liturgical seasons

Advent holy spaces Means of grace spiritual practice Uncategorized

Slow to Arrive…But I Am Here Now

Advent began slowly for me this year.

Typically, I dive right in. I get out the tree and put up the lights on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a burst of energy to start the season. I excitedly pull out my kids’ nativity sets and begin our family tradition of lighting the Advent candles on our dining room table. I finally turn on that Christmas playlist and begin baking peppermint-flavored goodies. It usually “feels” like Advent from the very beginning.

But this year was different. This fall was extremely busy, in a way I did not anticipate. The months leading up to Advent were stressful due to a variety of circumstances. Plus, our family started the Advent season with illness. It was just a cold, but it traveled through our entire family and was followed by strep throat for one of the kids…resulting in one or both kids home 6 of 9 school days in the first 11 days of Advent. It was challenging to muster the energy to do anything, especially when we limped into the season in the first place, stressed and exhausted.

For 2 weeks, I kept saying it didn’t feel very “Advent-y.” Sure, we put up the tree. It took us nearly 2 weeks to get it decorated, working in 5–10 minute spurts, but we got it done.  We hung the lights outside. We put a wreath on the front door. We pulled out the nativity sets and Advent wreath. I wouldn’t say I did any of it with enthusiasm. I was just going through the motions.

But isn’t that where we find ourselves sometimes? I had not thought about the preparation of my house for Advent and Christmas as a spiritual practice before this year. But now I think it is, for me. I say that because I could have chosen not to do it, to put it off, or to be grumpy when my children asked if we could decorate the tree (because, frankly, I didn’t feel like it). But I chose to do it. To say yes. To engage. And at first, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything. I was doing the “work” of preparing a home for what it is “supposed” to look like during this season. But in the process – and I call it a process because it took 2 weeks instead of a few hours – something changed in me. It was like when I pray not because I feel connected to God or because I want to, but because that’s what I’m supposed to do, and in the process of praying, something happens deep within my soul. Going through the motions of preparing our home for Advent this year was a soul practice like that for me this year.

Last Friday, a few days prior to the third Sunday of Advent, I attended a contemplative Advent retreat. It was small and intimate, with a few friends and a few people who were new to me, all of us pastors and/or therapists. I went for a moment of pause. I had planned an individual retreat during the month of November, and my plans fell through twice. I decided that a guided experience at a particular place and time might work out better.

The morning of my retreat, I began the day with preparation. I did yoga, which is a cleansing for my body and mind. I gathered the items I would need for the day retreat. I spent a few minutes putting the finishing touches on the Christmas tree with my preschooler. And I drove the 45 minutes to the retreat location, another type of preparation.

The retreat began with breakfast tacos. After introductions and fellowship, we entered a long period of silence – about 2 hours. A few of the other participants and I set off for the lake, to spend our time in silence near the water. Whether poor directions or poor listening, I don’t know, but we went the wrong way. We walked in silence, each in our own world of contemplation, near enough to see and hear one another’s footsteps but not conversing. And when we finally realized that those glimpses of the lake were getting farther away rather than closer and decided to turn around, there was a lot of backtracking to do. While this might sound frustrating, it was exactly what I needed. It was part of my process. And it was not lost on me that my journey that morning had mirrored my Advent journey thus far.  

When we finally arrived at the lake, I was ready. I had taken an indirect path to get there. But the walking, the movement, the process of going through the motions of walking to the lake without going there at first, had prepared me for when I arrived.

The stress and anxiety I had been experiencing for many weeks prior to Advent had begun to dissipate earlier in the week due to circumstances resolving themselves, but it had not left me entirely. As I walked the wrong direction, and much farther than I anticipated walking, the stress and anxiety continued to melt away.

When I arrived at the lake, the journey I had been on felt much longer than it was. In realty, it was about a 2 mile walk with all the backtracking, but those 2 miles transformed my heart and mind. They helped me to get ready. They prepared me to be vulnerable, laid bare, in the presence of God.

