Journeying to Bethlehem: An Advent Audio Devotional

Hello, dear readers! I have a small gift for you this season. I’ve been quietly working behind the scenes on audio Advent devotional just for you!

Is Advent one more thing you don’t have time for this holiday season? Are you unsure where to begin? Are you already tired of the ads, the over consumption, and the expectations associated with Christmas?

Do you want to center your thoughts more on the joy and expectation of waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah? Me too.

Beginning November 26th, all subscribers to the blog will receive a weekly Advent Devotional sent straight to your inbox. Every Sunday, for five weeks, I’ll offer you a few words to help you connect with the heart of the season, and put busyness and excess in its place. This Sunday, I’ll introduce you to the series, and we’ll journey to Bethlehem together from there.

No money, no time commitment, no fuss. Just pop in a pair of earbuds, and join me for a few minutes every week as we prepare to make room in our hearts for Christ.

If you’re not a subscriber to the blog yet, sign up for the free devotional here . If you’re already subscribed, I’ll meet you in your inbox on Sunday.

As always, thanks for reading (and now, listening!). I hope this new series will be a gift to you this season.

SaveSave

SaveSave

How to Sit with both Sadness and Hope

 

“Grief may be joy misunderstood…” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It’s nearly autumn in New Jersey. I sit under a canopy of leaves and watch as a single orange-tipped leaf floats to the ground in slow motion. It’s a season of small, delicate deaths–where the joy of reaping a harvest mingles with the sadness of the ground turning fallow once again.

This summer, my heart cradled hope in full bloom, like a basket of fresh-cut flowers. Yet, autumn has ushered in a season of dying one small death after another.

After months of planning and preparing, I opened the door on a classroom of college freshman and stepped in as a teacher rather than a student. I soon discovered teaching isn’t a part of my natural skill set. Rather than opening the door to an assumed strength, I opened the door to a weakness–the kind of weakness that makes me want to cut and run. I died to the confident vision I had of myself every time I stand behind the desk and sweat through a session.

Despite this rough start in the classroom, my inner self hummed and painted blooms on the walls of my heart. I carried inside me a private joy the color of blush pink English ramblers. After years of writing and re-writing content, my book proposal had finally made its way into the hands of publishers months earlier. All summer, I waited for news.

I learned this fall that my book will not be published. Nor will the next book I propose. Or the next. The reasons are best left contained within a trail of sad phone calls and emails. Again, I died to the vision I had of myself holding a copy of my book and smiling for the camera.

As these dreams have died, I’ve spent countless hours trying to spin new ones. But, it is autumn. A single leaf drops to remind me. In my sadness, I have found myself drawn to the story of Sarah, a woman who longed for and dreamed of children to circle around her ankles and call her Mama. A woman who, in her weakness, began to spin dreams that were birthed in grief rather than joy. For years, God’s promise to her went unfulfilled. She dreamt in partial solutions, and Ishmael was the result.

In my disappointment, I have wanted to force an Ishmael into my life. I have turned in circles looking for partial solutions when the only answer is to sit with my sadness and wait. I sit with Sarah and watch autumn unfold as summer dies to itself. I don’t want to force an answer apart from the will of God, and so I pray for a spirit of steadfastness and resilience instead.

The joy Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of lies in the knowledge that autumn lasts for a season. Spring and summer will come again. Warm winds will blow and seeds will bloom, but first autumn and winter. First dying to self, first sitting with sadness, understanding the heart of Sarah.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Scripture as an Antidote for Despair

I am a glutton. I have gorged myself on the news, on social media, on outrage and hatred and lies and righteous anger. Consuming all of these words as I scroll and click has cost me words of my own. I am full on a steady diet of rage, and it has stirred up both the holy and the unholy in me–neither of which I’ve been able to express in a way that inspires hope rather than despair. If hope is an anchor for the soul, then the rope tethering me to hope is worn and frayed.

I could choose to turn off the news and shut down social media, but I know in doing so, I risk becoming apathetic towards evil as it crawls out and raises its middle finger to the light. And so I read, I watch, I absorb because it is the bruised places which create the most tender hearts.

In my effort to understand and grow tender in my hardened places, I can’t purge everything I’ve consumed. By rejecting what I’ve read and seen, I would become the priest and the Levite who walked by the bloody and beaten man on the road to Jericho, averting their gaze.

But, while I carry these hard things inside of me, this steady diet of despair keeps me from envisioning a future where we love our neighbors as ourselves. My vision for a world where we fight racism and we right injustice and we repent of our sins is clouded.

I need renewed sight, and so I return to the scriptures where I meet Jesus all over again. I meet the man who flipped tables at the evil found in his Father’s house. The man who drew letters in the sand and who refused to cast the first stone. The man who turned the other cheek. The man who called religious leaders a brood of vipers and who called entire cities to repent with sackcloth and ashes. The man who healed.

In the scriptures, I meet the Jesus who died on a cross and calls me to pick up my own. As I sit with his words, I begin to assume his vision for equality, justice, and peace. I am able to release my flawed vision, driven by my emotions and outrage, and assume a vision driven by a God who is Justice, and whose very name means Peace.

If you find yourself full on a steady diet of despair and rage, don’t turn away from the hard things. Don’t cross the street and look the other way. Instead, meet the face of injustice and hate with the words of Christ. Not the words of someone talking about Christ, but the words of Jesus himself. Allow him to renew your sight, uncover truth, and stir up a vision where we recognize the face of God in every person we meet.

