Monday, December 23, 2013

Darkness and Advent

I am not in what most Americans would call the "Christmas" spirit.  I think you know what I'm talking about... feeling warm, happy, excited to be singing songs about animated snowmen and reindeer with light-up noses, baking cookies, wearing Santa hats, etc.  In fact, December 2013 for me has not been fun.  It's been a difficult month personally, filled with some weepy days, and I'm ready to move past a few deep personal hurts and disappointments that have made me dread trying to feel "holiday happy."  I find myself getting deeply annoyed each time I hear the song, "It's the most wonderful time of the year," because, well, it's just not.

And that's ok.  It's actually a very positive thing.  Because while I'm not feeling like Christmas caroling or making tons of cookies or even turning on the lights of my Christmas tree, I do think this somewhat difficult time has put me into an Advent spirit, which is a different thing completely.

Advent is the season of the church year that many Christians celebrate that mark the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas.  This is a time when most Advent-observers think about waiting, expectation, and longing.  We reflect on the prophecy from Isaiah:

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this."  (Isaiah 9:6-7)

It's during this time that we think about preparing for and waiting for the coming of Christ, and what His coming means.  What better time to do this when things are darkest?

I think that when things are perfect and happy and full of warmth, we don't always understand the urgency of what Jesus came to do.  When we are able to create our own light, it's not easy to understand why we so desperately need the light of Christ.  However, when it's dark outside and we might be going through a dark time in our souls, it's natural to long for Jesus.  And I think that's what God desires.

I spent time with a friend yesterday who I knew when I lived in Atlanta.  For the past several months, her oldest son has been going through major health issues.  Doctors can't quite figure out what's wrong.  What they do know is that they've spent time in hospitals, she's had to spend the week before Christmas away from her other four kids, and her sweet child is weak and sick.  Darkness.  In reflecting on what's happening in this family's life, I'm reminded of what true Christmas means.  It often means that life is sometimes dark.  It means that this earthly life is imperfect and sometimes tragic.  It means that there are some days the best we can do is get out of bed and have a good cry.  It also means that we long for the light of Christ.  It means that there's a knowing (not necessarily a feeling) of joy and peace in our souls in the midst of the darkness.  It means that we know that Christ came to drown out the darkness.  It means that darkness and evil will not win the war, even if it feels like sometimes that darkness wins a few battles. 

It means that even when things feel hopeless, that there's a knowing in our souls that this is not the end of the story.  We prepare for and celebrate the birth of Christ because there are battles yet to be fought, and victory yet to be had. 

I know that my own personal journey this month has led me to a deeper longing for the presence and hope of Christ in a much more profound way.  In days when a passing smile has been difficult to find, I've found myself pressing into the meaning of real, concrete joy and peace.  I don't mean peace in a hippy-esque, peace on earth kind of way.  I mean peace in a real, abiding, strengthening, transcendent kind of way.  And I think it's impossible to understand what the joy and peace of Christ actually are if you haven't dealt with pain, disappointment, or darkness.  I've come to believe that it's the darkness we encounter that makes us long for the light.

And while I long for the fullness of Christ to come and dwell, I'm also thankful for glimpses of the light to come.  While dealing with my own struggles and seeing the struggles of those around me, I am reminded that God gives us grace even as we wait.  I'm reminded of the light  of a dear friend who is planning a surprise trip for me in February.  I'm reminded of light as the  friend I mentioned earlier, who even in difficult moments, finds ways to make her child laugh as he spends time in a hospital bed.  I'm reminded of friends who give me the grace to cry.  I'm reminded of the power of others believing for us and having hope for us, when hope seems hard to grasp on to.  I'm reminded that there is always, always hope.  And the darkness and waiting of Advent leads us to a time when the darkness will fade away and give way to victory, peace, and the splendor of day.

Nothing could sum this up better than words from my favorite Christmas/Advent hymn:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

Rejoice, for He is coming.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, December 16, 2013

All Grown Up

When I was in seminary, I took a class called "Discipleship Development in Young and Middle Adulthood."  Basically, we discussed how and when people develop from the ages of 20-ish on up.  It was one of my favorite classes, and I loved thinking about how development happens.  Yes.  I recognize how nerdy that statement sounds.

Although I took this class over 5 years ago, there was one very specific revelation that stuck with me.  Throughout the class, we were asked to think about this question: when do people feel like they've become an adult?  We discussed a lot of significant marker events like graduating from college, finding one's first job, and of course, getting married.  We also discussed how many other cultures have certain rites of passage that serve to concretely communicate to one that he or she is now an adult.  I realized that, for the most part, we don't really have that in the West.  The revelation I previously referred to is this: are weddings the primary rite of passage we have for adulthood in our culture?  It's at that time that we often talk about setting up a home, the beginning of real life, and all the responsibilities that come with marriage.  When a woman gets married, she is typically given a plethora of home-oriented gifts (kitchen ware, dishes, home furnishings).  It's at the point of entering into marriage that we see that folks are really ready for these items.

