Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Top 10 Posts of 2011

I'm pretty sure I'm the first one to ever come up with the idea of doing a Top 10 list at the end of the year. I'm hoping it catches on. But, it's been a remarkable year here at Introverted Church, and I do want to revisit the highest visited posts of the 2011. This was the first year I started inviting guest posts and it is been an unmitigated success. So I want to post the top 5 posts that I wrote and the top 5 posts that others wrote.

First, the highest visited posts written by yours truly:

5. Pastors and Honesty This was my response to my friend Rachel Held Evans, who, on behalf of "the congregation" asked pastors to be more honest. My post is a friendly critique of her post and a discussion about some of the hard lessons I have learned in my years in ministry.

4. Why You Can't Express The Most Important Things. I wrote this when I was stuck at home with the flu, watching TED talks. In this post I discuss why it is that the things we feel most deeply are often the hardest things to express. Hint: It's neurological.

3. Why Pastors Should Get Their Heads Examined. This is my appeal for pastors to be in therapy. Our work can tie us in some complicated knots and we need help to unravel them.

2. The Introvert Brand. You might guess that labeling yourself an introvert in such a public way can lead to some caricatures and pigeonholing. So I thought the best way to respond to that is through satire. I think this one will make you laugh.

1. The Writer as Madman and Mystic.  There are pretty much two options for writers - either you find spiritual meaning in your work, or you go insane. There is no middle ground.

And now, for the top 5 guest posts of 2011:

5. A Christmas Snapshot. This is Anne Bogel's post from two weeks ago. You know it's a significant post when it can make the top 5 in that amount of time. Don't miss this one. A picture taken at Christmas reveals a flaw that no one could have anticipated.

4. Ten Tips for Parenting an Introverted Child. This one is by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming (and fantastic) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This was part of our "Introverted Parenting" week. Lots of insightful, practical tips for nurturing your child's introversion.

3. Conflicted at Catalyst. Introverted campus pastor Guy Chmielski reflects on his experiences at a BIG Christian leadership conference.

2. Parenting as Spiritual Discipline Introverted moms Shelley Batdorf and Sarah Winfrey reflect on how parenting opens them up to the transforming work of God, especially in relation to community and hospitality. This post got some major love from Ann Voskamp.

1. Introvert Fantasy Camp. Exhausted from another extroverted camp, future star Aubry Smith envisions the perfect conference for introverts.  

Thanks for an amazing year everyone. The blog's readership doubled in the last year. I really appreciate your visits, comments, and loyalty.

Happy New Year! See you in 2012.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Quiet Peace: In the Middle of the Mess

About the author:  The author is a mother of three who continues to be surprised by God's grace.  This Advent she is counting down the days till she can move to be near her fiance.

Some years it feels like my life is falling apart. Last year was one of those. The holidays were coming, Advent was upon me, and I couldn't focus, couldn't celebrate. It was all I could do to breathe. 

My ex was in jail, awaiting trial for molesting one of our children. At the pretrial hearing he pled not guilty. The county attorney wanted to put two of the children up on the stand to testify against him, children who were already hurting from his abuse, children who couldn't even talk to me about what he had done. If they got up on the stand and refused to testify, chances were good that he would walk. A year and a half of effort would be gone, just like that. There was the possibility that he would try to take the kids and run when he got out of jail. My head was full of worry and my heart was full of fear. I felt as if I were in a thousand tiny pieces, each one in danger of spinning off separately and becoming lost forever. 

But Advent came anyway. 

I observed Advent by turning off electronics. Movies, TV, music, nonessential computer time, all of these were silenced. I had time to think, time to feel, time to spend with my kids...time to experience the anguish that existed inside me. I was supposed to be getting ready for Christmas. But there was no joy in my heart, no eager anticipation. All I could think was that my life was a mess, and I wasn't ready for the holidays to happen. I wasn't ready for Jesus to come. I didn't have anything for Him, only bleak, dark chaos. 

Midway through Advent, more news came. It was mixed, both good and bad. My ex took a plea bargain, which meant that the kids didn't have to get up on the stand, but due to the terms of the agreement, there was a good chance he would be walking out of prison in six years or less, and I had three kids under twelve. There was a real possibility that either he or his family would attempt abducting the children. I was still terrified. The sentencing hearing was set for sometime in January. 

Christmas was coming, the passing of Advent marking the countdown. I didn't want Christmas to come. Not yet, not while I was such a mess. I wanted to have my head clear and my life together. I wanted to be able to celebrate the joy of Christmas. I wanted to observe Advent. But it was all I could do to face another day, to put on a brave face for my kids and not sit down and fall apart. 

One night I sat in the dark, staring at the tree. It was late enough that my mind was running more slowly than normal. The quiet began to seep into my soul, the very same quiet that I had been attempting to avoid all Advent. And then, in the darkness and the quiet, realization slowly dawned. I didn't have to have my life together for Christmas to happen. God came down in the middle of the mess. Jesus was born into a stable, a dirty, smelly place. It was a messy, bloody birth. He came down into my world, my mess, my chaos, and into that disaster He brought Himself. He would be the one to make things right, not me. I didn't have to have everything perfect first. What I needed to do was to open my arms and my heart and welcome him into the mess. I didn't have everything together, but Christmas and Advent were about God coming down to me, not me having a perfect life. 

It turned out to be a beautiful Christmas after all, an island of peace in the middle of all the turmoil. The holiday didn't go perfectly, but God was there. 

If you're wondering, the judge's ruling the next month took us all by surprise. My ex is in prison for a long enough time for my kids to grow up before he gets out. Life is still messy, but it's peaceful knowing that God is here with me. He's not waiting for me to clean up my mess first. He's here in the middle of it. After all, His name is Immanuel, God-with-Us, not God-waiting-for-me-to-clean-up-my-messes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Quiet Peace: Christ with Skin On

About the author: Alissa Goudswaard is an introverted 20-something Episcopalian living in Indiana who, when she is not busy with graduate studies in rhetoric and composition (and even when she is), blogs about her experience as a churched Millennial at episcotheque.  

The day Frederick Buechner’s father died was, for Buechner, “the first tick of the clock that measures everything into before and after,” when his “once-below-a-time ended and [his] once-upon-a-time began”—when he began to live with the knowledge that everything, even he himself, at some moment ceases being. 

My own story lacks such an eloquent or piercing divide, or I don’t yet have the perspective to see it, but I first brushed with mortality, mine and others, as a nine-year-old child. Lake effect snow and slick pavement sent a car careening into the Honda carrying my parents and I home from a visit with friends. A fraction of a second separated safety and normality from disaster.

I remember the smell of burning plastic, of metal, of blood. The confusion of waking up in a cold and broken car with little idea of what had just happened. The kind passers-by who let a little girl stay warm in their car while waiting for the police and EMTs to arrive. The long and uncomfortable ambulance ride with my semiconscious mother, unable to move in my backboard and neck brace as we careened around icy corners, sirens blaring. 

At the hospital, my critically injured mother was brought into emergency surgery and my father taken for examination and treatment. For a few minutes I was the center of a flurry of activity—questions and exams, a pair of pliers to bend straight my cockeyed glasses, a glass of water and children’s Tylenol. Apart from my headache and the sharp tang of blood from a cut lip, I was uninjured, but soon left alone. After settling me in a children’s room with overwhelmingly cheery decor, and someone paged an on-call chaplain to come in to work and sit with me.

I don’t remember much about the chaplain, his age or appearance. I don’t remember the register of his voice, though I know it was kind. I can’t recall his affiliation, or whether he wore a collar. I don’t know if we talked about God, or about what I was feeling. 

I do know we talked about my purple junior bridesmaid’s dress for my brother’s spring wedding, because I was astounded to learn that the chaplain was colorblind, unable to distinguish purple shades from blue. I’d never met someone with this sort of affliction, and lover of color that I was (and am), I felt sad for him, sad that he was missing so much. What I didn’t see then was that, colorblind or not, he saw more than most. On a dark and tumultuous December night, this flesh-and-blood chaplain was, for me, Christ with skin on. There, in the hospital, my very own Incarnation. 

