What if I told you that being sad, or filled with heartache at Christmas is not a failure of belief, but instead a holy invitation to longing?
What if I sad that bittersweet is the perfect word that sums up Advent?
Would you feel relief? Acceptance? Freedom? A glimpse at wonder and wholeness?
(all the expressions and gestures)
Last weekend, this was the message I had the honor of sharing with The Practice Tribe.
A message of bittersweet hope, of deep soul longing, of prophets and wilderness and holding both sadness and joy in the same heart. A message of freedom and wonder, of miracles and weariness.
You can listen to the message on The Practice Podcast, but I have also added an approximation of what I said below. Not the exact transcript – because honestly, I just couldn’t help going off book a bit – but a general idea of what was said.
Longing for Hope * A Message for The Practice Tribe * December 4, 2016 * Chicago, IL * Advent Two, Year 1
The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak.
Of course it hasn’t always been this way. For years I tried to jolly away the ache, the deep longing that sits at the bottom of my heart, the heavy anchor that is woven from the fibers of sorrow and broken expectations along with the ribbons and bows of simpler times, purer joys. For years I was convinced that I could overcome this holiday blight, this shortcoming of belief, by giving the right gifts, making the perfect cookies, and sending the prettiest card. I believed that I could bury, deep beneath tinsel and candy canes, the gnawing suspicion that something was unfinished. If only I could dress up my fear – the fear that all the magic of Christmas had disappeared for good – with more decorations and louder twenty-four-hour carols, then maybe I could, by sheer force of will, again experience Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year.
But no matter how festive things looked on the outside, no matter how great my efforts, I could never escape the strange sadness that wound its way tightly around my heart in the early days of December. Each year, shortly after Thanksgiving, I would find myself in line somewhere (usually Target), buying something as mundane as wrapping paper and light bulbs when suddenly my breath would catch in my throat, and a ten-ton elephant would be sitting on my chest, making my hands shake as I struggled to pay the cashier.
Later that same day, or week, panic would suddenly rise up inside my chest, threatening to burst from my lungs in a full-force sob as I fixed another cup of homemade hot cocoa for my boys. Despite my annual cheerful attempts to muffle the heavy ache that rested just below my breastbone the truth is, as much as I love all the hubbub (and I do love it, truly), the Advent–Christmastide season is, as the character Phillip in the 1994 movie Mixed Nuts so succinctly put it, “a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass and whatever you don’t have feels overwhelming. Being alone is so much lonelier at Christmas. Being sad is so much sadder at Christmas.”
Truer words have never been said.
I know that Joy to the World is a much-loved Christmas carol, but to me the writer of O Holy Night put it best when he said, “the weary world rejoices.” I don’t know about you, but the weary world is the one I live in, and the weariest time of all seems to be Advent and Christmas. Weary from fighting the urge to keep up with the Joneses. Weary from juggling fractured families and tender emotions. Weary from working too hard and feeling as if we are still just barely scraping by each month. Weary from raising a family and doing twenty loads of laundry each week. Frankly I am often weary of being weary, of not knowing if this is the year things fall apart, or if somehow, we will all make it again to New Years.
Over the past two decades I have weathered many Advents in a state of unknowing. I have entered Advent seasons wondering if my marriage would be still be intact at the New Year, if the central heat would be on for Christmas, if I would have a job in January, if we would be able to afford food—let alone gifts— during November and December. I have lost friendships and a church family and a job during an Advent season. Each of those Advents travels with me into the next. They are like the paper chain garlands my kids make a school. Each loop interlocked with the next loop, connected.
Each loop reminding me of both the hurt and the healing of those seasons as I pull the garland back out to hang on my tree once again.
So here we are again. Another Advent is here, another is Christmas coming. The holiday season is doing it’s best to once again highlight whatever is most broken in our lives; our families, our bank accounts, our dreams, our friendships, our politics and most importantly, our hearts.
When things get hard I have noticed that people respond in one of two ways – it’s all Fight or Flight. And this time of year is no exception. You can usually identify the fighters by those who try a little too hard to glitz over the broken parts of their lives and hearts. These are the ones who will tough it out and put on a big, static, happy face. despite the desperation they feel in their hearts to be whole again. They will decorate the tree until you can barely see green behind all the ribbons and ornaments, they will buy too many gifts hoping to find the Christmas spirit in the perfect gift, and they will wear themselves out with the frenzy they create all around them as they attempt to create a perfect Pinterest holiday, and when asked how they are doing will always reply “I am fine!” Fighters are hard to identify because they look happy, and they sound happy, but underneath all the ribbon and bows and twinkle lights, it is a different story, there is an underlying cry to rest, to acknowledge what is hurting in their lives.
