Knowing the Festal Shout

14   Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; *
love and truth go before your face.
15   Happy are the people who know the festal shout! *
they walk, O LORD, in the light of your presence.
Psalm 89

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of LOVE.

I feel like pilgrims were slighted this year, because of the way the calendar worked out, the candle of love only gets a few hours of special attention before we light the Christ candle tonight. It doesn’t seem right, it’s the backbone for all the other candles it forms the promise that grants us hope and it enables us to live in peace when the waiting is too long. It’s the strength that brings us joy and leads us to worship in all circumstances. Given that John explains to us that God IS love, glazing over this candle for only a few hours on our way to Bethlehem is a serious tragedy.

In the book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris says on the topic of God’s love, “We praise God not to celebrate our own faith, but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and to let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us into his own.” Before we know this is true, we crave  it.  We want to be known, loved, and saved. We want to know God is with us, day in, day out, in our messy stables, our smelly fishing boats, and our Zacchaeus trees.  We all wrestle to discover if this promise of sacrificial, unshakable love is true, and accepting it is scary. We know the love will save us, but it will also change us. It will prune and refine, and sometimes that will hurt. But the promise is so good, we exalt when we finally accept it.

If we are lucky, there’s a few times in our own lives where we get to share this godly vow of love with other people. Maybe it’s in front of friends and family at a wedding, or through clenched teeth during the labor pains in a delivery room, or while holding the hand of an aging parent. The divine love we give to each other – the one that requires more than we are able to give, that stretches us thin and reveals the weaknesses in our carefully polished exteriors- that love is the glue that holds us together as a civilization. It drives us towards progress, peace treaties, and charity. It keeps us from turning dysfunctional family reunions into the final chapter of Lord of the Flies. It’s the closest thing we have to scientific proof of that God is with us.

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These vows are life changing, and we enter into them trembling, with equal parts awe, excitement and terror. I think back to these moments in my own life, and wonder what it was like on the way to Bethlehem. Surely Mary was bursting with it, as Joseph said he would help her raise the baby, and later as the first contractions struck her with the reality of raising a savior. I’m certain that Joseph tried to comfort her in those last moments with his own excitement, but I’m equally sure that his eyes betrayed the overwhelming fear and uncertainty that lingered in his own heart. And what about the other living things of the earth, the ones without consciousness of good and evil, the plants and the animals?  Could they sense the anticipation in the heavens that was stirring, ready and waiting for the moment to burst forth and proclaim the glory?

When I was a kid, my family would travel with friends to their cabin in Canada in the summer. Even in August, the air temperature rarely rose above 80, and the water was always frigid. It was a primitive cabin, with no running water or showers, however there was a sauna. For a proper bath the tradition was to sweat off all the nastiness and grime of the day in the sauna, and then run down the dock as fast as you could and jump into the lake. It had to be done this way, because if you stopped to dip a toe into the water, or tried to ease yourself down the ladder, you would not get in. The cold would be too intense and you would lie to yourself, saying you maybe didn’t smell that bad.  Maybe that wasn’t really dirt and fish grime on your legs, it was possibly just a nasty, uneven tan. But really if you were to get clean, you must run down the dock and jump, holding the fear and thrill in equal parts to the last airborne second before you submerged. The water was always an intense shock, and it felt like the icy chill sunk deep into your soul as it washed the grime off of every single cell in your body. Everyone that bathed this way would kick back up to the surface and let out the perfect primal scream, so loud that everyone still inside the cabin could hear. It came to be known through the years as “the festal shout.”

Mothers know this festal shout quite deeply during labor. It’s the last cry given, after the crowning, but before the birth. It burns with pain and jubilee, part curse and part exultation. It holds the knowing, but not knowing how the grandness of new life will change you forever. It holds the pain as the great reservoir of love inside you cracks wide open and overflows, but leaves you with an open wound in your heart that will be vulnerable forever.  I imagine that Mary was no different from any other mom in this way, that with her final push she cried out too. The difference was that in that moment the whole earth echoed her shout, and continues to do so to this day, because the promise was that unto all of us the child would be born.  We share in Mary’s last cry of anguish and elation as we open up the vulnerability of our souls to his love.  In our baptism we know it, as we come up shocked and gasping for air, but also crying out hallelujah because we are so loved.