The chaos didn’t end that night. My brother came to the hospital and, in the wee hours, drove my father and I home, but my mother was slow to heal. My grandfather’s health took a dive and less than two weeks after the crash, I witnessed his final breaths on another floor of the same hospital that treated my family. Christmas must have been chaos—days after my grandfather’s funeral, my mother’s hospital bed in the living room. I can’t remember if we had a tree, or gifts, or our traditional Christmas-morning waffles. I imagine my child’s world was utterly shaken, yet as I look back, even all the chaos and confusion and pain can’t dim the warm light of the kindness of strangers.

Like Mary, who amidst the chaos surrounding her son’s wild and painful birth and its resounding aftershocks “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” I keep that quiet moment and return sometimes, rolling it in my hands like a smooth pebble. When all was shadow and chaos around me, I found peace in the most unexpected place. I met Christ seated beside a hospital bed, warding off the dark.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Quiet Peace: Waiting for Peace

About the author: Sarah Plowman does campus ministry at the University of Iowa with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. 

For most of 2011, God has been taking me on a wild ride of inner healing and transformation. Although it has been painful, I've felt more alive this year than I can remember ever feeling before. The work he has been doing is hard, but oh so good. Which is why I was puzzled when the crucible-like experiences all but faded away this fall. In a way, it was as if God went suddenly quiet and still in my personal life. I didn't understand it, but when a co-worker suggested perhaps he is giving me a season of rest after such deep soul work, it made sense. 

What also began to make sense was that a pause from the pain in my own life allowed me to be present to the pain in others. This fall, several of my friends have been experiencing real, raw brokenness and pain in their lives. In the last two weeks, Jesus has allowed me to walk side by side with one of these friends, and in the process, I've learned new things about "quiet peace." 

My friend has battled anxiety for a number of years, and this fall has been particularly hard. I feel small and powerless in the face of years of unanswered questions, confusion, and dead-end paths of possible solutions and cures. I've listened, mostly in quiet and silence, as my friend has shared about trying again and again to find a way out, and yet still remains trapped. 

I know the only true answer is Jesus, and the peace that passes all understanding that guards our hearts and minds in his name. And I fully believe that ours is a God of resurrection, of rescue, a God who, as my favorite Christmas carol says, comes to "...ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here...". Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus' sweet Spirit, the antidote to all the mess in this world. My head knows the answers, and my heart believes them, and yet it's been a challenge these weeks to stand up time and time again in the face of fear, anxiety, and confusion and continue to confidently offer God's peace. 

I've needed to practice a bit of personal rest and retreat in these weeks, too, to ensure that the anxiety my friend experiences doesn't make its home in me as well. I've always loved Advent, and it's been a sweet delight and peaceful refuge to quiet myself in time spent with Jesus next to the fireplace, in the soft glow of the Christmas lights, listening to instrumental piano and guitar music. Or in time spent at night before I fall asleep, sitting on my bed in silence, composing a few lines of poetry in my journal about the nature of stillness and God's peace. 

I long for my friend to experience that peace as well. Like the psalmist, I find myself asking, "How long, O Lord?" ...until this friend is granted the rest and peace found only in you? ...until confusion and anxiety has to flee? ...until you will ransom this captive mind, soul, heart? 

I don't have answers to those questions either. And so I continue into advent, in this my own unique season of waiting on behalf of several friends and their pain. Waiting for the peace Jesus brings. And grateful for the ways he is faithful to continue to complete the good, hard, transformative and healing work he begins in my life and in their lives as well.

A Quiet Peace: Advent Anxiety

About the author: Rhett Smith is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX, and he is on staff as a therapist at The Hideaway Experience (marriage intensive). He is the author of the forthcoming book The Anxious Christian (Moody Publishers, March 2012). He lives in Frisco, TX with his wife, daughter, and son.

There has been an anxious disquiet stirring in my soul the last 10 years as I have approached the Christmas season. I used to enjoy the busy shopping malls and the congested roads signifying that Christmas was upon us. But something began to change in me after I spent three and half months living in Guatemala in 2001. What changed was that I was brought into the mystery of the Lent season, something that was almost a bad word in my Evangelical church upbringing. For many Evangelicals the word Lent hinted too closely with that of the Catholic faith and its practices, so instead, we rushed to Easter Sunday with no thought of the journey that led to the Cross. But after experiencing Lent that Easter in Guatemala I began to feel that I was robbed of something valuable. But it did not end with Lent, as I too began to feel like the “real” meaning of Christmas was now being lost to me in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season.

In his book, Be not Anxious: Pastoral Care for Disquieted Souls, author Allen Hugh Cole Jr. talks poignantly about the “hurry sickness” that pervades so much of our society, as we anxiously run from activity to activity, drowned in the busyness that we create in our lives. As I continually busy myself in the days leading up to Christmas, I’m afraid that I eventually lose out on the “true” meaning that I so desperately am looking for and wanting to embrace in my anxiousness. In the last few years I have come to see my anxiety as a useful reminder that something is amiss. It is God’s way of speaking to me, bringing awareness to the aspects of my life that need more careful attention. So as I enter into the Christmas season, the anxiety that I experience tells me that I am not to speed my life up and become more and more busy, but rather, I am to slow down and give attention to what is truly important. And what is important is that “God with us” calls me to slow down and partake in the quiet peace that He offers.

Advent has served as a helpful correction in my life, bringing into focus the central message of Christmas. That message is that a little over 2000 years ago, God ushered into our anxious lives a quiet peace. It is in that quite peace that I experience the salvation that He has brought. It is an abundant life that is not drowned out by the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season.

This Advent I am working to slow down and enjoy the quiet peace that God offers. And as I slow down and bask in this quiet peace I find that I am much more aware of the truly important things that God wants to offer me this Christmas…time with family…the pure joy on my children’s faces as they anticipate Christmas…the peaceful time with my wife as we talk about life over a cup of coffee. These are just some of the life giving details of my life that I can only experience when I enter into Emmanuel’s quiet peace this Advent.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Quiet Peace: Be Still and Know

About the author: Emily Norman serves as a Director of Christian Education in the Lutheran church, specifically she is currently serving at Grace Lutheran Fellowship in Romeo, MI. 

I really love the Advent and Christmas season, but I really dislike what our culture has dubbed “the holidays.” What I mean, is that I really have an aversion to all the hustle and bustle that comes with the holidays and the insistence that it is all about big, extravagant gifts and being insanely busy. For me, as a leader in ministry, I dread it because the church is not exempt from this consumerism. As an introvert, I dread it even more because it feels loud and chaotic. 

Being a leader in the church, there are many activities that happen during the Advent season. There are Wednesday meals and Advent worship, along with classes for the junior and senior high, as well as children’s church. The big event for the children comes in the preparation for the annual Christmas program. For the last several years, our church has also participated in an event called “A Night in Bethlehem.” As you can imagine, this is not a quiet preparation for Christmas celebration, but rather it’s busy and stressful on all those involved. I find irony in this, because although it brings excitement to our Christmas celebration, it causes chaos rather than peace and only blinds us from a focus on Jesus. 

This year, however, things have changed. Many of the normal activities were cancelled due to the busyness. While in some ways, this is unfortunate, it is a blessing because we can focus our thoughts and prayers on the quiet peace that does exist, though is often hidden, in our Advent preparation. 

More specifically, I have faced some turmoil this Advent season in a relationship, which has caused me to seek God’s peace more fervently. It’s inevitable that we are sinful beings, and in any relationship, tensions will arise. A difficult situation occurred just this week and brought me to the point where all I could do was lay the burden at God’s feet and ask for His peace. 

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:7 

Every year, I long for an opportunity to sit in the quiet and enjoy the coming of Jesus, which is what Advent is all about. This Advent, through a series of unexpected happenings, I was able to participate in worship and really seek not only God’s peace, but the message of hope that comes with it! Just last night the message was entitled, “His peace for our turmoil”. God’s timing is not by chance. 

Psalm 46:10 is churning often in my mind: “Be still and know that I am God.”

“Be STILL…” What does that even look like? How can I do that, when everyone around me is doing the complete opposite? 

It’s always a challenge to not get wrapped up and swallowed by the demanding schedules, shopping lists, party planning, etc…But, it’s amazing to me what happens when I stop and just take in the stillness God provides in the midst of all the hurry. 

