Advent Lament: My Endless and Voluminous Need

Some have said Advent is an opportunity to walk into the dark night of the soul, as Nouwen called it. This works for me.  As I sat in church yesterday I felt unsettled and angry.  Stirred by the challenges of my life I felt a heightened awareness of my need — my endless and voluminous need.

For some weeks I have had a growing sense of discomfort.  This happens to me from time to time, though years can pass in between.  It is a strange unwelcome melancholy that affects me emotionally, spiritually, and physically.  In can bring a new level of understanding, a softening, an unfolding of my heart.

But in what I have come to know as predictable, my inner self resists.  I find myself becoming angry, distrusting, and irritated.  I do not know why I respond this way, only that it has come enough times in my life that I recognize it.  It may take me a while, days or weeks to finally see it for what it is, but then as I face it, the unsettling of my soul, I understand why nothing seems right, no one pleases me, and everything is causing a level of increasing frustration.

Especially expectations of Christmas, stated and unspoken.  I am overly aware of money or lack of it, kitsch or classy decorations, who is spending or not, and how special I can make things for my children and family.  This focus on material becomes enormous, crowding out what’s going on inside me.

My every sense is magnified. My heart tells me it is impossible to resolve all the conflict in my heart.

For the first time in a while I responded by writing a lament to God.  Restricted by the scenario at church of time and space, everyone jotting down on a small piece of paper their gratitude, praise or a lament, I resisted at first.  Then, I quickly wrote from my heart:

Tell me what you want me to do.  Speak.

Hearing God speak is one of my greatest places of doubt as a believer.  Oh, God does speak to me and when he does I am always totally blown away by its clarity.  But still I live mostly in the in between riddled with unfaithful doubt.

As a voracious reader, the world of blogging has opened up to me an instantaneous flood of information and I’ve gorged on it of late.  As is my nature, I tend to go to the extremes.  I have found hundreds of insightful people and blogs.  I wish I could read them all daily but my world around me would fall to pieces in disarray if I did.

Early this morning I read a summary of a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Beeley, professor at Yale Divinity School.  It put into words this cycling of despair, response, growth in a way I have not been able to understand or summarize myself. Don’t you love it when that happens?  Beeley presented:

“a three-step process of faith formation offered by John Newton and developed from a reflection of Newton’s on the parable of the sower. The first step is “Desire.” A person might feel “elation” and “joy” or “relief.” The sense of desire propels one into church with a sudden surge of awareness of God’s grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. While the sense of desire and God’s love persist they also change with time leading to the second phase.”

“The second phase is “Conflict.” This is the “dark night of the soul” phase where one wrestles with God, with faith,and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrew freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost, the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. This is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust as we travel through one challenge after another.”

“The second phase leads to the third phase. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one’s sense of dependence on God increases through each phase. To me this phase sounds a bit like what the Buddhists call “Detachment.” This phase is marked by a shift in emotions where one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having put one’s trust in God.”

“…These phases, A, B, and C were not linear but perhaps a spiral that repeats over and over through life.” (emphasis mine).  Grace in the Blade by John Newton, three phases beginning on page 171.

As I sit fully within the Conflict stage, naming it helped me immensely.  I can say that my spiritual path has wound around and around in that spiral my entire life.  It wasn’t until I read these thoughts of Newton that I understood what was happening.

Much of my spiritual journey has involved doubt, restlessness and pain.  As I listen to those believer’s whose ‘faith’ seems to be pure saccharine goodness, I’ve felt constantly in revolt!  That has not been my experience!

My spiritual experiences have been marked by questions and confusion as I wrestle with the strange truth of this radical person Jesus and the rest of scripture and reconcile them with real life; Christians whose lives are tinged with hypocrisy, the weakness of my own dark heart, and a life riddled with iniquity.

As I learn to cry out as I did yesterday, I am certain that He will respond.  Advent for me will be a time of listening, and so I wait.  I wait for him to speak and tell me what to do.  I wait for Him to speak.

Advent Conspiracy

The thought of not spending so much money at Christmas is both terrifying and freeing!  I have long felt that Christmas has lost its meaning and, as a parent, I want my children to “get” what Christmas is really about.  Take Easter, for example, with the bunnies, the baskets, and the candy. I have never participated, with adamant resolve; that’s just not what Easter is about.  And so my kids “suffer” because of my decision – or at least that’s what it feels like as a parent.  Still, it seems that Easter is easier to “opt out of” than Christmas.

Over the last few years, we have sometimes asked extended family to give gifts to worthy organizations rather than directly to us.  I felt really strange asking – kind of self-righteous – although that was not my intent.  But it felt like a good direction, a small step, a reminder to us all that our ‘gift giving’ is often in excess and begins to lack meaning.

When it comes to the stereotypical traditions of an American Christmas, I am afraid this Conspiracy idea will be complex and difficult to process.  In my heart of hearts, I am excited.  But in reality, it is hard to imagine.  I look forward to learning more about the Conspiracy and how we can teach our children (and ourselves) more about these values and ideas.  I think my children, if they really understood how Jesus would celebrate Christmas, would actually come along more quickly than I.

I’ve been reading and studying the book of Daniel through a Beth Moore study, and was hit hard by the truth there in the first chapter about Babylonia which represents a culture that idolizes youth, beauty, intelligence and complete over-indulgence and over-abundance.  Sound familiar? The Enemy wants to keep us in the place of captivity, surrounded by all the temptations of the world, but as we succumb we will lose our identity and integrity.  “Daniel purposed with his heart” against those temptations. (Dan 1:8)

I must ask myself how much of the culture is getting to me?  We are supposed to make a mark for the Kingdom of God.  And yet, most of what I buy, eat, and watch encourages the corruption of our culture in my life, tempting me to believe that it’s actually all about me. Isaiah 47:8 says “I am, and there is none besides me.”  To me, this challenges our culture of total self-absorption.

To bring it back around to the Advent season and the idea the Conspiracy is challenging us with, let us all pray that God would soften our hearts and harden our resolve to live differently.  May we each be open to the ideas here and be willing to be challenged in big ways – not so that we alienate ourselves from the world around us (which is what I fear), but so that we would be open to the Holy Spirit and be able to live differently IN the world as opposed to withdraw into our strange theologies that separate and divide.

I look forward with anticipation to what God is going to do in my husband and me and in our precious children as we face our addiction to stuff and prayerfully become deliberate about our Advent choices.  I am so grateful to attend a church that is being prophetic about these issues.

This is something I wrote for my church’s blog.