more meaningfully with each other.
This Advent and Holiday season, I want to encourage you to think about who you might be more open with, who you might gift your weakness and vulnerability to. To build courage think of how such interactions have drawn you closer to others; think of a time when someone shared something Important with you. To build strength consider practicing this by first praying or journalling to God about some of your deepest fears and worries or your most soul lifting thanksgivings.
Imagine what our tables will look like, imagine how much love and closeness and deep the sense of belonging everyone would feel if only we could express ourselves more deeply and honestly and fully!
Inspired by James Clear, who wrote Atomic habits and said, “my goal is not to reduce life to the fewest amount of things, but to fill it with the optimal amount of things” I have been reflecting on what an optimal advent and holiday season looks like in my life. It has little (surprise!) to do with gifts (bought the pan mentioned in the last post). It also has little to do with social events, or perhaps to put it better, social events are extremely precious and must be sifted through with great care.
I am blessed to have more opportunities than I can possible commit to. I know that I am not alone in this. Everyone seems busy and organizing anything instigates an endless round of emails, text, and WhatsApps about scheduling. So clearly the optimal advent will involve careful, intentional, discernment when it comes to who I will spend time with, how and where.
Gabe Bult, a young man whose video work and commentary on Youtube I tend to appreciate recently said about productivity: “the goal is not always trying to do more; it’s to cut everything out that is non-essential so I can focus all my attention, money, and energy, on the things that are truly important to me.” He was talking about work but in a sense this applies to life in general. I could try to do more, I could tire myself out and irritate my family, I could rush from thing to thing and not be truly present at any of it, OR I could make the difficult decision and say “no” to some invitations and opportunities.
This is something each of us can and must do. We cheat everyone involved if we try too hard to be nice and be all things to all people.
I think of the story of Martha and Mary and how Jesus says that just one thing is needed.
Things that matter and are worthy of our time and attention, people that matter and are worthy of our affection and care and love. I know we are open and loving, but there is still only 24hours in a day. As you approach this season with its buying and wrapping, with its food shopping and preparing and house decorating, take care of yourself and of others by being rightly discerning. Who is it essential you spend time with? Give them your time and full attention when you are present.
A bit off topic but adjacent enough to be an illustration of use: I hear many people tell me that they are sad their grandchildren do not go to church. I know one woman, she is as busy as everybody else, she does not have a time machine or any extraordinary skill that I know of, and yet she brings her grandkids to church with her consistently. Sometimes their mom comes, sometimes mom has an appointment or is away with dad, or just needs to sleep in, in steps grandma, every.single.time. That is a woman with focus, who has decided what is essential and optimal and pursues it with the vigour she has. She is lucky her children will even permit the grandkids to go to church, some families won’t. Still, I am positive this means saying no to other options, including sleeping a little longer, having a clean car, enjoying the quiet of said car, going to lunch after church…
As the seasonal calendar fills up I encourage you think of that grandma, or the sister in the story with Jesus, or the productivity guru, whatever helps! And then slow down, make the right decision, and pursue what is important to you. What the you in a year (or 5) will have wished you did. If you do you will enjoy a most memorable and satisfying holiday season.
Do you really need any new items in your house? If you did Marie Kondo wouldn’t be so wealthy:)
I bet if you do need something it is obscure, like how I would dearly like a new small frying pan without a warped bottom on it. What I mean is if anything new needs to come into your home it is likely something only people you share a kitchen with will be able to guess. Odds are whatever the people in your life need is similar, so quotidian and simple you would never ask someone else to buy it for you, like I can buy my own little pan.
Jesus told a wealthy young man once that he should get rid of his stuff because it was soul killing. As rich as that person was you with your digital device and ability to read this are far wealthier—and if you are remotely average you have plenty of stuff to get rid of. If the stuff (there really is no other word for the accumulation that fills out homes, closets, garages, storage units…) was bad for that young man’s soul imagine what our piles mean for our souls. It takes our time and energy, it distracts us from matters worthy of our attention and care, it weighs us down. You don’t want to distract others and lead them away from the good life Jesus knows we are all meant for and you don’t want others doing that to you. Consider giving people gifts of food or consumables, experiences (tickets etc) instead of literally hurting their souls by adding to their hoards.
