Search

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Search in posts
Search in pages

Advent’s surprise for us

Shouldn’t we get it by now?

From the inside looking out, we’re aware of the dimming daylight even as we’re typing away, chasing children, on another Zoom. And then we check the time: only 5:15. Whoa.

We’ve observed “spring forward, fall back” our whole lives. We’ve made it through our share of winters. We understand the shortening of days and lengthening of nights. We know how this works. Don’t we?

And yet here we are, year after year, still surprised, still looking outside and saying, “Can you believe how dark it is already?!” (Or, in the words of a TikTok I still think about, “Bro, it’s 5:15! What?”)

When we think of Advent, the themes of darkness, expectation and (im)patient anticipation often come to mind. ’Tis the season to watch and wait. But there’s another element of this time of year that I want to dwell in: the element of surprise.

When we’ve grown up in the church, or even when we’ve simply attended for long enough to know the lyrics and liturgies, the story of Christianity can become a little too familiar. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, we may find ourselves droning along each Sunday, focused more on our lunch plans or what remains to be accomplished before Monday’s return. We may grow so accustomed to the mysteries of our faith that we throw around terms like “incarnation” and “ascension” in a way that strips them of any mystical meaning.

But can we back up just a few steps?

[He] was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made truly human.

Think about how you’d “translate” this into normal, everyday language. God chose to be like us, putting on our flesh forever. That’s a crazy, crazy story.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again.

No wonder the early Christians got some weird looks (and, well, worse).

“Historically, [Christianity] was a surprise because Christianity was born and emerged and grew in a Roman world that had no expectations for it, didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t have anticipated it,” says C. Kavin Rowe, a New Testament scholar. “Christianity was something that the Roman world had never seen and didn’t even have categories for.

“Christianity was surprising also in its particulars,” he adds. “It introduced patterns of life into the world that caught people by surprise in a good way.”

It’s safe to say that at this point in history, Christianity — at least in the way most people conceive of it — is not much of a surprise. It’s pretty mainstream: no longer a fringe movement. But just dream with me for a second. What if the good news — in all of its particulars — became surprising once more? What if we were as astonished by it as by evening’s early arrival?

Yes, there can be plenty of comfort in familiar rhythms and words, but what might it look like to reclaim some of that wonder — not just for shock value, not just because we’re bored or distracted, but in a way that honors the story we have received?

Maybe it’s as small as reading the passages we know by heart in a new translation for a few days. Maybe it’s looking them up in the Art Search from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and seeing some of the creativity those passages inspire. Or maybe it’s simply changing the posture we take when we approach the old, old stories.

How might we be caught off guard?

We joke about the changing seasons surprising us, but the brief days and long nights still startle us each year — “How is it dark already?!” “The sun is already up!”

I hope the jarring reset of our clocks and microwaves and (non-smart) watches might nudge us to do a bit of an internal reset too. I hope the changing church seasons might surprise us as well— that, in some weird and wonderful ways, we might be amazed this Advent by the bizarre, glorious truth of the baby who was God-with-us, the God-man who sits at the right hand of the Father, still wearing his human skin and bearing marks of Roman nails.

I hope we never get used to it.

I had an unforgettable conversation with my son when he was little. We had gone to church for Ash Wednesday, and he had been in the toddler room while I attended the service.

On the drive home, after being quiet most of the way, my son piped up from the back seat, “Uhmma, am I gonna go to jail?”

I was startled. “No, of course not! What makes you ask that?”

“Well … the teacher said that Jesus had to die because we’re bad. And bad people go to jail!”

I was horrified.

“Oh no, sweetie! No, you’re not bad. God loves you so much! Don’t worry. That’s not what the teacher meant!”

Surely we can do better than that.

I learned about Jesus in similar ways. My teachers stressed that God loved us despite finding us inherently offensive. The church taught me about God’s grace, but it also drove home the message that God couldn’t tolerate my presence and viewed me with a kind of holy disgust. God was all light and we were all filth. God was on one side of a vast chasm and we were stuck on the other, but for the bridging work of the cross.

