Advent 2021.6 – Red Pill

Sometimes I feel like engaging in the reality of Advent (and, for that matter, the church calendar) is like taking the proverbial “red pill”.

The more deeply I consider the implications, the more difficult it is to relate to what passes for Christmas, not only in the larger culture, but in the church itself.

Traditionally, Advent is a season of reflection and quiet preparation, not Black Friday sales, gaudy decorations, or exuberant displays of a triumphant arrival of a conquering, militant king.

After all, according to the Biblical narrative, the first “preparation time” involved a young, pregnant woman and a man who was not (yet) her husband, and who were desperately searching for a safe place to have a very real, a very human, a very fragile baby.

(Last time I checked, infants are still pretty fragile things.)

Sometimes, for me Advent puts me out of step with the people around me, Christian or not.

Even Sundays can seem oddly “out of season” for me.

Pro Tip Again: Did you know that “Advent songs” do NOT equal “Christmas songs”?

Advent songs are songs of longing, yearning, reflections on WHY we might need a Savior in the first place. They are full of hope, but they are not necessarily full of joy (yet).

Christmas (also a “season,” by the way) songs reflect the consummation of Advent, the fulfillment of the hope, the promises.

But for some reason, we (meaning a lot of my Christian tribe) do not want to linger in longing, or hope, or reflection. Instead, we rush to the fulfillment, to the party, to the celebration.

(Though, again, the “celebration” in the Biblical narrative feels a lot different than most of what I see in my world. I wonder if Joseph and Mary—or even Jesus himself—would recognize our celebrations.)

But a few years ago, I took the “red pill,” because I wanted a rhythm to my life, and my year, and what I found in the liturgical year—the rhythms, the guidance, the natural “ups and downs” of repentance, celebration, peace, and reflection—gave a healthy shape to my life.

So I do the best I can, finding my Advent where I can.

Faith, spirituality, advent, advent 2021,

Advent 2021.5 – Time to Get Started

One thing that I like about Advent is that it actually marks the beginning of the calendar of the church.

Time is an important thing. Some say it’s the most prized currency (along with our attention) of the age.

Culturally, we are arriving at the end of the year.

Spiritually, this is our beginning. Our start.

And I live in this “in-between” space, with culture on one hand and my spiritual life on the other.

So as I watch things wind down and prepare for the marking of another year, I am also starting a journey of Spirit. Advent, to Epiphany, to Lent, to Pentecost, and on and on.

For me, this spiritual journey, this different rhythm is important.

I am not simply a child of this culture. I am a child of the Church, born of Spirit.

This Advent, as a marker of “beginning” I decided to start another one year Bible reading plan.

(I just completed a two-year cycle of lectionary readings, which took me through most of the Bible in two years, and also repeating the Psalms roughly every month or so. This year, I’m again using the “M’Cheyne Plan”, which will take me through all of the Old Testament once, and the Psalms and all of the New Testament twice.)

So instead of starting my reading plan on Jan 1, I began it on November 28.

Pro Tip: It’s not too late to start something for yourself.

Advent 2021.4 – Aiming for Surrender

Thinking more about the “themes” of the weeks of Advent (hope, peace, joy, and love), it seems to me that there’s a challenging and counter-intuitive aspect to all of these.

It’s all well and good to reflect on these ideas and concepts. They are aspirational, and you could do a lot worse than to try and live them out on a given day or week.

But for me, I’ve found that it’s really difficult for me to “try” to be loving, peaceful, joyful, and hopeful. In fact, the more I try to be any of these things, the more I can end up bearing down and gritting my teeth, determined as hell to be loving, etc.

Then, when I come up against someone who is really a challenge to love (because I always do), I end up losing my temper (which I sometimes do), or maybe at best “loving them” while I’m hoping that they feel guilty for how much love I’m showing them (sarcasm intended, and yes I usually end up doing this as well).

Does it really work this way?

It’s really difficult for me to “aim” at love, joy, hope, and peace.

Luckily, I’ve found a better way.

I don’t aim at these values; I aim at surrender.

For me to have a little Advent in my life, I need to surrender my agenda, my will, my way, my plans, even what I think to be true of myself and the world.

I surrender all of this, and I subject myself to the Lord of Advent, to Jesus and His Spirit, and allow myself to be formed, led, and shaped into someone who can actually be a bit more loving, joyful, hopeful, and peaceful.

It’s HIS job to shape me. It’s my job to surrender.

