Advent One: nourishing vision for the night...
NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Advent One 2013 that begins this coming Sunday, December 1st. We are using Jan Richardson's gentle Advent book, Night Vision, for a guide. Let me invite you to visit her website @ http://paintedprayerbook.com/ and to hold her in prayer as she and her husband Gary go through the shock of his recent stroke. The artwork in today's blog come from Jan's stunning creation.
As many, if not most, of you know I am an Advent-kind of guy: I cherish its quietness, revel in its colors and music and often anticipate its dark mysteries. Not everyone likes this season, I know: none of us really enjoys waiting, most of us prefer the major key of our Christmas carols to the minor key found in most of our Advent laments and the culture as a whole favors the action of opening presents in contrast to the call to cultivate a contemplative heart.
· Nevertheless, right after our feasting at the wisdom table of Thanksgiving, our faith tradition still invites us to enter a holy Advent: a time of watching and waiting – a season of stillness and serenity – a month of mostly simmering, gestating and percolating in preparation for the coming of the Christ child. And we can embrace Advent with resentment or joy – hope or fear, disregard, disrespect or even contempt and avoidance – but no matter what we do, Advent always arrives. Artist and pastor, Jan Richardson, writes: “The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before – and it is not possible to keep it from coming because it will. That’s just how Advent works.”
· Did you catch that? We can choose to avoid and oppose it – we can opt to co-opt its challenge and smother the season with sentimentality – we can distract ourselves with busyness and bother but… no matter what we do Advent keeps on coming because that is just how Advent works.
Richardson goes on to say: It is possible, of course, to miss Advent, to turn just as it brushes past you. And only later do you begin to grasp what it was you missed. That’s why we are invited to simply sit and stay – linger, tarry and ponder – wait, behold and wonder during the four weeks of this season. “There will be time enough for running, for rushing, for worrying and pushing. Why not just stay now… and wait… there is something on the horizon.”
So I’m going to try something that is both new and old simultaneously with you this Advent – something that is both startlingly contemporary as well as grounded in ancient tradition – that is, I am going to ask you to become contemplatives with me for a month. To shut up more than speak – to accept and embrace what God is already doing within us rather than ask for new insights or help – to trust “the beautiful darkness that is the Lord already praying within us” whether we grasp or feeling anything at all.
· St. Paul used to tell those he loved that God’s Holy Spirit was already “brooding and bringing new things to birth – helping us in our weakness and interceding with sighs too deep for human words” – even when we feel like God is a million miles away. In a word, the great apostle was saying: be still – and trust that God is already praying within you and loving you from the inside out whether you grasp this gift or not – or to be more grounded in this moment: stop talking lest you miss the coming of Advent’s promise.
For that is what Advent is truly about: a promise – God’s promise – that no matter what takes place in our life – good, bad or in-between – we will never have to face it alone. That is what all our readings for today emphasize and it is what the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus all confirm: “It us the promise that whether or not our immediate fears are realized, we were created for more than fear.”
Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God whose coming birth weanticipate, has promised to come always to be both with us and for us. And while this promise does not insulate us from an uncertain future… it does promise that we will not face that future alone. Come hell or high water – and this seems as appropriate a phrase as any to capture much of the gospel – Jesus will be at our side, granting us courage in the face of life’s adversities and remaining with us even through death, drawing us into new life. (David Lohse, Working Preacher.org)
Now please pay attention to this because it is crucial: God’s promise does NOT say that we shall no longer have fears nor does the promise attempt to “insulate us from an uncertain future,” ok? We all know that life is uncertain – it can change in the blink of an eye – in ways that are completely beyond our control.
· Sometimes it is joyful: we get a new pet and laughter doesn’t quit – a new baby is born and our hearts are full to overflowing – we wake up to winter’s first snow, we sing a song that moves us to tears, we fix something that we broke. What other surprises have brought joy into your life in new and even startling ways?
· And we know that there are surprises that change our lives forever that are painful, too: the devastation in the Philippines, a divorce, a miscarriage, falling off the wagon into addiction, the loss of a job, a death all can happen in the blink of an eye and we are changed forever. Can you think of other sad and painful changes that have touched your lives?