When this is the case, what happens when you are all of a sudden 35 and not married?  Are you any less of an adult?  I certainly don't think so.  What's the rite of passage for folks who, for various reasons, didn't get a wedding shower?

Having this revelation has prompted me to think about those times that made me feel particularly adult-like.  There have been a lot of them, but they've snuck in quietly in the night, not really pronouncing themselves.  However, those moments have been important, nonetheless.

So, here's my list of things that have made me (or others, as not all of these are mine) feel like I've become an adult.  Some of these happened a long time ago, some more recently.

-Hosting my first holiday meal (in particular, the making of the ever-intimidating turkey)
-The first time I asked for dishes for Christmas
-The first time I signed a lease on an apartment
-The first time I made a purchase over $200
-The first time I drove more than an hour on my own
-The year I realized I had enough items in my home to officially decorate for Christmas without needing to borrow anything
-Having a desire to buy a grill and gardening items
-Getting my first full-time job
-The first time I had to get my own medical insurance

What would you add to this list?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Discipline of Play

In my adult life, I’ve come to realize, I’ve never been that great at figuring out how to have fun.

There are many times when I do things because they seem fun.  However, “having” fun on a consistent basis has been a much different story.  In other words, I’m bad at playing. 

As a child, I had no problem with this.  I could “go outside and play.”  I loved to swim and jump on trampolines in the summer with my cousins, I awaited with bated breath the beginning of camp each June and July, I loved to attend sleepovers, I loved playing soccer and basketball.  

Somewhere between junior high sleepovers and my 30-something self, something changed.
As a young adult, I became zealous and excited about being a Christian and about being in ministry.  While that is something I would never change, I think that I became so serious about the spiritual life that I forgot that play is integral to understanding who I am as a daughter of God.  

I forgot that God created me to enjoy Him and His creation.  I forgot that who I am (complete with my weird interests, desires, and penchant for enjoyment) is important to God and to the folks around me.  I forgot that loving other people and enjoying what God has created go hand in hand.  I forgot that seeking joy often means being willing and able to enjoy the life around me.  

I have, in the past, struggled here and there with depression and anxiety.  In my quest to fix what was wrong, I’ve taken the approach that I must be serious about figuring out my quirks.  I’ve wondered so much about what is the exact right or wrong thing to do or way to be.  I’ve been surrounded, for the past several years (very intentionally), by folks with serious things going on, and I've been fortunate to share those stories and the gravity those stories have carried.

In the past several months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to play.  I’ve realized that I don’t do this well, out of fear that I’ll become self-absorbed (which is a form of self-absorption itself, I suppose).  All of these thoughts have led me to an important practice: having fun.  I’ve started contradancing, hiking, walking in the evenings, enjoying more time with friends, among other things.  For me, I’ve realized that play is very closely linked to being active, so I’m gearing myself more towards those activities.  

I’ve come to see the art of play as a spiritual practice.  For me, being intentional about play has helped me to engage in life and to gain a deeper understanding about those things that bring me joy.  With that, I’ve learned more about how I’m wired.

Being willing to play has reminded me that in the midst of difficult life situations and circumstances and hurtful people that there is always joy to be found.

Being willing to play has reminded me of the many gifts that God has given.  It’s helped me to think about what it means to truly enjoy God, instead of striving for perfection all the time
Being willing to play has taken me away from myself and the problems that I so often focus on.

Being willing to play has helped me cultivate both joy and peace.

Being willing to play has encouraged me to remember that life is so much deeper and so much simpler than I want to make it.

Being willing to play has forced me out of the prison of my own self-analyzing tendencies.  

Being willing to play has given me perspective.

Being willing to play has been a great avenue for ministry and for inviting others into Kingdom life.  

Being willing to play has enabled me to see things with a clearer mind.

I realize that the “discipline of play” very well may sound like an oxymoron.  However, it’s been a needed thing for me.  Whether it’s through the avenue of being creative, writing, taking my dog for a walk, or doing a really weird form of folk dancing that most people have never heard of, this revelation has been life-giving for me.   

I think there’s a very real reason that most adults long for the lives that kids live.  They know how to play and find joy without distraction.  Ever seen a kid on a swing at a playground?  I’m not sure that there’s a freer or more joyful expression on a person’s face.  Life can be difficult and there are things that as adults, we must focus on.  But I also think there’s something about living a life of disciplined joy that we often miss.