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

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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.