At the lake, I sat down, and I looked out at the expanse in front of me. It was unimpressive, really. The water level was low, far below where I sat, with at least a couple hundred yards of exposed shoreline between the lakeside park and the water’s edge. I couldn’t easily get down near the water, like I wanted to. And yet, as I sat on the ridge overlooking over the water with the wind whipping my hair, I encountered the Holy Spirit. I was reminded of my baptism as I looked at that ordinary and unimpressive lake, recalling that the waters of baptism are extraordinary because of the Holy Spirit’s work, not because the water itself is special. I heard the Spirit in the tinkling of the wind chimes, sounding like bells. I felt the Spirit in the wind, on my skin and blowing my hair. I was fully present.

And I began to write in my prayer journal. The phrase that I kept writing over and over, in the midst of all that I was pouring out to God, was “I am here.” I was so grateful to be there in that place in that moment. Not pulled in many directions at once – body, soul, and mind fragmented by stress and overwhelm as I had experienced for weeks leading up to that moment. And God reminded me that God is always here – no matter where I am, no matter how scattered or fragmented, no matter how high the wall of anxiety and stress is, hemming me in on all sides. God is here. I am here. We are here together.

And in that moment, I realized that I had taken a circuitous path not only to the lake, but to Advent this year. I had gone through the motions, doing the things, and it was the process of going through the motions that enabled me to arrive in this season of Advent, to engage actively in preparing my heart as I had been preparing my home. I am here now, getting ready for the coming of Christ, a miracle like no other…God coming to us in the most vulnerable form as a human baby, saying “I am here.”

Lent liturgical seasons

For Holy Week

Throughout this week,
the week we call “Holy Week,”
we will recall
and in a small way –
enter into –
the stories
of the final week
of Jesus’ earthly life.

While the week begins
with a parade,
bursting with hope,
soon things will change.
The tables will turn.
Jesus’ teachings will agitate leaders.
Her anointing of him will appall observers.
The meal Jesus and his friends share will be the last.
Jesus’ prayers in the garden will be interrupted.
His trial will be unfair, his crucifixion unjust.
The curtain in the temple will be torn,
because of
God’s grief,
God’s rending of garments,
God’s lamenting,
at the atrocity of it all.

And we will lament too…
with words,
with tears,
with groans and
with mouths agape….
that it had to be this way.

There is no way to
put this week in a box,
cover it in paper
to make it beautiful
tie it up with a tidy bow
so that we can just enjoy Easter
without walking through the rest of it.

What is Easter,
without the rest of it?
We cannot celebrate
without first
lamenting, grieving, waiting.
Even though we know the story,
we cannot skip to the end,
as a means of avoiding
walking through and working through
the messy, painful middle.

And so we lament.
We remember.
We open our hearts
and we ask God
to do something
deep within us…
to transform us
and make us new
because
if we come to next week
the same as we are now,
what was it all for?

Many thanks to Professor Amy-Jill Levine for her book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week. This Lenten season, our congregation read the book and it shaped our worship and study. Her perspective and insight informed my own reflection during this season.

Lent liturgical seasons Means of grace prayer spiritual practice

Lamenting for Lent

The season of Lent has arrived, whether we are ready or not. But since preparation is the purpose of this season, we don’t have to begin the season “ready.” Perhaps it is most helpful to begin this season in a posture of openness to what God will do. If we are open, we create space for God to work in our lives. Whether you engage in an intentional Lenten practice or not, a posture of openness to God is important in this season.

This year I am lamenting for Lent. Why? Because there is so much to lament – in my personal life, in the lives of loved ones, and in the world. For me, lament feels essential right now. Intentionally engaging in the practice of lament compels me to respond to hard things differently than I might otherwise. When I practice lament, I enter in and engage things that bring grief and sorrow by offering them to God. While I might be inclined to become mired in my feelings, or, depending on the circumstance, be tempted to disengage, lament enables me to feel my feelings and do something with them. Lament compels me to engage when it would be more comfortable not to. Lament enables me to be open to God.

What is lament? 

I first became familiar with the concept of lament in college and seminary courses that studied the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Lament or lamentation, according to The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, is “a religious cry of sorrow or mourning.” Certainly, I intuitively engaged in the practice of lament before I knew what it was. But learning about lament gave this type of prayer meaning and form, example and justification. While others may have defined my prayers as “self-absorbed” during my teenage years, I believe they were lament. I was honestly and vulnerably offering to God that with which I was struggling, expecting God to do something with it. After all, isn’t that what lament is?

