When Mother’s Day Hurts

I love my mum. I have that going for me. To add blessing to blessing, I love my mum-in-law as well. They are both strong, caring, fun women who seek adventure, who pursue Christ wholeheartedly, and who never fail to be practical and emotional supports in difficulty and avid cheerleaders in times of triumph.

I also have many other mums in my life that I love and admire more than I can manage to put into words. Some dear friends who have mothered me at key moments in my life. Some dear friends who I watch in amazement as they pour goodness and strength into their creative, confident, and kind children.

And yet… Mother’s Day can still sting.

infertilityI think I have always wanted to be a mother. But, for me, the traditional route to motherhood was simply not available. 5 years of trying culminated in 2 surgeries… neither of which resulted in the ability for me to bear a child. And, without going into a myriad of details, after examining the complex and varied options to adopt–we realized God wasn’t calling us in that direction. So here I am. A mother without children on this day–a day on which facebook and twitter and commercials and TV and every possible form of technology and entertainment turns toward mothering. Even NHL players are interviewed before their playoff games about what they have learned from their mothers. It’s inescapable.

Hear me when I say… absolutely we should celebrate parents. It is a hard and sometimes thankless job that makes a huge difference in our world. We need good parents. We need to be their cheerleaders when there is reason to celebrate (even if it’s “just” a dry diaper, or a hard-won C+, or a slightly cleaner room), and their comforters when things don’t go so well, and their encouragers when there is too little sleep–or too much sass–or just, simply, too much. Parents are worth celebrating and supporting. Absolutely.

But there is real hurt here too. Women, like me, who will never fulfill a felt calling to mothering (at least not in the traditional way). Women who grieve not only childlessness on this day, but singleness as well. People who have complex or fraught relationships with their own mothers. Women who have lost children. Anyone who has lost their mother. There are many types of grief that this particular day presses on.

What I find most sad is that those of us who are struggling/grieving/hurting on this day will feel like staying home from church today. Will feel unsafe with their pain in the very community that should provide comfort and encouragement. Many of us will give in to the temptation to “turtle”–to curl up in a blanket at home and try to forget what day it is. Because sometimes the church gets it wrong. Sometimes the church makes an idol out of mothers and fathers. Sometimes the church comes dangerously close to defining humanity (and human worth) in terms of the nuclear family. Sometimes the church mistakenly weaves cultural days and seasons into the sacred rhythms of faith in a way that is unhealthy.

See we are called together, each week, to worship the Living God. That worship can include thanks for parents. It can include joy in and support of parents in our congregation. But when we begin to place all focus there, I think we have a theological problem that warps our worship away from God and toward people. When we worship, we make a profound statement about what matters–what is worth our attention, our time, our commitment, our whole selves. Parents do hard work, do good work–but they are not worthy of worship (nor are children, for that matter, wonderful as they are). While we should celebrate and support parents, our focus should remain on the Triune God. There should be no such thing as a “Mother’s Day service“.

I went to church this morning. I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. But, thankfully, blessedly, my church got it right.  I received a delightfully squished carnation from a small child who didn’t really want to let it go. I prayed, along with our church leadership, for mothers in our congregation. I shed a few tears in the midst, as I think I always will. But the focus of the service was the Triune God. I sang my heart out to Jesus–along with my fellow mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts and sisters and brothers. Our whole delightfully mixed-up and diverse family heard the word of God and responded together. Because our family is so much bigger than we realize. So much deeper and broader. So much more messed-up and beautiful. And today I was reminded that–in that family–I have countless opportunities to be a mother, and a sister, and an aunt, and a daughter. And it was good. Happy Mother’s Day.

Merry Imperfect Christmas (take 2)

This morning at Columbia Bible College’s final chapel service of the semester I was given the opportunity to share a little bit, taking inspiration from a Christmas blog I wrote last year called Merry Imperfect Christmas. So this is a re-visitation of a concept that does, perhaps, need to be revisited. The permissions at the end were used as our benediction.
"Tangled Light" by Tom Cochrane, flickr creative commons

“Tangled Light” by Tom Cochrane, flickr creative commons

I hate watching TV at this time of year.

