December 4, 2017
I hope you will read this in the evening because this is when I’m writing it to you. I’ve just come back from working out at The Jones – our campus fitness facility – and now I am nestled in my study at Revelation Memorial Chapel sipping tea and musing about the questions of life. I like to come in at night – when no one is here – to write and to think. I like the quiet in the dark hours. I like the solitude of working when everyone is gone. What’s your Norwegian word for that physical experience of cozy – Koselig? That’s what it feels like tonight as I write.
I’m sitting in my wooden chair at my desk, looking out the window of my study. I’m listening to a band called Low, whose Christmas album has a kind of folky reprise, where tradition meets innovation in a sonic geography of warmth and light. It’s snowing outside my window. It is our first dusting of the season. As the snow falls and hits the light off the street lanterns, the snowflakes look like a million electrified winter fireflies buzzing in the wind. The trees are bare now, but from my window I can see the big maple in front of the chapel and the Douglas firs lining the sidewalk of Viking Square wrapped in soft blue and white lights for the holiday season. It’s beautiful. I am using that term in the proper sense – where the combination of qualities, such as shape, color and form pleases my aesthetic senses, especially my sight.
Maybe this is one of the reasons why I love this time of year. I see beauty magnified in the intensity of the season. This is an intense time on a college campus. Of all people, you know what I’m talking about. Just four months ago, fresh energy was palpable like too much caffeine in the body. The campus is jittery. But in December, the energy shifts. Suddenly, post Thanksgiving break, everyone is focused. I see students doing what they were supposed to be doing all semester long: studying! I can see the seriousness on the faces as they come and go out of the library, going to class, walking, even hanging out. Yesterday I went down to Life’s Hard Café – where the motto is “Life’s hard… have a cup of coffee”– to get my morning Americano, and I noticed no one was talking, yet it was full of people… everyone was either on their laptops with headphones on or sitting with heads deep in a book. Again, it was beautiful. All that learning being intentionally absorbed. I love it. But I love focused intensity in all its forms. Which is maybe why I love finals week so much and why I find it so invigorating.
I love this time of year, not just because everyone on campus is working hard, or because the snow and Christmas lights are lovely to look at through the thick window panes of my study, but because this is my favorite liturgical season. Advent. In Advent we inaugurate a new year in the Church, and as we turn the calendar, we enter another year of expectant longing and hoping. There is something about the emphasis on a yearning of hope that I find comforting. It’s the season that gives voice to my interior life – full of deep desires for something more. I’m constantly in Advent, it seems. I love Advent because this is the season when I can find myself again. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe I love Advent because this is the season when my true self finally feels found.
I love Advent because it reminds my heart of something fundamental and elemental about my life, our life. The truth that we are not alone. There is nothing worse than being alone or feeling lonely. I’m convinced this feeling of loneliness is behind most of the unnecessary pain and suffering in the world. People feel alone and it’s so painful that they act out – looking for attention, or trying to stop the lonely by doing things or beginning things they normally wouldn’t. This fear of loneliness is pervasive no matter what standing you have in life. For example, I was reading an article in Rolling Stone last week that the greatest fear of Elon Musk is loneliness. The South African-born engineer and entrepreneur is one of the only people in history to start four billion dollar companies: PayPal, Tesla, Space X, and Solar City. He has it all – except love. He described his current life as an aching loneliness. He says, “When I was a child, there was one thing I said: I never wanted to be alone.” And he whispered again, “I don’t want to be alone.” This is his greatest fear.
I get it. That’s why the holidays can be hard for some. We have created a culture where it’s normal to be alone in a crowd. For someone like me who doesn’t have a significant relationship baked into my life, or family nearby, Christmas is kind of tough. I’ll be honest, there are days when I feel a little self pity. I didn’t think I’d be my age and not married with kids, but here I am. I’ll be honest, the thought more than once has gone through my mind – “Did God forget about me? Does God not seem to care?” The answer, of course, is no. I love my life and I’m very content. But I’m not immune to these doubts gnawing at the soul – “maybe this whole Christian thing just isn’t true? Maybe I missed something?” A life in ministry is not a defense against the most profound doubts. Yet, one of the things that I have learned in my life of ministry is to doubt even my doubts with equal vigor.