Lament became an intentional practice for me in seminary when my Old Testament professor, Dr. Ellen Davis, gave an assignment on praying the Psalms. We were instructed to not just read them, pray them. And not just the psalms you like, all the genres of psalms, even the psalms of lament. It was while engaging in that assignment that I learned what lament truly is. I discovered that when I prayed the lament psalms written by others, I lamented not only my own circumstances, but those of others: situations long-past and those in the news today, those relevant in my own life and those entirely foreign to my personal experience.

Lament became my response when I heard about hard things in other’s lives, in the news, and experienced them in my own life. Whether I prayed one of the biblical psalms of lament or lamented in my own words, I offered the hard thing to God in as many words or images or tears or groans as I had. Then, I waited for God to do something with it.

Lament is an Act of Faith

After all, lament is an act of faith. It’s not just complaining. While it may begin there, lament is complaining addressed to God. Someone who has a lot of complaining or whining to do could do that with a friend or write about it in a journal, without addressing it to God. In the practice of lament, those expressions of negative feelings and emotions become prayer. The practice of lament requires vulnerability and trust combined with hope. Isn’t that what faith is?

“In its peculiar way lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things are not as they should be…Perhaps the more difficult part of lamenting comes in maintaining some element, no matter how small, of trusting that God is living and able, trusting in the inherent goodness of God, and recognizing that God too understands that in a broken world, things are not always as they should be…”

Enuma Okoru, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

Lament doesn’t stop with prayer. When we offer lament to God and expect God to do something with it, we are asking for a response from God. Lament also requires our openness to what God might ask of us, because sometimes what God does will change us or involve our participation. That is when the practice of lament becomes more than prayer. When we lament, we never know what God will do, but we always expect something to happen. It might be the opposite of what we expect.

“God cares that I am in pain and can be expected to do something about it. That is a remarkable assumption when you think about it, which we hardly ever do – that the God who made heaven and earth should care that I am hurting. Yet it is the only thing that explains this strange style of biblical prayer…”

Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament

In the psalms, lament often makes way for praise and thanksgiving. Well-known Psalm 22, which begins with:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

concludes with:

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.”

Clearly: God hears, God cares, and God responds. That is why I am practicing lament, as an act of faith, and opening myself up to whatever God will do. However you choose to prepare during this Lenten season, may you do it with a posture of openness to God. Blessings on you in this season.   

Epiphany liturgical seasons Means of grace

Tomatoes for Epiphany

I’ve never eaten homegrown tomatoes during the season of Epiphany – until this year. Tomatoes are usually abundant in summer. Even in Texas’ lengthy growing season, if the August heat hasn’t completely scorched the plants, it is rare for tomatoes to bear fruit through the month of October. This year, we had a steady supply of tomatoes fresh from our garden in June, which was wetter and cooler than usual. Then, production decreased during the heat of the summer before increasing again in the fall. We savored tomatoes from the vine in October, expecting them to be our last.

However, central Texas had an unseasonably warm fall and early winter. In November, we were sharing just-picked tomatoes with friends the week before Thanksgiving. In early December, we anticipated a freeze and picked everything left on the vine: red, orange, yellow, or green. The temperature dipped into the 30’s and I assumed the tomato plants would gradually die. I ignored them while we appreciated the gradual ripening of the tomatoes on our kitchen windowsill.

One day in mid-December I went to the compost bin in our garden area and noticed that the tomato vines were alive and still producing! I picked a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes before realizing that there were several large tomatoes developing, as well. We began to pick tomatoes again as they ripened, always expecting them to be the final fruit of the season. Before Christmas, we picked the remaining tomatoes again and our family was thrilled to have tomato salad with our Christmas dinner, an unusual treat! On New Year’s Day, anticipating a significant freeze, we picked the remaining tomatoes for the third time. That really was our final harvest from these vines. By the next morning, the plants had frozen and crumpled into gray heaps in the garden beds. But their prolific fruit remains, and we are continuing to enjoy it.

Tomatoes on our kitchen windowsill – January 6, 2022

The tomato growing season this year was more than six months long! What an unexpected gift, especially after the way the season began. When our tomato plants were just babies beginning to take root, most of the plants were crushed by hail in mid-April. When I returned to the garden center to purchase more and start again – late in the season – the available plants were much larger, and some were already bearing fruit! I never could have guessed then that I’d still be harvesting from those late-season half-price tomato plants on New Year’s Day!