“…AND” Well, as least there is more! God could have stopped at us stopping, but then what do we do? We live in a culture where we need a reason for our actions. I’m sitting quietly, but now what? God desires us not just to stop, but to stop and turn to Him. 

“…KNOW that I am God.” Oh, ok! He is in control. But the world around me tells me to “Take control!” How do I combat that mantra? The gods we are worshipping are in the stores and sales and wish lists. But the one true God is bigger and knows us better than anyone can. Our true peace comes from God’s love, not the love of material things. 

I need God’s quiet peace this season. I need to sit in His presence and enjoy the Advent of our Savior. I need to get to know more fully this God that loves me so much that He sent His son into my world. 

The provider of peace has come to us in the most unexpected way: a baby born in Bethlehem. 

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6

A Quiet Peace: In the ICU

About the author: Alina Sato is a pastor's wife and a nurse in a pediatric intensive critical care unit. She finds her solace in quiet days on the sofa with a good book, long walks with her dog, or behind her camera lens. She brings together her love for photography and writing at A Pilgrim's Lens.

When I first found out I’d not only have to work through Thanksgiving but also work Christmas Day, I almost cried. And then I felt oddly relieved. And then I just felt really confused. What exactly do I want out of the Christmas season, and why? 

I am a nurse in a pediatric ICU. Spending Christmas Day with a critically ill child connected to feeding and breathing tubes is a vastly different picture than spending it with family members inhaling a Christmas feast. The sounds of monitor alarms or the eerie, somber quiet of a hospital room would replace the sounds of holiday cheer, Christmas bells, and Christmas Day football. My initial thought in hearing I was working Christmas Day was, “But that’s not how Christmas is supposed to be spent.” 

And then the relief came. 

The relief had to do with more than just realizing that this introvert wouldn’t have to try to keep up with all the chit-chat and over-stimulation that comes with family holiday celebrations. I’ll be honest and vulnerable here. It also had to do with the fact that I wouldn’t have to immerse myself with everyone else in the Christmas Day hustle and bustle, in order to temporarily drown out some of my family's underlying struggles that do not really disappear during the holidays. Rather, I could actually sit with my patient and his/her family in a very real and honest day of reflection about their family’s current struggles, and work with them to find a quiet peace on Christmas Day – for not only themselves, but also for me. Brokenness and all.

Perhaps our struggle in finding a strong and quiet peace during the Christmas season has something to do with a common misunderstanding that peace requires us to live either in avoidance or denial of our brokenness. After all, do we not have a strong aversion to thinking too much about sad topics during the holiday season? We are uncomfortable with people who are grieving for various reasons during the holidays. Our highly indulgent and self-centered American culture feeds and shapes this to a profound degree. As a result, we often fall into the trap of doing what everyone does during this season, and sometimes we struggle to find another way. We eat too much. We shop. We fill our days with activities, but our souls are so often left wanting, and we cannot understand why peace feels so elusive. We are good at throwing holiday parties. We are not so good at providing safe, healing, quiet spaces for those who cannot escape their brokenness. As a result, we, with all our holiday activity, unintentionally and at times unknowingly exclude many friends and family members who are hurting deeply. Sometimes, we exclude our very selves. 

This Christmas season, I hope to allow my brokenness and the brokenness of others to be my guide, and not my barrier, to peace. My guide to our Savior who would bear a cross in order to bring about new life, to bring that strong and quiet peace.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Quiet Peace: The Wordless Word

About the author: Brian Marsh is co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church Missoula, in Missoula, Montana. 
 
‘Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of Love.’ ~Frederick Buechner

it was not a silent night. nor a holy night. all was not calm. all was not bright.

it was a freezing winter’s night in Princeton, NJ. i had moved my family 3000 miles east…far away from the only home i had ever known…uprooted from a community of faith that we loved and a vocational calling in which i thrived. and there i sat huddled in my old La-Z-Boy recliner, clutching a blanket that was failing in its attempt to shield me from the cold that was drifting into our tiny apartment, and through my shivering skin into the cavernous voids in my heart, my psyche, my soul.

the deep darkness of depression that had become an old friend had re-awakened within me…in grieving the loss of all i had left behind in my life in California…in struggling with my sense of self in the absence of any ways of performing professionally, and thereby proving my worth as a person…in wrestling with the old voices of shame and self-recrimination that re-emerge from the depths of my being in times of transition and uncertainty.

but i hadn’t come to talk with my old friend again…my old friend was holding me hostage, ranting and raving at me with a force that shook the old chair in which i was sitting and the battered foundations of the world in which i was living. the tears streaming down my face were the only semblance of warmth to comfort my shaking self, and they turned cold within second of leaving my eyes.

my sobbing must have been quite loud, because after a few minutes, I heard a door from down the hallway gently creak open and the soft patter of footsteps coming towards me. it was my son, Ian, who was four years old at the time. he peered around the corner wondering what was making that strange and sad sound. and seeing me in my disheveled state, he raced over to me, jumped in my lap, wrapped his arms around me, and silently enfolded me in pure, unconditional love.

he didn’t say a word to me…not because he didn’t know what to say, but because he literally couldn’t. Ian has autism, and at that time had no expressive language. but I didn’t need words…i just needed a comforting, accepting, loving presence. and that’s what i got from Ian (and what i get from him every day). his presence to me in that moment was a beautiful and powerful reflection of the One who came to us as a silent, vulnerable little child…a crying comforter, a helpless healer, a language-less lover, a wordless Word that became flesh so that our flesh could become Word.

and so, in the arms of my little living reflection of the wordless Word, the night grew silent and holy…my body and soul were calmed…the darkness was illumined by a tiny shaft of Light…and we drifted off to sleep in heavenly peace.

A Quiet Peace: A Peace That is Coming

About the author: Aubry Smith is a freelance writer and a stay-at-home mom to her two boys in North Carolina. She and her husband, Brady, are currently training for missions among Muslims at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She also blogs at MyOfferings to edify, challenge, and encourage the Church. 

Twelve years ago this week, I stood before the church Advent wreath beside my mother. Diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given mere months to live, she had been asked by our pastor to light the candle of Peace. Clearly undergoing an internal struggle with peace, my mother asked me to do it instead. 

So there I stood, shaking with this candle before hundreds of piercing eyes, full of pity. Pity for this young, dying mother of five children. Pity for the weeping, trembling teenaged acolyte. Pity for the cruel irony of a suffering family lighting a candle of Peace. 

Miraculously, my mother survived the cancer and lives to this day. But the delay of her death did not bring peace. She is not whole. Her personality radically changed, and my father engaged in a string of affairs before leaving her. She now suffers from dementia. She often forgets the names of my children, or that I have children. She is rude and abrasive. Her skull has been riddled with infections and much of the bone has been removed, so that her head is caved in on one side, posing a constant danger from falls. Her finances are a mess, and she is bound to a nursing home. She is constantly in surgery or in the hospital. 

She is no longer the mother who once stood with me before that candle of Peace. 

Sometimes I ask the Lord whether it might have been easier if she had gone with the cancer, as she should have. I wonder whether we would know more peace had she died. No divorce, no heart-wrenching dementia, no back-taxes, no more life-threatening surgeries. Would the pain of a quick death be more bearable than this insufferably long death? 

We pray for peace this Advent because we are a people ignorant of peace. 

It took many years, but I realize now the wisdom in the pastor’s decision to have us light this particular candle. As we celebrate the first coming of Christ, we remember why He came – to make right what sin had broken. Because of Christ, we have the in-breaking of a Kingdom of Peace, which will come to fullness at the Second Coming of the Son. Advent is a season of remembrance, but also a season of anticipation. 

We assume all the wrong things will bring peace. All our lives, we have known death. Betrayal. Lies. Divorce. Insufficiency. Poverty. Suffering. War upon war. We are hopeless, helpless, unable to do enough or be enough. We reach for peace through ceasefires and negotiations, vaccinations and surgeries, generosity and trying harder. But our reach cannot go far enough. We need the Prince of Peace to come to us. 

And He has. 

Advent is a time of quiet peace as all the hope for restoration lies bundled and squirming in a manger. This Immanuel has come to live among us and suffer for us – a people who know suffering well. He has left His Spirit to groan and cry out with us for peace, to empower us to be peacemakers, to be our deposit for perfect peace. 

