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Practicing Advent, Free of Fear

16 Dec
Photo via Flickr user Joathina

Photo via Flickr user Joathina

A dear friend of mine is a pediatrician who specializes in palliative care. That means, essentially, she helps children die well. It’s vocational work that is demanding of her body, mind and spirit. Because of the grueling hours and the deep sadness, she needed to find a hobby that would encourage her to sit still and rest in her time off. She started knitting. Specifically, she started knitting warm, beautiful sweaters for all the babies being born in her life. My son has one of these sweaters, and another will come soon once my second is born. At first she saw her knitting as a way to trick her body into being still and resting while still feeling productive. Creating something tangible also soothed her mind. Now, she realizes that, maybe most importantly, it is a spiritual practice. When she is not at work with children who are dying, she needs to be celebrating the children in her life who are healthy and thriving, welcoming them into the world. The knitting brings her balance and hope, one stitch at a time. It keeps her from slipping into fear and becoming paralyzed. It helps her show back up at work to sit with people in their sorrow.

Many people are speaking to the palpable fear washing over our society. Fear separates us from God and has the toxic ability to paralyze us. When I hear talk of this fear, I think of my friend, quietly knitting, creating, claiming hope, subversively choosing light over fear while continuing to work in the center of sorrow. She is practicing Advent.

We read in our Advent Scriptures the angels saying over and over again, “Fear not!” As I marvel at my friend’s courage and strength, we marvel at Mary’s ability to nod and courageously let go of fear and accept light and life.

Fear not, for a child is coming. Babies are precious and sacred in their ability to offer love and beauty, hope and life without asking for anything in return. They are fresh and new, full of possibilities we don’t even know. They help us dream, they invite us to wonder. Who are you little baby? The world is better because you are here!

God decided to become a baby. We often think of God as big and powerful and strong. God saw that more than big power we needed simple love. We need hope and light. God wants us to dream and wonder and sit in awe of things that are beautiful and precious. God came as baby Jesus, a little, cute, fragile baby that needed people to take care of him, nurture him, and love him to keep him alive. He is a light that starts out as small as a newborn baby and gets as big as we can dream it to be. We celebrate a how clever God is, to come as a baby, so that we know that God wants our attention, adoration and love.

That is what is so tragic about my friend’s work in pediatric palliative care. That is what is so hopeful about her knitting. She lives in the thin space where she experiences both God’s saving power that brings heaven to this place and God’s saving power that offers us life in the place to come. Creating as a knitter and working as a doctor helps her let go of fear and live in the light of Jesus, now and in the time to come. She is practicing Advent, and inviting me to do the same.

Fear not. A child is coming.

Birthing God

9 Dec

The days are getting shorter still. The nights are dark and the days are gray. We bundle up, hunker down, light candles, and wait. Advent is upon us, yet again.

Our bodies signal to us to slow down, turn inward, and hibernate. Yet Rumi, in his poem “The Body is Like Mary,” invites us to resist the urge to shut down altogether. He asks us to acknowledge that we, along with Mary, are in holy labor. There is work to be done. There is beauty to share. There is life and love to offer. There is a God within who needs to be born:

The body is like Mary, and each of us has a Jesus inside…

God is really there within, so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe–infinite existence…

though also needing to be born. Yes, God also needs to be born!

I will have a child in the next few weeks. I will, once again, go through the painful and sacred process of labor to bring life into this world. Yet even while I wait, there is other birthing to be done in the twilight of Advent. In the quiet darkness, we can tap into the desire to create beauty through a loving touch, a simple gift, a safe space of active listening, or a piece of art.

Christ is in all of us. We are co-creators, offering God’s light to the world around us. In these moments of Advent, when quiet reflection leads to a gentle birthing, sprinkling love and light, we know that yes, Jesus is coming and yet yes, Jesus dwells within.

Suffering and Joy

29 Apr
Photo via Flickr user denisedaysmith

Photo via Flickr user denisedaysmith

In her essay “Joy” from The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith distinguishes between pleasure and joy. Eating a pineapple popsicle, she says, is pure pleasure. Joy is much different. “The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?” She walks through moments of pure joy in her life, and ends with reflecting on the fierce love she has for her partner, children and pets, tying mourning to joy. For we lose the ones we love, or are lost to them. When we love, we risk the pain that comes with the loss of love. We risk the pain that comes with the joy.

It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if it were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do.

It can be easy to talk about pleasure, think about it, seek it out. It’s easy to post pictures of pleasurable food or an enjoyable vacation on social media and comment on other people’s pleasure, too until we think that pleasure should be the focus, the stuff life is made of. Joy, pure joy, is a different thing. Recently, I have been struck by how much love can hurt. It’s agony. I love my little boy so intensely, for example, that it’s actually painful. He is my joy.

It hurts as much as it is worth. That line came to me, again, on Sunday. We invited a young man named Adam to share his story with the youth at church. He is a person who has a tendency toward depression. For a stretch a time before he sought treatment, he had suicidal thoughts daily. He explained the feeling of depression so vividly and said, “We have to talk about this. We have to figure out how to admit to each other that we suffer. We all suffer.” He used to spend more time than not unhappy, until it seemed that exiting life was the only real option to get relief. Slowly, with help, he was able to admit that life hurt, but it was worth sticking around for. The room became a thin space. Folks cried. We heard him. This is a man who knows suffering and joy.

When we dare to be alive in this life, we will know joy and suffering, love and loss. Church is one community I’ve found where I can share my suffering and joy. For that, I am grateful.

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