Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Smelling Hope (Honest Thoughts on Advent Preparation)

It’s Advent. The season that invites us into the waiting. Through the process of waiting, we are preparing for the arrival of One who will change everything. Christmas Day will dawn and a baby will turn the world, and religion, on it’s head as He grows. Divinity will be clothed in flesh and bone, and humanity will forever be changed. Advent is the time that prepares us to receive this moment. 

I think about the ancient prophet Isaiah, and his words in chapter 40:3-5 when he begins to predict the return and salvation of Israel and it’s people. 

3 A messenger is calling out, “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord. Make a straight road through it for our God. 4 Every valley will be filled in. Every mountain and hill will be made level. The rough ground will be smoothed out. The rocky places will be made flat. 5 Then the glory of the Lord will appear. And everyone will see it together.

In Isaiah’s day, when a king was planning to visit a city or town, the road leading to that town would have to be prepared for the king’s arrival. So the road would be cleared of any obstructions. If the path was not level then painstaking care would be used to fill in holes, raise up ditches, and level off unneeded or dangerous inclines. If the path was rocky, then the rocks, sometimes large and extremely heavy, would be removed. And it would be the people of the town who front the cost for preparing the way because a visit from royalty was worth it.

And so the preparations would begin. Townsfolk would clear away brush and remove large stones that would impede the way. People of the village would take on the task of making the landscape level so that the king could travel without incident. They would do all they could to make the path straight, smooth, and comfortable. The king was worth it.

That’s the spirit of Advent preparation too. There is a King coming, once in Bethlehem and again at the culmination of time when the Kingdom will be fully realized. Advent invites us into the process of preparing the way for a King. And it’s a work done not with our hands, but in our hearts.

With that said,

Advent preparation has been particularly hard for me this year.

Tears are close to surface most days for me. My children are used to seeing Mommy standing at the sink with water running from both the faucet and my eyes. The other day, my 9-year old son asked me a question and apparently my voice sounded odd so he asked if I was okay. My 7-year old inquires if my tears are “because I am sad about Granddad.” My tween notices my melancholy and tells me I am quiet a lot. it’s all true. I am quiet these days. More quiet than normal, albeit I am an introvert by nature.

I am in my head a lot. Things swirl and go round and bring me back to the place I started. It keeps me up at night. I try to make sense of things. Of myself. Of my grief. There’s a code word I use with my husband (thank you, Gilmore Girls) to let him know I am in my head and it’s a storm up there…”monkey, monkey, underpants.”  I know, it’s not sophisticated, but it does communicate.

Anyway, my heart’s been a little bit (or a lot) of a mess lately. Probably like the wilderness that Isaiah was calling on to be leveled in preparation for the king. I’ve needed some work. There’s been soul-brush that needs removal. There are some valleys that need filling in and some rough places needing attention. So I’ve been doing what I can, with the tools I have, to prepare for what God might wish to do next when He shows up. And He always shows up.

Paths Made Straight
Heart work is always hard work. It forces us to face who we are. It requires honesty, which is something we say we want but secretly fear, especially with ourselves. Advent preparation means a new attempt at being honest with myself. For more than three decades, I have fortified a way of believing that says I am what I do; that I hold no value apart from my behavior, my performance, and what I can offer. In this season of preparation, I am learning (and relearning) that this way of thinking is old wineskins. It’s hard to let go of old wineskins even when they keep bursting from pouring in new wine. The new wine being this fresh, bigger, more magnificent sense of who God is and who I am to Him. But oh what lengths I will go to in order to hold on to the familiar. This house-of-cards shelter of faith I’ve erected over time is a known place for me, but it is no longer comfortable. Like a hermit crab that’s outgrown it’s shell. 

Even so, I stitch up those old wineskins, looking to recycle and repurpose them. Problem is those old skins can only be mended with a needle of “suffering is spiritual” and the thread of performance-based worth. Then I try and tie it off with high expectations, happy isn’t holy, and secure a hidden lining of works-based theology. But they burst every time I pour in the new wine - the new wine of a God who’s lifted my head from shame, who’s forgiven me already, who’s love is not conditioned by me, who’s grace is always enough, and who’s dreams for me are good. It’s just too much. And it turns out Jesus was onto something after all. Old wineskins don’t go with new wine. So, I am working on exchanging an ill-fitting way of thinking for a new one.