James Clear, who wrote Atomic habits said, “my goal is not to reduce life to the fewest amount of things” not very Jesus-like but keep reading, “but to fill it with the optimal amount of things.” What does optimal gift-giving look like? Can we agree to focus on and optimal advent? Can we spare ourselves—and others—the time at the mall (or wherever you shop), the bills, the clutter, and the inevitable trips to the donation centre where we drop all the stuff when it is no longer wanted (which was often immediately but we were too polite to say it)?
I sincerely hope so.
The planet needs us to.
Our souls need us to.
Jesus would have us do.
Now I got to go buy that pan so I can wrap it and put it under my tree:)
Every year I read the bible in its entirety. I am among those who believe that that every word is somehow useful, even when it seems hard to imagine. In order to read the bible every year I follow a list of readings, the one I choose actually condenses matters so that it has just 5 days a week, this gives me time to catch up if I miss a day or two; or to get ahead if I read daily. It takes a bit longer each day but it feels like a gracious and kind way to approach the project and helps me to succeed. Besides, if it takes a bit more time each day isn’t the whole point that I want to spend time with the Lord and his word anyways?
This past year I combined this reading with a psalm reading plan that took me through the full psalter every 60 days, again, this meant a bit more time but that is what I wanted. It is the last day of November and I have finished the bible (still a few psalms to read though:). It feels great!
1) I can’t tell you how many ways I have been able to share an insight or a story with someone because it was fresh on my mind, how many times someone asked for advice and I had some fresh word for them, nor how often I myself needed to hear something to refresh my soul or to guide my path and I read what would otherwise be a random bit of scripture that I would never have looked to in the circumstance and yet God in his mercy showed me exactly what I needed for the day.
2) I know you probably don’t have time, I have three kids, a busy job, and a workout schedule that keep me busy. The weird thing is that my time in the morning makes the rest of the day feel expansive, there is time enough to complete what I need to complete if by 8:30 am I have done whatever my workout of the day is and spent time with Jesus. Every. Single. Day. There is a sense of accomplishment when I get to my office having already completed much of what I consider the critical work in life, time with my God, my body, and my family.
The time involved is multiplied as if by magic. Like how people say that when they get better at giving more money away they find themselves with more and more funds (certainly I have seen this first hand and know many others who have too). In the same way the time invested in bible reading creates more time despite their still only being 24 hours in a day.
3) The sense of accomplishment is high when the year comes to an end and I can see all those little marks that tell me of my discipline this year. I always find it funny how many different pens get used as I work though the year. Lots may not have gone “my way” in a given year but if I end it having read that book, well then something good and important has taken place despite whatever challenges have come my way. I guess we all want a bit of control and this is one way I can exert some in my life. I suspect you can too.
I want to encourage you to decide upon a practice (journalling, gratitude, hospitality, fasting, prayer-walking, praying with beads, etc) and then find a way to make it approachable for you. The practices are not ends in themselves they are a means to an end; a life with a vibrant faith, and that means that they can all be adapted to fit your personality, your day, your stage of life. No one can do that work for you but the Holy Spirit might guide you if you ask him.
Advent is about waiting and it is about patience. Each year Christians mark it slowly as the weeks progress we light one more candle, enjoying a little more light as the nights get longer, until that morning when we light all five and rejoice at the birth of Jesus. Advent is the same amount of time each year, marked by the 4 Sundays, unlike the “holiday season” which seems to get longer by the year, like how “black Friday” deals happen on days not starting with F and cyber Monday deals are announced on days not beginning with M and how giving Tuesday…well you get the point.
In church we still mark the time and mark it slowly. Many churches slowly add elements to their decor as they build momentum towards Christmas. This is in contrast with almost everything else any of us do, christians included. We are hurried and harried going from “thing” to “thing.” I know I am impatient to get into the car then I am impatient to have the lights all be green so I can hurry to a a store that I will then rush through…I barely have time to finish the sentence:) let alone put up all the decorations, cook the cookies, prepare the meal, buy and wrap the carefully selected gifts…
I want my phone charged and fast, I want my internet instant, I want my Youtube videos to load without ads, and so it is little surprise that I want my prayers answered, like yesterday. I want to see the promised justice of God, I want to see healings, and the reign of the Prince of Peace and none of it can come soon enough. Like the Psalmist I call out, how long, O Lord. I know I am not alone.