Now it is Epiphany, the understated season following Christmas when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ as the son of God. The tomatoes that surprised me with their abundance throughout Advent and Christmas continue to line our kitchen windowsill and make regular appearances at meals. They are a precious and joy-filled reminder that the mystery of Christmas is not bound by the calendar. The unexpected gift of Jesus, God with us, is not packed away with the Christmas decorations. Jesus, the incarnation of grace, remains with us now and will continue to surprise us. Like Jesus, these tomatoes defied expectations and were not bound by a season on the calendar. And although the plants from which these tomatoes came have died, their fruit keeps on giving. That, in itself, is grace.

While we have enjoyed plenty of fresh sliced tomatoes this year, we have also delighted in the transformation that occurs when the alchemy of herbs, spices, heat, and acid combine to form something new: bruschetta, salsa, pico de gallo, tomato sauce. While tomatoes are essential to each recipe, the other ingredients are indispensable also. What a delicious representation of the community of faith, in which diversity is valuable and essential. When each person shares their unique gifts, we are better together, and we are never the same when one is missing.

Even when the tomatoes are gone, the memory of this unusual growing season will stay with me because these tomatoes have become a means of grace. They served as a catalyst that enabled me to draw near to God and rest in God’s abundant provision in my life during a challenging season. Their gradual ripening is a visible reminder of sanctification, the gradual process of moving toward the wholeness that comes with loving God and neighbor. Most of all, these late-season tomatoes have served as a reminder that when we least expect it and all seems lost, grace will break in again and again to nourish and sustain me when I need it most.

Advent Christmas liturgical seasons

Christmas Eve: Awaken to the Present

Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20

Here we are. It’s December 24, Christmas Eve. The day we have awaited is almost here! Whatever this season of Advent has been like for you, Christmas Eve is here. Tonight, we will celebrate Christ’s birth.

Take a deep breath. Scan your body. What does it feel like? Look around you. Where are you? What feelings do this place and this day evoke in you? As you reflect on this Advent season, what are you aware of? How did you experience God in these weeks preceding Christmas? In what ways were you awakened to God in this season? How are you aware of God right now, in this moment?

I’ll get personal here. My previous Advent reflections were written in October, long before Advent, but this one is being written in real time.

As I reflect on this Advent season, I am grateful. This Advent, I took things slowly. I didn’t do too much. I listened to my body, I paid attention to God, and I focused on what was in front of me. I savored the season of Advent, the gradual buildup to this day. Practicing awakening to God was a gift that helped me to remain oriented in this season.

As I reflect on the themes of awakening to the promise, to expectation, to abundance, and to wonder – I am amazed at God’s grace. This was not an easy Advent season. Our 3-year-old daughter was exposed to COVID at school (but thankfully, did not become ill). My dad was hospitalized in mid-December and will not be home for Christmas. This Advent was full of challenges and concern for loved ones. And yet, each week I was awakened to God in a new way:

Week 1: Awaken to the Promise – As I reflected on God’s promises, I was reminded of God’s faithfulness in bringing comfort and peace when we need it most.

Week 2: Awaken to Expectation – As I awakened to expectation, God’s grace became tangible in the form of roses blooming and tomato plants still producing fruit in December, both totally unexpected.

Week 3: Awaken to Abundance – As I focused on abundance, I was sustained by the generous love and care of friends during a week when it would have been easy to become consumed by scarcity.

Week 4: Awaken to Wonder – As I sought to experience wonder, I was delighted by the gift of play and the creativity of our 7-year-old daughter.

Now that it’s Christmas Eve, I am practicing being present to this day, to what is, not to what I wish could be. I pray that you, also, can be present this day and throughout the entire season of Christmas, to what is…the sacrament of the present moment is God in our midst. And that is exactly what we will celebrate tonight – the birth of Emmanuel, God WITH us.