Filled-in Valleys
This year's Advent preparation has about done me. 2016 has been a year filled with grief and loss for me and my family. And this journey with grief has stuck close to me. It curls it’s fingers around my heart and squeezes until I cry, “Uncle.” But grief doesn’t play by my rules, and so the ache remains and never quite dulls enough to be forgotten. Deep surrender to this companion of grief has sometimes come through tears and sometimes through the desperate need to sleep, because the emotional exhaustion is real. 

I’ve lost a father. And in doing so, have lost my only close, blood connection to his lineage and ancestry. I’ve lost a voice of affirmation and strength. I’ve lost a voice of wisdom, even when we disagreed.That kind of loss presses into me like a weight that won’t let up.

My husband and I have lost a sense of identity and relationship as we said goodbye to a congregation with which we’ve spent 18 years. We’ve lost companionship, built-in time to relate to others. We’ve lost the sense of sharing life together with a group of familiar people sharing a common goal.

Our family lost our cat. It sounds silly, I know, but in the midst of everything else, it almost felt like the breaking point. You know that point, where you throw your arms in the air, look heavenward, and ask in all sincerity, “Really, God? Seriously?” Our children are heartbroken. I am too. With every movement I see in my peripheral vision, I expect to look up and see Sophie. I expect to find yet another hairball to clean up. What I wouldn’t give for another hairball to clean up.

Each of these losses have impacted this journey of preparing my heart for a coming Christmas. There’s been a loneliness in adjusting to life after each of these goodbyes. And working through the loneliness is like clearing away the brush from a road the king is going to use.. I may be attacking 10 foot shrubs with tiny hedge clippers (and I have truly tried that in real life), but I am doing the work I can with the tools I’ve got, because there is a King coming. Redemption is drawing nigh and I want to be ready.

Rough Ground Smoothed
And so the road to my heart is being increasingly prepared through this "dark night of the soul." But you know what also helps in the preparation of a road?

Natural erosion. 

Wind or water, 

over time, 


consistent, steady 

pressure and contact, 

can actually alter 

the landscape. 

And that’s when it hits me like a righteous 2x4.  Every single blasted tear I have cried over these horrible, mysterious, enlightening, aching, burdensome seven months has been precious. Before I even understood it to be so, my tears were helping to prepare my heart for a time that is still future to me. A moment when my Christmas will dawn and God will show up in my life, in a new way. 

My tears have been eroding the hard places, the rocky crags, the jagged edges so that my Bethlehem moment can come, and the King will be born anew in me. It may not be on December 25th. In fact, I have no idea when it will come to pass, but I believe it will. God promised He wouldn’t leave me and would not forsake me. And in this wilderness of heart, my King is still on His way. So I will do what I can to keep at preparing the road, even though it’s hard, taxing, grueling, and may cost me more than I thought possible. But the King is coming, and He is never late even though it might feel that way to my grieving heart. 

The Coming Glory 
There’s this particular smell in my therapist’s office. It’s a good smell, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. For me, however, the aroma is synonymous with healing. I step in the office, sit on the brown love seat, and crack open my soul - piece by piece - trying to make sense of all the loss, of all the changes, of all the everything. And I can smell hope. Every time. Even when I am stumbling out of there from the hard work of heart work, that hour offers a little more encouragement to endure and do what I can to clear the way for the King's arrival.

I sometimes wonder why I choose to write such personal things on a public blog. I am not sure I have a great answer, but I have some ideas. One is that maybe being open with my journey will allow courage to rise up in another so they can admit they aren’t okay...and realize it’s okay to not be okay. Second, if I share my struggle now, before all is said and done, do you know how freaking amazing it’s gonna be when I get to share how the glory of the Lord has shown up? Isaiah must have known when you do the hard work of preparation, it clears the way for God to be down-right, kick-butt amazing. 

And you know what else? You can travel both ways on a road prepared. It goes in both directions. And when Christmas comes, this prepared path between my heart and God’s will be less obstructed. And I love that image. The valleys of my heart? They’ll have been filled in. The rough places of my soul? They’ll have been made plain. And I will have unprecedented access to the One who knows me best and loves me most, just because I am.

The Advent preparation has been a killer, but the King is coming and He’s worth it.

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