on advent: king of kings or manger baby?

This week marks the beginning of an important season in the Christian calendar known as Advent.  For many who follow Christ, Advent is the name we give to the Christmas season.  Nine years ago, I was 8+ months pregnant during Advent, and as a follower of Christ, the season of Advent took on a new meaning for me that year.  It was relatively easy to connect with a woman who was nine months pregnant, scared and feeling unsure of herself, when I was also a woman nine months pregnant!  While I tried to identify with this mythical virgin Mary, I also realized that it was hard for me to relate to this story so pivotal to my faith.  I love the idea that God would choose a woman to bear His child, the Savior of the world who becomes a person to save His people.  It was much harder for me to get behind the kind of God who would chose to send His Messiah into a poor community, with simple parents, in an unimportant part of the world.  Isn’t the Messiah Everlasting God himself?  Is Christmas the celebration of the King of Kings, the Almighty, whose kingdom will never end, or is it a moment to mark a God who chose to be small, power made perfect in weakness, a Messiah who became nothing? 

God is not impressed with our achievement or perfection, but the season of Advent can serve as a reorientation for the Christian; a time and space to remember our own failings and attest our need not for more importance, money or position but for a Savior.

In the last few years I have learned that Christmas is both.  Advent, for me, is a reminder that the God I claim to love and the Christ I claim to follow are wholly uninterested in the power structures that control me.  The power that I find alluring, to which I try to conform, for which I perform my loyalty and pledge my energy and allegiance, is blasphemous. God is not impressed with our achievement or perfection, but the season of Advent can serve as a reorientation for the Christian; a time and space to remember our own failings and attest our need not for more importance, money or position but for a Savior.

My endorsement of the Christian faith is rooted in my knowledge that I am insufficient on my own, and that because I am selfish and needy I will make choices that hurt myself and others.  Simply put, I need rescuing.  Enter Christmas.  I believe I was created by a loving God who is committed to redeeming me, reconciling me to Himself, to myself and to others through His Son.  Advent is significant to Christians because it offers time and space to acknowledge we need redemption and to thank God for sending His Messiah to live among us.

The Latin roots of the word mean “to come toward” or “coming,” and in every sense, Advent is a season when we reflect on the coming of Christ, the coming of hope, the coming of joy, and the coming of Christmas.  Below this essay are readings I put together to help followers of Christ dwell on the coming of the Messiah.  These readings remind us of the context that the Messiah came out of and into; Christ is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with us; He is the manifestation of the Word—the prophecies and scriptures—that came before Him.  We begin at the beginning, and move toward the coming hope of the Messiah, waiting expectantly with creation for the final story that becomes our new beginning. 

As you approach Advent, can you first realize the places in your own heart, relationships, city and world that need the healing and wholeness Christ will bring? 

This year, I have been reminded again and again that healing comes when we expose pain.  That we become healers when we learn to see and hold our own vulnerabilities.  That part of waiting on God, part of actively hoping for Him, begins with my honest lament over all the brokenness in and around my life.  During Advent, we celebrate the One who “comes toward” us, not just as a baby—the Son of God—2000 years ago, but also as the redeeming One who will come to make “all things new”, and, importantly, as our hope for healing and wholeness right now. As you approach Advent, can you first realize the places in your own heart, relationships, city and world that need the healing and wholeness Christ will bring?  This Advent season, like Mary, patiently wait for God to bring new life into broken places.  Like the Wise Men, study the Scripture and learn to look for Christ, especially in unexpected spots in your family or town that have no hope.  Like the Shepherds, wait expectantly for the Glory of God to visit us in our ordinary lives, and then actively follow Christ in moving toward others.  Advent is a season to remember what it means to hope in our own hard places, and to expectantly wait for Immanuel to be “God with us.”  This month Expand Your Us will have essays that help us think about how we might celebrate Advent by reorienting our lives to this God who is glorious and was a poor man for all of His human life.

Below you will find daily readings from the Bible.  Each week has a prayer, optional readings, and a hymn that reinforces the Advent theme.  If you enjoy the tradition of an Advent wreath then each Sunday you can light the candle, sing/listen to the hymn, and read the scripture from the Saturday before.  Advent is a time set apart to reflect on all the ways that I do not emulate the counter cultural servanthood of Christ, even as I also anticipate and long for the Messiah to come and transform my life into meaning!  So yes, Christmas can be magical and glittery and excessive and beautiful and loud.  But it must also be silent and lowly and quiet and poor.  If we want to know Christ and Christmas, we must begin to expect both a King and a poor, overlooked man who serves others.  Perhaps we can find pieces of our story in the God who comes to powerfully redeem and in the God who comes to quietly sit beside us.  Our Messiah does both.

Advent is a season to remember what it means to hope in our own hard places, and to expectantly wait for Immanuel to be “God with us.”