We are the people of the festal shout.

*     *     *

Today O Lord, despite our trembling, and our reluctance to let You look into the deepest, most brutal parts of our soul, we are happy that we know this shout. We sing, dance and cry with elation that your love saves, changes and creates. Shine Your light on us, we pray, that we may walk in it, and let us join together with all of heaven and creation in the chorus of exultation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

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Embracing JOY

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:1, 10-11

 

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today we light the pink candle on the advent wreath, the candle of JOY.

My kids were in their first Christmas pageant this year, starting this right of passage, as almost every small child does, by singing in the angel choir. It may have been a misstep in parenting, but I also chose to read them “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at bedtime in lead up to their own participation. I had never read the book as a child and knew nothing about the plot, but it is crazy! I filled their head with all sorts of ways to be disruptive.   

For those of you who also have not read it, the story centers around a group of siblings known as the Herdmans. They are dirty kids, four boys and two girls, who live in a garage with a pet that is rumored to be part bobcat. They bully everyone, steal whatever they want, smoke cigars (even the girls) and burn things down for fun. They certainly are not your typical church people, but lured by a rumor of cookies and candy, they find themselves there on the same Sunday that they’re giving out parts for the annual Christmas pageant. Imogene, the oldest girl, decides she wants to be Mary, so they bully their way into the main parts, threatening to plant pussy willows in the ears of anyone else who would try to audition. The Herdmans have never heard the Christmas story, but they find themselves reflected in the Holy Family, living in unsuitable housing, a baby sleeping in a makeshift bed, dirty and without allies. They become protective over the baby, and they bring him a ham, because it’s a better gift than perfume.

The highlight of the story for my kids was Gladys. She plays the angel that came to the shephersa, and is the only one with a line in the whole pageant which is problematic because she’s not angelic. She shouts and snarls, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” at the shepherds and then chases them to the manger, and they are legit terrified of her. As soon as my kids put on their own wings, they started tearing through the house shouting this line at each other and they’re little brothers.  They acted out her part perfectly, with equal parts mischief and glee, but little did they know they had actually latched onto one of the most profound truths of the story.

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It was terrifying. It is still.  Sometimes good news is that way, because it’s change, and it comes in ways we don’t expect, which overwhelms us.  We receive hope, and it sounds amazing, we’re excited. And then we wait, and we feel silly for having been excited. We need peace, and slowly as we grow we become okay with waiting. But then, slap out of nowhere, SHAZAM! Someone comes along to tell us God is here. This very day, and it’s a little bit terrifying.  Dare we even go see? Dare we actually stand in the presence of our fulfilled hope? Can we handle that joy?

Gladys wasn’t so different from Isaiah. After bringing and sharing the good news, Isaiah is exploding with it himself. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD. My whole being shall exult in my God.”  He’s overflowing with the power of it, calling on every decent metaphor he can find to exhort and encourage the people. He tells them righteousness and praise will shoot up like sprouts in a garden.

Good news brings rejoicing, but it also brings change. It means being ready to leave the mantle of our faint spirit in favor of the mantle of praise. Paul pushes us into accepting it though, “Rejoice always, Pray without Ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”(1 Thesalonians 5:16-18) it seems like an impossible task! But the good news that we celebrate is threefold. First that Christ came as Jesus and second that he is coming again, but the life changing news for today is that he abides with us here and now, too. We are not alone in anything, and his spirit is a gift to lead and comfort us as we grow. He’s not asking you to be a sunshiny, goofy smiled, person all the time, or to ignore that your life is not perfect, just to acknowledge that when you draw into his presence nothing else will matter. Our whole being will exult. He urges us to press into that truth continually.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to a new church since we moved. We visited a lot of places and finally settled on one, but I feel out of place.  I’ve moved almost 20 times in my life, but we had been at that particular church for seven whole years. It was a record length of time for me to be investing in one community. I miss that. I miss the sense of belonging somewhere, and the security that feeling brings.  It’s been hard to sit through sermons occasionally and awkward making conversation afterwards, but my good news has been that none of that matters during worship, because of the overwhelming sense of joy it brings. I know in worship that I’m with God. It hasn’t mattered if I was 40 years younger than everyone else, if the sermon was about dinosaurs instead of the bible, or even if the lady leading worship was playing an out of tune piano and singing three octaves too high. Being in God’s presence is the only renewing source of joy, no matter how dysfunctional the setting.  