Too many perfect families (mom, dad, 2 kids, a dog) gathered around a perfect table… or in front of a perfect tree… finding each other the perfect gifts… lighting up with the prefect reactions….

And if anything does go wrong it goes adorably wrong. So the dog knocks over the Christmas tree, and everyone laughs and laughs (while looking at each other creepily)—and no one actually has to go over and clean up the mess. No one throws the dog outside and slams the door unnecessarily loudly or swears when they step on a broken ornament.

So we turn off the commercials and we head out to find that perfect gift, we buy all the perfect decorations, we try to perfect-up our families a little…

But it never really works, does it. We never get that “Christmas card” Christmas. Even if we do enjoy Christmas (and I do!), the warm fuzzies never quite live up to expectation.

Instead, we’re faced with reality: exams; papers to mark; families that are broken, falling apart, or simply not very perfect; wallets that aren’t quite as thick as they need to be to buy those perfect gifts; trips home that somehow never achieve that peace and rest we crave; Christmas pageants that involve bowling balls thundering across the stage of the church (sorry… inside Columbia Bible College joke).

But here’s the thing. We present these pageants—kids in bathrobes with tea towels on their heads, pillow-stuffed Marys, adorably grumpy inn-keepers—and, much as I love those pageants, we’re glossing over reality just like Christmas commercials do. We’re striving for our own version of perfection.

I guarantee you that no one sang the gentle strains of Silent Night as Mary sweated and strained in childbirth. And she did not receive into her arms a clean, contented, sleeping child. What baby sleeps through the birth canal? From what I’ve heard, they ALL come out crying.

And the stable—most likely a cave—would not have been as warmly and cozily straw-lined as we imagine. And there would have been poop. A LOT of poop.

And Mary was young. And her pregnancy made people stare and whisper and shun her.

This. THIS is how a king—no THE KING enters the world. Not in the perfection of a palace, with servants to wait on him and perfumed water to wash the indignity of birth-goo from his skin.

Not our God.

With noise and mess and stink—he entered our world. Screaming his little heart out. He entered our world.

And still he enters our mess and our noise. He enters our exams and the stacks of papers we have to mark. He enters our screwed-up families and our empty wallets.

Every year, quietly, without fanfare, without twinkle lights, tinsel, or gift wrap—he enters our imperfect Christmas.

He enters our imperfection and makes it his own. Takes it upon himself. And gives us instead his deeper, wider, higher vision of perfection.

“From our fears and sins release us. Let us find our rest in Thee…..”

 

So… let me give you permission for a few things:

This Christmas, you have permission to be tired sometimes, and not up for visiting with every relative and friend on the face of the planet.

You have permission to NOT buy the “perfect” gift for every family member and friend. Give coupon books of hugs. Make people use them.

You have permission to NOT look at Pinterest—not once. Not even a tiny peak to see what type of Christmas scent should be bubbling away on your stove. Nobody wants to smell your orange peels, cranberry, and vanilla anyway. In fact, forget about Facebook and Instagram too. No one is having the type of Christmas they say they are on social media. Not even you. Put it away.

You have permission to spend time with people rather than spend time getting things right. Go for walks. Let people help, rather than feeling like you have to pull everything together yourself. Some of my best memories involve visiting over a sink full of dirty dishes.

You have permission to hide away when you need to. Re-read a favourite book. Take a bath. Dig out some old music and re-enjoy it. Lock your door for an hour or two.

This Christmas, you have permission to NOT exude “Christmas Spirit.” What on earth IS that, anyway? Instead, pay attention to the Spirit. Notice the moments in which the kingdom of God breaks in—they will be small—and they will not look like our version of perfect.

This Christmas, you have permission to not be perfect. Or to have a perfect Christmas. Find a quiet space. Light a candle. And take time to read again the story of the God-baby. Who came to earth in dirt, and pain, and noise. Close your eyes and give Christ permission to enter the imperfection—to enter your mess and teach you a new way of being fully human.

Have yourself a merry, imperfect Christmas!

