“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”
Well here we are. Another year almost closed. Magazine stands at our grocery check-out aisles are filled with “Year In Review,” and “Best Of,” and “The Year in Pictures,” and “In Memory Of.” I browse through one while I wait to load my groceries on the conveyor belt, and I am overcome by the fullness of life and death overflowing out of the pages of People magazine. An entire year, that is entirely too much to bear. How will we do it again?
There seems to be a week of hushed existence between Christmas Day and New Years Day. Culturally, it’s the one week Americans are allowed to not strive for anything. We remember, we look ahead, and maybe just for a minute or two, we catch our breath. If you’re anything like me, you would have a sudden urge to purge everything between the corners of your house and your stomach; all before January 1st. The mythical deadline of New Years Eve and the hopes of a clean slate turn this gap week into a pressure cooker. My tendency to spontaneously subscribe to magazines like Clean Eating and buy a juicer are strong. I make promises with myself like: this will be the year I’ll fill half my plate with fruits and veggies instead of starches; this will be the year I’ll exercise five times a week; this will be the year I’ll speak up more for myself. I’ll buy a new planner and smile as I gaze at all those lovely grids. Last year, I bought the Monk planner. But by March or April, all of my new found habits had dissolved.
In a recent Forbes Health/OnePoll survey, 1,000 Americans were surveyed around their resolutions for 2024. The top five themes were:
- Improved fitness (48%)
- Improved finances (38%)
- Improved mental health (36%)
- Lose weight (38%)
- Improved diet (32%)
Basically, we want to feel better, do better, and be better.
Another popular trend is to set a word for the year. A “manifestation” if you will. All encompassing words like hospitality, forgiveness, grace, kindness, boundaries, play, and more start appearing on our social media feeds. We write them down on a sticky note and paste them on our bathroom mirror. I like this trend better. There’s some goodness to this because it speaks to our yearning for what we really want and need. A couple years ago, I chose the word “awake,” because I fall asleep to myself a lot. Meditate and think about it enough and you’ll become it, right? Much to my own chagrin, it quickly manifested itself into just another religion to keep up with. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” starts to feel, well, impossible.
As I sink my feet into the darkness of another Advent, I am granted the grace to see differently. If we allow ourselves the vulnerability, we’ll find light casting shadows in places we’ve never seen before.
In the quiet darkness we are given the audacity to say out loud, Christ was born. God was here. This is the only time in our church calendar we are granted the structure to meditate on this great in-between time; this “For the time being” as W.H.Auden puts it in his great and vast poem, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.”
Because the truth is, we’re still here. The darkness remains. That 5:30 am darkness pregnant with anticipation, waiting for dawn to arrive. Or the night that has become your friend while you hold the hand of someone with one foot already in glory. Or the darkness that you are shockingly dropped into as you face a sudden death of a loved one, a personal diagnosis, or more bad news. There is the darkness of our mind, another night on the job, another accident in the pouring rain, and the darkness of nations so furiously raging. Blood and life flow through the womb of God, and every year we look for the birth of our Savior. Where is this baby that surprised some shepherds, frightened a king, and made his mother cry?
I put that People magazine back on the rack. There is no break, even in my perceived escapes.
We don’t know why the Lord tarries. We know that He is patient and His time is not our time. We would like Him to come back soon and right all wrongs. There are some incredulous injustices going on and now would be a great time for Him to return. But as Walter Brueggemann prays in his prayer “Violence and Travail,” from his book, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth:
“So we wait with eager longing, and with enormous fear, because your promises do not coincide with our favorite injustices.”
We wait courageously for our windows to be crystal clear. But for now, they are quite smudgy and tear-stained. Yet we are called to remain and work with hope.
