Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

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Three Hardest Waits

Waiting is a pain in the butt. I don’t care who you are, waiting is irritating, frustrating, disappointing (at times), and ulcer-inducing. Waiting is the hateful bully who comes by every day to give you a good wallop and then chuckle as it walks away. Waiting is the annoying sound of water dripping somewhere in the house when you’re trying to sleep, but you’ve already checked every faucet. In short, no one enjoys waiting.

See, there’s anticipation, which is fun, but as Lewis Black has stated, “Anticipation is the best part of any activity.” His pragmatic take then goes on to reference that no matter how good something is, the anticipation had built up the event so much that only disappointment could result. I don’t agree… but I don’t disagree either. (Also, I cannot recommend his comedy… just enjoy his role in Inside Out as Anger.)

There are three waits that I can remember clearly in my life. These three waits seemed long, but ultimately seemed worth it. Well, I’m still in the middle of one, but that just means I’m that much more qualified, right? Is that how it works?

Christmas, as a child. Do I need to write more? They’ve scientifically shown that waiting for Christmas at a young age is the equivalent of waiting a year later in life due to time perception differences. I remember Christmas Eve feeling like a year or two in itself. School was out, so there was nothing during the day to take my mind off of the events of the next morning. After the evening service and then an evening at my grandfather’s, the waiting would begin in earnest. My stomach would be tied up in knots, my mind racing with what might be waiting for me when I awoke. I would lie awake for what felt like weeks, just wanting the sweet release of sleep. Christmas Eve doesn’t seem to last so long anymore, and in fact, this last year, due to changes in circumstances, my evening was completely free. The night went by so quickly I hardly had time to blink before it was gone.

My wedding day. Yeah, yeah, rib me all you want, but you try standing peacefully while your grandfather-in-law stands beside you and tells you all kinds of stories of weddings going horribly wrong. That morning seemed to drag on despite the getting dressed, pictures, and other rituals surrounding the wedding itself. The moment when my wife-to-be would walk into the room seemed like an eternity away. I kept looking at my watch willing it to go faster to give me some relief. Eventually, though, the moment came and my wife entered the room, resplendent as the dawn. (Followed by almost six years of marriage, which has flown by.)

Waiting for my baby to get here. I mean, sure, “Little Bit” is just a few inches away, tucked inside my wife’s tummy. But still, it’s hard to wait until I can hold my kid in my arms for the first time. (Yes, I’m being coy with the gender here. We just found out and my wife hasn’t given me the go-ahead to announce it to the world.) I also know some friends who are waiting for kids of their own, too. Their wait is different, and maybe even tougher. They are on waiting lists, receiving news at a snail’s pace as the days seem to drag on. While I have an approximate date to hang onto, they are drifting out on a sea of waiting.

And I wonder about God waiting, too. We know that “God is patient, wanting everyone to come to repentance.” I have to wonder how deep His patience is for that happening. I wonder what knots God’s stomach turned sending Jesus to earth and then waiting for that moment of resurrection. I wonder how often God checks His watch waiting for His own bride to enter the room, dressed in spotless white. I wonder how God feels waiting on His children to be reborn, remade into the image of Jesus.

What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait? How do you tell that story? Where do you see touches of God’s presence in the waiting? How do you use waiting with your kids to help them experience patience?

Waiting on Expecting

There are a few things that a person needs to have to work with kids: a deep love for children, infectious curiosity, an encouraging heart, and abiding patience. I would also suggest that perhaps a smidgen of insanity never hurts, but too much insanity leads to enjoying middle and high school age students. (Sorry, for those that aren’t familiar, Children’s and Youth ministers have inside jokes about who’s more responsible and which group is actually crazier.)

Anyway, our culture has very little patience for waiting. Most of us pay an extra fee every year just to get free two-day shipping from Amazon. We’ve bought Keurig machines to give us nearly instantaneous coffee. And I have even seen some people get frustrated with a microwave being too slow. Regardless, instant gratification is in our culture and there is very little in the way of media to combat it. In fact, it may be getting worse. Before Netflix and Hulu, we would have to wait a whole week for a new episode of our favorite show, but now entire seasons are dropped at once and the binge can proceed with vigor!

Which brings us to just how many stories in the Bible are about waiting. Abraham and Sarah wait not only for their promised child, but also the promise of a permanent home, and land. Jacob and Rachel wait not only for a child, but for their permanent home as well, Jacob dying in a foreign land. Moses waits patiently for years for freedom and the promised land, and dies before reaching it. David waits for years to become king until the previous king, Saul, passes away. The prophets wait anxiously for God’s rescue and for Israel’s repentance. The exiles wait in sorrow for the return to Jerusalem, and then for the ultimate end of exile when God comes to rule. And now, in that same vein, Jesus’ followers are also now waiting in the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom’s arrival when God will set everything right again.