Practicing Peace in the Face of Fear

I am afraid of heights. Tight spaces. Physical pain. My husband’s driving, and dying in a car accident (see husband’s driving). I am afraid of the vice of Vegas. Snakes and scorpions. Running out of gas on a lonely highway, or losing my way while driving. More than anything, I am afraid of the wild unknowns that wait for me around every corner. Fear is a frequent and unwelcome companion.

When my husband first proposed the idea of traveling west for our annual summer vacation, I felt the immediate tug of apprehension on the hem of my heart. What ifs jostled for space with why nots. As I sat curled up on the sofa, he grinned while photos of red rock formations and joshua trees flashed across his computer screen. He lured me in with the promise of new sights, scents, and the salt-licked waves of the Pacific Ocean. He knows the subtle ways fear strangles adventure, and he persisted until I could see nothing but the fingerprints of God imprinted deep into the dry earth of the desert. I wanted to run my hands across the grooves of them.

We spent two weeks tracing the hand of God across the American west this month, and every day I woke up to the hot breath of a fresh fear. My small-time, irrational fears may seem insignificant–something to be ignored, or brushed aside–but I have spent a lifetime trying to conquer them. Fear is a living, breathing beast that threatens to steal my joy, my presence, and my peace.

I didn’t vacate on my vacation–every nerve ending sparked like live wire as I faced my fear of heights while hiking the Grand Canyon, drove hours through the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert while my husband napped beside me, and as I sat wide-eyed through the terrifying switch-backs zig-zagging down the steep hills of Sedona. I drove an ATV in the dry heat of the Arizona desert, and managed to lose my way on an electric bike on the hills near Solana beach. It was everything an adventure should be.

I returned home feeling like a kid who accepts a challenge and repeatedly waits for her mama’s eyes to turn her way, “Did you see me, Mom? Did you see me?” I am proud of myself for accepting small challenges because it gives me courage to face the larger ones that will surely come my way. I wasn’t fearless, but I took courage by the hand, even when that hand shook and nervously clutched its way towards freedom.

I discovered that standing up to fear is the same thing as practicing peace. It’s an invitation for peace to make its home in me when I feel the least capable and least confident. Peace rarely descends like a dove, instead it is practiced through small acts of courage which put fear in its rightful place.

Fear continues to keep company with me, but it takes up a smaller space today than it did last week, last month, even last year. If you find yourself in a place of fear today, whether small or large, I encourage you to consider what it would look like for you to practice peace through small acts of courage.

I’m cheering for you.

How to Navigate a Season of Endings

As summer approaches, bringing with it big changes in the life of our family, I find myself feeling out of sorts. I am graduating from my MFA program, and I don’t know what’s next in my writing life. I will no longer spend long days reading books with a critical eye and writing papers based on them. No one will be waiting at the other end of an email for my next essay. I will have a new degree in creative writing, and no tangible way of putting it to use on paper.

Just as I graduate, so will my seventeen year old daughter. Her entire life spreads out in front of her like a blank canvas. Everything is before her, and this stands in stark contrast to my own experience. I often wonder what lies ahead for me when my own canvas is already full of color, spread in thick strokes towards the outer edges. So much lies behind me. So much of my canvas is already painted.

No one told me that releasing a daughter into the world makes a mother dig deep into her own story of becoming. It is both a rejoicing and a mourning–for who I could have been, for the surprise of who I am today, and for what my girl will be. I don’t think I have the words yet for what it feels like to let her go or how hard it is to set my younger self free in the process.

I’ve reached a season of endings, and I can only see the faint outline of new beginnings ahead. Perhaps you are out of sorts or in a season of endings too. I don’t have five steps to fix it, but I do have a few guiding principles I hope will keep us moving forward into the unknown with more freedom and less fear.

Treat yourself and your open-ended questions with kindness.

In his poem Unquiet Vigil, Brother Paul Quenon writes “Be Kind. Myself, to myself, be kind.” When I read those words, I was most struck by the punctuation. Be Kind. Period. No caveats, no qualifications. Be kind to myself no matter how complicated, effervescent, difficult, or joyful the feelings. Be kind to the past me, the present me, and the me who exists in the future. This feels impossibly hard some days, but with practice, it grows easier.

Learn to love the questions.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”~ Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

I want to place these words like beads on a length of string and finger them like beads of prayer. During a season of change, the questions I ask are more important than the answers I think I need. The answers rarely announce themselves, but rather they arrive in the quiet of living into the questions.

Hope and wait quietly.

“It is good that one should hope and wait quietly..” ~Lamentations 3:26. I often wait with fear as my loud companion. Fear drives away quiet, whereas hope invites it in. Living into the questions with a spirit of kindness allows for hope to have its way. I can ask myself questions about the future without giving in to the cacophony they can create in my soul. I do this by entering into a season of unknowns with a posture of open handedness rather than entering with closed fists. I can’t receive my past or my future when I grasp for answers or fight the questions every step of the way.

In this season of endings, I want to enter open, free, unencumbered by a need to orchestrate my own feelings into something like a mathematically correct, classical symphony. This is jazz, baby. There are no neat resolutions, but I’m improvising my way through the notes, receiving them as they come, with hope and kindness and love for unexpected melodies.