One of my favorite forms of prayer is walking a labyrinth. Being a person who loves reading and writing, praying with words can sometimes feel like another task. A labyrinth is a way for me to bring my whole body before God. While I was walking one here in my city, I was struck by how many perceived interruptions there were. Several of us were walking these paths; some toward the center, and some on our way back out. The paths are narrow. We brush shoulders with each other, greet fellow travelers as they approach us, politely stepping aside. Sometimes feelings of judgment rise up within me. That person didn’t walk all of the paths! She just cut through and left! How quick I am to point the finger. How quick I am to grasp. There is always a way out, we have that choice too. God wouldn’t deprive us of the dignity of repentance. We can always return. And I wonder how often our resolutions and words for the year close us off to God. How many of our promises are getting in the way? As if to put up our hand and say, enough. This journey is too long. These paths are too narrow. Your silence is too great and I don’t like the people I’m brushing shoulders with. This is too painful. I can barely see around the bend and if I look behind me, I’ll lose my way. My only choice is to walk and remain, or leave.
And so we have these annunciations. Arrivals of surprise and shock. I wonder if perhaps there are annunciations happening all the time; these things outside of our control breaking into all that we hold dear and safe. The impossible things. Sometimes we greet them with doubt or anger. And sometimes we consent and confess our faintness of heart. Mary’s consent is our invitation to empty ourselves and be fulfilled by the redemption of our Savior again and again.
So as we come around the bend into a new year, perhaps we could set aside the doing and pick up being. To quote Loretta Ross-Gotta: “The intensity and strain that many of us bring to Christmas must suggest to some onlookers that, on the whole, Christians do not seem to have gotten the point of it.” People are desperate for mercy and grace, us followers of Jesus included. Yet, the world doesn’t need another apathetic and detached Christian either. Perhaps the way forward is in teaching us and each other how to care. Essentially, how to pray.
Eugene Peterson has a wonderful and stirring talk on the vocation of caring based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday. In it he says,
“We wake up one morning and realize we’ve poured ourselves out for these needy people and they aren’t getting any better. And we know that something’s wrong in our caring. So we pray, teach us to care. We’ve been trying to pray in a wasteland. And I’ve been doing it all wrong, and need to learn it all over again … The most central thing is to learn and teach how to pray. This is why we are Christians – to live in this healed, loved way. If we don’t use the occasions of need and care as a school for prayer, we advocate our most central concern. Caring is a community act. It is complex and we need all the help we can get. But the Christian presence needs to be a praying presence. And when we pray “teach us to care,” the reports started coming back. This wound of the self that calls for help. This self that’s closed in upon itself and now has opened a little bit, is an opening through which we can listen to and answer God. For the wound is more than a wound. It’s access to the outside, to God, to others. And the Christians there, sometimes, at this intersection where all this carnage is going on, we’re the ones who know that this wound is more than a wound. It’s access. It doesn’t need a band aid. It’s there to be a listening post. A chance to get out of the small confines of a self-defined world and enter the spaciousness of a God-defined world. I don’t mean simply praying for people, although that’s involved. I mean, teaching them to pray. Helping them to listen to what God is saying, helping them with an adequate response. Teaching them to use all the occasions of their lives as altars on which they receive His gifts.”
In our resolutions, we can resolve and release our desires, knowing that in our deepest places we can be known by a God who tends to our wounds; just as we tend to those around us. We can plan to be surprised; to say, “yes, and…”
Of course we would like this to be a quick fix, but God’s work in us is graciously slow. Some of the foremost spiritual practices I’ve cultivated this past year are the Welcoming Prayer and Centering prayer. In centering prayer, we still our mind and bodies, emptying and surrendering ourselves to the One who loves us. Because it is prayer, it is relational. If I were only choosing a word to meditate on, it would only be a mental technique with hopes for the best. In cultivating this practice of centering prayer, the Holy Spirit has slowed down my inner reactions and rooted me in soil that is stable and healthy. At first, it still feels like practicing. But over time, our spiritual habits will graciously seep into our everyday lives, and for this I am grateful. What I once thought as annoying and meaningless becomes sacred. I am slowly learning to remain open and tender to all things. All of our life with God is sacred, and it is He who gives us the eyes to see.
In God’s love we are awakened, and in His faithfulness we walk with Him into a new year. In His patience and tenderness we wrestle and yield, and in His trinitarian begetting, we remember we do not work in a wasteland. We tend to a groaning garden that will one day burst open with beauty so grand. The impossible will become possible. Our smudgy windows will be wiped clean. And we’ll see fully and completely.
But for now, that would be entirely too much to bear.