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

wp-1481777635781.jpg

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.

wp-1481719680551.jpg

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

Advertisements

Learning to Rest

My family went on an ill fated hike recently. Our new house is near the Appalachian Trail, and the section that is the closest goes straight uphill.  We had hiked this part several times, but we could never reach the top and the mystery surrounding the summit was powerful. One warm December Saturday we set off early on a mission to discover what was up there.  In my foolishness to not spoil the mystery I hadn’t looked at the map… it turns out you should NEVER do that if you’re hiking with kids.  Another hiker had told me there was a hikers hut (a lean to for camping), but when we asked other people on the trail about it, they only knew that it was close- which turned out to be an extremely relative distance.

We pressed on steadily up the slope, increasingly drawn to the promise of the hut with each step. After a while the kids were even excited about it.

  “You can sleep in it!”

  “It has a well!”

  “And an outhouse!” We told them.

The hike up the mountain was much longer than it looked, but when we finally made it to the top the trail opened up into a breathtaking, isolated meadow.  This section of the trail is very close to civilization, it seemed impossible that such a beautiful place wouldnt be crammed with people. It felt like we had found the Secret Garden. The wind seemed to be whispering to us, “Stop! Enjoy yourself and rest!”

We did not rest though, in fact we didnt even stop walking.

Compelled by the hut, we hiked on. Have you seen a hut? Its kind of cool, like a secret hideout. Its also kind of a sad reminder of how civilized the trail is. And on this particular day, someone told us there was a troop of boyscouts camping there.  So not exciting.

Over an hour later, we still had not reached the hut. We realized, though, that we didnt have enough daylight left to hike back to the car.  There was no moon that night. We had run out of water.  The kids had already reached the point of exhaustion, and it was at least a 2-3 hour hike to get home.

When we got back to the meadow we finally did stop to rest (we had to or the kids would have collapsed) but the rest was tainted with stress. Every minute spent there was a minute we would dangerously be hiking down the rocky trail in the dark.  Where the air before was filled with invitation, now it was filled with regret.

In Luke 10:42 Jesus tells overacheiving Martha that, “…few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (italics mine)

My problem, like Martha’s problem, is surrender.  He is ever so gently telling me to stop, and rest with him- but I am constantly tempted to overburden myself with my ambition. Can you relate? Maybe you desperately want change, but its not the right time. It could be you’re wasting all your energy to be someone you’re not. Sometimes its as ordinary as trying to host a pinterst perfect dinner party when your guests would rather sit and talk.

I wish I fully understood why our desire to find this hut had become so strong, maybe then I would be better at fighting this temptation in other parts of my life.  It’s hard for me to surrender my plans, even when it becomes clear they’re crappy and stressful.  My mom wisely and gently suggests, “We dont have to do the crazy thing,” because she knows the consequences: stress, worry, and doubt.  l will probably snap at my kids and pass that stress on to them. I will use up all my energy and at the same time ignore my responsibilities…I will have a complete lack of peace.

Why is accepting Gods invitation to rest so hard? Many people I know are compulsively burdened by their busy lives. Almost everyone I know complains about it, but when I’ve pressed people to find out why they cant stop, they seem trapped.  There could be many reasons, ranging from pride to a lack of intentional scheduling. But for me, its usually based in fear- fear that if I accept God’s will things wont feel perfect, or my kids will suffer, or that something will be painful…I tend to think if I am not in control, everything I love on earth will fall apart.

Rest is risky. It means trusting God to take care of the things and people you hold most dear.  My heart knows I can trust Him, but my brain still wants to sort the pros and cons according to my own wisdom.

The more time we spend with God, surrendering our will to His, the less enticing our busy plans become.  I’m encouraged by Hebrews 4:16, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The verse before this reminds the reader that Jesus came to earth and He understands our weakness and temptation.

I love that picture of a throne of grace that I can approach without shame, to receive everything I need to cover my lack of trust.

Paul says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:6-7

Constant prayer brings peace, it guards me from the temptation to fear his rest.

I know constant prayer is hard. With 4 kids my days are naturally busy, even if I make no plans.  Finding time to pray may be one of the hardest things about being a mom, but without it I’m lost.

I learned several things on the hike that day, but the lesson that stays with me the most-  more than learning to rest- was to savor God’s great work.

 Just like in hiking, when the destination is my only focus,  I suffer.  The harder the trail gets, the more I watch my feet, and then I miss out on all the ordinary miracles. I can trudge through a whole week, without ever really noticing His glory or power. I want to be like David, who declared, “I will look up!” (Psalm 5:3b)

We took pictures that day, but I didnt realize until I got home that they were all of our kids being goofy.  I love their silly sense of humor, It’s one of my favorite parts of parenting.  It was interesting to me that I have a few pictures of my kids IN the meadow, but none of the meadow itself.

Exploring the inside of the tree

A ‘moose’ in the meadow

Even though we all agreed it was a poorly planned outing, I (and I hope eventually my kids and husband) will always hold it as a fond memory. Even the horrible parts held joy; like the way the boys encouraged each other, how they laughed for 20mn at their dad’s potty humor, and how they all learned they could do so much more than they thought.  These are the things I brought to God in thanksgiving. They remind me that when life brings pain, it often brings joy and promise too.

The next week we hiked to the hut from a closer trailhead and everything was much more peaceful.  I actually looked at the map, brought enough food and water, and left with enough time to get home before dark.  The hut was quite luxurious for a lean to, complete with a porch and adirondack chairs, and I actually cant wait to go camping there.

  The boys were dissapointed that the boy scouts had left, but they did love the outhouse and the well. They were also ready to forgive me for not reaching it the week before. Best of all, they loved eachother, and they found so many awesome things to be joyful about in the forest.  It was certainly not as amazing as finding the meadow, but I tried to hold onto my lessons from the week before.  I tried to savor the memories that were made along the way. I tried to remember that hikes are supposed to be peaceful, and to not push the kids too far.

I am trying. I pray that as I grow I could trust God with the things I hold dear, and enjoy the rest  that trust brings. And that as I grow I will become unshakeable, guarded from temptation by His constant grace.