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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Advent

When lament suits Christmas

jenmichel@me.com

In our weekly Sunday liturgy at Grace Toronto church, we pray for our church and the city. It is one of my favorite parts of the service because it helps me to remember, not just the great news of the gospel, but the great responsibility of place. To live anywhere is to answer the call to be a neighbor. And being a neighbor means carrying the burdens of others.

Neighborliness is one word to describe the holy act of the Incarnation: God clothed himself with flesh and pitched his tent among us. This Advent, I am contemplating that mystery—and also finding myself deeply burdened for the world. When it came time for me, this past Sunday, to lead the weekly prayer for the church and the city. I couldn't help but bring a prayer of lament. It seemed fitting, and perhaps it gives words to some of your sorrow and hope.

I offer it as an Advent meditation.


Father,

 

Thank you for this holy season of Advent—a season for contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. Your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts are not our thoughts. Who has ever known your mind? Who has ever dared to be your counselor? We cannot begin to grasp what it means that you, in your holiness, would choose to be clothed with the liability of human flesh, that you would send your Son Christ into a world where he would not be welcomed. He is the Suffering Servant of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke, the one whose first and final advents advance the cause of justice and announce the hope of salvation.

 

We need that justice and salvation today as much as Ancient Israel, God. We need Jesus to return and to bring with him your kingdom of peace.

 

We have watched Aleppo fall and little children suffer. Lord, have mercy.

Nationalism is taking hold around the world. Lord, have mercy.

There is political instability, racial injustice, great economic disparity. Lord, have mercy.

In Toronto, there are people living on the streets as the temperatures fall, and even the wealthy suffer evil like domestic violence, substance abuse, family breakdown and spiritual alienation. Lord, have mercy.

 

How long, O Lord? This has always been the faithful cry of your people, our song of lament in the face of suffering. How long, O Lord, until you put this world fully and finally to rights? Until you judge evil and deliver the oppressed? How long until your Son comes again to put the enemies of sin and disease and death under his feet?

 

I pray for those in our congregation for whom 2016 has been a year of suffering. They have lost jobs. They have lost loved ones. They have prayed and seem only to have had silence in response. They wonder, God, where you are and whether you care. They doubt that your goodness and power are real. Even 2017 is full of unanswered questions, and there is fear in meeting the uncertainties ahead. In this final week of Advent, help all of us to abide in hope: hope which is a confident expectation in you.

 

Israel was taught to pray:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

 

Make this true of us: may our tears of lament plant seeds of greater hope and faith. May we begin to lay down, with greater willingness, our need for control. May we begin to embrace, with greater humility, your wisdom. Let mystery be cause for worship.

 

Finally, God, bring your people home with shouts of joy. We look forward to the next Advent of Jesus, when he will return and gather us to himself in the city of God, when you will declare, “The dwelling place of God is with humanity.” Suffering will be ended. Tears will be dried. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Bring us to the day when the former things have passed away and you make all things new.

 

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

 

Amen.

 

 

Advent Devotional

jenmichel@me.com

I hope you're enjoying this series on #home that I've been hosting. I also hope that you haven't given me up for dead. Life is, as always, full. And though I spend the majority of my days working, you're not always privy to the writing that I am doing. Sometimes I am working to prepare for an upcoming speaking event or to submit an article. Sometimes I am reading for my own research or reading another writer's book for potential endorsement. At the end of every month, I'm also working on my monthly-ish newsletter, Miscellany. (Subscribe here.) And, if you can believe it, I've even begun work on book #3 in this "lull" period between finished manuscript and book release. (I'll be talking to marketing folks this week about promotional plans for Keeping Place, so hopefully I can tell you more soon!)

advent_cover_smallI did want to tell you about one collaborative project that I contributed to. It's an Advent Devotional published by Christianity Today, and you'll recognize many of the contributing writers (N.T. Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Philip Yancy, John Ortberg). It's super cheap, and the content is great, which means that you should consider buying it for your small group or church! Find more details here.

In my devotional called, "Thirsty for God." I write,

"It is easy to dull the inner restlessness of which Saint Augustine wrote, easier still when Amazon Prime promises to deliver the good life in two days’ time. To become the patient, expectant, thirsty people of God, we must, for longer than a moment, see the daily harrow of living here, where the curse sets the city ablaze, and the fire licks up life. Only in view of suffering will we learn to watch for the dawn—and thirst for its merciful rain."