If you would like to join me in Advent readings, the Scriptures, prayers and hymns are below.

Prayer for the First Week of Advent:

“Lord, may you now let us this year once more approach the light, celebration, and joy of Christmas Day that brings us face to face with the greatest thing there is: your love.  What could we possibly bring and give to you?  So much darkness in our human relationships and in our own hearts!...So much over which you cannot rejoice, that separates us from one another and certainly cannot help us!  So much that runs directly against the message of Christmas!  What should you possibly do with such gifts?  And what are you to do with such people as we all are?  But all of this is precisely what you want to receive from us and take from us at Christmas—the whole pile of rubbish and ourselves, just as we are—in order to give us in return Jesus, our Savior, and in him a new heaven and a new earth, new hearts and a new desire, new clarity and a new hope for us and for all people.  Be among us as we once again…prepare to receive him as your gift. Amen.”                                                                                                                          -Karl Barth, 1960s

Readings for the First Week:

“The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs.  They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come…Not all can wait—certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds!  Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment.  The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.  For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God the child in the manger.  God comes, the Lord Jesus comes, Christmas comes.”                                                                                                               -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“In the biblical world, hope does not emerge from the self-aggrandizing act of recounting our successes. It is the desperate plea for God’s intervention that arises out of lament that reveals a flickering glimpse of hope.  What about us?  Even after tasting God’s fury and wrath, do we still have hope? Do we still have the ability to worship even as our faith is being tested?”                                                                                                                 -Soong-Chan Rah

“We are not elevated above God or even above God’s creation.  We do not stand in the place of Christ, able to incarnate ourselves into another community as if we could operate as the Messiah.  Our only hope for meaning and worth is in the fullness of Christ as God’s created beings.  Lament recognizes our frailty as created beings and the need to acknowledge this shortcoming before God.”                                                                                 -Soong-Chan Rah

Hymn of Prophecy:  “For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.  The kingdom of this world, is become.  The Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.  King of kings, and Lord of Lords.  Hallelujah.”        -Handel’s Messiah

First Week Candle (12/3): Light the purple candle of Hope or Prophecy.  Christ is the Hoped For One, the fulfillment of prophecies and the law.

Nov 27 Deut 18:18; Psalm 45:6-7   Nov 28 Gen 3:19-21; 9:4-12

Nov 29 2 Sam 7:11-16                     Nov 30 Gen 15:1-6, 22:1-18

Dec 1 I Chron 17:11-14                     Dec 2 Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7

Prayer for the Second Week of Advent:

“Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us.  Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness.  Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave.  Be my brother, Thou Holy God…Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle…make me holy and pure, despite my sin...”                                                                               -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Readings for the Second Week:

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing.  It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.”                                          -Mother Teresa

“It is impossible to meet God without abandon, without exposing yourself, being raw.”                                                                                                                                          –Bono

“The Good News of the gospel of grace cries out: We are all, equally, privileged but entitled beggars at the door of God’s mercy!”                     -Brennan Manning

“Confession propels the community to imagine a world beyond their current state of sinful existence.  Lament that recognizes the reality of brokenness allows the community to express confession in its proper context.  Confession acknowledges the need for God and opens the door for God’s intervention.  Confession in lament relies on God’s work for redemption.”                                                                                                                                      -Soong-Chan Rah

“Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord.  Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”                                                       -Thomas Merton

Hymn of Bethlehem:  “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.  Round yon virgin, mother and child.  Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace.  Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight.  Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing, “Alleluia!” Christ the Savior is born.  Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light.  Radiant beams from thy holy face.  With the dawn of redeeming grace.  Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.”

Second Week Candle (12/10): Light the purple candle of Love or Bethlehem.  The Savior of the World is born in a Manger; love incarnate has come!

Dec 4  Matthew 1:18-25                      Dec 5  Exo 3:13-15; John 1:1-18

Dec 6  Luke 1:11-38                             Dec 7 Luke 1:39-56

Dec 8 Luke 1:57-79                            Dec 9 Luke 2:1-7

Prayer for the Third Week of Advent:

“Lord, our God and Father, give to many, to all, and to us as well, that we may celebrate Christmas like this: that in complete thankfulness, utter humility, and then complete joy and confidence we may come to the One whom you have sent, and in whom you yourself have come to us.  Clean out the many things in us that, now that the hour has come, have become impossible for us, can no longer belong to us, may, must, and will fall away from us, by virtue of your beloved Son, our Lord and Savior, entering into our midst and creating order.  We thank you that you have let your light rise, that it shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it.  We thank you that you are our God, and that we may be your people. Amen.”                    -Karl Barth

Readings for the Third Week:

“Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are.  When we are impatient, we try to get away from where we are.  We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else.  Let’s be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand.”                                                                                              -Henri Nouwen