The encouragement for us mortals in this season of penance is that no matter how bad you’ve messed things up, how beaten up you’ve been, or how stressful your circumstance, you are not alone, and this is not the end.  Abiding in that truth will bring you joy. You will rejoice.  You will have the good vision to give thanks in all circumstances. Listen to that pushy but excited angel shouting at you, and don’t dare doddle behind because it might seem scary. Go be with God. Receive the gift of joy.

HEY! Unto YOU a child is born.  

Peace and Preparation

     Last week our family lit the second candle of Advent, which was the Candle of Peace. Depending on your church’s traditions it’s also called the Candle of Preparation, and the scriptures that week were all about the journey to Bethlehem or people preparing for Jesus’ arrival. When I think about preparing for something, I usually feel stress, so how did these two concepts get linked at Christmas?

     I adore all of the traditions of Christmas, and I have some pretty high expectations for how much good cheer I should be exuding. I work hard to give lovely, meaningful gifts to everyone I can afford. I want to sing, and feel joyful, and share God’s love with my family and neighbors. But trying to maintain a cheerful glow through the pushy shoppers and counters of overworked sales clerks requires the peace that passes all understanding. That peace is of course a supernatural gift, and it is hard to receive it when you’re stressing out over a long to-do list… And travelling to see family…And still managing every other responsibility in your life.

I hear lots of people advising Christians to be still, to take time to feel the peace God has given them, to free themselves from the worldly stress that Christmas brings. I dont feel that this is wrong, its just seems so impossible. Christmas preparations are completed with limited time and money. As the day approaches and both things begin to run out, its inevitably stressful.

Strangely enough to me, the times when I have most successfully maintained attitudes of peace and joy were when I was 9 months pregnant. No one expected much of me. Other moms knew that I was too tired and my feet were too swollen to go shopping. The doctor forbid me to travel and I didn’t even send a Christmas card. Most people were just pleased that my pregnant brain fog cleared enough to remember to wish them a Merry Christmas instead of a Happy Halloween.wp-1481778438609.jpg

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My physical situation forced me to be more still than I was comfortable with at Christmas time, but having less to do gave me more time to relate to the beauty of the birth story. I couldn’t listen to Silent Night without sobbing, because rocking even an ordinary infant in the still of night is a holy experience. I could feel promises of hope and a future stirring in my own belly, but what would it be like to be visited by angels? And to be promised a baby who is not only a savior, but also the son of God? There is always a celebration when a newborn arrives, but how could Mary even begin to process the heavenly host singing, kings from distant lands coming to visit, and strangers proclaiming her newborn was the long awaited Messiah? More than all these things I would wonder, how could God love her, love all of us humans, enough to send us His own son? Especially since we habitually deny His authority over us.  Like Mary, I too, would sit up late at night, pondering these things in my heart.

Now that I’m done (God willing) having babies, it’s hard to continue the pondering. I remember the promises and the excitement, but I don’t feel them the same way. Was Mary like that too? Perhaps she struggled with worry and fear just like I do. I know she cried after Jesus had been lost for days, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously,”(Luke 2:48).  The least peaceful noise in my life is listening to my children bicker, but Jesus had siblings, too. Considering his brothers showed up 30 years later telling people he was insane (Mark 3:21), I think Mary’s other children probably bickered too.  I imagine Mary followed the tradition of many good mothers by forcing all of her children outside, just so she could have the peace of that Holy night for only a few minutes.  Did she too remember those promises of peace, joy, hope and love, but struggle to still feel their power?

My husband and I are raising 4 boys, between the ages of 2 and 8. We’re training a needy puppy not chew on the furniture, and a toddler to pee in the potty at the same time. This Christmas I’m behind on just about everything, including sleep. Hearing there’s a promise to bring peace to my life seems almost as laughable as promising a virgin peasant she’s going to give birth to a king. But I think feeling like life is stressful and chaotic is truly more of a blessing than being pregnant at Christmas time. It makes me relate less to the beauty of the birth story, and the more to the purpose of it. I relate to the rest of the imperfect people that needed saving in Israel.  Like  Zaccheus, Matthew, Peter, Paul, and all the others who were living in the land of deep darkness. The ones on whom the light shined so brilliantly (Isaiah 9:2).    