For some of us, those kinds of images amplified a sense of punishing distance from God that we already felt too keenly. They reinforced fears that we might be irredeemably lost, too appallingly bad to be reached by any kind of bridge. I never had any trouble believing that I was a wretched worm before God. That came easily. What seemed impossible was that God could ever truly love a worm like me.

My faith has always been riddled with doubt. I tend to feel life intensely, all the way down to my bones. My joys are plentiful and bright, but I struggle often with depression, with chutes into despair.

And because of my inconstant faith, I used to be plagued by fears that I simply wasn’t built to meet the basic conditions for God’s acceptance. Despite my experiences of God’s love, a background hum of existential terror accompanied my hopelessness whenever I got depressed. I worried that Christ’s work notwithstanding, I might be stuck galaxies away from God, beyond the reach of mercy.

Sometimes in depression, I feel that I’m sunk in the darkness of a very deep ocean. It used to be that at those depths, all was muffled except the voices that said God couldn’t stand me for how faithless I was. Voices that told me I was a lost cause and an utter disappointment to God.

I don’t believe that Jesus meant for our stories about him to spur such haunting terror or self-rejection.

While all our metaphors are imperfect and can only clumsily gesture toward divine mysteries, the ones that insist on humanity’s wretchedness and distance from God can inflict lasting wounds. They can cloud our belovedness and the reality of “God with us.”

Some of us need new metaphors that don’t diminish the truth of God’s unrelenting love. I’ve personally had to let go of many old images I grew up with. Now I try to see myself not as originally repulsive and separated from God by a vast gulf but as born of love and held close in God’s mother-heart.

We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.

We see God receive all of Job’s cries — chapter after chapter of complaints against God. And what does Job get for his brazen challenges? He isn’t zapped into oblivion. He’s granted a conversation with the Almighty, albeit a humbling one.

I see God’s mothering presence in the story of Elijah, when he feels so defeated that he wants to die. Elijah doesn’t get a rebuke about how he should have more faith or count his blessings. God comes to him gently in a mama-like angel with freshly baked bread and a pitcher of water.

Isaiah renders God’s love for us as even more doting and steadfast than that of a mother for a baby at her breast. The psalmist speaks of God as so inescapably near that there’s nowhere on earth he could go to get away from God if he tried.

That’s the kind of Savior I need. One driven by love to chase me to the ends of the earth and the far side of the sea.

These days when I find myself in the oceanic depths, I’m less alarmed by the darkness and silence there. It’s a bit quieter than it used to be. I’m less hounded by voices proclaiming God’s rejection. I see glimmers of Christ-light here and there in the abyss.

I feel alone but find that I’m not alone. Impossibly, I find myself breathing underwater. I notice that I’m held somehow — breath by breath, as if nestled in the very womb of God.

Lent is a time when we can contemplate the tender closeness of Christ with us in our “helpless estate,” through every kind of suffering, no matter how wavering our faith, and no matter how dark our darkness.

In this season, we reflect on how God saw us in pain and became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” for our sakes. Jesus on the cross joins us in our despair of feeling abandoned by God.

Christ doesn’t always calm the storm when we’re at sea on a sinking boat, but our Savior would rather sink into the depths with us than ever leave us alone. Even if we find ourselves living at the bottom of that sea — why, there he is, still with us.

That’s the core truth of the gospel. It begins not with our badness but with God’s unshakable love. The hope of this season is that our God, upon seeing us drowning, came close to be with us through it all.

We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.

 

Each year during the liturgical season of Lent, I intentionally engage in spiritual practices that strengthen my devotion to God and God’s people. Typically, I have chosen to give up something so that I might better focus on wrestling with the deep questions challenging my faith. Sacrifice can minimize distractions.