That is why I think it might be helpful for us to remember that everything will happen in God’s time and we can do nothing to speed it up. When we worry or are impatient we cannot by such emotions add a single hour to our life. Advent is a time to embrace a slower pace. Perhaps this involves saying “no” to a few invitations, or refusing to race around in our cars and malls buying items for people that already have too many things to fit in their house. Perhaps it means something deeper and more intentional.
I want to invite you to select at least one slow practice and do it once a week over advent. If you are like me marking the Sundays with candles then maybe engage in the practice before you light your next one.
You might (but are not limited to):
Journal with gratitude about the year that has been
Or what you already have
Bake cookies (or whatever) and share them with people you love
Sit silently and stare at the lights on a tree, the snow falling, or a child playing or steam rising from a mug
Go for walk for the joy of walking with no destination
Slowly chew some food and really notice the flavours and reflect on how this food came to be in your life
Read a single chapter of scripture every day for a month
Pray for a loved one with as specific a prayer as you can
Write a poem
Read old and beloved stories
Make hand made cards
Make hand made decorations
Take a bath
Cook a special meal
Visit an artisan fair or browse an actual bookstore
Play a board game instead of a video game
Stretch your body
Whatever it is, as long as it is slow, as long as it reminds you of your humanity and our shared longing it is great.
Advent is a marvellous time of year to step out of time, out of the rush, and look around at our lives, at our God, and look forward to the plans he has for us.
I love Christmas. I grew up in a family that loved Christmas. It’s funny too say but the odds are my family likes Christmas more than yours does! So there:)
When I was growing up my grandpa Bernie kicked Christmas off every year on Grey Cup Weekend, he loved trees in the house and cheap knickknacks that dance and sing, tinsel and cheese, and yes beer, so much that we had weeks and weeks of time to celebrate the birth of the saviour, grandpa thought you could never have too much family time and if colourful lights made it more playful then put up as many strings as you have electrical outlets. I miss him.
Consequently, I love Christmas so much I even look forward to watching Nailed It! with my kids and hearing them cackle at the reveals (I am no baker and have literally zero interest in baking).
I love Christmas so much I even look forward to watching the movies with my wife, you know the ones.
I love Christmas so much my poor, patient, persevering wife just rolls her eyes with a sweet familiarity when I come up with “one more gift” or “one more decoration.”
Lots of people love Christmas this way. Turkey, presents, lights, chocolates, decadence, family friends, and alcohol…some even love it as a time to be charitable.
All of this leads to a question: how do I (we) as faithful Christians who will continue to attend worship services, continue to make donations to causes we believe Christ would recognize himself in, “do” Christmas? Is it even possible to do it in a way that stands out as holy? As marking a religious time with soul-resonant importance?
Someone suggested to me recently that we seek to “observe” the season. That we intentionally and verbally “observe” the time as religious folks.
Observe largely has two meanings, first and most often: to watch, or to notice, we observe a bird flying or how a a grandpa shows love and leads a family. The other meaning, less used but still well-known and recognized, is to adhere to the rules and ways a of a religion (think “observant Jew” as delineated from ethnic Jew and you will understand the subtlety).
This second understanding of observant has to do with what we might call devoutness, or practicing. A nominal Christian is someone who is “Christian” in name only but for whom it is a minor adjective not terribly important (if at all) to their way of life. An observant Christian is one for whom the title matters more deeply and is permitted a place of priority such that it changes the very actions and decisions of the person.
Of course, when it comes to Christmas the challenge is that there is a sense in which our whole culture becomes nominal christians with angels in the music and rustic shed scenes with wise men. (Yes, I know some are very opposed to it all and stick to Santa Clause and Coca Cola, but even with that I imagine most of us can agree that the majority culture—whatever that is—still largely coalesces around Christmas, this starts even before Halloween in many stores where I live).