So we know what Jesus is talking about when he speaks to us of the uncertainty of life:
The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away. The Son of Man’s arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.
This is God’s call to contemplative living – and before you get all confused or agitated about the word contemplation – let me first describe it to you and then suggest an Advent practice that might help you practice trusting God’s promise. Most of us don’t really understand what the word contemplation means; we know it has something to do with prayer – and maybe even something to do with monasticism – but most of the time we don’t think it really has anything to do with us.
And that would be where we are mostly wrong because the BEST description of contemplation tells us that contemplation is taking a long, loving look at what is real. Period. A long, loving look at what is real – in our lives, in our world, in your hearts, in our politics, in our use of money and time – a long, loving look at what is real. So notice something here:
· Contemplation has to do with what is real – it isn’t fantasy or foolishness – it isn’t abstract or artistic in a narrow sense – it is real. God’s promise for our lives is grounded in reality.
· But in order for most of us to trust this we must sit with this truth and look at it in a long and loving way. Learning to trust God’s promise in our real lives takes time and silence and practice.
Do you know the word absurd? It comes from the Latin word, surdus, “which refers to a kind of deafness, incongruity, not being capable of perceiving sound or meaning.” (Listening for the Soul, Jean Stairs, p. 61) A grounded and trusting life practices quiet listening for the Lord – taking a long, loving look at what is real – while an absurd life is the polar opposite and is all about stumbling along “blindfolded, hearing impaired, closed” off to God’s presence and promise until nothing makes sense.
If all we do in our day is react to surprises – if all our time is spent doing rather than discerning – if at the end of each 24 hours we are too exhausted to take a long, loving look at what is real then we have entered the world of absurdity. And I know in my life and in many of yours there is way more absurdity and spiritual deafness than we want, right?
That’s one of the blessings of Advent: it comes around whether we likeit or not – whether we’re ready or not – and asks us to step back from the absurdity and repent. Reorder our days by trusting the Lord. So I’m going to give you three choices this week to practice becoming an Advent contemplative along with me. I am NOT saying I am an expert at this – I get it wrong just as much as I get it right – or like the old evangelicals used to say: I am just one lonely beggar telling another hungry soul where to find bread, ok? So here are the options:
· First, use this Celtic Advent Calendar that continues through the 12 Days of Christmas to be a guide. I’ve been using it for the past few days and I love it. It is fun, it is real and it is all about strengthening God’s love and trust within us. Today’s prayer, for example, tells us to “call a friend and tell them one thing you appreciate about them.” Earlier in the week the prayer was to welcome a new person at church or make a meal for someone in need. This is an action-oriented way into the world of contemplation.
· Second, use this sweet little book called: The Art of Pausing – Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed by Judith Valente. Every night I read a page after slipping into bed – they are very short – less than 150 words – and they invite me to pause and take a long, loving look at what was real in my day. This is a doorway into contemplation for thinkers.
· And third, take some time each week to sit in a room and turn off all the lights. Jan Richardson says sitting in the darkness is a good place to begin.
It is a choice where you let go of all your external senses and learn to practice night vision – trusting the shadows, listening in the quiet – closing down all the distractions and simply resting for a time. She writes:
There are other senses, you tell us Lord, and when the darkness obscures our choices, we must turn to the other ways of knowing that you have given us. In the daylight we can get by on sight, but for the nighttime… that is for our hearing, our tasting, our smelling, our questioning and our longing touch. A thousand messages waiting for our sensing that you, O God, have given to us.
I don’t know what this will mean for you – that’s one of the things about contemplative prayer – you don’t know the answers before you start the quest. You just trust. Some will get bored, I suspect and quit. Others will forget all about this until the music begins at the start of worship next week. A few will try it and be pleasantly surprised and there may be more reactions.
All I know is this: God has given us the season of Advent to nourish trust. Advent is about God’s promise to be with us and never abandon us no matter what. I know that I need to practice living into this trust – and maybe you do, too.
Credits - janrichardson.com
1) In Search of My Inner Savior
2) Where Hope Lives
3) No In-between
5) Winter Solstice