So if you’re crying out for peace and wondering whether you can truly celebrate the coming of the Christ during a season of suffering in your life, please light that candle of Peace. Be still and wait. He is coming again, bringing life and resurrection. 

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Quiet Peace

12:20AM Saturday morning. 

I hate the sound of my beeper. It's my least favorite sound in the world. I would listen for days to a band called "Fingernails on Chalkboards" if it meant I never had to hear my beeper again. Most people don't even know that beepers exist anymore, but I assure you that every couple of days at least one hospice chaplain has his sleep interrupted by a screaming beeper.

Telecare: "A patient's family is requesting a chaplain visit. The address is..."
Me: "What? Sorry, can you repeat that again? I zoned out for a minute."

 I change out of my flannel pajamas, a 30 minute drive upcoming. The winter winds of Southern California are raging again, gusting at about 50 miles an hour. Semis are struggling to stay in their lanes. The local radio station, playing Christmas music 24/7, spins out "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for perhaps the 700th time this season.

"They'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago."

What does that mean anyway? Who tells ghost stories during Christmas??

It is a steep and dark driveway. At least they could've put a streetlight out here. I am greeted at the door by a a middle-aged man, the patient's son. He is an only child and his mother is dying. She has Alzheimer's and has been in bed for 4 years. His father is still around, but he has emotionally checked-out as a way to cope. There is a hired caregiver who has been with them for the last 4 years, who is also having a hard time watching her die.

I walk back with him to the bedroom to meet his mother. She is propped up in bed, snuggling with a large stuffed monkey, asleep but breathing unevenly. There is a small Christmas tree on the nightstand next to her and a picture of Jesus on the wall behind her. Silent, we watch her sleep for a couple of minutes. I ask the son if he would like me to pray for her. He looks a little uncomfortable but says it's what she would want. Now the caregiver has come back in the room and she looks eager to pray with me.

We gather around her bed and each place a hand on her.

"Father we entrust your servant into your loving hands. We know that you are in charge of life and death, that you have numbered her breaths and the steps she will take. Would you be preparing a place for her with you. Please be speaking into the places of her soul that only you can touch. We don't always understand things about this life. We don't know why death has to come. But we ask for peace. Would you be comforting the family as they keep vigil with her. I ask for the peace that transcends understanding."

Peace. If you call a chaplain in the middle of the night when I'm on call, you're gonna get a prayer about peace. "My peace I give to you," says Jesus. It is as if the future world - the world of shalom - has invaded the present world, and we can live as though it is true already. The experience of the world of no-death is brought to bear on the world that can feel like all-death. But let's not kid ourselves. So much of it isn't true already. We grasp it...but it still slips out of our fingers. We can experience a peace in the midst of grief, but death still comes. Things still aren't right when we watch our loved ones die, when the holidays, supposedly a testament to joy and celebration and comfort, forever become a symbol of loss and emptiness and bittersweet memories. The future world is still mostly in the future.

2:45 AM Saturday morning. 

Wearing my pajamas again, back in bed. Listening to my wife breathing softly. A cat sleeping against my side.

3:00 AM Saturday morning.

Are you kidding me??? I will go outside and skip this freaking beeper across the pool. We'll see what sound it makes then.


Telecare: "We have a death visit for you."
Me: "....."
Telecare: "Chaplain?"
Me: "mmm yeah okay."

I'm taking graveyard shift to the next level. 60 minute drive on a different freeway. The winds are stronger. Debris and branches are everywhere. I think about how Jesus somehow managed to have peace in a boat in a raging storm while the disciples panicked. He could not only still the storm; he could rest in the storm.

God I miss my bed. When I get home again I'm going to hug it and tell it how much I love it. I'll promise I'll never leave it again.

I end up in the exact same neighborhood that my wife's office Christmas party was the night before. What are the odds? I knock on the side door of the nursing home, startling the night nurse. The family of the patient has just arrived and we are waiting on the mortuary.

The family is Korean and I greet the son and the wife of the patient. The wife doesn't speak much English. They are anxious and they pepper me with questions about the arrangements and what to do next. But they have taken care of everything. The son pauses long enough for me to ask how he is holding up. He chokes up for a second, eyes becoming red. He composes himself and tells me that he feels mostly relieved.

"I've been coming here every day for the past few weeks and my father was in pain. He was struggling to breathe. It was so hard to see. He just wasn't himself anymore. I'm so relieved he's not suffering anymore."

"Don't get me wrong. I've just lost my daddy."

There is a cross, with a heart in the middle of it, sitting by the patient's head. The family is Christian. We pray together, I pass on my condolences, check in with the charge nurse to make sure they have everything they need, and then I get in my car once again.

It is common for family members to feel relief when someone in pain dies. To sit and watch someone you love suffer is sheer agony. But that relief is temporary and is quickly replaced by sadness. That relief is not true peace.

People often define peace by the absence of other things - of war, strife, internal conflict. But if we wait for the absence of those realities in order to have peace, we will be waiting a very long time. My whole profession is built on the hard reality that the emptiness will come and the storms will rage. We will experience tremendous loss. The caverns in our souls will be so wide that we will wonder how anything could possibly fill them.

No, peace is not the absence of things. Peace is what fills the absence.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Quiet Joy: Waiting with Mary

About the author: Peter Stevens is a seminary student and adjunct teacher at at Lincoln Christian University where he's finishing his Masters in Christian Education. He interns in the Community Group ministry at Jefferson Street Christian Church. He blogs about books and life at his blog Life, the Universe and Everything.

When I hear the word joy, I don’t always think of quiet. Rejoicing does not bring to mind pictures of serene settings or quiet nights by the fire. I think of the excitement of making the grade, the winning team rushing the field, or friends singing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. Joy around the Christmas season is no exception: there are carolers, flashing lights, TV specials, children ecstatic about gifts, commercials, etc. On the surface, a person could easily get the idea that joy in the season of Advent comes through shopping, exchanging gifts, parties, music, and a little bit of eggnog. The Advent season has been packed so full of celebrating the joy of Christmas, that the quiet joy of Advent doesn't get to see the light of day. There is no time for reflection, quiet, or rest. By the time Christmas actually roles around, the introverts like me are hoping to be snowed in for twelve days just to recuperate.

The joy found in Advent is different the joy of Christmas. Advent is a time of anticipation. It builds over time until it finally is able to come to fruition on Christmas morning. As the youngest of four and the uncle of 14 nieces and nephews, I know what it is like to have a house full of family during the holiday season. It is a wonderful time with a lot of eating and celebrating, but my wife and I typically spend the majority of Advent waiting to see them because we live far away from most of our family. Each Advent season is filled with the anticipation of the time when we get to go a celebrate Christmas with our family. We spend the season reflecting on the memories of the past Christmases and anticipating the joy of the upcoming celebration with family. Gifts are bought and made with the anticipation of what kind of joy they will bring.

It reminds me of Mary's joy that Luke describes in his Gospel. When she saw her little baby boy being worshiped and honored by shepherds, she treasured it in her heart. I’m sure that this memory also reminded Mary of what Gabriel said when he appeared to her. He told her that her son would sit the throne of David and that his kingdom would never end. Even though Mary did not know exactly what this entailed, I think we can assume these memories were a joy to her in the quiet moments when she thought about her son and waited for the fulfilling of Gabriel’s prophecy. In this time of Advent, I think that we ought to take the posture of Mary.

The quiet joy of advent anticipates that time when we will be in the presence of our King. It reminds us of the time when we will see the prophecy of revelation come to pass with our own eyes. For now we spend time in the spiritual presence of God. Even though we are not able to be in the physical presence of God like we can be in the presence of our family, we still live in the presence in his spirit. Like Mary, we have opportunity to fill our hearts with moments spent with God as we too wait for the final revealing of the same kingdom promised by Gabriel. These will become a storehouse of Joy that will one day overflow into joyful celebration at the return of our savior knowing that Advent is finally over.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Quiet Joy: Inwardly Expressive

About the author: Cynthia is the mother of two little boys, an inquisitive preschooler and an energetic toddler. She blogs at The Hippie Housewife, where she shares her thoughts on attachment parenting, natural living, life as a Jesus-follower, and more, all tied together through her journey towards a more intentional life.