The flight-ers are the easier group to pick out. They are the Scrooges, The ones who dismiss Christmas as a silly commercialization. They bah humbug all attempts at celebration and merriment, and tend to avoid decorations and iced cookies altogether. Instead of joining in they opt out. Every time. But often even the flighters are more than just grumps. They are also brokenhearted souls, in need of an authentic Christmas spirit, and not just a dressed up, plastic-smile attempt at one.
Do you see yourself in these 2 descriptions? I know I do. I have occupied both of these attitudes. Often I swing between them, creating a tornado of emotions that ends with me in a puddle of inconsolable tears on Christmas day.
For years my husband said it wasn’t really Christmas until I cried, which of course made me cry.
But what if I told you there was a third option? A middle way of being? A way of entering into Advent, of celebrating Christmas, that required no armor? No walls of fake tinsel or grumpy demeanor between us and the world? A way to hold both our sadness and our joy in one hand?
What if I told you that this was always the intention of this season?
The church year, the liturgical calendar, this very well thought out and deliberate rhythm set for us by our faith ancestors, does not begin with the Big Event. With Christ birth, or even with his death on the cross.
Instead it begins with the preparation. With waiting. With a longing.
The church year does not begin with Christ coming, but with our longing for Christ. With our longing for something worth hoping for. With our need. With our desire to be whole/
So why then do we think, that on Black Friday, we are all supposedly to be magically happy and filled with Christmas cheer, singing loudly for all to hear? We aren’t! Nothing has happened yet. Except for this. We begin the year with a tiny, almost inaudible promise.
We begin our faith year by trying to hear the till small voice that says, hold on, hope is coming.
Advent – the season between the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day is an ancient season that is built completely around the idea that we should long for hope, that we should cry out for it, that our hearts should break over and over in desperation for it.
Otherwise, what good is Christmas itself?
What is the point of Christ coming, if we are not aware of how much we need him?
This is why we read Isaiah in Advent, this is why we sing about captive Israel and a weary world.
Because Advent starts in the dark, in our longing, in our heartbreak, in our dissatisfaction and loneliness and loss.
In Advent we all become captive Israel. We all become exiles. We all become foreigners in a foreign land, being led by the light of hope.
And this is just as it should be.
Because if we are not exiles now, then what significance does having Love come down to walk among us carry?
And so, YES.
Advent is a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass and whatever you don’t have feels overwhelming. When being alone is so much lonelier. When being sad is so much sadder.
But let’s not run from these things, or hide from them, or stuff them under packages and bows. Instead let us name them, and then name the hope that we are waiting for.
Let us put them under the tree alongside a radical, ridiculously, fools hope that Love will come and walk among us, change us, and the world.
Advent, when you get right down to it, isn’t some fluffy kids holiday full of chocolate and presents – though I do enjoy both.
Advent is a season of defiance. It is about finding yourself in impossible circumstances – such as being an unwed single mother giving birth in a barn – and choosing to hope your guts out anyway.
It’s about choosing to risk your heart and believe against all signs to the contrary that love, in the end, will win the day. That the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon our heads;
We shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
So my question for us this year is this: What if this Advent we didn’t give in to the temptation to Fight or Flight? What if, instead, this Christmas, we leaned into the longing? Into the hope?
What if we, like Mary on the dusty road to Bethlehem, gathered up all our hopes and our fears, and carried them forward – to the coming of Christ – just as we are- with our broken hearts, our broken families, our broken bank accounts and our broken dreams?
What if, this Advent we didn’t pretend – either to be fine or to not care?
What if we just entered Advent as we are, where we are?
What if we leave here this evening living out the words of Isaiah – as people who have walked in darkness but who have seen a great light? And what if we let that light lead us , flicker by flicker, to a place of hope, to a place where we rest in the knowledge that God is with us, and that whatever else Christmas is, it is the coming of hope, of love, of restoration. And what if we did this together? Reminding each other that sometimes waiting and longing are hard, both because of how much we hope for and for what we fear.