“But in our waiting there always lingers a certain amount of resignation.  Our fondest hopes, all that we wish for, are weakened by an inner feeling that they may not be fulfilled.  We don’t want to be foolish.  And it would be foolish to assume that the hopes for the future were already achieved; foolish to hold so firmly to our belief that our life would collapse if it were not to happen.  Our foolish waiting would then become an agonizing waiting, an unholy selfish grabbing from one another…And we know quite well that this is not the kind of waiting that Jesus speaks of.  Such waiting is not Advent waiting.”                                                 –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“It is my belief, that we should not be too sure of having found Christ in ourselves until we have found him also in that part of humanity that is most remote from our own.”                                                                                                                                                       -Thomas Merton

“The kind of peace shalom represents is active and engaged…Shalom is communal, holistic and tangible.  There is no private or partial shalom.  The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom…Shalom is not for the many, while a few suffer; nor is it for the few while many suffer.”                                                                                                -Randy Woodley

Hymn of Joy:  Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.  With the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem.”  Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Third Week Candle (12/17): Light the pink candle of Joy or Shepherds.  Christ brings remarkable joy into our everyday lives; every moment of your life can be transformed by wonder.

Dec 11 Matthew 2:1-15                Dec 12 Exo 15:11-14a; John 1:35-51

Dec 13 Isaiah 61:1-7                    Dec 14 Mark 1:9-11; John 15:8-17

Dec 15 Micah 5:2-5a                  Dec 16 Luke 2:8-18

Prayer for the Final Week of Advent:

“Lord our God, you wanted to live not only in heaven, but also with us, here on earth; not only to be high and great, but also to be small and lowly, as we are; not only to rule, but also to serve us; not only to be God in eternity, but also to be born as a person, to live, and to die.  In your dear Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, you have given us none other than yourself, that we may wholly belong to you.  This affects all of us, and none of us has deserved this.  What remains for us to do but to wonder, to rejoice, to be thankful, and to hold fast to what you have done for us?”                                                                                                                                      -Karl Barth

Readings for the Final Week:

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”                                                                                     -Revelation 2:20

“The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus means that one day everything sad will come untrue.”                                                                                                   -JRR Tolkien 

“Hope does not rely on human achievement or triumphalism, but instead on God’s grace…. However, the hope for restoration comes not from a distant God, but from Immanuel, ‘God is with us.’”                                                                                         -Soong-Chan Rah

“[In Advent waiting,] a longing emerges within us, which will not be silenced, a longing that all should be fulfilled amidst all the failures and against all the evidence, yet we protest its fulfillment all the stronger.  This is a waiting within us for nothing less than that this world will be redeemed through and through—not by this or that political means, but by God.  When God himself comes to, then Advent truly becomes real.”                                    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“The perception of the human body shapes the body of the city, then the way the church understands itself as the embodiment of Christ should transform our interaction with the body of the city.  Our understanding of the incarnation, therefore, takes on an added measure of importance.  In the incarnation, here is the full expression of God’s active love for humanity and the act of making his dwelling among us.  The incarnation, therefore, gives us the model of an active body of Christ confronting the passive body of the city…The church as the body of Christ embodies Christ in the world…The church is called to embody Christ in the city.”                                                                                                                              -Soong-Chan Rah

“Our identity rests in God’s relentless tenderness for us revealed in Jesus Christ.”                                                                                                    -Brennan Manning

 Hymn of Peace:  “O holy night! The stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.  Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.  A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.  Fall on your knees!  Oh, hear the angel voices! O night divine, the night when Christ was born.  O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming, with glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.  O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming, now come the wise men from out of Orient land.  The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger; in all our trials born to be our friends.  He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger.  Behold your King!  Before him lowly bend.

Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace.  Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.  Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, with all our hearts we praise His holy name.  His power and glory ever more proclaim!”

Fourth Week Candle (12/24): Light the purple candle of Peace or Purity.  The baby who becomes a man brings his incredibly present Spirit to us; the Prince of Peace abides in us still.

Dec 18 Psalm 46:1-11                                         Dec 19 Isaiah 11:1-12

Dec 20 John 14:15-20; Psalm 78:4-8               Dec 21 Luke 2:19-40

Dec 22 Isaiah 9:6-7                                          Dec 23 Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Day, Dec 25 Light the white candle of Christ.  God with us, Immanuel has come.

Hymn of Birth: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King;  Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing."

why i weep

an open letter about the 2016 election

This week has been hard for me and many others in our country, and I suspect it would help us heal if I tried to explain why.  After spending time with college students and talking with a few of you, I realize that many who voted for Trump misunderstand our weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I am reaching out because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am reaching out because I want you to have every chance to understand.  I am reaching out because I need to heal and believe developing empathy for each other is a crucial part of that process.  If you also want to heal, if you are willing to see me as a thoughtful person whose feelings and perceptions of the world are valuable, then read on.  Although I think many will resonate with me, I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, so I will only write for myself.  

