Monday, November 18, 2013

Preparing for Advent

1. the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. 
synonyms: arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise 

Advent comes upon me suddenly every year, and I feel unprepared to provide a soulful Christmas preparation that is not solely baking and hunting for the best Christmas gifts.  We end up doing some meaningful things, but I always feel a little harried.

This year I prepared in advance....maybe because it is the first year in many that I am not pregnant or caring for an infant.  I thought I would offer some Advent suggestions for all who may read so that you might be jump started to get ready for this amazing season.  Now is the time to make a plan and be ready for that first Sunday of Advent, right after Thanksgiving.

Advent is worth celebrating.  Advent is considered the start of the liturgical year, as we prepare our hearts for Christ's coming--both in the end of time and in to our hearts more fully in the same way that he broke into this sinful world.  A celebration of Advent saves the season from degenerating into a panicked commercialized circus.  It reminds us for four weeks that we are not waiting on Santa, but on Jesus.

First, I would ask the Lord, "What do you want to do in me and in our family this Advent?"  Then ask him to lead you to resources that will help make your Advent celebration intentional.

Ideas for Advent traditions:

  • The Advent wreath is a great tradition, partly because nothing quiets children and adults like darkness and a couple of burning candles.  The symbolism of Christ bringing light into the darkness is right there before us.  You do not need a specific Advent wreath to do this.  I just bought a wreath of greens, wrapped a beautiful purple and gold ribbon around it, put four candle holders in the center of it with three purple candles and one pink one. (The pink one is for Mary, but you don't have to have a pink one).  You will need a center candle of white for Christmas Day. We have a special table for the wreath, and on it we put a purple cloth we found at an ethnic resale shop.  Along with the wreath, we usually put some nativity  scene and an icon of John the Baptist, as the one who called us to prepare the way for Jesus. We let different children light candles, blow out the candles, and lead the prayers.  
  • This year I am going to use this small booklet you can find on Amazon for $1, O Radiant Dawn.  It is a FIVE minute daily guide to lighting the candle, has beautiful selections of individual verses for each day and then asks a discussion question (one for older children or adults, one for younger children).  It is good to have a short liturgy to do so that all can enter in.  This book recommends learning the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel by singing a verse everyday. You could choose any hymn. We will plan to do this everyday, and if we get in four days, that will be sixteen times around the wreath as a family.  I may choose to do this in the morning starting the day, as it is dark where we live when we get up.
  • In the evening, we will read a chapter in the storybook, Bartholomew's Passage:  A Family Story for Advent by Arnold Ytreeide.  The first one in his series is Jotham's Journey: A Storybook for Advent, which we read for a couple of Advents.  I will offer that whoever is reading may have to edit some violent scenes of Essenes defending themselves against marauders and such.  This is a fiction series but helps place the nativity story in historical context, and we all learned through the story.  Children are usually begging for the next chapter every night.        Another chapter book that brings me to tears and my father has read to all of his grandchildren, as it is his favorite book, A Tree for Peter, by Kate Seredy.  Though it is not directly about the nativity, it is all about opening our hearts to love and transformation, and this is catalyzed in the story by a Christ figure.  You could also simply choose a different picture book every night.  I will provide a list on another post, if you need suggestions.
  • I will also be asking my children to choose one person or family who is in need for them to serve in some way over Advent.  This could be making a meal, shoveling snow, free babysitting, writing someone who is lonely.  I hope this will help pull them away from a self-focused expectation of Christmas.
  • I am still praying about my own personal devotional time during Advent, specifically about what book God would have me read for the deeper stirring in my soul as I wait on him.
  • A dear friend of ours brings Advent calendars every year for each child.  The anticipation of opening each window is an exciting moment every day.  Before we had the generosity of this friend, we all shared one calendar and took turns opening windows.  This is a great way to build anticipation.
  • Advent will also include beautiful music, and I have to admit that we are not liturgically correct and do listen to Christmas music during Advent.  But here is a beautiful Advent collection: Birth of Jesus:  A Celebration of Christmas by John Michael Talbot.
  • And Advent will include baking, making Welsh Cakes for some friends.  This happens throughout Advent with different children helping me on different days as they learn the family recipe and method.  Then we all have fun packaging and distributing them.