That statement is in the present tense because Jesus is present, here with us and within us now. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, and our awareness of God with us enables that light to shine even brighter. May you be present and aware, fully awake to God in our midst this day, and in the days to come. And whether through candlelight in the midst of darkness or the sunrise of a new day, may you rest in the reminder that the light is here, in this moment, and will always be. That is the best present that we could possibly ask for.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 4: Awaken to Wonder

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1:46-55

Let’s face it: the story of Jesus’ birth is bizarre, almost unbelievable. It goes like this: God came to earth in human form, as a baby, born in a barn to a poor couple, following a miraculous conception and pregnancy. When he was born, this baby was visited by angels and shepherds and kings from another land. Later, this child grew up to become an amazing teacher with a large following whose death (and resurrection) would change the entire world. This is a difficult story to get behind. Some of the facts are debatable. The details are fuzzy. But it is still true. It is true because we have seen the evidence of the story in our lives and in the world. We are changed by it. That’s why we believe it, and that is why we are so full of wonder at this story. 

Wonder is a sense of awe or amazement at something. Wonder comes upon us when we are astonished at what we see or experience. There are many stories in scripture that evoke wonder in the characters in the stories, or in us, as readers and participants from outside the story. In the Old Testament, the story of Moses and the burning bush comes to mind, as well as the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. In the New Testament, we think of Jesus’ miracles and of the stories of the early church in the book of Acts. But some of the most astonishing things in the New Testament actually came before Jesus’ birth, during Mary’s pregnancy. 

When Mary – a young girl, pregnant and unmarried – went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was old and miraculously pregnant herself, something wonderful happened. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb, who we know as John the Baptist, leaped for joy at Mary’s arrival (with Jesus in her womb) and Elizabeth proclaimed Jesus as Lord – the first person to do so. The vigorous movement of her child within her communicated to Elizabeth that something amazing was happening. Elizabeth was filled with wonder and proclaimed with a loud voice her astonishment at what God was doing within her and within Mary. In response, she blessed Mary, validating and believing her, when possibly no one else had done so. In this story, we get to see the way that God works in the relationship between these two women. Both are experiencing something wonderful (and probably lonely) as they fulfill God’s prophecies in the most embodied way possible: through pregnancy and birth. Their companionship is God’s gift of grace to them.

God is doing amazing things in the world all the time, but we don’t always notice them. When we are on our way to the store or to work or to the doctor or simply at home, God is always present with us. However, we might miss God’s work and the opportunity to be filled with wonder if we are too focused on where we think we will find God instead of looking for God in everything that we do, everywhere that we are. The practices below are intended to evoke an experience of wonder within you in some way, either through experiencing it, as you become more aware and awake to God’s presence, or through remembering an experience of wonder in your past and re-experiencing it in some way in the present. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Look at something tiny with a magnifying glass or microscope or look at the night sky with a telescope. Look closely and reflect on what you can see with that “magnifier” that you could not see without it. 
  2. Create something (art, writing, music, dance, whatever you feel inspired to create!) that exemplifies the word “wonder” as you have experienced it in your life. 
  3. Follow a young child around, at their pace. Do not hurry them or make suggestions. Let the child lead. Do this for at least 15 minutes, but consider challenging yourself to do it for an hour or more. 
  4. Journal about a time in your life when you were filled with “wonder.” Reflect on what that experience was like. Consider what it meant to you then, and what it means to you now. 

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 3: Awaken to Abundance

Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18, Philippians 4:4-7

Perhaps the best way to define abundance is with one word: grace. During Advent we are reminded of the abundance of God’s provision in our lives because of the birth of Jesus, the promised Messiah, who was and is far more than we can possibly imagine or hope for. Grace is the embodiment of God’s love for all humanity. Grace became possible when God came to earth, as a baby, born to a poor couple in a barn. They didn’t have much other than faith, hope, and an amazing ability to trust in God’s promises…but that was more than enough. 

In many ways, the world today is starkly different from the world Jesus was born into. Humans have continued to evolve, in both positive and alarming ways. But we have something in common with first century Palestinians: we often get caught up in scarcity and miss the abundance in our lives. As he prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist called the people to repentance. He urged them to become aware of their abundance instead of focusing on their scarcity, to be content with what they have instead of keeping for themselves what they could be sharing with others. John the Baptist could have been preaching in the 21st century! 

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is easy to feel as though we have too much and not enough at the same time. Often, this is an illusion, a cultural myth that we are encouraged to – literally – buy into. For many of us, our needs are not only met, but exceeded. Yet, it is easy to feel as though we do not have enough. The season of Advent is a reminder that there is enough, we have enough, and we are enough, by God’s grace. We do not need more; we simply need to be aware of the  abundant gift of God’s presence and grace in our lives. 

