Prince of Peace:  The Third Week of Advent

Prince of Peace: The Third Week of Advent

Emmanuel…God with us….

Are you? Where?

The sweet baby across the street….the one with the dark wisps of hair that curl at the ends; the one who can light up the entire room with one enthusiastic grin; the one who just took his first steps a couple months ago; the one with whom our whole church has fallen head-over-heels in love….he’s flown in a life-support airplane to a hospital three hours away.  The specialists talk of his weak heart, the layers of scar tissue, that his pace maker is just pacing way too frequently for anyone’s comfort.  His poor momma buried her first baby five years ago in October.  She sits in his pediatric hospital room, the same hospital where she painfully survived the dying breaths of her first child, holding his hand, reeling from blow after blow, holding her shattered heart in her other hand.

Emmanuel…God with us….

Where…..are you?

We ache.  We scream. We write lists of questions for you, and we have excruciatingly few answers.

We come back, as the calendar reminds us, to the Holy time, the sacred time, and we expect a vision, a touch, or maybe just a brush from you.  We would settle for an inkling of your presence.  Just a slight nod from the Creator of the universe to know that we aren’t abandoned on the careening ball of grief, chaos, and disaster.

The lights twinkle in the windows of their house, as if they are awaiting the sounds of a toddler’s squeals.  Our lights twinkle back in salute to the pain and emptiness of the fallow emblem of Christmas celebration.

The wind whistles through the unused fireplace as we all camp out on the couch watching our favorite Christmas movies. Our family hunkers down for another sick Saturday at Christmastime.  The stomach flu has entered our house, and we brace ourselves for a wave of illness to sweep us off our feet for the week leading into Christmas.  I scour over an almost-complete knitting project and unravel an entire skein of yarn to find a mistake that I made 24 rows ago, and I shudder with defeat.  My life feels like the unraveling blanket in my lap, as I search desperately, trying to locate the source of my malfunction.  Where in the world did I go wrong?  How in heaven’s name can we fix it?

The kid with the stomach bug perks up enough to slap her brother on the head, and our cozy movie-watching morning turns into germ-infested wrestling match on the living room floor.  I helplessly watch the violence, raise my voice to a pitch that matches the chaos of the moment, and throw up my hands at a loss for how to remedy any of these broken situations….

I glance out the window, and my brain keeps bumping into the reminder of that fragile life that hangs in the balance. That sweet baby should be cuddling on his couch with his mommy but instead is trying to keep his little heart in rhythm in a hospital room three hours away.   Turns out he is throwing up today too.

I glance in my lap at this blanket that I have been working on for months that seems to manifest all of my brokenness and inadequacies in the pattern of knits and purls that feels entirely out of rhythm with my ultimate goal of a seersucker pattern made of perfect diamonds of royal blue, cranberry red and charcoal grey. This is not turning out like I had hoped it would. 

I glance over at my children smacking each other on the couch next to me. They just can’t seem to be friends no matter how many strategies I use to bring peace to our home. 

My poor brain, trying to balance life and illness, working endlessly to cope with chronic pain and lack of blood flow, trying to bounce back from the destructive rhythm of anaphylaxis and epinephrine shock, mixed with the constant passing out as my heart rate doubles when I stand up. Doubles.  I just can’t stay conscious, no matter how many pills I choke down morning, noon, and night.  My doctor says that I am the sickest, most treatment-resistant patient she has ever treated. 

And peace teases us, like a distant concept on the horizon, maybe present in the houses down the road,  but not in our two little houses, blinking SOS signals out for someone to decipher, for anyone to give us answers, solutions, peace.  We need it now.

Our desperate situations feel like painful juxtapositions to the week of peace that presents itself before us.  Peace?  As we try to balance life and death, malfunctioning brains, dislocated joints, broken hearts, faulty lungs, heaving stomachs, and faltering knitting projects, we shudder at the foreign concept of peace.

