amid the cold of winter

The weather outside is legitimately frightful.

I stuck my frozen toes inside the warmed oven several times because there is a north wind creeping through all the farmhouse cracks around kitchen windows. And, obviously, the kitchen can’t be avoided with Christmas baking and coffee making and cookie decorating to be done. The winter struggle is real and it’s about to get more frozen when we go Christmas caroling in a few hours.

There are perks to living in an apartment in Brooklyn – and one of those perks is that the heat is regulated for the whole building and always cranked high. But we find other ways to keep warm here – like chasing caped superheroes, putting out pretend fires, and running from sock hand monsters. There is a lot of commotion, but it’s all the good kind covered in giggles and belly laughs.

Tonight is Christmas Eve and we’ve switched up all our traditions this year because of sibling schedules. We are foregoing the three ingredient potato soup that we’ve had every Christmas Eve since I can remember and we already opened gifts yesterday while one of the little ones took a nap.

And, well, some traditions are not as important as Tevye’s deep, throaty voice belting out rolled Rs in Fiddler on the Roof. Some traditions are like frosting or gravy or jam – not the main dish. Today’s deep breaths are about holding on to the main thing – God’s great tradition of peace.

“We are invited to know the peace God extends to his favored ones, those established in a relationship with him through Jesus Christ. This is the soul-satisfying peace of God.” Joann Jung, from The Advent Project

This soul satisfying peace doesn’t look like a certain Christmas schedule or a table spread a particular way. This peace is way, way bigger than that. This peace is about identity – our identity that gets wrapped up into the splendor of a baby King who would later invite us into adoption, as co-heirs of his inheritance.

Identity has been more of a fight lately, which maybe surprises me more than anyone else. I am not timid or insecure or self-conscious, at least that has never before been the case. I’m not too concerned about thrifted fashions and keeping up appearances, but NYC is a sneaky devil about these things.

I have noticed a crack in my armor – a little voice that makes me doubt old shoes and my non-profit destiny. The subway stares and coffee shop conversations are a slow fade and Iowa is different enough to make all the colors clear. I would like to give more gifts to more people. And I would like to look more put together and I would like to have more established things to say about my career.

I guess I would like to have a better identity and maybe that’s the root of it all. That’s the sneaky devil and the crack in my armor, because there is not a better identity to be had.

This Savior I am anticipating and celebrating is my identity. God speaks worth and life into my fumbling limbs the same way He spoke life into His Son’s. Not only that, but my future is tied up in the glory of the Son of God, who lived and died and rose again to secure my redemption.

Pardon me, I’ve got to go warm up my vocalizer so I can match the alto pitches on these Christmas carols. The cold really does bite into a good harmony and I’ve got to be prepared.

winter weight

Patrick is back in town and that means less time traipsing about solo and less time writing and less time sleeping and definitely more time smiling and laughing and feeling loved in this city. I don’t resent the trade off, but it makes keeping a consistent schedule a little difficult. It’s a good thing I love smiling and laughing and feeling loved.

And it’s a good thing that winter weight is not forever. I mean the cushion that forms from gingersnaps and pumpkin bread and sweet potato casserole, but I also mean the heaviness we drag around as we rush from event to party to celebration to gift exchange. Bake the cookies, make the cards, sing the songs, and tote the midnight-baked sweet potato casserole around on subways and to offices (where it rested while we ribbon cutted and grand ceremonied) and then finally to the party where I put it in the oven for the third time.

That was the day when I felt the holiday heaviest this week. I changed my shoes for the fourth time in a little cafe on a slushy street and the barista heard more than is New York appropriate – about my day and my work and my crazy New York life.

But I’m not special – everyone has a crazy life here.

Anyway… Before I changed shoes in that little cafe, I read the advent devotional for the day. It happened to be a reflection on Luke 1:38 and it happened to hit exactly where all my winter weight had settled.

And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:38

Identity.

I was reading with a tangled hot mess of a heart – tired and frustrated and ready to be done being a trooper. In the middle of my heart’s tangled hot mess, I heard the kind of words that don’t change with winter.

Her virgin womb; her predictable life; her settled next steps—no longer hers to hold.  Maybe this would shake her??  Surely, there would be a crack in the commitment, in the promises, in the certainty, in the simplistic claim to be a follower—no, not merely a follower—but a bondslave, of the Most High.   This servitude is going too far . . .

What was never at stake for her was her identity:  she was, and always would be, the Lord’s servant.  Nothing had changed though everything had changed.  Even a visit from an angel could not shake this foundation.

All that was normal and known and safe may be shattered; but, her eye of the storm was this crazy certainty of her identity as the Lord’s servant.” – Shelly Cunningham, Director of Instructional Development (from The Advent Project)

If there ever was a reason to doubt your purpose or reputation or life trajectory, it would be the reality of an unbelievable pregnancy at the age of 14. Forget all those other plans and hopes and dreams. Forget all the regular stuff that happens at 15, 16, and 17. Forget the holiday parties and feasts. Mary’s identity got altered in many ways when that angel gave the news, but in one very particular way it never changed.

Mary identified herself as the Lord’s servant – before, during, and after the events that altered her existence.

