on christmas miracles

Having access to a small child during Christmas is a Christmas miracle in and of itself.  The leap is short from bored to ecstatic, from tired to all-in for another cookie, from uncomfortable to totally delighted by the wonder of it all.  I treasure watching kids love all of it, and I am very lucky to have a 2 year old, who imitates our excitement while somehow showing us how to live during Advent.  She has no clue who Santa is, but she loves to steal Baby Jesus’ from every manger scene she can reach.  She has no idea why people keep offering her “tandies” and “tookties” (she is not what I would call “crushing it” in the speech department), but she greets each opportunity as if it is the first and maybe last time anyone will ever offer her a tasty treat again.  She enters each negotiation as if her life and joy depend on her ability to get that Christmas goodness into her mouth as soon as possible.

This Christmas, look around and notice all the ways that God is, indeed, wonderfully, with us.

My favorite part of parenting this Advent though, has been the way she has become my own personal Hark!-er.  Every time her eye glimpses anything that could be loosely associated with Christmas, she squeals and points and too loudly announces, “Isstmass!” Decorative lights, Christmas trees, large yard camels (where do they all come from?), presents, abundant plates of food, pianos, Santa hats, animated tv shows, sweaters (festive or just ugly), the smell of apple cider…she greets all of it with the cry of Isstmass!  Walking through the world with my own little angel intent on announcing the presence of joyful things has been utterly delightful this month.

It has also been a helpful reminder that there are signs of Christmas all around, and perhaps we would all do well to pay better attention.  In honor of my speech-impeded, cookie-hogging, Jesus-stealing daughter, this week I offer my own sightings of Isstmass, in hopes that you can also begin to notice the Christmas miracles around you.

A dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 months ago, and after 2 difficult surgeries, multiple drains, weeks isolated in bed, she is up again, the heart and soul of her family, a picture of compassion to so many others, celebrating Hanukkuh with deep gratitude for the everyday chaos of life.  A picture of Isstmass!

A young woman came over for dinner last week, struggling through a long day full of bad news. As she sat at our table and said she would be taking a break from college in order to get a job and work on her own mental health, she was full of hope.  She has worked so hard to stay in counseling and find the right meds, and last week I saw the foundation of hope and health she has been laying all these months.  Her bad day did not wreck her, and that looked an awful lot like Isstmass to me.

I saw a group of people, distinct in race, class, denomination, gender and zip code, come together to plan and host a conference on the injustices many marginalized folks of Nashville face.  The planning was slow and messy, and some walked away, but those of us who stayed got to see a picture of the Kingdom of God…what it is and what it could be if the people of God would commit to loving their neighbors with the same extravagant love they reserve for themselves.  Felt like Isstmass.

A friend took dinner to a family shelter serving homeless folks in Nashville.  She and her kids were thankful for the time they spent talking and playing with these kids and their parents.  In fact, she was so moved by the courage of the families there that she called me to say, “Let’s throw a Christmas party where people bring items for the apartments these families will one day have.”  She decided to use her sphere of influence to create joy and to surround vulnerable people with support.  She radiates Isstmass.

My college students prepared presentations on their time volunteering in various Nashville non-profits, and as they reflected on their own biases, they were able to see their privilege, the injustice of the status quo for so many others, and begin to ponder how they can be advocates and allies for others.  Isstmass.

I saw the people of Alabama refuse to give more power to a man known to manipulate young girls with his influence…even if it cost them politically and maybe financially.  Isstmass.

I saw a friend who does not have a job, but is busy doing the work of God’s kingdom in the meantime.  He is not consumed with worry for his future, but with a commitment to be a man who lives and talks and looks and acts like Jesus in his world.  Isstmass.

I saw families celebrating birthdays, laughing together and loving each other even amidst great differences in the way they see (and vote in) the world.  Isstmass.

I saw a couple who shared a deeply painful and exposing story with a group at church be met with empathy, gratitude, connection and love.  Isstmass.

I saw someone apologize for his behavior even though he was still shaking with anger and sadness at the situation which warranted his wrath.  Isstmass.

I saw my children “fight the greed!” that can creep in this time of year, when promises are made to grant their every desire.  Isstmass.

We need helpful reminders that there are signs of Christmas all around, and perhaps we would do well to pay better attention.