If only we were residing in ordinary time, one that doesn’t tease us so painfully as we hang in the balance, dangling willy-nilly between life and death, hope and despair.  If only the lights didn’t twinkle so brightly, offending us with what feels like machine-gun fire of tiny slaps in the face as we cling to sanity in the midst of critically insane situations.

Emmanuel….God with us….Prince of peace?

Where

are

you?

We try to create a Neiman Marcuesque Christmas, with a perfectly vertical tree, the star at the top twinkling with pristine clarity and color coordinated ornaments. We decorate the piano, the mantle, and the ridges of our roof, and we convey to the rest of the world that we “have it all together.”  Full disclosure?  We are missing Joseph in our nativity.  Joseph–the adopted father of Jesus; the one who also spoke with the angel Gabriel; who sacrificially allowed his name and identity to be slandered for the sake of obedience to the call of God. He’s GONE. Our Christmas tree has crashed to the floor three times in the past week, assaulted by disorderly, brawling preschoolers.  My head feels like it is going to explode with all of the pressure of Christmas activities and the over-stimulation of seizure-inducting blinking lights.  Peace?  Where?

Maybe we are looking in the wrong places.  This Spirit of the Lord whispers, look inside.

Then I see a peace that doesn’t depend on what is happening to me.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.    John 14:26

The world is broken and shattered, and some lives manifest the dissonance more convincingly than others.  We see the chaos more clearly in mental illness, physical illness, senseless tragedy, financial hardship, abuse, and broken families.  Here we are, in this world of chaos, uncertainty, unraveling lives, infant and child death, debilitation chronic illness, divorce, sex slavery, injustice, and poverty.  And yet there is this truth imprinted on our hearts:  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you:  and it is true.  John’s not just trying to appeal to our warm, fuzzy emotions at Christmas.  He is telling us a vital fact regarding the presence of the Spirit, which is the direct result of Christ’s Advent, sacrifice on the cross, and defeat of death.

There is peace.  There is this deposit given to us:  The deposit of the Spirit.  This Spirit of God wraps us in indestructible peace as we go through the most brutal, deepest, darkest valleys of the shadow of death.  This is the peace that rules our hearts as we navigate a world that aches, yearns, and screams for the second coming of Jesus.  This is the peace that keeps our hearts pumping as they feel like they are being ripped out of our chests by betrayal, loss, abuse, or confusion.  This is the peace that allows us to laugh after a night of weeping.

I glance out the window again, and my heart resonates with the longing and pain as our lights twinkle with our neighbor’s, boldly shining in defiance against chaos.  I imagine a twinkle of the secret that is housed in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit of peace resides.  Whatever happens, however chaotic our lives, we will rest in the peace that rules our hearts and long for total restored order where there is no death, no pain, no suffering, and complete world peace.

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Picking Up The Pieces

Picking Up The Pieces

Have you ever felt like your life is in shambles, and Christmas cheer stands in stark contrast to the pieces of your broken life? You might be closer to the heart of Advent than you know.  Join Jordan and Megan McFall as they journey through the scriptures that paint the Christmas story, and experience the Christ Child who came to restore hope, peace, joy, and love to our messy and chaotic lives.

This study is divided into four weeks following the themes of hope, joy, peace and love. Each week we will journey together daily looking to reclaim these things in our lives.  In addition to the daily devotional and reflection times throughout the four weeks, in the back of the book there are guides for four small group sessions as we encourage you to not go through this journey alone.  Use this study with a group you are a part of, or invite new people to join you as you embark on the journey of picking up the pieces of Advent hope, joy, peace and love.

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Sacred Waiting

Sacred Waiting

I wait beside the phone.   I wait for four different medical specialists to call. I wait for more specific diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan. I wait for scans, MRI’s, blood tests, and assessments. I wait for the new prescription to come in. I wait for the current prescriptions to start helping, the side-affects to wear off, and the pain to subside. I wait for my heart rate to come up or go down, or my oxygen saturation to go up. I wait for my fever to go down. I wait. Do I wait in vain? I often wonder.