Real preparation is stressful and the world we live in is not a peaceful place! But the best gifts are ones that the recipient has a great need for, and cannot acquire for themself. The stress of life and of Christmas preparation makes us know how desperate we are for a savior. The ones most elated about Jesus’ arrival are the ones who know how hopeless they are without him.  Jesus said, “…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Lk 5:31‭-‬32 NIV

     God sent John the Baptist to prepare us. His father prophesied,

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;

For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,

To give knowledge of salvation to His people

By the remission of their sins,

Through the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;

To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Lu 1:76‭-‬79 NKJV

And years later, when the people asked John himself how they should prepare, he said,

“Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance…He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”  Lu 3:8‭, ‬11 NKJV

    So as Christmas approaches and the chaos of finishing the preparations increases, I will listen to John. My inability to finish the to-do list and constantly spread joy will make me acnowledge my need for salvation.  Snapping at my children while shopping and baking will impress upon me my great need for forgiveness.  Receiving that tender mercy will relieve me from every burden, and like the wise men, I will “rejoice with exceedingly great joy.” (Matt 2:10)

And like Mary, sing, “For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name,” Luke 1:49
And like Elizabeth, Zacharia, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and everyone else throughout history who had that light shining on them, guiding them into the way of peace.

But I won’t forget John’s instructions, to bear fruit worthy of repentance no matter how stressful it is, because that is the true essence of spreading God’s love at Christmas. To not only prepares ourselves, but also our neighbors.

It is good to search for God’s presence, and be still during Christmas. Jesus already came and granted us access to the peace of his presence. But its also okay to embrace the stress of preparation, and to let it remind you how desperately dark and chaotic  Israel was when Jesus arrived. Let it remind you how badly you need his peace and how utterly incapable you are of finding it for without him.

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Lord Jesus,
   Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
   We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
   We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
   We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
   We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
   We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
   To you we say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
   Amen.

             -Henri Nouwen

Advent 2016

Today is the first day of Advent! Do you celebrate? Do you know what it is?  Advent is one of the things I really miss about traditional church.  How do you feel during the weeks leading up to Christmas? Maybe the overwhelming spirit of materialism makes you sad, or maybe you feel only stress and long for some peace. Maybe you just really want your kids to know they are receiving a gift infinitely bigger than video games or lego sets.

Advent is a 4 week season to remind us that Christmas is about hope, peace, joy and love. It allows us time to realize we are doomed by our sin and lets us prepare our hearts for the arrival of our savior. By Christmas day we are ready to celebrate the savior who keeps his promises, loves abundantly, and will never abandon us.

If you’ve celebrated Advent the same way your whole life, maybe this is the year to do something different. There are many Advent traditions that have evolved over the past 2000 years, some are ancient and some are brand new.  I love how the Holy Spirit continues to push and inspire us to find new ways to relive this familiar story. Sometimes a change in practice allows us to see the story in a new light, or from a different character’s point of view.

If you’ve decided to practice Advent this year, I compiled some resources to help you and/or your family. I have used them myself and with my family. They have given me new ways to think about familiar scriptures, and have led our hearts away from the frenzied consumerism and back toward the earth altering event in Bethlehem.

The Advent wreath has 4 candles on the outside, with a large one in the middle, and it visits a different part of the Christmas story each week. It varies from church to church, but the point is to cover major themes: the prophecies which bring hope, the preparation which (oddly enough) brings peace, the shepherds who receive joy, and the angels who sang of God’s gift as love. Finally, on Christmas day, you light the Christ candle to remember his humble but awesome birth.  Lighting the Advent wreath is my favorite Christmas memory from childhood. Each Saturday night we would gather around the wreath, my parents would trust me to strike matches, and we would light the new candle. We followed the same litany each year, which was a poetic combination of scriptures, prayers, Christmas hymns, and a specific reading for kids to tell what the candle was about.