I remember being sad. I was so unbearably sad, and yet there were no tears. I berated myself for the lack of visible emotion; what was wrong with me? Everyone else at the funeral was crying.

I remember being happy. I was blissfully happy and felt at peace with the whole world. My blissful calm was shattered with a single comment from a random stranger: "Cheer up, love, it can't be that bad!"

I remember being excited. Oh, I was excited. I tried to show it, but it felt forced, fake. The bearer of good news noticed as well. "I thought you'd be excited about this."

Always the refrain: What is wrong with me? Why am so woefully inexpressive? I feel so deeply on the inside but it just doesn't show on the outside. A fault, a flaw, a personal shortcoming. How hard can it be to just show what I am feeling?

Fast-forward several years. Time has, as it so often does, brought both perspective and a sense of peace with the way God has created me. There is no need for me to force an outward expression of what I am feeling on the inside. I have discovered that the more I acknowledge this, the more free I am to feel fully, not concerned with convincing others of my feelings but simply embracing those feelings as they come. This is how I feel, and I need not prove it to anyone.

And then - greater discovery, greater joy! - those around me stopped questioning. The fullness of my inward emotions radiated outward, not in the usual expressive manner but in a quieter, gentler way. I am not crying but you can feel my sadness. I am not giddy but you can feel my peace. I am not squealing but you can feel my quiet joy.

This is how I will be observing my Advent. There will no loud fanfare, flashy holiday trappings, or crowded parties. Instead I will seek, as I do each year, to keep Advent focused, simple, and intentional. There will be joy - oh yes, great joy! - but it will my own God-graced brand of quiet joy.

I am, at long last, at peace with this. There is no shame in this quiet joy of mine, no reproof necessary. My joy is known by God and it brings Him pleasure and glory. I will never be the expressive one, wearing my emotions on my sleeve, but I have my own gifts to offer others: a soothing calm, and inward peace, and yes, a quiet joy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Quiet Joy: Quiet Church

About the author: David Hansen is a Lutheran pastor at a rural congregation in Brenham, TX. This year he started the Occupy Advent movement, using social media to encourage people to slow down and simplify during the season of Advent. Follow his personal twitter account @rev_david.

A crowd cheering in a stadium.
My daughter, jumping up and down and squealing with happiness.
A raucous worship service, full of energy and enthusiasm.

The images that come to mind when one thinks of “joy” are generally quite loud. It is easy to imagine being quietly hopeful, or quietly peaceful – but the idea of being “quietly joyful” seems to be an oxymoron.

As we enter into the third week of Advent – traditionally the week of “Joy” – images of loud celebrations surround us. But even in joy, we can find a place for quiet and introspection – a space for Quiet Joy. In fact, perhaps quiet ways of savoring joy would allow us a fuller experience of this third week of Advent.

Five and a half years ago, I was ordained as a pastor. I had spent years preparing for this day, all my family and many of my friends had gathered to take part in the celebration. Few moments in my life match that one for sheer joy.

In the moments before the service was to begin – the local clergy who were taking part were gathering together, laughing and sharing stories. Joining with them would have been one way to express my joy – but that was not where I went. My family was in the parish hall, gathered from all over the country, greeting one another after long journeys. Yes, spending time with my family as they talked and laughed also would have been a great way to express my joy – but that was not where I went either.

Instead, I went to my office – away from the noise of the sanctuary, the laughter of the parish hall, and the conversations of the sacristy. I found the one quiet place in the church, the one place where I could turn down the volume. And there, in the quiet of my office, I simply let the joy of the day wash over me. No distractions from others, no background noise, no interruptions. Just me, and the joy of that day.

I’m sure I said a prayer of thanksgiving while there alone – I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember is being there in the quiet, and how wonderful it was to simply allow that joy to wash over me.

As we draw close to the Christmas, there are certainly examples of boisterous joy in the Nativity story. Angels singing from the heavens. Livestock providing a background soundtrack. Shepherds running in from the fields.

And there in the midst of it, there is one who quietly stops – perhaps the one who has the best idea of what this birth truly means. In midst of the rush and noise of the Christmas story, Mary listens to the story from the shepherds, watches her child, and as Luke tells, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

No shouts of joy. No words of wisdom to share. Unlike when she visits her cousin Elizabeth and bursts into spontaneous song, Mary simply stopped and pondered all these joyous events.

In this holy season of Advent, we too are called to quiet joy. As the world around us erupts in loud celebrations – Christmas parties, holiday songs, and shouts of joy – we are called with Mary to tune out some of the noise of life; to slow down and let quiet joy wash over us. As we prepare for the coming of Emmanuel, we too treasure all these things, and ponder them in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Quiet Joy: A Christmas Snapshot

About the author: Anne is an INFP and total Christian education nerd, and she muses about the complexities of being a woman in the modern world over at her blog Modern Mrs Darcy. You can find her on twitter at @ModernMrsDarcy.

It was springtime when I started to feel the stirring: a building sense of expectation, excitement. I felt like I was getting ready for something. I felt foolish to say the words—even to myself--but I felt like God was preparing me. For what? I had no idea.

That summer, I sheepishly confided this to my husband. To my surprise, he said he felt it too. It was exciting time. We were so hopeful about what lay ahead.

Soon I was pregnant with our second child—was it the baby in my womb lending a special weight to this time? We were in the midst of a hard season—was God leading us to sunnier days?

The weather turned colder, and we were still … waiting. As Christmas drew near, we eased into the rhythms of the church calendar. I have always loved the Advent season, with its hushed waiting, contemplation, pondering. Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel has always been my favorite carol, with its beautiful, haunting longing, and its call to “Rejoice, rejoice!”—but in a minor key.

Our little boy—our firstborn—was nearly two that Christmas, chubby and towheaded and absolutely giddy at our Christmas celebration with the whole extended family. Nearly-two is such a fun age at Christmastime: climbing into the cardboard boxes, happily playing in piles of torn-up gift wrap, oblivious to expensive toys.We snapped a million photos to remember the day, because they grow up so fast….then we drove home, exhausted, and plopped our spent baby into bed.

The next morning, we got a phone call: A family member had already begun photoshopping the Christmas photos, and his camera had captured something in our son’s face the naked eye couldn’t see. Plenty of his photos looked perfectly fine, but there was one that concerned him. He wasn’t sure what it meant, exactly, but he knew it wasn’t good.

I called my doctor, feeling a bit foolish. I thought he’d tell me I was crazy: it’s just a Christmas photo.Instead, he said, “I’ll get you in right away.”

This can’t be that big a deal…right? Not necessarily.
At least we caught it early… right? Not necessarily.
Several days later, we hear the words: Cancer. Stage five.
How many stages are there? Five.

Several days later we’re sitting post-op with the world-class oncologist in the far-off city, who tells us it’s nothing short of a miracle that we caught the cancer when we did. It presented so unusually that the odds of a routine check-up catching it were slim.

She asks again, “It was a photo?”
I tell her again, "a Christmas photo."
“Sounds like a Christmas miracle to me. The odds look very good for your son.”

Nearly seven years later, he’s doing well, with no signs of recurrence. Cancer has its complications, of course: there are secondary cancers and scars and nuisance side effects. But he’s doing great, living the life of a normal 8-year-old. And yet, the Christmas season is tangled up with cancer in my mind.

We now have four kids and the joy, excitement and anticipation of a coming Christmas can be overwhelming, at least to your ears. And this year we have another nearly-two-year-old and it’s just as much fun with our fourth as with our first. But there’s more to our Christmastime now. There’s a shadow. Our old Christmas photos leave us with lumps in our throats and new ones are closely inspected, not just looked at. And I continue to struggle with the daily realities of my son’s medical history—the constant reminders that cancer sucks and it’s a fallen world. They remind me that I am still waiting.

Christ was born on Christmas Day—Rejoice!—but he is also coming back. And so we wait.

Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel isn’t just a song for the Advent season. It’s a song for today. For everyday.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Quiet Joy

Of all the themes of this series on "A Quiet Advent," the one that would seem the loudest is joy. It is not hard to capture peace, hope, and love in quiet terms and images, but joy feels like an explosive quality, one that would cause you to throw your arms in the air and shout, laugh out loud, jump in the air. There is something about joy that wants to move outward.