Other ideas we have used that you can explore:

Try Joni Eareckson Tada's book of hymns that comes with a C.D. and a story about each hymn: O Come All Ye Faithful: Hymns of Adoration and Joy to Celebrate His Birth.  This is a great book to work through over Advent, especially if your family is musical.

Many people use the Jesse Tree figures which you can google and download.  These are figures that tell the story of the Scriptures over the whole of Advent and are a great way to review God's work in history leading up to his coming.  You can find paper downloads and have children color them.  I have a dream of felting these figures someday to hang on a tree, but that would mean getting ready for Advent in January, and I haven't yet gotten that good.

I hope that as you wait on God as to how you should live into Advent you will be able to see it not as a heavy burden, but as a tool through which to open your hearts and your homes to God's light.  Remember, do not let perfection rob you of what God could bring.  It will rarely be perfect or rarely what you imagined.  But it will be full of life and laced with the presence of God himself.

Please leave comments of Advent ideas that have worked for your family so that creative sparks will fly.

Note:  All the book and music titles in red are links to Amazon in case you want to look at them more closely. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cultivating the Vision of a Saint

A Reflection on All Saints

Here we are at All Saints, a wonderful day in Church history to honor martyrs and saints who have gone before us.

Every year when I reflect on what makes a saint, I come to the conclusion that saints have perspective and vision--they see this life in the context of the whole.  This life is a small part of one's whole life that extends into eternity.  Saints have a freedom to live this life for God, expending themselves, giving up time, money, energy, kingdoms of their own making, because they see how this time here on earth fits into the whole. Hebrews 11, that Hall of Fame of biblical saints, starts with an explanation of this kind of perspective.  These people had the "conviction of things not seen...By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." Saints understand that what we see was made from what we cannot see.  So we must live our lives in the light of what is not visible on this earth.

We had the privilege of spending time with a true saint still on this earth a few weeks ago.  Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Nigeria came for my husband's bishop consecration, and how we were blessed and fed by this man of God.  Because Archbishop Ben and his wife, Gloria, have truly suffered, having their house burned down twice and having been brutalized by militant Muslims, their view of their own time on this earth is that of those whose lives are not their own.  They oversee an area that has had widespread persecution.  In one specific area, 75 out of 80 churches have been burned down and their members murdered or scattered.  I asked the archbishop how he copes with this kind of devastation and loss.  He said that when the first persecution broke out with the killing of a little girl who would just pass by a Muslim holy site and was the spark that then spread like a grass fire, he locked himself in his room unable to eat, just crying out to God for days.  He said he needed a word from God, a vision for the future.  God told him to get ready, as this was going to be a long journey.  The Lord told him to focus on pouring into the next generation and on planting as many churches as possible.

So now, full of purpose and joy, Archbishop Ben and Mama Gloria, use their time for the kingdom of God, knowing that persecution is to be expected.  They teach the next generation the Bible, which will endure any fire, and prepare them in leadership and love.  They have adopted (yes, adopted) fifty orphans and feed 400 neglected children daily.  They teach them not to react in hate and retaliation, but to love, as love always wins.

How can people like this live so expansively in a way that seems almost humanly impossible?  They know that this life is not all there is.  So they expect God to do great things as they diminish and he increases.  Of course, this perspective was cultivated in their lives by regular time with God, always realigning with what is real so that in the time of trial, they could turn it over to God to use for good.

Moses was not excited to be Moses.  He was just a normal man, battered by circumstances that God orchestrated for more than 40 years, so that he knew his life was for others.  So in the grand moment of parting the Red Sea, when he wasn't liking the pressure of his life at that point in time, God used him in an inhuman way, because Moses knew that there was so much more to his life than comfort. How did he cultivate this?  By early choices of turning to what is invisible. Hebrews says he even rejected being called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing to be mistreated with God's people because he "considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking for his reward...he endured as seeing him who is invisible." VISION.  He even saw ahead to Christ, who hadn't yet come to earth.