Advent 2021.3 – Opposites

Depending on what Christian tradition you grew up in, each week in Advent represents something different. Mostly I grew up with some version of: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love (four weeks).

These are all “warm, fuzzy” words. Everyone nods their heads and says, “Yeah, those are great ideas.”

But an examination of my own life would show that actually trying to live these out is another thing altogether.

It’s actually pretty difficult to try to make words and concepts like hope, peace, joy, and love some kind of guiding lights and principles for living.

So much so that it’s tempting to dismiss them as impossible, impractical, and out of touch with reality.

But think about the opposites.

What if Advent was about preparing for a Kingdom of despair and cynicism (for hope), strife and war (for peace), bitterness and anxiety (for joy), and fear and hatred (for love)?

Just listing those out is a wake-up call for me, because well, I find myself easily slipping into those attitudes on a daily basis.

What’s more, sometimes it seems like the voices of the culture around me (coming from all sides of the political aisle) actually encourages and endorses those “Advent opposites.”

But for me the idea of living in despair, strife, bitterness, anxiety, fear, etc. is really not a life a want.

So today—again—I’ll choose the Advent of Jesus. The Advent of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Advent of the Kingdom of God.

Advent 2021.2 – Recognize Your Need

I Need Advent

Advent reminds me that there’s another kingdom at work in the world, beyond what I see and experience on a day-to-day level. Beyond the greed, anger, divisive behavior, beyond the obsessive consumerism, beyond the shallow superficiality of our culture.

Recently, I was sitting in the Nike store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, watching all manner of people as they tried on the latest offerings of stylish sneakers and athletic clothing.

As I sat, I found myself gradually more and more “off-center” and slightly sideways.

Why was everyone so desperate to have these on their feet? Why were they spending so much money on them, and just a few weeks from Christmas?

The more I watched, the more indignant I started to become, and the more bitter I became about the state of our society.

And then it hit me: This is why we need Advent.

But not how you think.

No, unfortunately, the thought hit much, much harder than judgment on this consumeristic culture. It hit harder than watching people filling themselves up with the badges of identification and affluence.

Nope. Way harder.

Because what actually hit was, “I need Advent because I am sitting in judgment of all of these people.”

That’s pride.

As far as I can tell, this Kingdom to which I aspire is not one of judgment and separation, but one of humility, unity, and acceptance.

Who appointed me the spiritual judge of the Nike store?

What made me think I knew the story of any of these individuals?

I sat, stewing in my pride and arrogance, and unknowingly confessing my own need for the Coming Kingdom, the “In-Breaking” of God’s rule and reign through the God-Man, Jesus.

(P.S. Things seem to work out about better when I start with my own brokenness, rather than ruminating on the possibility of others’ weaknesses.)

Advent 2021.1 – Submit to the Process

We believe it begins today.

(At least as best I can tell-I’ve been known to get these liturgical dates comically wrong.)

But let’s assume that it does.

Advent = “Breaking in.” Just what is it that is breaking in?

A person. A Kingdom.

Maybe. it’s like this: A Kingdom that is fully embodied in a person.

Interesting to think about.

Also interesting to think about that it’s a season of Advent, a season of breaking in.

As in, it’s not just a moment.

It’s a process.

Thinking this morning about how much that says about this God. If He is all powerful, why not just snap His fingers (Thanos, anyone?) and make it happen?

“Process” seems all to human. Why submit to a process, when you have all the power of the universe at your command?

Maybe it’s because “submitting” to an all-to-human concept (“process”, “time”, etc.) is exactly what it means to be “God.”

God submits, because God is god. To be “God” means to empty yourself, to serve. To surrender the trappings of power and to enter in.

This is not how I think, not how I instinctively exist in the world.

I desire to ascend (or at least, I want to).

I want to rise up and accumulate all the “things”—wisdom, knowledge, status, respect, money, authority…

The list goes on and on.

And I as I try to rise up on the escalator, God takes the service elevator down to the bottom, ending up in human skin, a fragile, vulnerable child.

Kneeling before all of us, and asking, “How can I help?”

Too Good NOT to Share

Re-reading this text this morning, and just had to share it:

It’s an illusion created in part by our own conviction that our unrestrained natural impulse is in itself a good thing and that we have an unquestionable right to fulfill our natural impulses so long as “no one gets hurt.”  