As we can see, there is a long tradition of waiting on the Lord. God takes the long view and has impeccable timing. He also often works in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. Isaac is not the firstborn, but the youngest who inherits the Covenant blessing of family and land. Joseph and Benjamin are the youngest of Jacob’s children, but Joseph ends up saving the entire family by going through a waiting period of suffering. Moses is able to experience God’s faithfulness, and, for those of us who’ve read the Gospel accounts, stands in the Promised Land alongside Elijah the prophet and Jesus. David becomes a king whose kingdom is established forever. Israel does repent and returns to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the walls.

At every stage the accounts end with a possibility, a new beginning. The story itself is still being written, still working out from those possibilities through those who are open to God’s presence and guidance.

And all of this gives me hope in my own waiting. Some of the first things my wife and I threw at each other while dating were the number of children and their names. (We were an odd couple, and still are. I won her over by being able to make tea in my dorm room and having a Tim Burton movie on standby. Mama always did call me special.) My wife and I knew we wanted kids, and we made sure we waited long enough to have put down some roots. But apparently we weren’t finished waiting. We haven’t received the blessing yet, but we are both hopeful. With each disappointment, each turn of an unfavorable diagnosis, we dig down a little deeper into God’s faithfulness. I hold onto the promises to Abraham, Isaac,  and Jacob, the blessings they received and God’s faithfulness to each. I know that my story hasn’t ended, and I can have hope by remembering God’s story.

Whatever you’re waiting on, hold fast to God’s faithfulness. Continue watching, because, your prayer may be answered in unexpected ways. A child might be dropped at your doorstep, or a foster child may enter your life. You may end up being called “mom” by young people you’ve influenced all over the world through the internet. And, yes, I’m using a lot of child talk here, but it applies across the board. What you expect and what God brings your way are often very different. You might do something crazy like fill out an application you expect to be rejected and find yourself on a plane to China. You just never know.

What are you waiting for? Are your eyes and mind open to what unexpected answer you might receive? Resurrection was unexpected, and still is, so that’s our bar for what to watch out for as we pray and wait!

Patience

Most of us want an adventurous Christianity. We want a journey that takes us into the wild unknown, to fight back the darkness, helping the broken, healing the hurting, and setting the captives free! We want a Christian walk that is full of excitement, thrills, and marvelous, miraculous victories that prove God is King!

But what is the reality we live? We live routine lives which dull our passions, drench our dreams, and force us to reconsider life’s status as a “grand adventure.” The days come in and out, people pass in and our of our lives, and each days seems much like the last on the dreary journey to the grave.

Even Jesus saw this coming. In Luke 21:34-36, Jesus warned his followers about becoming complacent, about shutting their eyes even for a moment. He warned them that the tedium would set in, and if they let it win, then the surprise would be theirs and not in a good way. So what to do?

My elementary age kids are taking a good, hard look at patience this month in our large group time. Patience is something we have all but written out of our daily lives with social media, 24 hour news cycles, instant dinners, and email. In our race for efficiency, we’ve set a trap for ourselves in slowly eroding patience. We say it’s a virtue, but how many people actually practice it anymore?

Jesus had enough forethought to encourage us to keep up our vigilant, patient wait until his return. He encourages us to patiently, with determination continue building the kingdom here on earth. We should not give up, not close our eyes, and not lose hope. Our God is King, and he requires our patience for his grand design. Life is an adventure, it just doesn’t move as quickly as an action movie.

May you be blessed with patience this week.

Cruising

For Christmas, my wife and I were blessed with a fantastic cruise. We so enjoy the worry-free attitude on the ship: no chores, no cooking, no cleaning, and a full week of rest and refreshment to start off the year. Despite some relatively minor frustrations (looking back) of traffic and boarding delays, the week went wonderfully.

One of our favorite past times (which I got from my parents) is “people watching.” Sometimes we simply watch as people go about their lives, and other times we go to great lengths creating stories for why we think a person dresses or behaves a certain way. It can be a fun exercise in creative storytelling, and makes for an interesting hour or so.

One thing I noticed on the cruise was the persistence of entitlement that seemed to be everywhere. We took notice of fellow cruisers raising a fuss and getting angry at the smallest inconveniences. I saw the faces of servers and crew members fall as they realized the immensity of the cruisers’ ire. Several times I became angry at this treatment, resolving to try harder to be kind and graceful myself.

I begin to wonder, though, where this attitude originates. How high does a person’s expectations have to be before they lose all decorum and go on an angry rant because a vegetable snuck its way onto their dinner plate? Does it happen over time living in an affluent society, or does it begin at home?

I wonder if these people watched their parents throw similar fits in restaurants or other establishments. I wonder what would have changed had their parents modeled more graceful behavior at home and in public? Or maybe they saw their friends act this way, or picked it up at college?

Regardless, can we, in the church collectively decide and choose to model polite, graceful behavior to the children in our care? When something goes wrong, can our reaction be one of patience and forgiveness? Maybe we can turn this shocking trend around one family, one child at a time.

And for those of you already modeling this behavior, praise the Lord for you and what you do! Keep it up!