Advent is a time to reflect on the coming of a Messiah who will rescue and restore the world to God, justifying all, removing shame and bringing a life of flourishing.  The promised one was to be called Emmanuel, or “God with us.”  This Christmas, look around and notice all the ways that God is, indeed, wonderfully, with us.  With us in struggle and disappointment and fear and lack, and surely with us in lives saved, in mental health restored, in hope, in courage, in empathy, in compassion and in living a life where looks of “Wonder!” and cries of “Isstmasss!” are too many to count.

on advent: me or we?

The month of December means Handel’s Messiah is playing in my house.  My husband grew up in a home where music was life.  His mother sings every chance she gets, and his father can hardly speak when he hears beautiful choral music (St. Olaf’s Christmas reliably ushers him into the throne of heaven itself!).  My people hail from the hills of East Tennessee, and while I also love chorale music, I am most thankful for my family legacy when we are gathered around a piano, singing shape notes with a few guitars, banjos and a mandolin thrown in.  Family “sangins” were serious business in my world; Christmas brings these memories up for me, and remind me that Christmas carols are an important part of the way I experience Advent.

I teach a class on Christ, race and culture at my church, and while I appreciate the opportunity, it usually means I miss the corporate worship time.  This is a chronic tension I feel because I love to sing, but it never stings more deeply than during Advent.  There is something about singing those familiar carols together that reminds me that my understanding of the world is rooted in a God who calls me into the great “us” of humankind, not into my own private pursuit of God or moral goodness. 

Music reminds us we are better together, and this is why it is so pivotal to the way I approach God.  Even when we are very bad at understanding and appreciating each other (as we often, in fact, are), music seems to remind us that we are best when we work together.  I noticed a few years ago that many pop songs on the radio had choruses sung by large groups of people.  They beg us to sing along.  From Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”  to Phillip Philip’s “Home” to DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, pop hits contain lyrics recorded as sing-alongs.  My life affords me the opportunity to spend large quantities of time with people roughly under 30, and when I hear them sing along to the radio I am reminded that some thing in all of us finds belonging when we sing along with others.

Advent reminds us that the faith journey, as designed by God and modeled by the life of Christ, is very much a communal affair. 

This realization matters particularly at Advent because the promise of the Messiah, the One Advent expects and waits for, is very much delighted with the idea of singing along.  So much of western Christianity has rejected the importance of the communal nature of God in favor of a faith locked into the personal pursuit of the Divine.  The experience of a faith journey for many in American Protestantism is wholly about personal devotion to Christ and obedient evangelismAdvent, however, reminds us that the faith journey, as designed by God and modeled by the life of Christ, is very much a communal affair. 

The prophecy which Handel memorialized in the Messiah, and which Christ quoted in his declaration of public service, is from Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.  They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
— Isaiah 61:1-4

Advent, and the Christmas moment it looks toward, is about the Messiah coming to make things right for broken people.  A glance at this prophecy, which Christ himself claimed to embody, reminds us that the Messiah did not only come to justify individuals, but also to bring justice and equity to the present world.  Advent looks toward God’s cosmic invitation to humanity to sing along with Him, to join the work of bringing good news to the poor and wounded in every practical way.

This Advent, I would like to suggest that the Messiah came and is coming to bring righteousness.  Not only to justify us and make us righteous, but to invite us into the work of making things right for all our neighbors.  The highest devotion for a follower of Christ is not to live a life devoted only to knowing God personally, but to follow Him in the work of making things right for those around you.  To commit myself not to the flourishing of me, but to the deep right-ness—the peace and Shalom—of the we

Advent looks toward God’s cosmic invitation to humanity to sing along with Him, to join the work of bringing good news to the poor and wounded in every practical way.

Advent celebrates the fact that God’s fullness was revealed when Jesus sacrificed all His capital for the flourishing of others.  Might we best experience Advent by committing ourselves to the flourishing of the communities around us?  We must preach the good news to our own poor selves, but we cannot stop there.  Because the fullness of the purpose of the Messiah is only realized through sacrificial service to others, we cannot reflect on Advent by only focusing on our own interior lives.

This Advent, think about the reason your heart responds to meals and parties and carols sung together.  Our core selves already know we are looking for good news that works best in community.  We simply cannot understand the peace of Christmas unless we understand the needs and gifts of the communities in which we live.  Sing along. It’s more festive that way.