I wonder, though, if the proper understanding of joy in the Christian life, is less like the explosion of a volcano and more like the steady heat of lava flowing underground, invisible yet unstoppable. Yes, there are the mountaintop moments, but most of our rejoicing is a steady, bubbling, subterranean reality.

The reason I am a day late in writing this post is because I just returned from my wife's grandmother's funeral in Virginia. There family members reassured one another that the death of a 91-year-old woman was not only a time of grieving, but also a time of rejoicing. If that is true, it is certainly not an outward rejoicing, because this woman's death has left a gaping absence. She was a truly wonderful woman, steadily optimistic, generous, and kind, and always crackling with one liners that would startle you with their raw humor. Any true joy at her funeral was quiet, reflective, and incomplete.

The book of James continues to shock us with this line: "My brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of various kinds, consider it all joy." The imperative to look at suffering and rejoice just seems absurd. James proposes that pain and joy are not opposites; they can co-exist, but joy is the more powerful. And when I think about it, I realize that all joy takes place in the context of suffering. Suffering may not always be the immediate context of joy, but anytime we rejoice we declare ourselves as malcontents in a broken and dying world, protestors of a humanity that wars against itself and against the earth. Joy's life always seems to pulsate in death's grip. Because true Christian joy must take the reality of suffering seriously, it would seem that the nature of our joy in this life would be quiet, streaming beneath the surface, waiting for the opening when it will finally swell up and overflow.

In the northern hemisphere we celebrate Advent as the darkness of December encroaches, the days becoming shorter and shorter through the month. We reflect that the entrance of the Christ-child came into a dark world. We are reminded that the world, and our hearts, are still dark places. But joy slips quietly through the dark evenings, unseen but always moving forward, rushing toward the climax of the season. If we press our ears to the ground, we might be able to hear her.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Quiet Love: Busy Hands, Quiet Heart

This is the fourth guest post in A Quiet Love, the second week of the A Quiet Advent series.

About the author: Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer, editor and mother of three living in West Hartford, CT. Her forthcoming book on the ethics of reproductive and genetic technology, titled No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction, will be published by Westminster John Knox Press in January 2012. She writes primarily about faith, motherhood, disability, and ethics, and blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Confession: Every time I come across advice from a fellow Christian urging us to slow down during Advent, I am tempted to do an exaggerated, teenager-ly eye roll. Sometimes I actually do the eye roll. And throw in a heavy sigh for dramatic effect. To me, admonitions to shun holiday season busy-ness in favor of quiet and stillness, while well-intentioned, communicate a willful ignorance of just how much preparatory work even a relatively simple Christmas requires. I assume that most Christians today, unlike the Puritans, think that the birth of our savior merits a celebration. I assume that most Christians enjoy a special Christmas meal, treats made from cherished family recipes, gazing at a twinkling tree in a firelit room, a few thoughtful gifts under that tree, a few more gifts purchased for those who can’t fund their own Christmas, maybe a pageant populated by adorable angels and sheep. I wonder how all that celebrating is supposed to happen if we’re also supposed to spend Advent pruning our to-do lists and slowing down.

My friend and editor Jana Riess describes a similar phenomenon when writing about her attempts to keep a traditional Jewish Sabbath in her excellent new book Flunking Sainthood. Jana writes:

"As I live through the month of Sabbaths, I have a bone to pick with Rabbi Heschel. I find his book The Sabbath beautiful, but…nowhere does Rabbi Heschel write about practical things. Like, say, eating. Food is a huge part of a lovely Shabbos celebration, but the book takes it for granted that such feasts are effortlessly prepared by unseen kosher elves…So either: 1) Cooking is not work…,or 2) Someone else is shopping, planning, chopping, stirring, baking, and cleaning up afterward. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’d be willing to wager that this someone’s name is Mrs. Heschel."

I am unapologetically busy during Advent—busy, but rarely frantic or pressured. My hands are busy, but my heart abides happily in the expectant hush of Advent. That’s because nearly every Christmas preparation I undertake points toward (in Charlie Brown’s words) “what Christmas is all about.”

I string lights on our shrubs because, when I come home after a tedious afternoon of carpooling weary kids, I get a little zing of joy upon seeing my same old street transformed into a cheerfully lit wonderland. I’m reminded that God is not only our light in the darkness, but also has a way of transforming what is ordinary (a baby, a cattle stall, a weary heart) into something unexpected, delightful, extraordinary. I bake dozens of Christmas cookies to offer to my family and give as gifts, because preparing and sharing food are fundamental acts of community and care. I cheerfully shop for gifts for a limited number of people (children, husband, parents) because I see lavish, thoughtful gift giving as a reflection of God’s most lavish gift to us—himself. My careful (and OK, slightly compulsive) planning of who gets what arises from the idea that loving people well requires knowing them well—what they love, what they hate, what they need, what inspires them, what bores them silly. The link between love and knowledge is a theological notion: God’s love is intertwined with God’s intimate knowledge of who we are, the good and the bad, because God created us and chose to became one of us. So I don’t troll the aisles of Toys ‘R Us impulsively throwing toys into my cart, or wander the “gift” displays at chain stores hoping to be inspired. I choose gifts deliberately based on what I know of the recipients.

Sometimes the work of making room for God is internal and still—silence, prayer, study. And sometimes it is outward and active—preparing the sanctuary for worship, preparing the home for Sabbath, and preparing for Christmas. One of my favorite lines in the Book of Common Prayer is in the prayer after communion: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage 
to love and serve you
 with gladness and singleness of heart.” When I decorate the tree with Christmas carols blasting on my iPod, pack a box of homemade cookies for a child’s teacher, and go from store to store searching for a particular gift that my child didn’t ask for but that I know she will love, I do so with gladness and singleness of heart. I know why I’m doing it, and I choose to do it out of love, not obligation. These practical preparations are just as vital to my Advent observance as early-morning prayers and the lighting of Advent candles.

There are no Christmas elves to perform the many tasks that precede a joyfully observed Christmas. There is only us—our busy hands, our expectant hearts, both preparing to welcome the long-awaited, incarnate love of God, both necessary for knowing that love more deeply and sharing it more widely.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Quiet Love: Lovely Christmas

This is the third guest post in A Quiet Love, the second week of the A Quiet Advent series.

About the author: Jen Justice enjoys a simple life in Atlanta with her husband Josh and little dog Ammy. She writes about faith at To Be a Gazing Soul, about simplifying gluten/dairy free food and other things at A Simple Home, and about everything above and more on Twitter @jen_justice.

I live in Georgia where the winters are mild, but there is still a chill in the air during this season. And when that chill comes, it brings with it a change in my emotional climate. I admit it: I love Christmas time. It's cliched, but at Christmas time everything seems a little more lovely. We become a little kinder, a little less self-absorbed, a little more generous. It's become fashionable to be cynical about Christmas. But I still see such beauty, hope, and love in the season.

Right about now you might be thinking, "Wow, she is naive." But stick with me for a moment. I know that modern Christmas "love" is known for being showy and commercial, stressful and chaotic—anything but quiet, anything but peaceful, and quite contrary to the Silent Night we sing about. And yet, under all the commotion, I see hearts and minds quietly being drawn to the true way of love.

This week, my husband and I were discussing our ignorance of the meaning of Boxing Day, a Canadian holiday. I guessed it referred to the sport of boxing and my husband guessed it related to boxing up Christmas decorations. We discovered that the boxing was actually boxes of goods to be given to charity or service people. Today, in Canada and a few other countries, Boxing Day is much like the U.S.'s Black Friday. A day that used to be designated for giving to those in need is now used for shopping sprees.

Our nature is to turn any occasion into a benefit for ourselves, but somehow—by God's grace—at Christmas, many of us spend on our efforts on giving rather than only getting. For a season the other person becomes more important than ourselves. The Red Cross reports that the majority of Americans plan to give to charity this holiday season, even during a slow economy, just as they did last year. 

This might not seem like much, and in comparison to what Christ has done for us, it is indeed a weak, small type of love. And yet, I find it beautiful that during the season that we celebrate God coming to earth as a man, He gives us the grace to step a little closer to being the loving men and women He created us to be—all of us, believers and unbelievers. To me, considering the true nature of humanity, this is nothing short of a miracle.

