Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Season of Waiting (for Books!)

Growing up Evangelical, I didn’t know much about advent. I knew there was a chocolate calendar involved, but my family didn’t really bother with because we had my mother’s Christmas coffee cake (which is better than life, let alone chocolate).

Advent, it transpires, is a season of waiting. A season of anticipation and expectation and hope.

We wait (and hope) for a lot of pretty serious things. For children to call or parents to forgive. We wait for the end of violence and for civil discourse. We wait for events we can’t imagine like Christ’s second coming and the big, amorphous ideals that are prophesied to follow: peace and justice. We wait and hope, in other words, for things that seem impossibly far away.

The waiting we do during advent is so much more accessible. So reliable. Christmas comes every year, on time. Tangible things like food and simple traditions like music like eggnog like hanging socks above a fireplace are what we ask for and what we receive.

Having our simple expectations fulfilled exercises our expectation muscles so that the big, more idealistic hopes feel a lot closer.

And so we wait.

Those who know me know I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. Besides my mother’s coffee cake, Christmas doesn’t hold a lot of joy for me. So I practice advent in other ways, waiting for something else: stories. In the past, a lot of us waited for the Harry Potter books each summer, and then it was the Lord of the Rings movies, and most recently (and perhaps with the most trepidation) the newest installation of Star Wars.

I have simple, but huge expectations for 2016. It will be the year of the book, of good books, of great books that finish amazing book series. Below, in order of how delighted I will be when these books arrive, are the final installments of trilogies I’ve read this past year:

          1.      Morning Star by Pierce Brown
The Red Rising Trilogy is fast, fun reading and the first series Brown has ever written. The author shows promise (the trilogy’s level of awesomeness is more on par with The Hunger Games than Harry Potter), and he builds some great tension soon to be resolved (January 12).

          2.      The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks
Brent Weeks writes for the movie screen: every page is action-packed, filled with hilarious one-liners and an amazing range of characters. This conclusion to the Lightbringer Trilogy (technically now a quartet) can only be as good if not better than the last three installments. Set to arrive in fall or winter of 2016.

          3.      Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
I love Sanderson’s work for his sense of humor first, depth of thought second and (in an age of G.R.R. Martins) for its amazing to just keep on coming. The Reckoners trilogy is tiny compared to the Stormlight Archives and simple compared to the world of Mistborn, but Calamity promises all the genius of a Sanderson book and comes this spring!

          4.      The Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss
      There is no release date for The Doors of Stone, but I don’t care. I will wait for this book as long as Rothfuss needs to write it, and I will be happy whenever I get it because it will be as amazing as the first two: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I believe in you, Patrick Rothfuss.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Words of Wisdom from my Mom

Today’s blog is stolen from my mother. A recent retiree, my mother now has added leading about 20 different Bible studies to her daily routine of prayer, reading her Bible, and running 5000 miles while bench pressing my weight with one arm. She doesn’t write habitually, but she showed me this short snippet she was planning on sharing with one of her current Bible studies at church.

Even at my most cynical, I can hear God speaking through my mother. I hope you can hear it, too.

Are you having a Mary Christmas season or a Martha Christmas season? Are you caught up in the preparations—shopping, baking, decorating, planning, celebrations? As believers in Christ we know what the right answer is. If you are like me, you want to sit at the feet of Christ and you know that is the right place to be . . . but this other stuff has to get done. Take it from as someone who is a Martha through and through—I know it’s hard. Often I just wanted the holidays to be done and get back to my routine.

Jesus wants something more for our lives—we are to be joyful always, give thanks in everything, and pray continually.

As you shop for each gift—pray for the person you are buying for. When you give that gift, ask God to lead you to a scripture verse that you could attach. As you do your holiday baking and decorating, thank God for his provision, and choose to be joyful with every person you come in contact with. Take time every day to sit at the feet of Jesus. Satan will try and block you, but we know Christ is stronger and will provide a way.

I participate in a devotion at Miller’s Assisted in Living in Portage, and one of the ladies there named Alice, who is in her 90s, when asked about her holiday tradition said, “The holidays are a lot of work.” When I am 90+, I want to be able to say that my tradition is to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what He says.
Christmas baking
Me and Momsie wishing you a Happy Christmas (...last year)!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sometimes Getting Out of Bed Is Too Much to Ask

On some mornings the blankets are heavy. My bed feels safe, which isn’t the same as comfortable. My blankets don’t judge me for the stupid thing I said yesterday, and my sheets don’t know about my failures. I leave my head against the pillow because putting it anywhere else seems like too much work. The world shouldn’t ask such a sacrifice of me. Not today. Not every day.

I hate myself on those mornings. I hate that I can’t just get out of bed. That I wallow for 5 more minutes, 15 more minutes, 50 more minutes. And two hours later when there is no more sleep in me, I still hate that moment when my foot touches the cold floor.

When my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered I was senseless and ignorant. I was a brute beast before [God].