Some of us may be lacking something: income, a safe place to live, physical/emotional health, or companionship. Others are grieving a significant loss, or have responsibilities that require more time and energy than you have. It is very hard to lack something you need, especially during this season. If this is you: may you experience the abundant gift of God’s love and grace, carrying you through this difficult time, even in the midst of what you lack. 

Take a moment to pause and notice God’s abundant provision for you. Engage in one of the practices below, with the knowledge that there is enough, more than enough – even if you stop and take care of yourself, even if you share what you have with others. Perhaps, in the act of intentionally engaging in one of these practices as an act of resistance to the myth that there is not enough, you will experience abundance in a new way. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Observe the Sabbath. Resist the temptation to claim that you “don’t have time” to stop being productive for an entire day. Just pick a day, practice intentional rest and renewal, and see what happens. (Alternatively, if you want to practice this in “bite-size” form, take a nap. When you feel tired, don’t seek out caffeine, just take a nap.) 
  2. Explore your home and discover what you have an abundance of. Find a way to share with others out of your abundance. 
  3. Volunteer your time/share your gifts in service of others. You could volunteer to serve a local charitable organization, or you could help a friend or family member. 
  4. Journal about what “abundance” means to you. Also consider: what is the opposite of abundance? What does each one feel like? In what aspect(s) of your life are you experiencing abundance right now?

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 2: Awaken to Expectation

Luke 1:67-79, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11

Advent is a pregnant time, full of expectation. In the literal sense, Advent is one of the few times of the year when we engage biblical stories of pregnancy and birth. But it is also a pregnant time because we anticipate and look forward with hope to the birth of Christ and toward God’s promised Kingdom. We remember during Advent that God’s Kingdom is both already and not yet: here on earth in the form of the Christian community, and yet to be fully realized in a future that we hope for with expectation that Christ will come again. 

As we look toward the future, the stories of the past remind us that God rarely conforms to our human expectations. The scriptures we read and study during Advent remind us that God always fulfills God’s promises, but often in the most unexpected ways. That’s what happened to the priest Zechariah, who did not expect that his wife, Elizabeth (who was barren), would be able to become pregnant and bear a child in her old age. Because he did not believe the angel’s words, Zechariah became mute until his son, John the Baptist, was born (Luke 1:18-20, 59-66). It is clear through the prophecy he spoke when he regained his speech that Zechariah encountered God powerfully through this experience, in both expected and unexpected ways.  

We, too, have the opportunity to encounter God in both expected and unexpected ways during this season. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all have expectations for the season ahead. They may be traditions we want to keep, hopes of spending time with loved ones, the desire to avoid something uncomfortable or painful during this season, or the intention to try something new. Whatever your expectations are, and however they unfold during this season, don’t forget to remain awake and aware, looking for the unexpected ways that God is working. While this may be easier when things are going well, the need to cancel or alter plans sometimes has the effect of creating space for something else to happen…perhaps, even an unexpected encounter with God. Pay attention so you don’t miss it! 

You are encouraged to choose a spiritual practice for this week that that is counter-intuitive for you. If you think “I do not expect to encounter God through that…” perhaps that is the practice you should try. Whatever practice you choose, expect to be aware of God’s presence in a new way and allow yourself to be surprised at where and how God is revealed to you. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Do something slowly and intentionally, focusing fully on what you are doing. Examples: eat a meal, drink a glass of water, rock in a rocking chair, observe an animal, fold the laundry, wash the dishes, etc. 
  2. Pray in a way you usually do not. Examples: use prayer beads, try breath prayer, embodied prayer, or praying in color, etc.
  3. Get up early, go outside, and watch the sunrise. Reflect on your experience. 
  4. Journal about your expectations for this Advent/Christmas season. Also consider: How do your expectations align (or not) with God’s promise to send a savior to the world? How have you experienced God at Christmas in the past, in both expected and unexpected ways? 

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 1: Awaken to the Promise

Psalm 25:1-10, Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

During the season of Advent, it is as if time is no longer linear. Instead, time morphs into something that is hard to grasp and even more challenging to describe. We look forward to a birth that has already occurred two thousand years in the past. We read prophetic passages from centuries prior to Jesus’ birth. We read Jesus’ actual words, about the promise of his future coming, as a means of preparation for celebrating Jesus’ birth. We imagine a future that was promised more than two thousand years ago, and we wait with hope for its arrival. Past, present, and future are held together. We remember that God is faithful as we celebrate the already and not yet, promises fulfilled and promises yet to come, that Christ is born and Christ will return. 