It's my hope that in the midst of the busyness of shopping and parties and performances this advent season, we will be able to take a second look at the whirlwind and find glimpses of the love that this season draws out of those around us: The hostess who cheerfully shares her home with friends and family, the teacher who spent hours helping children learn a play, the family who is out buying toys for children in need, the hands that decorated your world so beautifully for the season. Small acts of love surround us during this merry season and give us a glimpse of the world of love to come.

As we turn our eyes to see the love that surrounds our Savior's birth, I pray that we would grow in our love toward humankind. Instead of growing in bitterness and cynicism because sinful humans still act greedy and selfish, I pray that we would rejoice in every act of goodwill. As we await the coming of our Savior, may we be a people marked by love—not only giving love but having eyes that see love in unexpected places.

"whatever is lovely...think about such things." Philippians 4:8 

I wish you all a lovely Christmas.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Quiet Love: A Difficult Decision

About the author: Letitia Tappa is a blogger, graphic designer, and soon-to-be veterinary assistant. She lives in Edmonds, Washington with her husband, 2 teenaged kids, and an ever-changing assortment of animals. She blogs about parenting teens for Examiner.com, and about her life surrounded by animals.

We live in a loud society. There is little space for peace and quiet unless you live in a rural area. In the suburbs, there is the atmospheric noise of an overhead jet, the traffic on a nearby street, or the neighbor’s dog. People too, seem to have developed the habit of loudness. Maybe it’s because we feel unheard, or because we live in a noisy world. We have what I call “yelling shows”, where what starts as a civil discussion ends up in yelling, usually all participants at once. Talk shows from all political angles are equally guilty of this behavior. Is this the love that Jesus asked us to show one another? And is love a loud feeling or behavior?

Everyone has heard… Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34, NIV), but what does this mean? Is Jesus talking about people who do not share our political viewpoint? Is Jesus talking about North African dictators and serial killers? Perhaps Jesus’ point in all this is that we humans are all flawed sinners. He left us many parables illustrating how sin is human and forgiveness is what is expected of us if we are to expect forgiveness for ourselves. This forgiving love is not a loud, boastful behavior, as Paul tells us ("If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" I Cor. 13:1, NIV). It is a quiet pause of the soul, a decision to love instead of hate and to take the higher road, the narrower path. So how exactly does one love the dictator or serial killer? Perhaps by praying for the person’s soul, and remembering that they like we, are a flawed human being, maybe more so than ourselves. Perhaps we do not cheer when s/he is executed, but rather pray for the victims and their loved ones. Perhaps we quietly show love instead of a vengeful celebration of another person’s death.

This is easier said than done. How would you possibly do this if your loved one was the victim of the dictator or killer? Most of us would certainly choose revenge, injuring ourselves too in the loud bitterness and anger that would most certainly wash over a person in that situation. But we are taught that love can quiet the heart and soothe the soul. I don’t know how the Amish community chose love instead of revenge when 10 little girls were gunned down while at school, in cold blood (5 survived the shooting). It seemed almost super-human to the rest of us, but the Amish have it right: it is what God requires.

But what happens when there is injustice in the world? Shouldn’t we speak out? I’m thinking recently of the Occupy protests taking place around the world. Do these exhibit quiet love? People will disagree about this. But nonviolent protest certainly can exhibit quiet love. It means not berating the police officers. It means that you are choosing the loving way to point out injustice, similar to the way a parent would correct a child, with discussion and by example. It means not engaging in yelling matches and name-calling with the opposition. It means understanding that your quiet presence and your quiet refusal to leave can be as loud as any other behavior you might exhibit. But this also comes at a cost, as nonviolent protestors of the past have discovered. It may require your own sacrifice to pain and suffering, or the indignity of being arrested and mistreated, sometimes to the point of death, as Jesus and many others throughout history have discovered.

This advent season, consider: what is quiet love? What does it mean to conduct yourself as a human sinner among other human sinners? Who have you seen exhibiting this quiet love, even in the midst of strife? There are many examples. It is not our natural way, by any means. But it is the better way, the required way as God teaches us repeatedly. To Christians this advent season, God’s most memorable lesson in quiet love came by way of an infant boy, born quietly in a stable into our loud and calamitous world. It’s a lesson that I’m not sure we have learned yet.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Quiet Love: Quiet Witness

This is the first guest post in A Quiet Love, which is the second week of the A Quiet Advent series.

About the author: Chris Brown is an organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room , a PC(USA) new church development in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. He's also a barista at the 61C Cafe and an STM student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He blogs at Poiesis Theou and for the House of St.Michael the Archangel.

The first evangelist I ever encountered was my grandmother, Catherine, but I didn’t recognize this fact until years after she passed away.  Gram, as I called her, was a quiet and strong woman, widowed only a few months after I was born.  She was also an introvert, I’m fairly certain, a trait that showed itself in her early life’s vocation as an English teacher and her enduring love of reading.  Much of my childhood was spent at her house, playing wiffle-ball with friends her backyard, practicing for my piano lessons on her piano, and watching television on her big TV.  My games with friends and music practice delighted her, no matter how loud we were outside or how many sour notes my fingers struck on the keys.  I remember learning to play a simple version Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on her piano. One change in notes kept sounding wrong to me and I became more and more frustrated, to the point that I started crying.  Patiently and gently she reassured me that I was playing the right notes and encouraged me to keep trying. She was simply grateful that I was learning to make music, and was more than willing to overlook any mistakes.

Gram was a woman of faith, the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor.  For many years she served my hometown church as an organist, a choir member, and a Sunday school teacher.  This explains her shock one day when she learned that I, her then middle-school-aged grandson, had never memorized Psalm 23.  I rarely went to Sunday school, and my parents rarely spoke about faith at home, so it never occurred to me as a child that there was any reason to memorize scripture.  I just thought church was what we did for an hour on Sunday mornings.  But in her quiet way Gram was always bearing witness that there was more to faith than that. 

I’m sure Gram prayed, and I believe that my present faith and vocation now are fruit of her prayers.  She never preached to me, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t proclaim gospel. In fact, she was a remarkable example of the way God uses the gifts he’s given introverts to share the good news of Christ. In her home, she created an environment of hospitality which made room for others to encounter God and each other. As she was losing her sight in her later years, she opened her home to host a support group for others with age-related macular degeneration. When I was a child, I was always welcome at her house after school, and cookies (homemade meringue and chocolate chip) were always available in plenteous supply. 

Holidays, however, are the clearest memories I have gospel hospitality at Gram’s house.  Every Christmas Eve, our family would gather at her home after the evening service at our small town’s Presbyterian church.  Once situated in her living room, we would listen to a recording made in the 1950s of my great-grandfather (Gram’s father) reading the Christmas story from Luke 2.  Those evenings were my first hint that the birth of a tiny baby in Bethlehem was cause to sing “Joy to the World.”   

Gram passed away in November of 2002. At her funeral, I read John Milton’s sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”.  The poem expresses Milton’s frustration with his own blindness by asking whether God will require the same work of him as someone who possessed full sight.  But then comes the turn, speaking truth and reassurance: “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state / Is kingly.  Thousands at his bidding speed / and post o’er land and ocean without rest: / They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Gram never tried to force faith upon me, but she did quietly plant many seeds in my life that bore fruit much later.  At times she appeared only to “stand and wait”, but she stood in faith and waited with the same hope we celebrate each Advent.  God used her patience and grace to show me proof of the story of Incarnation we heard recited every Christmas Eve.  And I will forever be grateful for the grace shown to me through her quiet love. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Quiet Love

"But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me." 
                                                             - Psalm 131

Even though my wife and I don't have children, my Advent reflections continually turn to the themes of pregnancy and parenthood. After all, the Christmas season centers on a birth, and we can read the Advent season as the birth pangs of waiting for delivery, and deliverance. My friends with children have testified to the exhilaration, the hope, and the anxiety of such a time. Life on the outside becomes quiet, as the mother-to-be becomes less mobile, but life on the inside is deafening, as anxious parents anticipate the first wail of their newborn child and the new life that will change theirs forever. 