There are many scripts to use for lighting the candles online if you google Advent wreath scripts, but this one is my favorite for families and young children:

https://mikemilton.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/advent-readings-and-lighting/

Jesse Trees  show us how the Christmas story relates to the rest of the bible with a new ornament and bible story each day.  I usually gather the trimmings from the tree and put them in a vase. Some people buy a small table top tree, or just put the ornaments on their larger family tree. The reading plans go through the major bible stories chronologically and help us trace God’s promise and our need for a savior through history.  When you’re finished with the bible story, hang an ornament relating to the story on the tree. You can buy ornaments, or make them, or just print the ornaments and color them.

Ann Voskamp has perfected the Jesse tree, she has written beautiful books for adults and families. The books take you through the scriptures with devotionals and matching ornaments (which you can print for free or buy.)

annvoskamp.com/thegreatestchristmas/

Holy Heroes also offers an Advent Adventure program, which is a  combination of Advent wreath prayers and Jesse tree ornamets. Each day you get an email with a new video, and links to activity pages, prayers, and kids devotionals. This is a Catholic resource, so I skip the parts about mass and about praying the rosary, but if you’ve never celebrated advent before those parts may help understand the history and the symbolism of advent. The Jesse tree links have their own videos and printables though, and can be used across denominations.  The other awesome part about program is its FREE!

Sign up for your daily email here –holyheroes.com/Holy-Heroes-Advent-Adventure-s/48.htm

A Christmas Craft Calendar is very similar to the Jesse tree, but focuses more on the Christmas story and less on the entire Old Testament.  

A list or crafts and bible stories can be found at  truthinthetinsel.com 

Every day you create an ornament with your kids for the tree, and read the scripture that corresponds. The ornaments are fairly simple, made with common craft supplies. If you think your kids would love it, but 25 days of crafting sounds crazy, don’t fret! There are shorter plans, with ornaments for just 5 or 10 days. There are also backup printable ornaments that only need to be colored if you’re missing the supplies on any given day. I would recommend it for kids between 4 and 10, although I had a lot fun helping my kids last year and I’m 35.

Photo challenge is for visually minded learners, and maybe teens who want nothing to do with things like circle time or coloring pages. A photo challenge has a list of Advent keyword topics relating to the lectionary readings for the day. Snap a photo that embodies the topic and keep it in a gallery to meditate on, or share it on Instagram/facebook/twitter/whatever to minister to your friends and other visually minded people.

rethinkchurch.org/articles/spirituality/2016-advent-photo-a-day-practice

Bible journaling- Have you seen the art people draw in their bibles? Search  #biblejournaling and prepare to be amazed! It’s a beautiful outlet for people who are crafty AND inspired by scripture to put those talents together.  Drawing, writing, painting, or crafting in response to the word challenges creative minds to see familiar Christmas scriptures in entirely new ways.  Scripture Writing is for the person who loves the idea of bible journaling but is about as crafty as a lumberjack. Scripture writing is basically copywork for grownups- copy down the daily scripture, (about 5 verses) word for word.  It can be in beautiful calligraphy with embellishments, or written on a legal pad in pencil. Pray over the passage, and scan it for words and phrases that God is speaking to you. Then highlight these things, or retrace them, while thanking God for his faithfulness.

The benefit of both practices is that you’re engaged with the Word, removing the temptation to space out while reading the parts that you’ve read 100 times. Both practices can be done year round, but there are special resources to help you focus on Advent.

Journaling: seasonsillustrated.com/announcing-advent-illustrated-2016-calendar/

Scripture Writing (starts dec.1) thebusymom.com/scripturewriting

Devotionals Almost everybody puts out an Advent devotional, there are several inspiring ones for free on the YouVersion bible app. The ladies at She Reads Truth also deliver goodness every single day, and they expand their offerings during Advent to minister to kids and hubbies too! Their workbooks are beautiful and worth the price, but you can also follow the readings and devotionals daily for free on their website. shopshereadstruth.com/collections/advent-2016

Daily reading-shereadstruth.com 

I hope you and your family will take the time this next month to celebrate Advent! If none of these resources work for you, I hope you will at least be intrigued by the concept and find your own way to celebrate.