 

Draw nigh, Draw nigh, Emmanuel

And Ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lowly exile here

Until the Son of God appear…(J. M. Neale, 1851)

 

The people of Israel were always waiting, always hoping. Their hearts were longing, and they held to traditions to remind them of the Savior, the King, for which they were longing. They did not choose to distract, lest they forget their longing. Our church universal is in a similar situation to the people of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. They were in exile, waiting and hoping for the coming Messiah. They didn’t entirely understand how it would work, or how He would come, but they held to what they knew of Him and His work in the past, anticipating and hoping for His future coming. We live in the tension and the glory of the kingdom that is already present on earth through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the deposit of the Holy Spirit, and the longing for the kingdom that is to come, where God rights all wrongs and wipes every tear away from every eye. In the Spirit of the Israelites, we sing in minor key, “Death’s dark shadows put to flight” in one of the most popular advent hymns in the Christian church, this verse coined in Hymns, Ancient and Modern, in 1861.

 

My tendency, and I believe that human tendency, is to try to distract from discomfort and agony when there appears to be no present solution to the problem. When our resources are sapped, and we can do nothing but wait for answers or solutions, we try to ignore the pain and longing. This response sometimes helps us to survive. Chronic illness sets the stage for a lifestyle of waiting. We wait for explanations for confusing symptoms. When diagnoses are provided, we wait for solutions, if there are solutions. If there are no solutions, we suffer through the bad days and wait for days with decreased pain. We long, we desperately long, to feel well enough to function. We wait for a miracle, or we choose to focus elsewhere.

 

Waiting for something limited to this earth—like healing or the right diagnosis for me, often feels frantic and frenzied, filled with fear and anxiety. Waiting on the Lord, the waiting of Advent, is a joyful, hopeful, expectant, pregnant, and holy longing that knows and trusts that its object will ultimately come to fruition. Maybe this is a time where we redirect our energies to this holy anticipation of the Savior, the Kingdom, and His inextinguishable light. Not one of these promises can be rivaled. They cannot be undermined.

 

So this waiting that is found in my illness…maybe it is a sacred space. Maybe it is a thin point in our mortal world of flesh and blood where we can see the Advent kind of waiting more clearly. As I wait for the uncertain, I am reminded of the undeniable promises for which I wait. This waiting hurts, and it rubs me raw. My raw soul longs for a salve that is not always provided in medical answers and physical healing. It longs for the gentle, loving touch of the Savior, the Redeemer, the One who will right all wrongs and ultimately heal all hurts. My raw soul longs for the coming kingdom, and in a world broken and oozing with longing, we sing the minor songs of Advent together: “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” We may or may not know what we are really truly waiting for, but we are all waiting. I pray that our waiting may not be in vain, but may be a shadow-glimpse of the true illumination of Advent-waiting.

An Advent Lament

An Advent Lament

One evening in early December, our half-hearted dinner comes to a close. Few words have been exchanged, and the children have each taken about a half of a bite of mashed potatoes and drummed the table with their silverware for the ten minutes that they have been forced to sit in their seats. Jordan and I sit wearily, lacking the energy to even mutter a few words to one another. I stare desperately at the seven candles lit in the middle of the table, longing for them to speak peace to my tempestuous heart. My heart is an impenetrable fortress and refuses to allow the light in. Jordan asks me why I am staring the candles down, and I sigh and blow them out with extended effort. Their light falls short of my desperate soul’s need for comfort and peace tonight.

