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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The Fellowship of the Suffering

The Fellowship of the Suffering

Two weeks ago, I was a beaming face of hospitality at the welcome center of our little, crisp church. I greeted members and guests by name with exuberance and Christmas cheer. I wore my favorite red dress and made sure that I was an approachable presence for our parishioners and neighbors. I was sick, desperate for healing, but on Sundays, I strove to present myself as a picture of health and vitality.

I sit now, experiencing a different form of fellowship. I have identified this as the fellowship of the suffering. We are huddled in a group room of an inpatient unit for adults with eating disorders. It is Christmas night. The lights are glimmering on Christmas trees somewhere, and families are celebrating in distant living rooms somewhere other than where we are. A token wreathe and a menorah decorate our unit. Staff has confiscated my makeup and hair products, proving them to be futile. We are stripped to the bare minimum of our selves. Sweats and Pajama bottoms are the norm, even on this night where the world celebrates. We play a haphazard game of Scattergories, filling the anxious space where we all feel the agony of the unknown. Will we heal? Is there hope? We await our Christmas dinner, served on hospital trays in portions that stretch our refeeding bellies to the edge of their physical limits, as they monitor our phosphorous levels, making sure that the food isn’t actually going to kill us rather than heal us. I exchange anguished glances with these new friends, relationships forged through the furnace of the initial agonizing steps of physical recovery. We hold hands as we dangle on the edges of medical instability and emotional uncertainty. We, the broken, the underweight, the malnourished, the sick, look out the narrow windows of our fifth floor unit to the twinkling lights lining the down town streets below us. Many tears have been shed today, and with our masks forced off, we sit, barefaced, without pretense. Some of us lean into the vulnerability, opening up in ways that we thought were off limits. In our fellowship of the suffering, we have an unspoken understanding that our socioeconomic statuses are of little significance. Our degrees, job titles, and achievements sit piled in the admissions office, waiting for us to pick them back up at discharge. For now, for this evening, we sit on even ground.

Not everyone has this unique “opportunity.” I am not sure how to replicate it in the real world, but on this Christmas night, I am encouraged with the though that Jesus would be inclined to check in as a visitor to our little locked unit. He, “God with us,” gravitated to the uncomfortable situations of suffering and agony. He would pull up a chair to our “Christmas feast,” where individuals sit wide-eyed, staring at the daunting plates of turkey and sweet potatoes in front of them.

I sit with the suffering, and I think back again to two weeks ago. I forgot about the importance of transparency. I forgot about the joy of journeying the rocky road of life honestly with others. I forgot that being real is one of the best gifts that I can give Jesus, others, and myself. I am reminded of this here, in this obscenely unlikely Christmas “retreat.” With the weight of my accessories, achievements, and attachments lifted, I can breathe again. I can genuinely breathe life into the dead places in my heart, and I can connect genuinely with others.

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. 

Peace

Peace. We pray for peace. We light the peace candle on this, the second Sunday of Advent. We ask for peace on earth. I ask for peace of heart and mind. I may be selfish that I can’t see beyond my weary war-stricken brain to a weary world, but it is where I am. The opposite of peace? For a long time, I have considered peace’s antonym to be division, which seems to be the definition of my internal state. I cannot even go through a train of thought without having an all-out brawl with myself, or one of my selves. This is the state of my parts. Many seem to hate each other. Peace? Not yet. But we aren’t really yet to the idea of peace on earth either. We still have wars and countless conflicts, and the world keeps turning, and we still have Christmas. We still hold onto hope. We hold onto the promises of Christmas. Peace. The second Sunday, followed by joy. JOY. Peace for me is unity, and not a political type of unity. Honestly, if I could achieve an internal unity, I would be in the running for the happiest person on the planet award. Shalom. It means among other things, completion. Wholeness. I long for wholeness. I long for my brain to come untangled and stop pulling against itself, the different threads and chains and ribbons to be woven and braided into something beautiful. For now, it seems like an endless chaos of interminable confusion. For me, the peace that I pray for this Christmas is internal. I need clarity, parts working together. I need my mind to no longer be a war zone but a sanctuary, a cathedral. Lord Jesus, come with PEACE. Shalom.

Come, Lord Jesus

It is interesting how the Advent season seems to amplify the pain and brokenness in the world. Folks drink cider, put up colored lights and trees, sing songs, and go to church. Businesses are shut down.
Christmas Day.
Christ-worship Day.
Children are molested. People are murdered. Homeless ignored. It is bone-cold and dark. Evil is profoundly present. In fact, in light of the “glow” of Christmas, the darkness appears that much darker. To me, one of the greatest tragedies and let-downs of Christmas is the increased awareness of the agony and ache that remains–that all of this feels like it shouldn’t be present, not on this supposedly special day. Not on Christmas. Not on Jesus’ birthday celebration. That name, Jesus, that name that is supposed to dispel the darkness, doesn’t yet seem to be powerful enough even on His own celebratory day. What a sham! What a travesty! What a slap in the face!
Magical? Hell, no. It always seemed more cursed than magical. On a night in mid-December a few years ago, I had my second of three attempts at my life. On the second week of Advent. Of the coming. Advent couldn’t save me from my destructiveness, could it? My world remained hell on earth through the Christmas season. I was still sentenced to suffer. I particularly did not get a day off on Christmas. Not when you are in treatment centers, psych wards, hospital rooms, the prison of your corroding consciousness.
No, evil and its consequences don’t honor “Holy-days.” They actually just rub salt in the wound just that much deeper. They hold themselves up to reinforce just how screwed up I am. I can’t even embrace joy and celebrate for 24 hours, let alone 24 days of Advent.
Hell on earth doesn’t honor “Holy-days.” Abuse doesn’t honor them. In fact, it seems to lord itself over them.
And all the more, we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Weeping, we cry it. With all of our desperate hearts, we wail it until our voices crack and we crumble. “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.”
That name.
Lord Jesus.
Emmanuel.
Prince of Peace.
Wonderful Counselor.
Be those things. FOR ONCE. FOR ONE DAY. Is that too much to ask? ADVENT.

And yet….
Maybe this is why we have Advent: To make us yearn that much harder. Let His kingdom come. To make us hope, that there will be a day of PEACE.