What helps me to doubt the doubt that I am all alone is this season of Advent. You see, even though my relational status says single, it’s not really true. Advent teaches me that “alone” is not my identity status. I just can’t shake the news Advent is preparing me for something more. This is the revelation that orients the desires of my life. I know there is so much dysfunction and demagoguery in the atmosphere right now, but the news – the revelation – of a God who actually shows up in our life, in our history to save us – to love us – is something I find, well, beautiful! Advent helps us to see a world where God shows up. If Christmas is about anything, it’s about a God coming to us so that we will not be alone anymore. Advent is my antidote that inoculates me from my loneliness, because in Advent I find myself in a world where God shows up face to face.
I feel this immunization every time I hear the Christmas story. I particularly love the story in the Gospel of Luke, of the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. The shepherds are by themselves. Alone. No one really paying much attention to who they are or what they do. I feel like that sometimes. Just a worker in the field – that no one really cares all that much about what I’m doing or who I am. The ministry of the gospel – of word and sacrament – is not what most people in the “real world” think is important. It’s easy to feel like what you do doesn’t really matter. And yet, this story reminds me that it does. That God shows up!
These shepherds – insignificant to the course of large historical movements – like me and you – were just working in the field – and here in their ordinary and daily lives, they hear news that is truly extraordinary. “To you is born this day in the City of David, a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” And they go with haste to find out if it’s true. And what I find unbelievable is that they find him just like the angel said they would. They see the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and in a manger. The baby – a visible reality of an invisible promise. The promise of a God who would never leave us all by ourselves!
Why I love this season is it reminds me that even if I don’t have a relationship – even though I’m not married or have kids – God does not leave me all by myself. Advent teaches me to doubt my feelings of loneliness and retrain them to believe the reality that God shows up to have communion with me! And you know – that’s enough – that’s just simply enough. There is so much ugliness and meanness and anger to see and focus on. But in this season of Advent, I am reminded to look for God in places that I might not expect.
There – even in my loneliness – God visits and God speaks into the darkest places of our life and the world. I was reading recently some words that Dietrich Bonheoffer once wrote from a Nazi prison. He wrote, “…a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside,” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 188). As I reflect on Bonheoffer’s words I wonder: are these the words of a man who has grown hopeless? Or are they the words of one who has been stripped of all pretense, the words of one who has had to face the questions that we so often ignore as we inoculate ourselves with vain and empty things of distraction? In prison, Bonhoeffer had nothing left and, in that wrestling, he writes with a clarity that escapes us — we are all in a prison and the only hope we have is from the outside; we are all longing for our release and deliverance. We are all longing for God!
Yes. But the fundamental grace of Advent reminds us that God also longs for us – and in that longing God comes to us! Bonheoffer writes that the prison is locked and can only be opened from the outside. But the mystery of Advent — the mystery of the Christian faith — is the mystery of the incarnation. Christ becomes like one of us, takes on flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). As the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzen famously wrote of Christ’s becoming flesh for us and for our salvation: “What has not been assumed cannot be healed.” The gospel truth of Advent—the mystery of the Incarnation—is that God doesn’t blow the door down from the outside. Rather, Christ dwells among us, in the prison with us, breaking open the prison door from the inside, confounding all worldly powers and leading us out into the light and life of freedom.
God is with us. I am not alone. That is the deep reality of my life. And so as I sit in my study and sip my tea and look out at the snow swirling in the wind, like melting ice in a glass of whiskey, I am reminded that God is here – with me – and with you – in this world he so loves because the God who shows up, continues to show up. That, we might say, is beautiful in the proper sense!
Blessings on your Advent season from Despondent U. Give Kristen and the kids love from Auntie Karis. Keep loving your people, your place, and above all the Word. Walk this world of many gifts and be grateful. Merry Christmas!