Rant 4: No T in Worship

6863701649_8c0ece153f_z[1]A friend of mine posted an article on facebook today entitled “Why Rock Star Worship Leaders Are Getting Fired.” Part of me wants to rejoice at what author Don Chapman identifies as the trend of “megachurches” firing performance-oriented leaders. Another part of me, however, a larger part, wants to go on a major rant. Because Don Chapman’s problem with so-called “Rock Star Worship Leaders” is that they are self-absorbed, overpaid, don’t work very hard, and aren’t particularly musically skilled. He writes:

A megachurch is a unique breeding ground for a Rock Star Worship Leader (RSWL)—he [!] probably couldn’t survive in a smaller ministry. A typical church music director is a busy guy or girl who schedules volunteers, conducts rehearsals, writes charts, arranges music and plans Christmas and Easter events. Some megachurch RSWLs surprisingly can’t even read music, let alone create chord chart.

Oh the horror! Ok, I’m as shocked as Don Chapman that there are (apparently) some music leaders out there who are paid big bucks and don’t seem to do much of anything but “perform” on Sunday mornings. But really? Our biggest concern is that they might not actually be as musically talented as we think?

In the 20 + years that I have been leading in churches, which of course includes reading multiple job postings and applying for some of them, I can count on one hand the number of “worship leader” job postings that have asked for any type of theological competency or depth. Musical ability, yes. Ability to plan and lead a multi-media performance, yes. Ability to manage audio-visual equipment, yes. Good people skills, yes. Strong leadership skills, yes. Actively following Christ, certainly. Ability to articulate a cohesive theology of worship and implement that theology in weekly services that draw a congregation deeper into the life of Christ? No. Not once have I been asked about that. I’ve tried to volunteer the information, but even then it sometimes doesn’t go over well.

There is no Theology in Worship.

But then. Then we have the audacity to complain when our “worship” is vapid, when it lacks depth, or when it comes off as mere “performance.” Well – sorry folks. But you got exactly what you asked for. And when you look at it that way, doesn’t it seem a tad unjust – even hypocritical – to fire someone for doing exactly what you asked them to do? We need to spend a little less time blaming, and a little more time re-training. Because unless we find the “T” in Worship, we will continue to sit back and listen to some lovely music on Sunday mornings – drawing no closer to the throne of God, and refusing to enter more deeply into the life that Christ has given us.

Worship: Hit Single or Concept Album

I came across an article yesterday that I thought was noteworthy: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/29251-why-worship-should-be-risky

In this article Michael Gungor discusses the nature of the music industry, stating that the majority of pop albums are “collections of eight to 15 of the best snippets of musical ideas the artist or label can come up with” as they search for their next big hit. The songs have little or no connection to each other. The exception to this, is the concept album. The album that circles on big idea, or intentionally takes the listener on a journey through each sucessive song.

He then, mentioning his own most recent album, makes the leap to worship:

It would be naive to think our liturgy has not been affected by today’s culture of pop music singles. Our church services can become disconnected from a consistent story. Planning the worship service often becomes about finding the best four or five worship singles that will keep people engaged, and then a sermon is given that is separate from anything done in the service up to that point. It’s all about the hits.

I often find myself describing a worship service as a journey: We begin with people scattered all over the map, depending on what their weeks have held. We gather them together and slowly bring them into the Big Story, guiding them to a unified point at which they are all prepared to hear the small part of the Big Story that will be delivered that morning. Finally, we give them the opportunity to respond to that small part of the story, bless them, and send them out into the Big Story.

I think Michael Gungor is on to something here. Too often in worship we simply pick our “top singles” – or we circle around an idea without actually going anywhere. Maybe it’s time we explored the concept album. What do you think?

At very least, I’m going to check out Ghosts Upon the Earth.

Easter Sunday: Chapter 25 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

“This is the very center of the church. This, not the birth of a baby, is the reason we celebrate Christmas. This is the reason for all the feasts of the church. This is the place from which we all draw our fire.”

