The Advents

That was some November. It began with one of the most divisive elections of all time that, in the words of New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, acted “like a flash flood that sweeps away the topsoil and both reveals and widens the chasms, crevices and cracks below.” This was followed by a couple week lull that led up to the Thanksgiving/Black Friday holidays. These events probably varied from person to person. Some dreaded Thanksgiving because they had to face potentially uncomfortable political conversations with family members. Some dreaded Thanksgiving because it felt like putting salt in the wound of their loneliness. Thanksgiving also coincides with Black Friday shopping, which seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. The irony that others have pointed out about Black Friday is that the day after we express our thanks for all that we have, we then scramble frantically to buy things that we “need.”  At the end of November many of us are in need of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Fortunately these are some of the various themes that are expressed and celebrated in the season of Advent that always begins four Sundays before Christmas. We need to celebrate and hold up each of these themes because when we do it gives a diagnosis of our life that can keep us from causing unnecessary harm to ourselves and others.

A mom was lamenting the developing sibling relationship among her three children. It seemed like her children were always fighting with one another, and she was sad at the current state of their friendship and concerned about them not having any real relationship in the future. One day she came across some information that opened her eyes to see the real problem; she realized that her kids weren’t getting enough sleep. With this new information, she changed how and when they did bedtimes and slowly she began to notice that her children were being kind and fun with each other. Obviously this doesn’t happen every day, nor can she make sure that they are always getting enough sleep, but it changed everything to know the root of the dysfunction.

When we celebrate Advent we hold up these themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love primarily to realize that these are deep longings that we all have inside of us. If we don’t recognize and explore these longings we can become obsessed with fixing and changing the wrong things. We can think that our lack of joy can be resolved by a change of pace, a new outfit, a new routine, or simply doing better. We’ve all been down that path and it's exhausting.  

In Advent we celebrate that God has brought Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love to the world in Jesus Christ. The term Advent comes from Latin, which simply means “arriving,” and so we celebrate the arrival of Jesus. Both his initial arrival over 2000 years ago as a child born in Bethlehem and his second arrival that we all wait for. To celebrate this great season we often journey with the people of Israel who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. We do this so that we can have these longings awakened and to realize that much of our angst and frustration in the world comes from our desire for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. And these things have come and will come again in Jesus Christ.

The beauty of celebrating the original and second Advent of Jesus Christ is that in doing so we are often made aware of the other Advent. That God in Jesus Christ often bursts into our life in unexpected ways to bring the reality of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love beyond what we could have expected. Join us this season of Advent as we celebrate the Advent of old and look forward to the Advent to come and wait for the Advent of the present presence of the living God in Jesus Christ by the power of His Spirit.

Desire and the Still Small Voice

CBS This Morning does an occasional segment titled, “Note to Self.” In this segment they invite various people to write a letter to their past self. This letter is part reflection and part advice based on the wisdom they have accumulated over the years. This last week they had a very unique character, Russell Brand, write his ‘Note to Self.’  I didn’t and still don’t know much about Brand. I did know that he is a comedian known for being a little crazy and for doing and saying the ridiculous and absurd. I knew he had a short marriage to a pop singer, and that is about all I knew, until this ‘Note to Self.’ Brand is honest with his past self and I think his self-revelation is a helpful guide for everyone as we look honestly at desire and where it can lead, both the good and not-so-good places it can take us. I think as we look at this we will see that desire can be a gateway to encountering the personal and transcendent God.

Brand is very honest throughout his ‘Note,’ and has this revelation halfway through that is particularly insightful of not just his own experience, but also about all of life.

Now I'm not going to tell you to not take drugs or drink or go crazy chasing girls and fame -- you hate being told what to do.

No, take all the drugs you want. Drink yourself into police cells and hospitals. Talk yourself into fights that are going to be hard to talk your way out of as you plunge into the powders and the rocks and bottles looking for something that's not there.

It's going to take you to some dark places and you're going to meet some desperate people, in crack houses and whore houses, in parties so glamorous that they're lit by flash bulbs and other people's envious attention.

In all those places you're gonna see the same sadness and feel the same loneliness.

Do it all. Go nuts. You're gonna do it anyway. Just know that it can't make you happy.

In fact, no externally acquired thing can help you.

Desire can lead us to some unhealthy places. Many of us do not follow desire down the same path that it led Brand, but we know the familiar pull of desire. The desire for control that consumes us to perfect our self and our children. The desire for power that feeds into the adrenaline that we feel as we argue to be always ‘right.’ The desire for a thrill that we let seep out in our fandom for our favorite teams. The desire for connection that leads to pornography for some, and gossip for others. The desire for success that leads us to work long hours and weekends. And as Brand says, “In all those places you’re gonna see the same sadness and feel the same loneliness.”

In response to these dangers of desire many of us have tried to find ways to cope and numb the desire. We just stay busy or entertained, we try to make sure that we never experience boredom for the fear of realizing that the desire we have for life and the life we actually live are not the same.