Learning to long with the poor and the powerless

jenmichel@me.com

Advent "More so than anything, this community, its people and even this pastor are tired. It is a challenge to be hopeful." Willis Johnson, African American pastor of the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown on August 9.

Tired. That one word from Johnson's reaction has clung, like a burr, to my Advent reflections. Advent is a season of longing and expectation, a time for cultivating patient faith. Johnson's fatiguing hope reminds me that nearly two thousands years ago, God delivered on his promise to a tired people, who, though they had returned geographically from exile, still waited. The Messiah had not yet come. They languished under Roman oppression and wondered when God would put the world to rights. Their hopes were on hold—in ways not dissimilar from African Americans today.

But unlike Johnson, unlike first-century Jews, I'm not tired. Indeed, as a college-educated white woman living in North America, I'd have to admit, however reluctantly, the relative ease of my life. If my birthright is privilege, how can I learn to long? How do I enter the Advent story, which first came to the poor and powerless? Can I, too, learn to magnify the Advent God who "brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate" (cf. Luke 1:52)?

I'm hopeful that this cultural moment in America can teach me something of the longing and waiting that had been necessary for the first Advent—and continues to be important for the second. No doubt blacks in America know better than I what it means to hold out vigilant hope, despite ominous odds, for a light to dawn in great darkness. In his bold piece for The Atlantic in June of this year entitled, "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates outlines the haunting timeline of waiting for racial justice in America: "250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining."

Though many will disagree with Coates' conclusion on the necessity of financial reparations to cleanse our national conscience, it will be hard to disagree with the cold facts of our collective biography. In the land of the free, freedom hasn't been guaranteed for all. Even today, in hyper-segregated American cities like Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit, two Americas exist. Most often, one affords decent schooling and police protection. The other does not. And the divides in these cities are starkly racial, having been decided by decades of unfair, government-sanctioned housing practices, which grew up in time of the Great Migration between 1915-1970.

Beginning with the First World War, six million blacks left the South and migrated North in search of a better life. By their migratory patterns (they went farther than might have been expected), some sociologists conclude that these "immigrant" families had more in common with refugees of famine, war and genocide. Yet despite their optimism as the trains pulled away from the cotton and tobacco fields and barreled northward, they were met with the conditions only marginally better than the South. The "colored only" signs had disappeared, but the racial prejudice persisted. Blacks moved into the cities—and whites moved out.

When Harvey Clark moved his family to Chicago from Mississippi after having served in World War II, he, his wife and two children rented a two-bedroom apartment, which they shared with another black family of five. Yearning for a little more room to breathe, Clark found a suitable apartment for his family in all-white Cicero. When they tried to move in, they were met by a crowd of protestors. The Clarks sued and won the right to occupy the apartment, but when they attempted to move a second time, the mobs gained force and eventually stormed their apartment. They threw down all their furniture from the third-floor and set it ablaze. "In an hour, the mob destroyed what had taken nine years to acquire," wrote the historian Stephen Grant Meyer as quoted in Isabel Wilkerson's important history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns.

This is not a history that has been mine. But it seems l like one I ought to learn, especially if I want to enter the yearning and hoping, even the longsuffering required for Advent.

"For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!'" wrote Martin Luther King, Jr, from a Birmingham jail cell. King been arrested for his participation in peaceful civil rights protests and chastised by a group of Southern clergymen who called his action "unwise" and "untimely." "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never," King continued. "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say 'Wait.' . . . I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."

If Advent is about longing, maybe it is also about unavoidable impatience. The world is not yet put to rights: there is too much suffering and poverty and war. Dimly, I sense the myopia of my privilege, how it affords me distance from the everyday experience of degradation. But if I mean to be formed by Advent, then I must, at the very least enter imaginatively the tragedy of every act of injustice—and seek to relieve it, as often as, by God's grace, I can.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that he'd often heard southern ministers support integration because it was the law. "But I have longed to hear white ministers declare, 'Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother."