How then to be distinct? How then to “do Christmas as a Christian”?
I worry this will sound overly pious but I truly think if one prays about this question one will receive their own path forward. Some may be inspired to attend an advent bible study or read a daily advent devotional, some may wish to sing a particularly christian carol every day, some may double their givings, others will volunteer, some will practice hospitality, some will visit the sick, the lonely, the grieving. None of us has to do it all, that’s why I think praying for our unique path forward is such a good idea. I mean really, even though my family always kicked off Christmas at the Grey Cup doesn’t mean anyone else should, or even that I should every year now.
The seasons of life change and so what we did in the past need not drive what we do this year. Seasons with littles at home and seasons without them are different, seasons when buying the turkey stretches the budgets and seasons when we don’t even look at the price are different.
To observe Christmas might not have as single universal practice, we are free to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
So I suggest to you a most simple prayer as Advent gets closer, “Lord, show me how you would have me observe advent this year, and grant me the grace, the wisdom, and the courage, to do as you ask.”
I am not a slave to this idea and I am not the first person to notice this but writing on paper before typing an idea up is helpful.
Sometimes this is because paper has no other agenda, no other distraction on offer, and so it is easier to sit quietly and focus on whatever I have been inspired to write.
Sometimes it is because the tactile experience is so delightful, the paper, the pen, the smell of ink, the sounds of a pen scratching gently and pages turning; for all its magic my Apple equipment simply cannot imitate these very well.
Sometimes it may be that I am something of an old soul who still remembers the first assignment I ever completed using a computer because that was novel at the time.
But the number one reason I often write by hand and then type something up is that the process slows me down and essentially forces me to edit. When I transfer a thought from the notebook to the computer I refine it, I make it better, I don’t mean spelling, I mean coherence of thought, transitions get smoother, better more precise words get selected, tone gets noticed and worked on. In short, I do not just end up with a better “product” but a more accurate one.
Why write about this on a blog about spiritual living? Because maybe some of us (myself included) would benefit from trying this with our journalling and/or prayer life. What if the thoughts we capture and the prayers we think and write, could benefit from the extra step of typing them up the next day?
I haven’t actually tried this but intuitively it seems like it might be worth the test. If you regularly journal or write prayers by hand, consider returning to them a day or two later to type up. I wonder what we might notice? Will we gain clarity of what God was trying to teach us? Will we better understand the needs and desires behind a certain payer we have offered?
It’s impossible to know without trying.
If you try it, please let me know if you learn anything in the process.
The biblical character Ezra is at one point described this way: Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. As a pastor this is self-evidently a meaningful passage to me but whether you are religiously inclined or not the truth is that every one of us is preparing a heart for something, the question is what and whether or not we are going about this with intention.
There is no neutral ground and we all must make claims to how the world works and our purpose within it. Our actions, if not our words, will exhibit the conclusions we have come to about these tectonic questions.
Ezra had come to his decision and acted accordingly, have you?
Wayne Cordeiro shares the story of teaching some pastors in China, all of whom are risking 3 year prison sentences to learn from him. They must share bibles as he hasn’t brought enough for everyone. One woman gives up her bible when they turn to 1 Peter, as it happens she has that chapter memorized. Wayne is amazed, when did you learn it? In prison she says (it turns out many of these pastors have done one or more 3-year sentences already).
But they must not let you have bibles in prison if they put you in prison for being a christian leader??? Wayne asks.
No, but people bring me a page at a time here and there.
Do they get confiscated?
Of course, that’s why you must memorize them as quickly as possible “they can take away the paper, but they cannot take away what I have already hidden in my heart.”
Imagine what she (and the other leaders in the room that day) had prepared themselves for!
They not only had their eyes opened by the Holy Spirit to the foundational truths of the faith but they had set their eyes upon God in an Ezra-like fashion and they lived with intention, knowing full well the risks.
I find that humbling beyond measure! I am not particularly confident my faith is as vibrant or risk-accepting as theirs! That is part of their journey, and I am on mine and you are one yours.