And what is this Easter-birthing ‘fire’? A tomb-seal shattered (from the inside?). Mighty strength, and glorious possibility – for one we thought Failure, God-Forsaken, for whom all hope had died. A human being, just like us (!) who was kindled to blaze down Death’s dark door, and claw back a Whole New Life beyond our dreams. And all this from One who had given comprehensive proof of His love for us all. So maybe, just maybe, this new way could be for us, too. “We are not, we know now with stunning awareness, made for this world alone. There is more to us than this. Life is about more than simply surviving … We are here to grow to full spiritual stature … we too, must now become part of the Light ourselves.”

This is, as Chittister puts it, “the feast of Resurrection, of the redemption of life from the abyss of nothingness to the pinnacle of creation.” The good news is about far more than a cross, a sacrifice, and forgiveness. That’s all huge, but it’s just the beginning. Now, from Sunday on, there’s a new Life to be lived, a new Alleluia to be yelled, a new Creation to invent. Because the night of this world’s decay is far gone, and the Day is at hand. We have already seen its dawn, and that Dawn now lives within us.”We have come again to answer the question that comes out of Holy Saturday’s emptiness: no, we are not alone.” And to the Light of the World, we are no longer servants, but partners. Who can tell what we might do on Monday?

The journey from Saturday’s silence and emptiness into celebration of this great New Beginning is, in Chittister’s experience, a four-part affair. It begins Saturday night, with the “striking of new fire,” whereby the candles of everyone assembled are lit from the one Paschal candle. Then the history of creation and salvation is told from Scripture, and the congregation shows their appreciation for God’s saving by repeating their baptismal vows, committing again to “try again to be what we are called to be.” Thus prepared, these new-day people cement all by sharing the great Feast of unity, of communion with the risen Christ and with each other.

This is all a lot longer and more involved than I’m used to. What does it all add? What ways of rejoicing have helped drill hope deep into you and your church? What do we miss by disconnecting Sunday from Saturday from Friday, as we so often do?

The Weight of Good Friday: Chapter 23 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

by Stacey Gleddiesmith

Good Friday.

The day when hope falters and darkness seems to triumph.

Joan Chittister describes the pain of second-century Israel: “the grief was still raw. After all, they were still waiting for His return, then and there. And in the midst of the wait, the desolation inspired a fast that tapped into the profound heartache of a people. For years, the Christian community fasted not only on Good Friday but on Holy Saturday as well…. For years, the fast was a complete one. Early Christians took no food or water at all. They fasted for forty straight hours without either eating or drinking” (p. 148).

Now, she says, Good Friday gatherings are often mere pageantry:  “something to watch, something to realize with a pang… But nothing really serious” (p. 151).

So how do we push past our momentary sympathy with Christ, and take up our cross to follow him? How do we inspire our congregations to do so? How do we preach crucifixion to a culture that shrinks from unpleasantness?

We can use darkness and silence. We can bring newness to history through creative tellings. We can hold back the celebration and take time to sit in the dark. To wait. We can add weight to our words, laying the burden of Christ, for once, heavily on the shoulders of our congregation. Allowing ourselves to feel our backs bowed and our knees trembling – Friday, Saturday.

More than that, we can fast. Having read this chapter, I feel a fresh urgency to observe Good Friday by taking in nothing but the death of Christ. I need the gnawing in my belly that will, in Chittister’s words “whet the need for the return of Jesus to our own lives.” The fast of Good Friday, she says, “means to concentrate us on the moment, to be there nagging at us in the midst of our distractions, to keep us keenly aware of what the spiritual life is meant to be about” (p. 151). I need that. Desperately.

So I invite you to fast with me. Or, if not to fast, to solemnize this day in another way. I invite you to share, here, your experience of Good Friday – the weight that was laid upon you – that we may fully experience together the lightening of Easter morning.

Christmas Is Not A Children’s Story

This post comes a bit late (although still within the liturgical season of Christmas) because my husband Andrew and I received some bad news during the Christmas season that has set us back on our heels. We have been trying for a baby for three years. This Christmas we discovered that not only do I have endometriosis, but I have a severe case requiring complex surgery. My gynecologist gravely informed us that he may not be able to save my ovaries.