On the hate-filled mornings I remind myself that everything is a gift: a full night’s sleep, a warm apartment, a cup of coffee in the morning, and an insouciant kitten who loves my feet more than I love anything. I know that life is good, but that truth breaks against the grey walls of a hatred that looks like apathy.

On those mornings it seems impossible that good triumphs over evil. Ever. If good can’t manage to conquer my petty desire to stay in bed and sleep, seriously: what is it going to do against the willful inanity of Donald Trump and his media circus? The gun violence plague? The systemic racism that binds us all against our wills?

My feet had almost slipped . . . for I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked: They scoff and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.

For the last few months, I woke up nearly every day like this. When I didn’t, when I forced myself awake after the first alarm, that same hatred rose up in the afternoon, crippling me in retribution for my earlier resistance. Trudging onward is the only option, praying in whatever desperate fashion seems to stave off the bitterness threatening to overtake you. Pray that you have not already been overtaken.

All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. . . . When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply.

I woke up two days ago, and the blankets weren’t heavy. My mind was awake, and more importantly, so was my heart.

The grief in my heart had lifted. My spirit shed bitterness like a child shedding layers of puffy clothing after coming inside from the cold. I chose to lay in bed not in obeisance to the sloth of bitterness, but in order to wallow in the happy moments that trickled through my mind: ice cream shared with friends, gifts given, and hugs received after a long time away.

As for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

All of your deeds. Even the ones that leave me wondering what it’s all about. Even the ones that leave me helplessly sad. Because as soon as my envy passes, whether by divine hand or not, so does my blindness.

When I look back on the moments that weighed on my heart, I see them differently. The stupid things I said were still stupid, but they were also well-intentioned and forgivable. My failures hurt, but they happened amidst triumphs that I hadn’t seen. And looking back, they seem a lot smaller.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Prayer Censorship

For me, the opening ten minutes of a Bible study or prayer group are the worst. Chit-chat is a trigger for minor social anxiety: what can I talk about? Who should I talk to? Where should I stand and does my arm look weird just hanging here like this? What was God thinking when he made arms like this? What was God thinking when he created humans to be in community with each other. Community is awkward.

It’s fair to say that I don’t particularly shine in times of unstructured conversation. But then we get to the meat of what we’re all there for: Bible study or prayer or a discussion over a Christian book or podcast. Everyone loosens up: ideas are shared, opinions traded, personal stories told. We learn from one another and about one another.

And the intimacy deepens.

For many of us these are the golden moments during small group time. They are the still and quiet hours of peace that keep us hungry for more Christ and more community. We need these times of deep connection to keep our hearts alive. We need to know others and be known by them.

And then the clock strikes midnight (or more commonly about 8 or 9 p.m.) and the spell is broken. The feelings of intimacy and acceptance flee when the de facto leader of the group checks his watch. He maybe nods or sits up or takes and lets out a loud breath. And then he speaks the words that are, ironically, the death knell of intimacy:

“Anybody have any prayer requests?”

Crickets and silence. Silence as everyone studiously avoids the questioner’s eyes. Each person begins to gaze into themselves, curating their answers, tailoring their prayers by the standards of those listening.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to recognize that we’re part of the problem. We make the standard by how we respond to that question. Safe answers spring forth after the initial silence:

        ·         I have a test coming up that’s worth most of my grade.
        ·         Prayers for my great-grandma’s knee-replacement surgery.
        ·         A coworker is being difficult. Pray that I can handle the situation well.

These requests are safe because they are simple. A clear problem exists; the need for God, obvious. Sometimes I imagine these requests as mini intimacy-shields: we guard our deep wounds and hungers by offering safe bait. If you offer a request for prayers about a coworker situation, no one will look for the deeper problems like bitterness, rage or malice that are eating you up.

The curvature of small group intimacy: we start with small talk and then go deeper, curving into communion . . . and then curving right out of it by offering requests on topics as intimate as those covered in the first ten, awkward minutes.

We want intimacy, but we don’t want to be “that guy” who burdens others with our problems. We don’t want to “overshare” and make people uncomfortable. And we don’t want to talk about “trivial” things that would take away from the intimacy, either.

What can we do?

Admit it’s an awkward social situation and lean in. Awkwardness does not preclude holiness, but rather is its prelude. Take off your shoes at the burning bush. Even if it’s weird.

Honor the unstated prayer requests. No one should have to stamp their statements as “Official prayer requests” to get them prayed for. If someone mentions during informal chit-chat time that they have a test, pray. And then text them the day of the test to ask how it went.

Confess and praise. By confessing your heart and sharing what joys God has brought you during the week, you can share in intimacy even if you’re not going through a dark time.

Be prepared, be brave and be merciful. Some prayers are hard to put into words. It takes preparation to describe why something that seems trivial is derailing your faith life. It takes bravery to admit you’re struggling with depression, and it takes mercy to live alongside small group members whose depression is ongoing or whose faith life is incomprehensible to you.

Be what you need others to be to you.

Don’t back away.