But I have come to recognize that Lent isn’t just about taking something away. It can be about adding something too. You can be more attentive to your relationship with God by praying, reading the Bible or serving others, growing your faith through thought-filled actions.

With that in mind, I decided last year to cultivate my relationship with God’s people further by intentionally engaging in acts of kindness as my Lenten practice. These actions ranged from buying someone lunch to putting change in a vending machine to leaving a letter in a library book to share a kind word. While seeking to learn more about Christ, I was hoping that these acts would also show me more about myself and my role in building the kingdom of God.

I was inspired by the narrative of Paul and his accompanying party sailing toward Rome, as recorded in Acts. After a perilous storm ending in shipwreck, they reach safety on the shores of Malta, where, Luke records, “the local people showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2 NOAB). Describing the Gentiles on Malta, Luke uses philanthrōpia, which can be translated as the “love of human beings” but also, in Hellenistic Greek, was commonly used for “hospitality.” The Maltese people’s acts of unusual kindness were an expression of love and hospitality; these acts were so impactful that they were included in the biblical text.

My kind acts during the Lenten season do not rate addition to the biblical canon, but I do know that they had an impact; if not on the recipients, they had an impact on me. I enjoyed the level of intentionality that it took to try to be a person of unusual kindness. Were there days when I missed an opportunity? Yes. But in those moments when I was able to engage in expressions of unexpected love and hospitality, I knew joy.

Having experienced transformation myself, I enter this Lent wondering what such a practice might mean for our institutions. What if they were committed to greeting people with unusual kindness? With the possibility of an impending recession and rising costs, what if our organizations were committed to expressing love and hospitality in extraordinary ways, even in the face of scarcity?

F.S. Michaels, argues in “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything” that a master story enthralls our culture. This master story argues that the human actor is a rational, self-interested individual who, given a choice, will always opt for what brings happiness and avoids pain. But what happens when our self-interest is in direct conflict with what is communally good?

Because the master story shapes not only our imagination but our organizations’ imagination of what is possible, it impacts our ability to imagine what supporting our communities could look like. In these times of increasing division and polarization, and of limited resources, it is easy for the master story to create narratives of exclusion and scarcity in our organizations, which in turn create limits on our kindness.

As leaders, we often confront the related narrative that institutions and organizations are in competition with each other. This narrative also alters our imagination.

Shannon Hopkins and Mark Sampson, in their essay “Seeing Our Rooted Good,” write: “In the midst of the challenges of meeting urgent needs, changing patterns of work, and supporting vulnerable congregations, it can easily get lost that the most important question is not ‘What do we do next?’ Instead, we suggest the defining question is always ‘What do we see?’”

Do we see images of unusual kindness?

I recently have come across several organizations that are helping faith-based institutions think through ways to open their buildings to others who need space for public benefit programs, such as community kitchens, co-working spaces and even affordable housing. Other organizations are intentionally developing co-ops to raise funds to invest in startup ideas that have the potential to lead to transformative outcomes.

When we focus on acts of unusual kindness, we see communities become unburdened by isolation, exclusion and scarcity; indeed, unusual kindness can unlock the door to abundance and generosity.

It’s simply not enough to know and recognize the mindset of scarcity; we as leaders need to be able to strategically offer and embrace kindness, acknowledging all the resources we have in our toolbox.

Unusual kindness can create a new narrative of connectedness. As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano have argued in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations. Instead, they must build capacity outside of their organizations. This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; and on being a node, not a hub.”

How is your organization building its capacity to be kind? The challenges of these times present our organizations with an opportunity to engage in acts of kindness, and to build trust in our communities.

Trust is equity for more relationships, allowing us to ask the most important question in concert with others: What do we see?

What resources are made available when we look at our communities through a lens of unusual kindness? If we are just willing to be unusually kind to one another, might we see that we have everything we need to address the challenges facing our communities today?

This Lent, I believe, unusual kindness can help our organizations achieve lofty missions even if we have decidedly humble means.