We have been grieving, we are grieving and, to be honest, the season of Christmas is a crappy time to contemplate childlessness. Christmas is about a pregnancy. A miraculous pregnancy. Christmas is about a baby. Not only that, but our society has made Christmas into a season that is directed primarily at children. Almost every Christmas commercial contains a wide-eyed child waiting for Santa, or an excited child ripping into a gift. Christmas movies inevitably contain cute kids oozing “Christmas Spirit.” Believe me. I know. TV is no place to turn for distraction at Christmas – not if your problem is infertility. Nor is facebook a place of refuge these days. I have so many friends who are pregnant, or who have recently had babies, that sometimes all my news feed seems to contain is baby news. I’m happy for my friends. I really and sincerely am. And I want to hear their baby news. But for now, just for a time, I’m taking a bit of a break from their joy.

I can’t, however, take a break from the joy of Christmas. From the celebration of the Christ child. Not if I want to continue my journey through the Christian calendar. So my question this Christmas has been: “how do I celebrate the baby Jesus in the midst of potential barrenness?”

As I began to wrestle with this question (and believe me, although it sounds nice and clear and cold at this point – it started out as an emotional mess… and continues that way), I realized that there is something very wrong about the way in which we celebrate Christmas. It’s not actually about kids at all. Or, at least, not to the degree that we make it about them. Just because Christ came first as a child does not mean that Christmas is only for children. In fact, I think our focus on kids at this time of year has led us to sentimentalize Christmas. To make it less than it is. We somehow feel that, because the story contains a baby, it must be a simple one. A story easily explained to a child.

Don’t get me wrong – you should tell your children about baby Jesus in the manger every single Christmas. You should see your kids glow in anticipation of their favourite day of the year. But Christmas is not primarily about kids, and it’s not primarily for kids.

On the surface, it may seem like a simple thing to conceive a child. (Girl meets boy. Girl “lays with” boy. Girl gets pregnant. Girl has a baby.) But if we delve below that surface, something we tend to do only when we have difficulties, we find unimaginable complexity. There are hundreds of little bodily functions that need to fall in line for an egg to be fertilized and implant on a uterine wall. If even one of those functions fails, conception (let alone the birth of a healthy child) becomes unlikely, maybe even impossible.

On the surface, the Christmas story might seem like a simple thing. (Mary meets Joseph. Mary and Joseph become engaged but don’t “lay together.” Mary becomes pregnant. Wait. What?) It’s funny how we’ve learned to read this story by rote – skipping blandly over miracle after miracle, and seeing it as primarily a story for kids. Really? Try to explain the virgin birth to a three year old!

This story is anything but simple.

Mary is not representative of all other mothers. She alone had the experience of bearing a child that would also be her Saviour. King of kings. Lord of lords. God with his people at last. For the Christmas story, in its full telling, explains to us that God, the baby Jesus, is Friend to the weak and oppressed (the shepherds); that he is Messiah to those who have waited (Simeon and Anna); that he is King to the excluded (the wise men); that he is Trouble to the comfortable (Herod); and that he is Glory to the unremarkable (Mary). This baby is, in fact, God. God reaching out from his internal Trinitarian relationship, and welcoming the whole of the human race into that unity.

We rejoice, not just in the birth of a baby, but in God becoming part of his creation. We rejoice, not just at the swaying of a tiny fist in an animal’s feed trough, but at the chorus of angels proclaiming – at last – peace to humanity. We rejoice, not merely at the tiny stirrings and noises that a baby makes, but at the song of God that shakes creation. The song that will, one day, make all things new.

This is something I can celebrate. This is a reason to lift up my pain and rejoice.

Have an Uncomfortable New Year: chapters 1-2 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

As you know, I celebrated New Year’s Day on November 27th this year, having decided to practice the liturgical cycle in a conscious and considered fashion (at least once in my life). Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure I fully considered the consequences.

Thus begins a new blog series, which will include posts from two thoughtful friends of mine: Ian Walden, and Andrea Tisher. Ian and Andrea have consented to read with me through Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year,” at a pace of two chapters every week (although we may skip a week here or there). Each week, one of us will write a blog entry and then we will proceed to have a comment conversation in which you are welcome to participate. These post are not intended to read like book reviews (although taken as a whole, I’m pretty sure the book will be thoroughly reviewed by the end). Instead, we will use Chittister’s work as a jumping off point for wider ranging discussions about the Liturgical Cycle and its effect on our lives, and the life of the church. Please do consider picking up a copy of the book and joining the discussion.