I am disappointed we elected a President who, in my view, does not have the experience to excel at the multiple aspects his job will require.  I am disappointed we chose to believe he will surround himself with wise council, even though he repeatedly thwarted opinions--even in his inner circle--that did not confirm his own.  I am disappointed we chose to trust him most of all with our economic future, even though he has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, refused to pay bills, and has chosen to make the vast majority of his products overseas rather than in America.  

These truths disappoint and frustrate me, but they are not the reason I have cried every day, or look with pride to some of the protesting marchers, or feel betrayed and shocked by my country.  The reaction I have had to this election has nothing to do with red or blue, my candidate getting defeated, sour grapes or even frustration with policy positions.  My deep sadness comes because I feel alienated from my country given what a vote for Trump necessarily affirms.  Let me be clear: He has openly encouraged behavior and statements that portray

  • Women as gratifying objects whose primary value is demonstrated through their physical attributes.

  • Muslims as radical, unwelcome terrorists who are not to be trusted or made welcome, and who cannot be loyal to America even if they die defending our freedom.

  • Hispanic immigrants as thieves and criminals who have come to ruin American livelihoods, who cannot function as professional Americans in any environment.

  • Disabled people as objects to be mocked.

Please hear me say that I feel confident that you, the majority of Trump supporters, disagree with and loathe these statements.  I do not think you are racist or misogynistic in the way you approach others.  I also know you might feel judged and attacked by those protesting or weeping for our country.  I am sorry to have lumped you in with voters who enthusiastically endorse the statements above.

Here’s the deal though, and this is the key to understanding the tears and despair: By voting for him, you did endorse his perspectives on the value of others.  With zero intention on your part, you confirmed a perspective which negates the value of about half of our country.  For a female survivor of abuse, a Muslim, an immigrant, or a disabled person, our country’s decision to elect Trump was an irreversible statement screaming that we find them unvaluable, expendable and not one of us.  I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but this is the message that is rattling around in the hearts of half of our society.  I am a white Christian profession woman, and I am devastated that I can’t pull that message back.  I can’t unring the bell.  My students and friends and African-American daughter will have to live out the consequences of all of us saying these statements aren’t bad enough to be absolutely rejected.  They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.  They have to get up and go to work and school in a country that elevated a man who said they were not and never would be his equal.  Can you imagine leaving your house this week if you were a minority teenage girl or boy?  We had the chance to say, “no”, and instead, by electing him, we said, “more please.”  This is why I weep.

They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.

I have heard many reasons a person might have voted for Trump, and none of those include bigotry.  I hear you, and am trying to understand the dignity of your choice.  For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.  I know these ideas are already out in the world, and I know voting for Trump didn’t cause them to exist.  However, I am deeply wounded that we had the chance, as a people committed to liberty and justice, to say, “Absolutely not. I will not allow comments like that to go unchecked at my dinner table/workplace/playground.” We missed it.  Instead of saying we want to heal as a country with a terrible track record on race and gender, we decided deadly sentiments like Trump’s were not a problem.  This ability to overlook the danger in his comments reveals to me that my community either does not know any immigrants, Muslims, disabled people or victims of abuse, or that we just don’t care.  This is why I weep.

For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.

I am not interested in blame, but in helping articulate a path forward so that we can stand up as a people and say, “Absolutely not!” to words that inspire violence and exclusion.  In light of that interest, here are my commitments to you:

  1. I commit to not speaking of all Trump voters as bigoted misogynists, as if you are all the same. I will believe that you do not and did not support or minimize the damage his comments would cause many in our country. I commit to working hard to finding empathy for those whose value system allowed them to vote for our President-elect.

  2. I commit to giving our new President an open mind and my respect, even behind closed doors.

  3. I commit to confronting my own despair and to finding and celebrating moments of hope and healing.

  4. I commit to making it my daily mission to reach out and affirm every person marginalized by the power of the majority.  I will go out of my way to listen and to actively value people who are different than me.

In our commitment to healing, I ask you to consider the following:

  1. Will you commit to finding empathy for those whose lives feel endangered by trying to build relationships with people outside your race or gender?

  2. Will you commit to standing up and speaking out against jokes, stereotypes and comments that undermine the dignity and value of all God’s people?

  3. Will you follow your vote up with action that affirms life, liberty and equality for ALL, to look beyond your own interests in order to rebuild the fabric of our society?  Will you reach out to those who might feel marginalized or endangered and let them know you are an advocate for them?

I am committed to making this the moment when we agree as a people not to blame each other for our own failure as a society.  No matter who you voted for, can you commit personally to moving toward those who are weaker than you, who have less power or comfort?  If we say yes, Trump’s presidency will be one of healing and hope for all of us.