But it’s not all about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. Advent is about what God is doing, here and now. It is about the work of God within us, as we remember God’s faithfulness and anticipate the future. It is about being awake to God’s presence with us at all times, in all things. It is about who we are becoming in this season. As we pay attention to God’s work in our everyday lives and in the world around us, God is working within us, changing us from the inside out. 

In Advent, God is doing a new thing. What is that new thing? God is fulfilling God’s promise of making all things new by making us new and remaking us every day, through grace. Another word for that is sanctification. It is happening within each of us and within the community of faith. These are signs of God’s kingdom here on earth, right now. And as we hope for a future that we cannot see, we do so with faith because of the promises God has made. 

You may want to consider choosing a spiritual practice for this week that will enable you to practice awakening to God. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Practice contemplative walking. Take a walk without the goal of exercising or going a certain distance or direction. Walk slowly, being attentive to signs of God’s promises in the natural world and following God’s leading.  
  2. Be intentional as you make plans during this season. As you plan your calendar, make lists, and decide how to spend your time, remember what Advent is for. Be sure to leave room to slow down and practice becoming aware of God’s presence. 
  3. Pray Psalm 25:1-10. Don’t just read it; pray it. Try praying the psalm every day this week. Consider praying it in a different translation each day, to deepen your practice. 
  4. Journal about the word “promise” and what it means to you. How have you experienced God’s promises in the past? How are you experiencing them in this particular season?

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent is here…awaken!

Advent unfolds gradually, like the sunrise each morning. Whether we are awake for it or not, paying close attention or completely absorbed in other things, the sun takes its time to peek over the horizon and rise into the sky. As it rises, the sun brightens the earth and warms the day. Almost imperceptible in the moment, the sunrise ultimately transforms everything the sunlight touches. We cannot do anything at all to rush it along, and we can easily miss it. Each week of Advent, as we move closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we light another candle and a little more light shines into the darkness. It is a slow process, a gradual unfolding that is easy to miss if we are not intentional. We may move through our days without paying attention, or become so focused on December 25 that we neglect to notice what God is doing in the four weeks prior. Each day when the sun rises, it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness and God’s promise to make all things new. Advent, the season that begins a new church year, is also a time of new beginning, full of promise and hope. This Advent, wake up, pay attention, and don’t miss what God is doing in our midst! 

“Awake” or “awaken” is a verb – an action word – that means to wake up, to become active, to become conscious or aware. The season of Advent calls us to wake up and to remain awake, aware, and conscious of God’s work in the world and in our own lives, of the promises fulfilled and the promises yet to come to fruition. Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Christ. As we prepare, God is forming us, sanctifying us, making us new. This season beckons us to be active participants in God’s work, here and now. This is your invitation to practice awakening to God throughout this Advent season, to intentionally practice paying attention and becoming more aware of God’s presence within you, within others, and in the world around you. 

This awareness of God in the present moment, in all things, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, is what the French Jesuit and mystic Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment.” In Wesleyan terms, we would call this awareness of God in the present a “means of grace,” an avenue through which we experience God’s grace. Whatever we call it, the practice of being awake and aware of God is just that: a practice, something to attempt over and over again, each and every day. The change that occurs through this practice will be almost imperceptible in the moment. But like the sunrise transforms everything the light touches, this practice has the potential to gradually transform your entire life. 

Practicing “awakening” will necessitate slowing down and paying attention. While that will look different for each one of us, perhaps it will mean talking less and listening more, or additional time spent in silence. It might mean being attentive to your body and your physical needs. It could mean doing routine tasks with renewed focus or trying new things that are the opposite of what you would usually do. It will likely require being intentional about what you do and what you choose not to do. All of this might be counter-intuitive during this season when our culture encourages us to do more and buy more, to seek novelty and move quickly, all accompanied by a constant soundtrack. The counter-intuitive nature of this practice is precisely why it is appropriate for the season of Advent, when we anticipate the birth of Jesus, who changed the world while defying expectations. May this practice enable us to follow him more faithfully during this season and beyond. 

This is the introduction to a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us.