The heaviness in my chest and the thickness in my throat lingers. My head aches with the aftermath of the day’s panic attacks and fits of rage. The lingering failure of the day hangs over my spirit like a cloud. And the advent candles failed me. Or I failed them. The emotional and physical pain of this advent is palpable, oppressive, and I struggle to breathe through the smog of my carnality. I feel as though I am crying out to empty heavens, staring into illusory candles, reaching for something that isn’t even there. I know that this is just a feeling, and I know, on an intimate heart level, that God is indeed with us. I just don’t feel Him or hear Him right now.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus. Break through the darkness and brokenness of my multi-faceted infirmities. Break into our family’s heaviness, and lighten our load. Bring illumination to our darkness. In your mercy, bring beauty and grace to the daily lives of my innocent children. This Advent season, I am beyond desperate for your light. I need a pin-prick of hope. I understand that my perceived needs are not always accurate, so I will accept whatever package in which you choose to deliver said hope. I just need something, anything, soon.

God is With Us

God is With Us

It is the first week of Advent, a Tuesday. My body seems to be falling apart, and no one has any concrete answers. A few speculations, but it just feels like they are trying to placate me with something. I start with anger, rage. I want to lash out, punish someone. I know it is irrational . But it makes illogical sense somehow in my emotion-driven brain. I will punish my body.

But I can’t. That’s not an option anymore. I have charges to keep and ground to maintain. Hard-won ground that I cannot afford to lose. My loved ones cannot afford to suffer the consequences of my illogical temper tantrum. Nevertheless, I lash out at my body for two days. I give myself two days to have my starvation strike.

As my indulgence draws to a close, I crumple, resigned to my state of debilitation, and sink into an even more terrifying stage of lethargic apathy. Knowing that this can’t continue, I reach out feebly only to be met with helpless concern from those who love me. What can they do? They can’t heal me. Body or mind. I reach out again via text, but I know that such efforts are fruitless. I need a miracle.

The world sits, waiting, wounds wide open, festering, infected. We are desperate, grasping for something, anything, but we open empty hands. I sit, broken, holding a sleeping baby, weeping weak and bitter tears into his innocence. Too much. Life is too much. The physical pain. The emotional pain. I am crippled by the agony and have no answers. I simply cannot maintain the status quo anymore. My tears evidence my release. I let go.

In my other hand, I hold my phone, a life-line of sorts. A devotional appears on my email. It promises hope. It is hope week of Advent. Fancy that. The irony is not at all comical at this point in my pain. It is just heart-piercing. A dagger. I know that in my agony, I represent something larger, a deeper, more acute world-wide agony.  All is not right, and I am not alone in my despair.  We are collectively wailing and weeping, longing, but not daring to hope for a miracle.  We just can’t hold it together anymore.  If nothing else, Advent carries with it a sense of release, exhale, and deeper surrender.  Sometimes, that comes coupled with despair.

I’ve read this devotional before. She wrote it last year during Advent. The author will wait for the unlikely, in search of a miracle, just a glimpse.  The Morpho butterfly will land wide open blue, impossibly, on her shoulder for a solid 25 minutes, and she will rejoice, reassured by the presence of God.  It stands as a symbol of hope.  I scoff.  I feel a solidarity with the cynical world, who scoffs with me.   God doesn’t do that for me.  He hates me.  Or worse yet, He just doesn’t even care.

A wide open weep stumbles out of my mouth.  Tears splash the muslin baby blanket, wrapping my innocent child. No hope.  No butterflies. No real help is available from doctors, from friends, from family, or even, maybe especially, from God.  He’s silent.  I pause, as the world pauses now, in the prolonged silence of death.  We hold our breath.  A bit longer.

Nothing….

A baby’s belly-laugh breaks the sickening silence.  His sleep-enshrouded mirth opens a pin-prick of light in the midst of a pitch-black death-night.  In the midst of my broken sob, I see my child, still in slumber, laughing out loud at something.  Maybe it’s a dream, maybe he is responding to my body’s heaves. Nevertheless, he laughs a laugh that only a baby could muster in the midst of his deepest sleep.  His laugh rises like music notes to meet my song of lament, and our emotions unite.  Tears still flowing, I join in his laughter-song.  I join my son, and joy invades, takes residence in my sorrow.  This baby, oblivious to the depths of my pain, has become the means of grace through which hope takes flight. My tears still flow freely, and they mingle with tears of joy, of hope.