This Advent, I recall the patience of the tired. And remember my common ancestry with the poor and the powerless.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent's Invitation: Sing a New Song

jenmichel@me.com

I'm reading Silence - and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro, and the first week of reflective readings centers on questions of doubt and unmet longing. We don't often associate doubt with the season of Christmas, but historically, that is the most appropriate way to understand the story. This past Sunday, our pastor took as his text Isaiah 9 and was quick to remind us that Jesus arrived in a time of darkness and gloom. The Miracle of Light exploded over a landscape of despair, and I suppose Advent may be the most appropriate time to speak of our sadnesses and deep disappointments, our doubts and unmet longings. Living with life and its losses can be our greatest invitation into the longing for Advent and the coming of the Promised One Whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Okoro reminds us of the gifts our believing community gives to us when we find ourselves in our own private backyard of grief - both chronic and acute. "Sometimes when we find ourselves too burdened by the extent of our longings, too prayed out, or too exhausted with coming before God, we can look to others to bear our burdens prayerfully until we regain our own strength of spirit. A believing community shoulders hope when circumstances seem hopeless. A believing community speaks boldly into despair and longing and suggest that things do not have to remain as they are in the presence ef a holy, imaginative God."

There is incredible tension in that place of worn out, exhausted faith where our own prayers have run out of gas, and it's the prayers of others, which propel us forward. But it can be a beautiful place of expectation. Faith is the looking forward, the believing for new vistas of goodness. Longing and loss, darkness and gloom aren't final chapters in God's story: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."

And what is to be the result of our coming to Advent with this sense of expectation - and of Advent coming to us in the full brilliance of Christ?

"I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps scure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD." Psalm 40:1-3

This Advent, may the LORD give us a new song: instead of songs of doubt, a song of faith; instead of songs of darkness, a song of Light, instead of songs of complaint, a song of gratitude; instead of songs of turmoil, a song of peace; instead of songs of self-pity, a song of praise.

 

 

 

Advent's Invitation: Cultivate Silence and Stillness

jenmichel@me.com

I confess: I am coming late to Christmas this year. I know - it’s only December the 11th, but it’s as if today I’m just beginning to let the season of Advent sing over me. It has been a busy month: two speaking engagements, a major writing deadline, sick kids, out-of-town guests - and to all this have been added the emotional and spiritual burdens of an undecided life and the marital conflict, which those decisions have surfaced.

This morning I did what I routinely do when deadlines have passed and I’m seeking inner calm: I cleaned my house and baked bread.

There was a book I had intended to read reflectively this Advent, a book that I have only bought and begun today. It's called Silence - And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro. Already, I’ve found it to be a beautiful and lyrical invitation into the Advent narrative of Zechariah and Elizabeth, whose story I remember well from some of the Advent posts I wrote last year. (Check them out herehere and here).

If you don’t have any special reading you’re doing yet for Advent, I’d recommend this book of daily reflections to you. (Yes, you can come late to the party, just as I have.)

Even the preface offered words I needed to linger over:

“During Advent, we repent of the habits and practices that turn us away from the loving God who is always reaching out to be reconciled to us.”

Quite honestly, I have never thought of Advent as a season for repentance. That would seem a more fitting a term for Lent, but I suppose that the Christian life is never exhausted of repentance. When is it ever inappropriate to take seriously this first word of the kingdom?

And what exactly is it that we repent of? “Habits and practices that turn us away from a loving God.”

I am reminded of Jesus’ patient words of warning: the spirit is willing, but the body is weak. In my mind and heart, though I might purpose to love, obey, and serve Jesus, something often obstructs the way forward.

Me. Me. Me.

My habits and practices: the ways I accommodate myself to the world rather than to God; the distractions of the virtual noise and the busyness of life and lists; the daily decisions when I preference what’s easiest and most convenient. This is my accumulated numbing - intentional as well as subconscious - of my life to the voice of God.

God is taking the initiative to love me, but as a matter of habit, I’m too busy for the slowing that is required to meet His invitation.

“Advent is a season to ponder, to listen, to understand that prayer is as much about cultivating stillness and attentiveness as it is about offering our words to God. This listening for God is a difficult business. It requires a willingness to be patient and to be still. It requires disciplining ourselves to consistent times of sitting quietly before God and waiting for God to meet us in that space.”

Willingness: This is the work of the Spirit, a real movement of grace in our hearts that draws us into the longing of Him. Praise God for willingness. It is a gift we receive by faith. Never doubt that your willingness to want God isn’t evidence that He has long wanted you.

Discipline: But this is the work of our response to that bidding love. We need real resolve - which become our habits and practices - to attend, heed, absorb, secure, confirm, and obey God’s voice. How easy is it to let the voice of God rattle around noisily inside our minds and bodies without ever allowing it to do its intended work of transformation?

“Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”

I’m inviting me - you - this Advent season to the slow and patient work of waiting and listening, of cultivating stillness and silence. And may this produce in each of us repentance.