Now back to the first two chapters.

Near the beginning of her first chapter, Chittister states: “The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it.” She speaks about the different ways we have of defining our years: fiscal years, school years, planting and harvest, cycles of the moon, etc. As I thought about this, I realized that my life has been shaped by the educational year. September 1 feels far more full of promise and newness than January 1 ever did (and certainly more than November 27th!). I tend to make resolutions every Fall (“I will stick to a new schedule,” “I will write for an hour every morning,” “I will get every paper in before its due date,” “I will keep my life more balanced, and eat and exercise to fuel my study”), and I also follow the New Year tradition of breaking each resolution, almost ritualistically, one month in.

What Chittister’s first two chapters made me consider, however, was how this view of my year has caused me to evaluate my life. She says, on page 6, “Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.” Huh. Can we derive from that statement that whatever “year” we choose to make the driving force of our life also has something to say about the way we measure our progress though life, and the way we value ourselves and others?

It’s completely natural for kids to look up to kids in higher grades (and I had three older brothers to catch up to!), but with me it went beyond this. I remember watching one of my brothers colour a map as part of his homework. I wanted so much to know enough (and to have the colouring skills) to be able to do the same thing. In fact, I even planned out how I would colour the map. In detail. A plan I brought to fruition five years later when I was given a similar assignment. In university, I shuddered every time I failed to reach above the class average on an assignment or an exam. When I reached grad school, each course I completed was one more notch on my educational belt, and my heart sank every time I received a B. My ritual of counting my years by the academic calendar has resulted in a life measured according to knowledge and skill.

So what would it look like to count my years as Chittister suggests: as levels of our spiritual growth? This is where things become uncomfortable.

In chapter 2, Chittister describes the liturgical year as “a lesson in life” (pg. 10). She states: “Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same” (pg. 10). *Insert swear word of your choice.*

So living the Christian year over and over again will make me more like Christ. *Repeat swear word.*

How many times have I said/sung that I/we want to be more like Christ? How many times have I really meant it?

Quite honestly, if I measure my life by the standard of spiritual growth, I’m afraid I’m more than a bit stunted. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m fearful. The list is longer than a chimpanzee’s arm in that direction, and shorter than my own pinky in the other. The fact is, if I’m really committed to Christ, if I really live his life each year through the liturgical cycle, I would have to give up an awful lot of things and activities. And I would have to do an awful number of things I’d rather not. I’d rather not go out of my way to speak to people on the margins. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to confine my conversation to people I already like. I’d rather not take Jesus’ attitude toward the poor seriously. It’s much more comfortable to save up my wealth to buy things I “need.” I’d rather not govern my time more effectively so as to use it in service of others. It’s much more comfortable to take a morning off here, and an afternoon there, to indulge myself.

So it seems, from what Chittister has said, that I’m about to have a very uncomfortable new year. Terrific.

Ian and Andrea – over to you.

(note to readers: I strongly suggest that you subscribe to the comments for these posts about Chittister’s book, as that is where we will be engaging in further discussion.)

Advent, Not Christmas

Besides Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, Advent is probably the most widely celebrated Christian season – or is it? As the weather gets colder, and the snow finally sticks to the ground, our thoughts turn to… Advent?

Each year on November 1st (Canadian storekeepers seem to feel that they can leap over Rememberance Day straight to Christmas – orange and black come down and red and green go up), the glitz, glitter, and glorias break out in every store. Every piped-in song contains the tuneless rhythm of “jingle bells,” and every available retail space is crammed with tinsle, trees, lights, and the latest Christmas trend (this year it seems to be “shoe ornaments”). The commercial world wants us to skip right past any sense of waiting and run full steam ahead for the holiday of holidays: Christmas.