Brand ends his ‘Note’ by telling himself, “Try to listen to that quiet voice because that's the thing you're looking for. Some people call it love, others call it connectivity and others call it God. It's there, it's always been there, and it will always been there. And if you look after it, it will look after you.” Brand is stumbling upon part of the root of desire. The Christian faith articulates what Brand only sees dimly, which is that we all desire connection with others and God, the God who is love. The Christian story is unique in that instead of trying to give instruction on how we can reach God, we see the story of God reaching down to us. This is what we celebrate during the season of Advent. Preparation for the arrival of the God-child in Jesus of Nazareth and the anticipated return of Christ, when all of our longings will be satisfied. We need help in this preparation to learn how we can allow our desire to lead us to connection with God and others, without it destroying us in the process. This is what we will explore this Advent season, will you join us?

Desire and Must-Stay-Busy-All-The-Time-ism

In an Opinion article in the New York Times published a couple years ago the writer highlighted the “busy trap” that many of us find ourselves in. He explains an epiphany that another friend had after leaving the trap, “What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment.”  And then he makes a bold claim, “It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.” Being and staying busy is an odd feature of modern life. We may not all be working such ridiculous hours; in fact, more than likely, we oscillate between hustling to and from various commitments and wasting enormous amounts of time on TV, Internet, and smartphones. Why such extremes? It appears that a desire deep within us pushes us to this busy behavior, and when we have had too much we try to numb this desire. But there is another way.

In the weird paradox that is modern day living we spend large amounts of time working and huge amounts of time entertaining ourselves. I mean HUGE amounts of time. Each day the average American watches 5 hours of tv, spends an hour on the internet (non-work related), an hour and seven minutes on their smartphone, and two hours and 46 minutes listening to the radio. That amounts to just under 10 hours a day on items to entertain us.

This paradox may seem impossible to live out, but I am capable of doing it most days. As I write this piece, or as I do almost any type of work, it takes all that is within me to not surf the web, check Facebook, read an article about something that interests me, and avoid videos on some sports event. I’m anxious that my writing will be bad and won’t be worth anyone’s time, and so instead of feeling that anxiety I try to numb myself with distractions. This creates more anxiety as I do not make any progress on the work I am actually supposed to be doing.

We both love and hate busyness. On one hand, as the NYT article suggests, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Also many of us have experienced the satisfaction that has come from being immersed in a cause, or task. And yet, we hate being busy. I cannot imagine a person who loves to be on the go so often that they cannot develop any meaningful relationships, whether that is with a spouse, child, or friend. What are we to do?

The Psalmist declares, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” That sums up our present situation pretty well. We are thirsting for something that is not available in our land, and we are frantically looking everywhere for the substance for which our soul truly longs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, Life Together, suggests a solution, which is putting prayer and work together. “Only where each (prayer and work) receives its own specific due will it become clear that both belong inseparably together.” Bonhoeffer believes that work can only truly be done “where a person forgets himself in a cause, in reality, the task.” This is one way that God purifies the person from self-centeredness and draws one to God. As we are immersed in our work we discover God behind and through our daily labors, so that our very work is a prayer to God and communion with him as well. This is the very longing of our soul. This is why the poet David Whyte is correct in saying, “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness,” because where we can be given wholeheartedly into a work or labor, it is there that we encounter God.

Desire and Hyper-Parenting

Recently David Brooks, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, gave these words, “We may sit around at gyms. We may watch Kim Kardashian. But human beings were born and blessed with moral imagination, a great longing for ideal holy. All human beings. We all have a longing to lead a good life. A life of transcendence. Some people may not have the categories on how to do that, but they do have a sense that the world, the material world, is incomplete and that they want to surpass the world.” This longing shows itself in our helicopter parenting, our workaholism, our must-stay-busy-all-the-time-ism, and the many other roles we play. These next few posts will all be related to the amazing hunger within us for something (or maybe someone) more. First, let’s take a brief look at helicopter parenting.

Helicopter parenting, or “curling parenting” to our neighbors in the north, has grown from concern for a child’s well-being to submitting their resume at college fairs and negotiating their salary with the H.R. department. Surprisingly, many employers are adjusting to the presence of these parents by introducing ways to keep them involved, for example having a “Take Your Parent to Work Day.”

What is unfortunate about all of this is the damage done to both parent and child; it is hard to know who suffers more. In the case of the child, they are never allowed to struggle, which is a problem because researchers have found that hope is a function of struggle. Hopefulness is a skill that is learned, and many learn this as children when their parents didn’t rescue them from difficult and challenging situations. According to C.R. Snyder, a psychologist and researcher in the area of hope, hope involves three steps: 1. Setting realistic goals. 2. Having the ability to achieve goals (even if it takes a few tries). 3. Believing we can do it. The most hopeful people are those who have struggled out from underneath something that was really difficult and challenging. So when we fly in and ‘rescue’ our children from any perceived threat, or when we crush any opposition that stands in our child’s path, know that we are also slowly diminishing their ability to hope.