How can I foster this kind of view of life in myself and my children?  I think that first, we need to surround ourselves with people who have the right vision for this life and are not building kingdoms of their own.  These people make decisions with their money and their time that reflect they are of another kingdom so that when trials inevitably come, they can ride the wave with God in his purposes.  These people help us resist the encroaching voice of the day, like that of the Green Lady in Lewis' Prince Caspian, who says, "There is no sun.  There is only this lamp,"  ie., "there is no transcendent real that extends outside of my world...this is all there is." Friends like this or visiting missionaries sharing stories at the table all of a sudden help put perspective on our drive to find just the right shoes that will impress people or the devastation we feel when our team loses or the petty concerns with which we so often fill our minds.

My husband just returned from the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Kenya and was in a small group in which they were to answer the question, "How have you suffered?" The first bishop had a machete scar on his head from someone who was angry with him.  He had been dragged through the streets by Muslims and left for dead.  The next bishop said his father had been killed by Muslims when he was a boy...and so on.  Somehow, our sufferings took on perspective.  This keeps us from self-pity and self-absorption.  And if these saints can move forward in love and purpose, so can I.

Besides the regular contact with real live people who are saints, reading stories of saints helps expand our vision.  All great stories, even fictional ones can do this for us, but great biographies certainly inspire a life lived beyond oneself.  Biographies also provide perspective on a life that even the one living it did not have.  That helps us realize that our story will someday be complete and make sense, but while we are in the middle of it, may simply seem like frayed plots and meaningless events.

For our evening prayer time, we usually have a biography going or short stories of saints. Here are some of our favorites:

For Family:  I cannot begin to mention all, but here are a few:

Trial and Triumph by Richard M. Hannula (short stories of saints throughout history)
Early Lives of the Saints by Bob Hartland
Missionary Stories with the Millers by Mildred A. Martin
I Dared to Call Him Father: the Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman's Encounter with 
                           God by Bilquis Sheikh (older kids can read it alone)
any of the Heroes Then and Now series published by YWAM

For adults:  I would love to hear comments from readers of their favorite Christian biographies.  These are only a beginning.

Boenhoffer by Eric Metaxas (highly recommended, especially as we are eerily facing
                                              similar conflicts in our day)
Abandoned to God by David McCasland (about Oswald Chambers)
Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, translated by Vera Bouteneff (about an
                                             orthodox priest in the labor camps of Russia--what a saint!)

Another way to foster an eternal vision is to be open to interruptions in our perfectly laid plans.  One Christmas Eve when I was on a race against time preparing food, gifts, shaping all of those family traditions, a father,--single parent of three children-- called to say he needed clothes for three other children he was looking after.  In a moment of panic, I thought, "I won't be ready for Christmas!" But then what is Christmas if not welcoming Christ in our homes?" So I called around and ended up with bags of clothes on my porch.  Our friend, his kids, and the other kids came over for dinner, and we had managed to find Christmas gifts for all of them.  My husband shared the Christmas story with them. That was so much more important to our children's understanding of their purpose here than any tradition would be.

The Benedictines were taught to say, "Praise the Lord!" every time someone came knocking at their door.  This openness to interruptions helps us keep our vision that our life is not our own. Of course, sometimes we fail to invest where God would have us stay focussed because it is easier to follow interruptions than stay the course on something less than urgent.  There are certainly times to say "no" to an interruption, but our reason should still be the greater vision we are following. But that is another discussion.

Becoming a saint is what we are all called to.  Oswald Chambers says, "Why aren’t you a saint? It is either that you do not want to be a saint, or that you do not believe that God can make you into one." The first step toward sainthood is gaining a saint's vision and perspective, and the more we put this life into perspective and understand that we are not our own, but God's, and that our story is written by him, we can enter in to this life with the kind of abandon that a saint does.

This All Saints Week tell stories of saints that have inspired you around a table with friends or family, and plan to read a saint's biography perhaps for Advent.  Consider the admonition of Hebrews 12, that since we are surrounded by all these saints, past and present, let us lay aside every weight so that we too can run the race with vision, "looking to Jesus" who also endured the cross because he was looking at the joy set before him.  May we have such vision of what is REAL, that this life lines up where it belongs.