My mind this week turned to Psalm 131, especially the line above. The verse moves us a couple of years beyond pregnancy and birth to the image of a young child, nestled in the arms of her mother. My Old Testament seminary professor suggested that this Psalm was written by a woman, the "me" of the verse who holds her child and finds a metaphor for her quieted soul.  As her child rests on her, contented and at peace, so does her soul rest in the motherly compassion of the Lord.

What a peaceful scene, you say. What a beautiful display of intimacy, you think. That is what I want my soul to resemble this Advent, you vow. But there is another thing you need to know about this Psalm. It is a "Psalm of Ascent," which is a song that was sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem. In a post-exilic reality, faithful Jews who lived outside of the land would caravan to the city on the hill for festivals and celebrations. As they went they would sing the ascent songs - Psalms 120-134 - anticipating their homecoming, distracting themselves from their sore feet and legs, staving off boredom, warding off wild animals and potential thieves.

This picture of a satisfied and beloved child is not situated in front of the Christmas tree, illuminated by a crackling fire, the aromas of turkey and pie wafting through the air. The woman and her child are in the elements, exposed, on a journey. This is quiet love on the move, intimacy with places to go and people to see.

It turns out that the picture is even more fitting for our Advent celebration than we thought. Even as we seek to reduce the clutter of the season, there is still much to do, but our souls need not mirror the external anxiety of the culture. Our challenge is to find the quiet place in our souls, carried by the Lord, as we move through the season.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Quiet Hope: Hard Won Hope

This post is the fourth guest post in "A Quiet Hope," which is the first week of our season-long series called A Quiet Advent.

About the author: Melissa Anne Wuske (melissaannewuske.com) is a freelance writer and editor in Cincinnati. She's also the introverted wife of an extroverted youth minister.

Kathy's been teaching me about hope for years. She's a few decades older than many of the women in our Bible study, so she quickly became our unofficial matriarch. Her voice always reassures us when we were lost in the uncertainty of bad bosses, singleness, and starting families. She tells us assuredly, over and over—"God is using your lives."

Over time she's become more to me than just our group's mom. We're friends. We share hope together. As I dated and married my husband and she watched he children take hold of godly adult lives, we've marveled together at God's work. Through our doubts and frustrations, she shows me how to look ahead with hope. Without fail, she senses my weary weeks, when I would've rather stayed home from church. She can see through the facade I put up—and she simply offers me a hug.

Kathy's hope has taken a quieter, more urgent turn this year. She's been battling brain cancer that has taken away much of her sight and hearing, and at times, her ability to walk. In her sensory deprived world, she seeks the coming of Christ with an earnestness that astounds me.

She's braved radiation, chemo, numerous hospital stays, and every X-months-to-live ultimatum doctors could throw at her. She is always smiling—always. For a while she was in a nursing home bearing burdensome weeks of rehabilitation, but every time I visited she managed to cheer me up, asking about my life and what she could pray about for me—"I have lots of time to pray." My mom even walked in one day to find her reading her large print Bible one word at a time with a magnifying glass. Even now, back at home, her vision and hearing won't allow her to identify people coming into the room, but she just smiles, waves, and says hi when they walk in.

She speaks boldly about her future. She's talks about days post-chemo when she'll go to her daughter's and son's weddings next summer. She's eager for the day when she'll be well enough to go back to work. She speaks even more brazenly of the power of her God. I know few people who are as sure as Kathy is that their prayers are heard. She trusts unwaveringly in God's healing power. She's sure of God's work here on earth and she's even more sure of his power in the next life. Sometimes my instinct is to temper her hope, to tell her it's okay not to fight so hard, but who am I to try to rob her of her drive, to tell her that her Christ-rooted hope is just too audacious. (I don't think it'd be possible anyway.)

Her brand of quiet yet intense hope speaks to my introverted way of seeking Christ. She reminds me of my dependence, even when I try to choose isolation. My need for others should increase my hope in Christ instead of causing me to mourn the loss of my independence.  She teaches me that quiet time alone is a resource that can bear a harvest, not just a delicacy to be relished. She shows me the grit and vulnerability necessary to live by hope.

Her hope resonates with the Christmas story, too. The hope of this season isn't a fluffy hope. While its end is a savior born and a people redeemed, there are days and years of desert between here and heaven. The hope felt by generations of Israelites waiting for the Christ wasn't a light, airy feeling. It was the force shoving them forward each step through the desert sand—a determined trudge toward the full knowledge of Christ.

It's a heavy lesson, no doubt, but it's refreshing to me because I'm not one who often feels a frolicking-through-the-daisies hope, but I know the tired, questioning, one-foot-in-front-of-the other kind of hope. Most days, if I'm honest, I'm fighting a feeling of dark unknowing, crowded with fear. I'm trying to figure out how to take just the next step in a deliberate walk toward the promised light. Kathy shows me how.

Last week Kathy was given another prediction from the doctors: two more weeks. While her body struggles, her heart quietly waits for Christ's coming, either in her healing or her homecoming.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Quiet Hope: Darkness Overload

This post is the third guest post in "A Quiet Hope," which is the first week of our season-long series called A Quiet Advent.

About the author: Sherri Edman is an introvert who processes verbally. She talks to herself a lot. She blogs about home schooling at A Thick and Dreadful Darkness and very occasionally about other stuff at Recovering Sociopath. She is most active on Twitter as SKEdman.

  
How long can you spend at a party? I finally understood why parties exhausted me when I realized I was an introvert. Engaging with people is hard: they are under my gaze, but that gaze is reflected, returned. I feel searched. It takes about two hours for the sensory overload of relating to shut me down.

Suffering does that, too. Not my own suffering, so much. For all the struggles, my life is not terrible and I’ve been given the grace to cultivate gratitude.

But seeing friends and family suffer debilitating illness? Following yet another mommy blogger’s link to a story of a terminally ill child? Reading yet another article about a local apartment fire or a distant genocide? Registering the sheer numbers of women and children trafficked into sexual slavery as I type this? Perusing—until the nausea hit—the Penn State grand jury presentment? Sensory overload comes quickly.

The world’s sufferings are so overwhelming it is hard to see a way out. How can we possibly hope to overcome so much darkness and pain? We certainly can’t on our own. And frankly, it rarely looks like God is doing much to restrain evil. My faulty perception, I’m sure. But facing the darkness while still cultivating hope is hard work.

That's why my favorite liturgical seasons are Advent and Lent, the penitential times before Christmas and Easter. Every year they remind me that I am neither the first nor the last to long for rescue.

In our Anglican parish, the Sunday Advent liturgy gives thanks to God,

Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

I grew up in churches that taught salvation as a singular individual event: once saved, you are delivered from the punishment for your sins. The wages of sin is death. Salvation, as it were, inoculates against hell.

In January a friend—one of the sufferers of chronic, debilitating illness—reminded me how incomplete this view is. We had heard a horrific story about a college student who committed suicide. He had grown up in an abusive family and he felt trapped by a darkness so oppressive that he called it “he” and “him.”

The presence of such darkness caused my hair to stand on end just reading about it. It caused one man to decide death was preferable to living with it. And that is another of the ways, my friend pointed out, that the wages of sin is death—sin calls down death on more than the sinner. The consequences grab on to everyone around the sinner with long, strong fingers that hold and crush and tear.

We need redemption from that kind of sin and death, too. The walking wounded are all around us—they are us. The perpetrators are, too.

But like people at a party, the gaze isn’t one-directional. I can’t search out the world’s sufferings for long before the sufferings search me out. As an introvert I have a tendency to live inside myself, and there are some dark places in here. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” says Jeremiah, “and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

Just as I have been graced with gratitude, I have come to recognize as grace the times when I recognize that I’m not only wounded and afraid: I am also a perpetrator and ashamed. I know Jesus loves me, and the Spirit is at work in my life to transform me. I’m not yet out of the murk. It’s still too easy for me to display selfishness, contempt, and arrogance, to wound—casually—the people around me, the neighbors I should be loving.

So it is a double rescue I long for: the rescue of the world from suffering and the rescue of myself from my own desperate heart.

Even in the dark—the dark outside and the darkness within—I grit my teeth and hold on to that hope. Especially in the dark.

Without shame or fear, we will rejoice to behold his appearing.