Parents also suffer from this toxic relational arrangement. A parent who is working so hard for the success of their child will never be satisfied; there is no goal too great for their kid. If their child accomplishes something truly great, it becomes easy to think, “Well if they can do that, they can probably do this.”

Pamela Druckerman wrote the best selling parenting book, “Bringing Up Bebe,” which gives an insightful explanation about the French style of raising children, while also offering a critique to American child rearing. Druckerman offers some helpful advice on this culture of “hyper-parenting.” She suggests, “Don’t just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won’t get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it.” As true and good as this advice is she makes it seem like it is an easy thing. She seems to be missing the bigger problem, which is that as parents there are deep voices in our heads that say if our child fails it is because we failed him or her as a parent.

Our striving to have perfect children comes from the intersection of our desire to be perfect parents and trying to vicariously live through our children’s success. It’s from a place that believes if I am this way or my child is this way then I will have made it. I will have the success that I really wanted, the affirmation, the approval, and then I can relax. But we never get there, and we just keep exhausting ourselves and those around us. In the case of hyper-parenting we will either over discipline our child because they aren’t perfect, or we will crush any obstacle in their way so that they glide through life (but lose hope).

The Christian story is one of a God who sees through our busyness and our attempts to control the destiny of our children and sees the child that he loves. The child (you) who loses their way again and again, and yet, the Father beckons them to come home and find rest. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” This same Jesus, who is God’s only, beloved son, who died so that we can live. The offer of Christianity is to live in Christ and he in us, to become united with God; that is the transcendence that our souls long for, and yet we think we will find it when our child gets on the honor roll. It’s not easy to turn from desires that seem so strong, but God always offers us a hand to guide us through the pain and difficulty of losing a dream that we may be found in Him and He in us.

What Are You Asking For?

One of my favorite childhood possessions is an autographed card of the great receiver, Cris Carter, who used to play for my favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings. This card, like many gifts in life, came to me because I asked for it. In fourth grade one of our assignments was to write a letter to a famous person and ask for their autograph. I chose Cris Carter, and I really did not expect anything in return, but a few weeks after I sent off the letter to him I received a signed card in an envelope in my mailbox. I was so shocked I almost dropped the card, almost as if it was so precious that my hands would defile it.

I have to remind myself again and again that throughout scripture this is how prayer is explained; that we often will not get something unless we ask for it. It is hard to imagine that I would have ever received an autographed card unless I asked for it.

In the New Testament letter written by James, he says very plainly, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We quarrel and fight with our spouse because we want them to love us beyond what is humanly possible. We fight with co-workers because we want them to let us know that we matter and that our ideas matter.

We cannot get our deeper desires met unless we ask for them. “There is something in me that recoils a little at speaking so directly and childishly,” writes Frederick Buechner about this very reality, “but I speak this way anyway because it is the most important thing I have in me to say. Ask, and you will receive. And there is the other side too: if you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it - I mean really asked, expecting an answer.”

A large challenge in all of this is that some of us have spent time praying for something good and greater than our own pleasure, and God has not answered that prayer. Some of us have prayed for loved ones to live and not die, or to be able to have a child, or to find someone to share your life with, and God answered with nothing. The message from Buechner and James is that God is wanting to answer the desire of your heart that is deeper than any one physical need. God longs to answer the desire behind whatever situation you long to happen or unhappen.

We are going through the Psalms this summer in part because we need to experience their honesty and their soul-searching prayers. I hope that the Psalms have shaped some of you as they have shaped me. They have made me very aware of how little I ask of God, and that I should not be surprised that I have seen little of him.

Sometimes we overthink prayer, unsure what to say or what to ask for. Again I think the Psalms can help us as we see that they just let flow out of them whatever is in them. If you want some more guidance I recommend a recent book written by Anne Lammot that is astutely titled, “Help, Thanks, Wow.” She walks through these three words as the basis for the essentials of the three prayers that we offer to God. It’s hard to think of any other words that would be necessary to add.

My prayer for all of us is to seek God to show up in our lives in meaningful ways. That we would experience the power of his love in our life, that we would know his peace, and experience his joy. Even for those of you who are skeptical of Christianity, this is a great practice for you too. If God answers your prayers maybe that is a sign that it all could be true? That God does love us and he showed us the greatness of his love in Jesus. The one who loves us enough to hang on a cross in our behalf, and who always pursues us with open arms.

I hope too that we would also ask God to use us to be his people who continue to do his work in this world. The other side of this prayer is that God often shapes us to be this kind of people and that process is not always pleasant, but it is always worth it in the end.  In the end when all will be well and all of are unanswered prayers will make sense.