Not a single slushy winter day can alter something that is carved in the Book of Life. Not a heap of tired bones or a string of sleepless days or a week packed too tightly can change a fact that is rooted in the soil of eternity.

God’s words are heavier than winter.

He speaks an identity over us that cannot be shattered or shaken. And that’s good because there are better people with more important problems and I need to know this about their identities, too. I need to know that the Lord listens and looks out for the hurting and broken and least of these.

The hurting and broken and ‘least of these’ are just exactly those who are looking for a Savior. And that kind of anticipation is what advent is all about.

find us faithful and find us ready

Simple prayers are the best because my words get in the way.

No one has ever accused me of being a woman of few words, though I have tried to be a woman of less. Maybe sometimes – no definitely sometimes – I complicate prayers  with too much vocabulary. I get flustered and the words fumble out sounding impressive or hollow or planned.

This advent season, my shoulders have a humble slump and it is making me appreciate simple prayers and spelled out liturgies. Because my words aren’t anything special, nothing revolutionary or new is streaming from my cyber pen. I am one in a million breaking winter silence with thoughts from my fickle, foolish heart. I join a history as old as the sun – a history of people who speak and explain and write and ponder. And we have many, many words to evidence our legitimacy… as word lovers.

I always wonder if we can come about true humility by way of humiliation. Can a person be truly humble as a result of feeling truly humiliated? No one loves humiliation. I try to stay away from it and all the rosy cheeked aftermath, but it still sneaks up on me with regular rhythm. I am always saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing and both at all the wrong times. I know being awkward is all the hipster craze these days, but (let’s be honest) no one enjoys being humiliated.

And so my slumped shoulders find me meditating on the Messiah, knowing I am a little drummer boy with a pen and paper – standing at the entrance to the stable of my King.

I don’t have much to bring and even my words are weightless and wilty sometimes. What I do have to offer is sometimes the very thing that humiliates me. I am walking with those ancient wise men, following the miracle star to meet my Messiah, so that the Messiah can meet all my messes.

I lit the third advent candle today with slumped shoulders and a thankful heart, because I am not impressive and I do not have to be. The Lord was gracious to send a Savior, One who could handle all the words in the world – all the things we think we have to offer. I am thankful today to pray a simple prayer, believing God is the something special about advent and Christmas and salvation and redemption.

Christ is what makes this season glorious.

And my words cannot make more or less of that. So, I pray a simple prayer with slumped shoulders knowing the Lord cares tenderly for His children. He is gracious to invite me to worship at the stable and at the cross with my slumped shoulders, with my pen and paper.

Lord, find us faithful and find us ready. Amen.

getting comfortable with being ordinary

The oatmeal wheat dough is raising in the oven and I’m on my 13th cup of tea.

It feels like someone just boxed my ears and if I knew who it was, I might just let loose some Scrooge on them. But, I don’t and that’s probably better. The upside of this whole sick thing (because there is always an upside) is that there is bread dough in the warm oven and I’m on my 13th cup of tea.

Making bread is a big commitment and probably why bread machines and bakeries and sliced situations are so popular. Who has hours to linger around a warming oven and who has patience to knead a ball of dough for 6-8 minutes? Few people.

And it might be easy to make assumptions about those few people with that kind of time on their hands – that they are smaller or less important or less interesting. Those ordinary folks with rugged hands and simple lives.

I’d like to be that kind of simple folk – just ordinary, you know.

I’m not saying I don’t want to be great or that I don’t want to pursue the passions buried in my gut or that I don’t want to marvel and chase dreams. I’m not saying that.

I just never want to make life more complicated than it was when God sent a celestial choir to a group of simple folks hanging out in the fields. These were the kinds of folks who spent long hours doing ordinary things and these were the kinds of folks God wanted to tell about the Savior’s birth. These were the folks who heard it first, in a glorious arrangement of God’s best choir.

Anyway, there are a lot of lights here – buildings and shops and trees lit up for the holidays. But the lights are always on and people are always working, always getting ahead and afraid of falling behind. The lights are always on and people are always looking for something other than ordinary.

I know I get sucked in just like everyone else. I want people to know me and like me and appreciate my creativity. But there is wisdom inside this slow day. And wisdom in an ordinary life, the most ordinary there is, that can point more easily to a Savior who makes all things glorious.

It was not the shepherds – their stature or accomplishments or reputation – that made that middle of the night song so superb. It was the Lord who sent the host of angels, the Lord who made the starry night display, the Lord who wrote the music and the Lord who directed the song.

Maybe if we can get comfortable with being ordinary, we’ll be more prepared to hear and listen and participate in what God is orchestrating in these days.

I’m going to go pour another cup of tea and see if I need to punch down the dough.

triumph at play

When God sent Jesus into the strife and struggle of mortality, He was not nervous like a parent on the first day of kindergarten. He was not uncertain about how Jesus would do when faced with bullies or empty bellies.

God did not take the ultimate risk in sending His Son because He sent Christ in ultimate triumph.

Never was there ever a question about the endgame; never a question about how things would shake out when the heat got hot. God never considered Satan a formidable foe. Never.