As I laid out my nativity scene collection this year, I was struck by the odd gathering of poor Galileans, shepherds, magi and maybe a few animals. There’s no earthly reason for this group to be together, except that they each experienced an encounter with the divine that they could not deny.

In the young adult, biblical fan fiction graphic novel that exists only in my mind, I like to imagine that this divine encounter bonds them in a kind of friendship that lasts for a lifetime. Every year, they write one another Christmas cards, fondly remembering the hilarious things that happened when Jesus was born, and they conspire to meet in Bethlehem the next time the magi are passing through. I imagine the shepherds and their families some 30 years later hustling to Jerusalem to make sure Mary is eating when Jesus is imprisoned.

This sort of enduring friendship is a rare gift, but truthfully, any kind of friendship has become difficult for us.

The pandemic and accompanying social tumult has changed the ways we relate and congregate. During the past three years, many of us experienced profound change in our social and intimate relationships. We stopped attending worship services and large social gatherings; family estrangement increased; the friendly barista at our favorite shop lost her job and moved away before we had a chance to say goodbye. Our close ties and our loose ties all came untied.

Some of us were experiencing isolation before the pandemic began. In early, pre-pandemic conversations with pastors, many Thriving in Ministry project directors discovered that pastors were experiencing deep loneliness in ministry. Some researchers of adolescent social behavior argued that the declines in iGen (born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s) teen pregnancy had less to do with access to information and mature decision making and more to do with less time spent in the physical company of peers as socialization moved online.

The social isolation of the pandemic exacerbated these trends. In 2021, Americans age 15 and older spent less than three hours a week with friends, a 58% decline since 2013. These lost hours were not replaced by time with partners, families or even co-workers; they were replaced by time alone.

Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.

Christmas and Advent can be particularly difficult seasons for prioritizing our well-being. Family and cultural expectations crowd out opportunities to reflect upon the meaning of a virgin mother, an incarnate and infant Christ child, an angel chorus, a star in the night. I find it incredibly difficult to slow down enough to join the shepherds in the field or the magi in their journeys and to experience the awe of an incarnate God.

Thankfully, Epiphany is one of the few Christian feasts celebrated in the United States with a meaning that has been spared the vampiric effects of capitalism. It remains a refuge of spiritual care.

The church quietly celebrates the appearance of the star of Bethlehem that beckoned Gentile magi to go and seek out the King of the Jews. The star, much like the infant Jesus, miraculously manifests and changes those who encounter it, drawing them closer to one another as they dream of the new ways of being this child is bringing to the world: sight for the blind, rest for the weary, freedom for the enslaved, hope for all.

The shining star of Epiphany beckons us to gather with others whose lives have been forever changed by an encounter with the divine. We cannot dream these dreams alone. We cannot become these new ways of being on our own. We need friends and community, with all their unlikeliness and messiness.

We don’t always feel like being with friends, or we may find it complicated to do so. After fulfilling all the obligations of the Christmas season, many of us engage in a kind of emotional hibernation, cocooned in our homes, recovering from a month of overstimulation. Many in our community are not well enough to bear the risk of exposure to illness. Others among us find the vulnerability and trust required of friendship incredibly difficult.

Back in the fan fic nativity scene, I imagine that the original Epiphany crew, too, had seasons when staying in touch became difficult, when their feelings of connection and love suffered. But the brilliance of the stars in the winter night sky pulled them back to the wonder of Jesus’ birth and the miracle of enduring love and friendship. Those stars reminded them to keep dreaming, to keep believing in the promised new ways of being, to keep creating transformative and healing community and friendship.

I plan to keep my nativity scenes out a little longer this year as my own kind of Epiphany reminder that spending time with friends is sacred and divine work. It can be challenging; it is countercultural and can counter my own intuition. But it is in our being with others that we encounter the Spirit and our dreams of full freedom and healing come alive.

Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.