Out of the depths of my longing hopelessness, I look down to see a sleeping child laugh.  My child, who represents hope, joy, and renewed life. All is not lost I am not forgotten. We are not forgotten.  God is with us.  He has manifested Himself in a tiny baby boy.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

A sacred space of Holiness dwells in these few days before Christmas. I feel like I am walking on holy ground, like I should never wear shoes the week before Christmas. 

I am so cautious about the space in my life in these days of acute longing and hope. I want to inhale more deeply, lingering in the hold for a few seconds longer before I exhale. 

We read a lot about making space for Christ in Christmas. But I see Him everywhere. He’s here. Absolutely, undeniably here. I just don’t want to miss Him. And if I don’t take time, I might miss a glimpse of the beauty of the One, the One  who wore flesh so that we could be with Him.

Oh, He’s with us. He is Emmanuel. Here. Now. In one sense, I don’t want to blink in case I miss a glimpse, and in another sense, I know that he will meet me with my eyes closed. 

The longing is profound this year. It grows more agonizing every Advent. Strangely enough, the joy also runs deeper, closer to my core.  The streams of longing and joy seem to run together, digging, wearing down a path of Advent in my soul.  My soul is weary, aching, and broken. And it rejoices with the thrill of hope. I am now capable of weeping in simultaneous agony and joyous rapture without splitting in half.  I had no inkling that a soul could bear the dichotomy of joy and grief in the same instant. 

This is holy ground that we are walking. It is no-shoes territory.  And I am becoming more fully alive with each day that I make a little bit more room in my heart for this enigmatic Christ-child. 

Abba, Father

Abba, Father

God has been working on me overtime. I can’t turn around without colliding head-on with a new miracle of sorts. Externally they probably don’t look like miracles, but for me, they are nothing short of supernatural.  God has been outdoing Himself in my life. 

Leading a Bible study at my church has been exceptionally stretching and humbling and crazy encouraging for me. We are currently reading The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. I’m drowning in the depths of sensational theology in this book. The book takes us into our own narratives about God and helps us re-orient our understanding of God based on the narratives that we find in the life of Christ.  I am amazed by the false narratives that are so pervasive in our culture. I want to know the God that Jesus knows. He’s far superior to my pre-existing narratives. 

This week’s reading addressed God’s trustworthiness. It also tackled the issue of God as Father. Abba even. 

Daddy. 

No. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to understand God as father. I was adamant. This attitude permeated my first and second reading of this chapter. I was irritable, angry, and resistant. And I was supposed to be the one leading this study.  

No way, God. Give me another picture of you. I refuse. I don’t compute daddy. It means nothing. I don’t need it. Or mommy if you are going to pursue that option. Just be a Lion. That’s safer.

All of the sudden last night, however, I caught a glimmer of something I had never seen before. Smith talks of letting Jesus define father for us. That God was Father long before earthly parents existed. He is the prototype, the perfect prototype. And He is capable of revealing Himself as parent outside of my experience with and understanding of earthly parents. 

It’s okay, and even helpful, in this situation that my parents were not parents. That frees my mind as a blank slate onto which God can define Father and Mother for me and live into those roles. Taking it a step further, God masterfully carried me through a rewind playback of my life, showing me that He had always been there parenting me, filling in the voids that were left by the people who birthed me. He was there. I was, and am, and always will be, His. 

And He is my Abba. 

Okay, so   it just occurred to me that this post may resemble the “Footprints” poem. Sorry about that. For real, though, I have had the best Daddy/Mommy all along.  He’s been everything a little girl could ever dream of. I’ve never been abandoned. I’ve never been orphaned. 

Do I want to understand what Parents are supposed to look like? I need simply to look at my entire life and walk with my Daddy God.