“The curse on the serpent teaches us to expect an all-out war against sin and death, but we forget that war only wears a grim face when total victory is in doubt. When God himself entered the fray and took upon himself our frail frame, it was not an act of daring; it was triumph at play.”  – Diane Vincent, Associate Professor of Torrey Honors Institute (from The Advent Project)

God was not sending Christ into the mortal game as a last resort or as a “Hail, Mary” play to the endzone because Christ was always central to the salvation story, always the plan for redemption. Always.

“…we forget that war only wears a grim face when total victory is in doubt.”

Consider what it would feel like to go to battle knowing you were already victorious. The fear and anxiety of battle vanish. The uncertainty and the sleepless nights and the silent pep talks – everything you might feel in a evenly matched battled – vanishes. As we walk in the shadow of Christ’s coming, we take on his sure victory.

He stepped into our weakness so we could step into His triumph, so that we could dance upon injustice and delight in His promise keeping.

We need not wear a grim face in this fight, for it is already won.

 

a different kind of Christmas song

I love the melodies of this season. You might even catch me singing out of church calendar order. “O Come, Let us Adore Thee” always feels appropriate probably because adoration is always appropriate. We are welcome to approach the throne of grace in every season and adoration seems the proper thing to sing.

But, today there is a different melody … one that isn’t getting lost between The Christmas Song and Mariah Carey. The melody is not like the hallelujah chorus. It doesn’t feel like the candlelight service. This melody is different.

I am singing sadness into this beautiful season and I don’t know if that’s altogether okay. I don’t know if that emotion jives with the church calendar and with the anticipation of my Savior and when others are singing “repeat the sounding joy”?

Can I sing sadness at Christmas?

I think I am, regardless. This song is not all sad, but it is not all “tidings of comfort and joy,” either.

Christ came down because we are wretched and wayward. He left glory and snuggled into a humble straw bed because we worship other gods. But, mostly He came down because in His great love He is exalted.

He came quietly, like a whisper in the winter.

And His life shook the universe while He held the universe together. He rubbed shoulders with brokenness, broke bread with sinners, and invited the lowly to dinner. He loved without exception, but He never apologized for the message of redemption – the message that creation is in desperate need of saving.

And if you give a good honest look at our desperate need, it might make you sad, too. Sad that He had to come the way He did, sad that we are so hardheaded and sad that we couldn’t learn a different way. Sad that after a miracle birth and miracle resurrection we are still learning and still desperate.

There are a lot of people stuffed on to subway trains, with trees and shopping bags and too many tired faces. Christmas is work here, like a second or third job. It gets spelled out in wrinkles and reprimands and cumbersome boxes and Christmas is work.

Limbs start to feel like lead and the “Christmas spirit” is sly like a fox.

And maybe that’s why I am sad. Because the world is still dark. Even though the light came as a miracle in a stable, but the world is still rushing in blind darkness – collecting toys and keeping up appearances and wishing happy holidays.

Sadness is an okay way to feel at Christmas, but it is never the end of the story. In my heart I know that Christ conquered the grave and with that death and darkness fell, too. I know that there is a standing invitation to dance in marvelous light – an invitation that I can extend to every Christmas-weary soul.

Christ came to give life, and life abundant. He came to walk out perfect obedience, to demonstrate perfect love. He came because He was the only One able to perfectly satisfy the payment a world of sin required. And in His coming and living, He showed us the way.

Sadness is an okay emotion, maybe, if it is a prayer. And that is what I am singing today – a prayer to be an instrument, to be a little bit like the miracle who came to redeem me out of a life of darkness.

This is the Christmas song I am singing today.

wait, with great expectation

Waiting with anticipation sounds like a funny thing to do.

Because it is hard to wait actively and hard to anticipate passively. And that’s exactly the miracle of Advent.

There is nothing passive about the days leading up to Christ’s birth into the world – the longing for a Messiah is almost palpable throughout the Old Testament. Even as hundreds of years passed, the people of Israel (and beyond) waited with great expectation for the Savior King to come to earth. They were waiting, but they were not resigned to indifference. They read and re-read the prophecies and the promises and then they said, “Come.”

Hundreds and hundreds of years of “Come, Lord Jesus.” I imagine it maintaining the same intensity, though some generations must have faltered. Still, generation after generation waited actively with the words, “Come.”

The incarnation was never meant to happen to us, like witnessing an act of charity on the subway by chance. The incarnation of our Lord was planned from the very beginning, even the stars thrown into the sky were set on a trajectory to proclaim His coming. 

And we are invited to take part in His coming, to anticipate the arrival of the Savior and the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. Christ coming to earth is reason to celebrate salvation for our future, but it is also a reason to celebrate God’s salvation in our present. Because He is a faithful promise keeper … and that translates to Tuesdays. The incarnation is about Tuesday morning devotions and Tuesday afternoon meetings. The incarnation is about financial difficulties and health concerns. The incarnation is about family and brokenness.

The incarnation is about God being a faithful promise keeper when He sent Jesus as a baby into a dark world to be the light.

And the incarnation is not something we let “happen” to us. It is something we invite to transform our Tuesdays and our lives.

Come, thou long expected Jesus. Come.