Where have we gotten this idea about “doing what feels good”? The unrestrained hedonism of our own day comes historically from the 18th-century idealization of happiness and is filtered through the 19th-century English ideology of pleasure as the good for people. Finally it emerges in the form of our present “feel good” society—tragically pandered to by the popular culture and much of popular religion as well.

Isn’t the most generally applied standard of success for a religious service whether or not people feel good in it or after it? The preeminence of the “feel good” mentality in our world is what makes it impossible for many people now even to imagine what Paul and his contemporaries accepted as a fact of life. Our communities and our churches are thickly populated with people who are neurotic or paralyzed by their devotion and willing bondage to how they feel. Drug dependence and addiction is epidemic because of the cultural imperative to “feel good.”

Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 99-100

Whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal, if you consider yourself a Christ-follower, this quote should really give you pause and challenge you.

Have we so bought into the cultural mindset of “feeling good” that we have lost the ability to seek instead a common good that may actually be bigger than our own agendas?

If what we seek is spiritual growth and maturity, our drive to minimize our own perceived short-term suffering does us no favors in the long run.

Finding the Why

For years I struggled to figure out my “why,” meaning my response to the question, “Why am I on this planet?”

For me, the why had to be more than money, or fame (wasn’t very good at achieving either), or even impact. 

Around 2002 I stumbled across a simple formula that pointed me in the right direction (by the way: the answer to this question can take years—and a fair amount of quiet listening—to uncover/discover), and continues to be a “north star” for me. 

A very complicated diagram.

It’s simply this: I found my why—or vocation, if you wish—at the intersection of my deepest joy and the great needs of the world. 

(“Deepest joy” is the reason that money or fame won’t get me there. Those things melt away. “Deepest joy” is a joy that is somehow immune or inoculated against the pressures of time and circumstance.) 

So what’s at that intersection for me? Just this: 

My deepest joy is creating, communicating, and teaching in order to serve people who desperately want to know that there’s Something More to life, and who are hungry for transcendence. 

That’s it for me. If you don’t know your why, I wouldn’t necessarily encourage you to take mine, but I would encourage you to do your own work, sit with your own story, and ask yourself what’s at the intersection for you. 

Daily Essentials

After prayer and meditation, there are three things that I consider non-negotiable and that I try to do each and every morning. 

  1. I write daily gratitudes, mostly a reflection of the previous day. What has God done for me, either over the past 24 hours or even in my life in general? 
  2. I choose, and write down, my intention for the day. What do I want to be throughout the day? How do I want to approach the coming 16-18 hours? 
  3. I write down my three biggest areas of focus and concentration. What are my three absolute priorities in my life? FYI, these are bigger than mere “goals”. These are more like the foundations from which everything else stems. 

I remember hearing a Navy seal refer to each day of his life (even after he was retired) as a “24 hour mission,” and staying clear on the “mission priorities” is essential for me. 

Learning From Larry

Over the past year, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God has been incredibly impactful and meaningful for me. 

This little book has called me back again and again to be challenged by the simplicity and directness of Brother Lawrence, a French monk who lived in the 1600s. 

I believe that any truly effective spirituality must be able to be lived anywhere, anytime. 

It should be simple (not easy), and not require a special time, or special place in order to be effective. 

(This is NOT to say that special gathering times and places are not HELPFUL; merely that effective spirituality should be day-to-day, lived out in the sometimes muck and mire of a “normal” human life.) 

Brother Lawrence came up with a version of that spirituality. 

You really should read the book for yourself, but regardless Brother Lawrence offers a short summary of his approach, which I’ll share here. 

(Brother Lawrence shares his “method” in a letter, but it’s telling to me that he writes to the recipient that he shares his thoughts, “only upon the terms that you show my letter to nobody.” How’s that for humility? Just to be clear: Brother Lawrence himself didn’t publish The Practice of the Presence. It was collected and published after his death by someone else.) 

So here’s how he describes it: 

  1. He began with a decision to give himself wholly to God. 
  2. He renounced everything that was NOT God. 
  3. He began to live as if there was no one and nothing in the world except He and God. 
  4. He occupied his mind with different aspects of his relationship to God, such as a Father to a son, or a judge to a criminal. 
  5. He attempted to keep his mind entirely occupied like this (and yes, it was difficult), and whenever he found his mind wandering he returned to it, again and again. 

This last part is key, because our minds WILL wander. And when his did, Brother Lawrence just re-purposed his mind back to God, WITHOUT condemning or “troubling or disquieting” himself.