*COOKIE PRACTICE TIME* ———————————————————————————————————————————–
Tonight we are going to step into this unknowing a bit. Into the twin emotions of fear and hope.
A little later on this evening I am going to share with you a little kit for a home practice that will help you travel the road of Advent with intention. Some of the practices that will be included will be ones that require you to take a risk. To risk being awkward or imperfect. To risk seeing and being seen.
Now, I know that once you guys take the garland kits home you could very well throw them in your junk drawer and never use them, or you could take one look at one of the prompts and say “no no no.” So tonight, while we have you captive here, we are going to go ahead and practice, together, one of the prompts so that when you do this at home – with a neighbor or your family or friends, you will be ready and prepared.
Before we get started I want to say one thing about Spiritual Practices. There is a reason they are called Practices and not Perfections.
We are all bad at them in the beginning.
Case in point, my family has been observing Advent at home with an Advent Wreath for 10 years. This is the first year it wasn’t in some way awkward. So take heart people – these things are awkward for all of us.
So with that in mind we are going to step into a practice tonight, with courage and awkwardness.
At this point in the service I had everyone in the room look under their chair. Half of the room had a package with two cookies, wrapped in cellophane under their chair. The other half of the room didn’t. Each person with a cookie bag, had to go and find a stranger in the room to share their other cookie with. Inside the bag was a prompt that said:
Cookie giver: “Christmas is hard for me because _____________. I thought it might be hard for you as well, so I brought you a cookie.”
Cookie receiver: “Thank you. Christmas is hard for me too because _____________.”
After sharing why the holidays are hard consider praying for each other.
Now let me just say, that this practice, this cookie – soul sharing experiment, could have completely flopped. In fact when I told my husband Nathan my idea he said – with completely love “that sounds horrible!” But I had faith in The Practice Tribe, and their leadership had faith in me, and so I will forever be grateful for both, because it worked. It worked SO well. Before I knew it people all over the room were sharing cookies and sharing heartache, and giving each other courage and permission to hold both sadness and joy in the same heart, laughing, crying, praying, cookie crumbs falling all over the floor. It was beautiful and amazing.
After a few minutes we gathered back together. Some of us remaining where we were, with our new friends, some of us moving back to our seats, and I closed my time with the words below.
A very wise woman, in her 2010 book Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, wrote: “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” This is the essence of Advent to me. When it is sweet, I am to say “thank you” and celebrate, and when it is less than sweet, I will still say “thank you” and I will do my best to grow. Because honestly, between the parties and the presents and the decorating and holly jolliness of it all, I have no energy left for pretending that everything always has been and always will be fine.
Advent is hard, and it often leaves us undone. Pretending that we need anything other than holy healing and redemption is a lie. Of course Advent is bittersweet!
Of course it is weary and raw and emotional. It began that way, with the words of an angel to an unwed teenage girl, words that changed her life and ours. And so like Mary, traveling a dirty, dusty road to Bethlehem, Advent is when we wait in utter anticipation that one will come who will save us and change the world. One who will right wrongs, bind up wounds, wipe away tears. We will wait for him because we have reached the end of our rope and we cannot save anyone, let alone ourselves.
It is now, at Advent, that we are given the chance to suspend all expectation for the entire season and instead to revel in the mystery; to hold both sadness and joy, sorrow and hope, disappointment and peace in the same heart and to wait for the night when the world will, and does, begin again.
At this point in the service, I explained the purpose and practice of my Christmas Countdown Advent Garland from A Homemade Year.
The team had made up Garland kits, and everyone was invited to take one home, and to engage with the daily prompts – t be it a scripture reading or a community action or a moment of reflection.
If you would like to make your own Christmas Countdown Garland and dig a little deeper into the next two weeks of Advent, there are two options.
First, you can go over to Big Picture Classes, sign-up for a free trial, and take my online class on how I make them.
Or you can download the basic template and instructions here that I used with The Practice here: advent-countdown-printable
And remember what I told my friends in Chicago – crafts are not just for kids! These were written specifically with adults in mind as well.
This Advent I hope that you will find a way to hold your sadness and your joy in the same heart. That you will not worry that your heartache is a sign of unbelief, but instead embrace it as the holy invitation to long for the Messiah, to long for new beginnings, for hope, for a Love that comes to walk among us.
Wishing you peace and tenderness this season-