I’m not about to compare churches to retail frenzies (although in some cases there are, perhaps, comparisons to be made). What I am about to do is to bemoan the fact that the church, too, hops directly over Advent and into Christmas.

For most churches, especially those that don’t follow the habits and traditions of the liturgical year, when we decorate the church three to four weeks before Christmas we are beginning a long-drawn-out celebration of Christmas, rather than beginning the season of Advent. We put up our trees and lights. We start singing Christmas carols. We begin (sometimes) hearing sermons about Christmas. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. It’s just that there’s something missing.

Christmas is a season of triumph and joy. We rejoice in the coming of our King; we rejoice in the knowledge that God lowered himself, and took the position of a human baby so that we might know him better. Advent, by contrast, is a time of sober reflection and preparation. Advent is the experience of waiting with Israel for the Christ – and waiting together as the church for the second coming of Jesus. It’s the fast that makes the feast taste extra good.

What are we missing when we skip over Advent?

The fast before the feast, yes – but also something else. Advent gives us the opportunity to tell God that things are still not right down here. We weep over the state of the world; we bring to God those things in our own lives that aren’t right. Advent establishes in the people of God a renewed sense of longing for Christ’s second coming – for the day when all things shall be renewed under the lordship of Christ. As we wait with Israel, we feel some of Israel’s pain and desperation – and we join our own pain and desperation to it. We see oppression, war, and hunger in the world and we acknowledge that this is not the way things should be, that this is not God’s intention for the world. We stand in the face of injustice, sorrow, and sickness and say: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Christmas contains none of this longing, and rightly so. Christmas is pure celebration of the fact that Christ has come – but our celebration will ring false if we don’t first acknowledge, through Advent, that we desperately need him to come again.

Liturgical New Year

This year I’m celebrating New Years on November 27th. I’m not going to stay up till midnight on the 26th. I’m not going to eat oliebollen (sorry, Dutch food reference). And I’m not going to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

What I am going to do, is take some time to pray in preparation. As another liturgical year begins, this time around I hope to live it mindfully. And in the company of my readers.

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church – a denomination that falls somewhere between high and low church. Let’s call it middle church. This means that we had things like congregational readings, and we celebrated some aspects of church/liturgical calendar, but we didn’t go whole hog. I have since attended and been in leadership in Alliance churches, Baptist churches, and Pentecostal churches, but it wasn’t until I attended Regent College that I came into contact with full celebration of the Christian year. Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, Ordinary Time, Epiphany… I had a basic knowledge of what they comprised, but I’ve never actually lived them in a cyclical way. I’ve observed one feast one year, and maybe tried a different one in a following year, but I have never observed them sequentially. And I want to.

In preparation for my year of liturgy, I’ve begun reading Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. What I love thus far about this book is Chittister’s contemplative approach (she’s a Benedictine nun, which may have something to do with it). The liturgical year is, she says:

“…the attempt to live the Jesus life over and over again all the years of our lives… It is about the spirituality of joy and suffering, of waiting and faith, of asceticism and celebration, of loss and hope that marks all our lives and that needs to be strengthened, deepened, revisited, and rediscovered in the life of Jesus and the life of the church every year of our lives” (xvi).

She speaks of the Christian year as a means of slowly – drip by drip, she says – becoming Christlike. One year, one feast at a time:

 “The liturgical year… proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God” (6).

That’s what I want to be (on my better days). So I want to explore this life – to orient my year around the life of Christ, rather than tie it to the earth’s rotation around the sun, or the cycle of education, or the yearly accumulation of finances, or the payment of taxes.

I hope to write at least once a week (perhaps even more often, if I can manage a few regular posts here and there between the Christian year). Some posts will contain church liturgies (I also hope to use this year to explore what it means for a “non-liturgical” church to experience the Christian year). Some posts will contain explanations of different fasts and feasts. Some posts will track my personal experience throughout the year. Some posts will be biblical reflections from within a particular liturgical season.

If there is a type of post you would find particularly helpful – or a question you would like me to research during the year, please feel free to post a comment and let me know.

If you are interested in participating in this journey with me – let me know that too. Consider picking up Chittister’s book as a starting point, and prepare with me to ring in the New Year on November 27.