Would you go to jail for your convictions? Why or why not?
How carefully have you thought about your convictions and do you pursue them as though they matter?
This is not easy. I heard folks on the radio speaking of Twitter and how they would more likely pay to erase their “history” than to pay to archive it. The suggestion is that while people were spending lots of time and attention on Twitter they know full well this is not the best use of their time.
Maybe having friends walking the journey with us is critical, people who can ask us meaningful questions about how we are doing, what we are thinking, the direction our lives are heading. Friends who can recognize what we are preparing our hearts for and try to keep us on track.
We can also engage in small practices, not using our phones the first hour we wake up and exchange them for scripture, journalling, prayer, staring at the landscape, painting, playing music, making love, all of which are more likely aligned with your values than candy-crush.
This is not meant to guilt-trip, but to motivate. What do you believe about the world? About yourself? And how do you go about living with intention, power and purpose?
My grandmother recently passed away, she was 98, very influential in my life, and there is A LOT I could write about her. One of my favourite grandma stories is how she reacted to Hollywood. One time someone said something to the effect of how glamorous and wonderful Hollywood actresses lives appear to be, you know, how many of us might like to trade places with the rich and famous…anyways, my grandma didn’t miss a beat, “who would want their lives??? They have to kiss men they don’t love on tv!!!” Grandma was not out to impress the world but to live as she saw fit.
The book of Esther has one of the bible’s more memorable characters who struggled with an inner need to impress the world, a man named Haman. Haman’s story has deep irony and much we can learn from. At one point he has a lot of power and prestige, he is confident and has “arrived” so to speak. And yet there is one person who has nothing but disdain for him, a man who looks at him with open disregard. Mordecai is but one person not looking up to Haman, but that is one too many for Haman who needs literally everyone to look up to him.
Haman might remind us of some of the more fragile egos we see on the international stage today, Xi Jinping Donald Trump’s Iranian leaders signing off on death sentences for those who protest and the like. That is the easy route to take, to read the bible, find a character in flaw in someone and then sling mud at obvious targets. This is not how my grandmother would proceed, and nor should we.
More important, for those of us who would be forgiven through the actions of Jesus, is to ask ourselves where we are like these deeply flawed characters. Do we have more than we thought we would in life and yet want more?
Do we generally receive approval and love and yet let one person ruin our day?
Are we good at work and undermined by a single colleague who makes us wonder if we are any good at our jobs?
Are our egos more vulnerable than we think or like to admit?
Do we need a fancy car, big house, impressive title, successful kids/grandkids in order to feel accomplished, loved, or loveable?
The world is full of people who will take advantage of this.
Mordecai on the other hand has very little, we would walk right by him in normal life. He is a member of a minority group that struggles to gain political traction and general acceptance, he seems a little lonely, and very ordinary. But he is unique in that he lives up his own standards and isn’t bothered if doing so is risky for him because to abandon his principles would be riskier still.
Today I am wondering whose approval I still need? Family, friends, and colleagues? Maybe a professor or partner from the past? Maybe an old nemesis that I still dialogue with in my mind?
As long as we let anyone have any control over us we are like Haman and no amount of accolades will suffice, we will find ourselves kissing people we don’t love on tv, so to speak.
In the story Haman says of his success, But all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate. The people around him say he ought to have Mordecai killed (killed!?! What a world). I would suggest that even if he did this (spoiler: he tries but Haman hangs on the gallows he set up for Mordecai, I told it was ironic) a new Mordecai would have arrived because the work that needed doing was internal.
Haman’s, and our, insecurities have nothing to do with the world outside and everything to do with inner wellbeing. The healing, the sense of being loved, the “Satisfaction” Haman desired and which we all need, is found in Jesus Christ who offers us a divine love. I find regular scripture reading, time with fellow Christians, prayer and meditation and journalling all help me foster this. I have not arrived yet, I suppose few, if any of us do in this life (maybe grandma got close), but I am confident I am heading in the right direction and I (and more importantly Jesus!) invite you to a new life, a life of satisfaction. Don’t try to impress anyone, just receive the gifts of love and grace and only kiss people you love.