It’s getting to that time of year when I’m reflecting a lot and trying to figure out if people really can change. Every December I feel like I get to a mental state similar to any seeded sports tournament: survive and advance. And in the midst of the surviving and advancing, my brain spends time planning the future, and how I might be able to be just a millimeter better in the coming year.
Today I arrived at church a little earlier than usual so I could sit and listen to the organist and write, and see if my mind would start to figure out what and how I could change for 2020. And then I saw the title of the sermon: courage.
It takes a great deal of courage to change, and I really do feel like I’m careening toward a crossroads in every possible aspect of my life. I am skittish about changes I can control, and terrified about changes I cannot. And it would be so easy to just put my head down, maintain the status quo, and hope nothing changes at all.
I’m finding it hard to write about advent this week, probably because early in the service one of the pastors today paraphrased a passage from Winnie-the-Pooh: “you are braver than you believe, and you are stronger than you seem.”
She related it to Mary and Joseph, and how much courage it took for both of them to embark on the parenting journey that was asked of them. But it stopped me in my tracks and I didn’t think about much else the rest of the service, or the rest of the day, really.
Change is scary, and I don’t think there’s any hierarchy to it–one kind of change isn’t scarier than any other. But we can be brave, and we can be strong, and some changes will be painful and others joyful. And the best part of Advent is a renewed focus that through it all, Jesus is constant.
It’s been a few years since I actively celebrated Advent or even decorated for Christmas, and given the past four months and the general emotional upheaval I’ve felt, I wasn’t sure I was going to do much this year to celebrate.
The gingerbread festival that has, for the past 20 years, been a stake of stability in my efforts to feel any yuletide spirit has been discontinued, I’m no longer teaching piano lessons where I spend December playing fun Christmas duets with my students, I’m not playing the primo part of a 4-hand accompaniment in the school Christmas concert.
And since I’m taking a sabbatical from my church right now, I’m not singing in any Christmas concerts or programs or playing the piano for any soloists.
All the usual pulls toward celebrating Christmas are gone this year.
I wasn’t raised with a liturgical Advent, but in recent years, I’ve felt drawn to it, so I observed it as best I could, using resources I found online. But I went to a church today, one I’ve been attending off and on for the past few months, to see what it would be like to observe the first Sunday of Advent with others.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left the service with two commissions from the pastors.
Commission one: “May our hearts be open to the unexpected places where we encounter the sacred light of God that leads us toward hope.”
How many unexpected places might I encounter God’s light this month? I will spend hours at school teaching, working basketball games, supervising newspaper deadline, helping with musical auditions. I will spend time with friends and family and see movies and read books. The commission to be open to God’s light reminds me that I can find it in so many places, and will have opportunities to be that light to others.
Commission two: “May we see every Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.”
I’ve never thought of a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope. Instead, I’ve seen it as a symbol of what I don’t have. As I’ve often said to friends when they ask if I’m decorating for Christmas, “Why should I put up a tree when there’s nothing to put under it?”
But shifting my Christmas paradigm a bit to see a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope feels revolutionary, subversive even. I think of the ornaments I’ve collected over the years—gifts from students, tokens from places I’ve traveled, heirlooms from family members—and my Christmas tree morphs into a symbol of a life well-lived.
Hope, as our culture has come to define it, can be hard. When coupled with faith, we tend to equate it with wishing for things: an illness to heal, a child to love, a spouse to care for. Or maybe we hope-wish for a better home, an air fryer, or the latest tech gadget. And when those hope-wishes don’t materialize, it can feel like hope is futile and faith is weak.
But what if the biblical definition of hope points us to something else entirely, something unrelated to dipping our toes in the prosperity gospel pool?
Looking at the Greek base, the word hope is more closely related to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.
Those words as synonyms for hope carry a purer meaning for this first week of Advent—the expectation that Christ will come, the confidence of what His coming means for the entire world in terms of peace and salvation.
Reframing my definition of hope is vital to observing Advent and celebrating Christmas, because I do expect Christ to come, and I expect that with confidence. A biblical hope isn’t reliant on medicine or biology or another person’s choices or how much money is in my bank account. A biblical hope is simply expecting Jesus to come, to teach, to save.
So despite my usual feeling that putting up a tree and other Christmas decorations is a general waste of my time, this year I’m going to pull out the tubs of ornaments and nativities and try to remember that what they all truly represent is hope.
If there was ever a year I needed to observe Advent, this is it. Since I’m new to Advent, and it’s not something observed at my church, I forget that it starts right after Thanksgiving. So it’s 9:43 p.m. on the first day of Advent and I still have so much to do before heading to bed and starting a long week.
As usual, I’ve slacked on the blogging as of late. And I don’t really have anything profound or insightful to share.
The third week of advent I focused on creating a Sunday School lesson for my Mormon adult Sunday School class that was about advent. I studied hope, preparation, joy and love and figured out a packaging that I could share with my fellow congregants how much I’ve come to enjoy Advent, even though we don’t observe it. It turned out pretty good, I think.
And now it’s Christmas Eve Eve, and I’m taking a break from reading a murder mystery and watching Jessica Jones to watch some more festive programming. In doing so, I came across this song, which I think you all should at the very least, read the source text. It’s beautiful, and it reflects my own evolution of what Christmas is starting to mean to me.
I knew in October that this past week was going to be brutal.
Next-to-last week of the semester means students scrambling to turn in work. To stay on track with curriculum, I had to give a test this week as well as grade the final story in my journalistic writing class. So I had piles and piles to grade.
The school Christmas concert (which I was playing in this year) was Monday and Tuesday.
The church Christmas concert was tonight, and we had a 90 minute dress rehearsal last night.
Plus, Friday began newspaper deadline.
Since October, I’ve been looking at this week, anticipating all kinds of fatigue and anger and basic emotional meltdown.
Instead, I was productive and able to keep my world relatively peaceful and calm. I was busy, but not frazzled. I was tired, but not dragging. In short, I felt lifted up.
Tuesday night as I waited for my entrance in the choir concert, I sent this to my friend Angie, from that day’s Advent reading: “God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous.”
This week had all the makings of despair and lowliness. But God worked wonders this week, and made it marvelous.