Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent, Authenticity & the Journey to Grace

It’s not a secret that I’ve struggled this Christmas season.  So much sorrow and so much antipathy has made me, on many levels, despondent.  I was wilting under it.  Much of the season requires performance.  Cheer and festivity, and these are usually fueled in equal parts by sugar cookies and hope.  And, let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  Nothing.  Not. A. Thing.  Because if we do not allow that cheer and the smells and sounds and familiarity of Christmas fill us, the hollow despair that threatens and circles around us will take over.  And then we lose hope.  That above all things, cannot happen.  We need to hope.  If we don’t, our children will not learn to. 
And children cannot be fed a constant diet of despair.  Within them is the key to many Christmases where peace can and should prevail.  They cannot begin to entertain that possibility without the goodness and hope that the season provides.  And we are its primary instruments. 

So I have picked myself up, and dusted the confectioner’s powder out of my hair, and smiled and hugged and chuckled and played endless rounds of Connect 4 on my kitchen floor.  And when evening comes, we light our Advent wreath and pray.  In those moments, in particular, I am reminded of so many ways in which Advent can be used to bring us closer to God, while so much of the busyness of the season brings us further from Him and each other.

A wonderful 24 chapter book about
Saint Nicholas.  We've enjoyed reading
this wonderful story as we anticipate
If I could use a metaphor, there is nothing better than a Christmas tree to highlight this.  Unadorned and fragrant it submits to our decoration and thanksgiving.  Not usually considered a reminder of Christ as much as a backdrop for Santa Claus (though in the story of Saint Nicholas we find a wonderful ambassador for Christ's message), ours is filled with ornaments that highlight and mark the life of our family.  At its base we usually place the heaviest of ornaments. Those branches are thick and can bear the weight of them.  As we move ever upward, the more fragile they may become.  Until finally we can place no more safely, and are left to put the final adornment on: a star perhaps, an angel, or, in our case, a dove.

A Christmas tree is a lovely and meaningful reminder of Advent.  It literally points us to our need to celebrate and welcome God, it reminds us at its pinnacle that all branches, from the sturdy at the base to the frail at its top, draw our eye upward to the star's light, the angel's promise, the dove's peace.  A tree is living representation of God's love, and its beauty fills us with a sense of His mercy.

I have written about a devotional reading before, and again I was inspired by another that the Daily Word offered in October:

“Actors spend hours rehearsing, learning lines, and working with technicians to get everything just right.  They also delve in to the accent, movements, and motivations of the character.  After a performance, actors shed these things and become themselves once again.

In some aspects of my life, I may perform as if I am an actor and hide behind a mask or image.  I value authenticity in relationships.  God leads me to look at areas where my lines and roles may not reflect my Highest Self.  I lovingly release any actions and words not in alignment with my true nature.  In Truth, I am a loving, kind, and generous expression of Christ.  As I practice authenticity with myself and others, I trust myself more and I am free.”

“I practice authenticity with myself and others.”  

I cannot tell you how many times a day I take on a role and perform.  Some days I do it better than others.  Some roles are better suited to me than others.  Some don’t require extensive preparation to undertake.  But any performance, and the more elaborate they may be, the more fraught this balance becomes, the tenuous hold I have on authenticity and who I am in Christ is lost.

What I am learning about Advent, about the time I can spend thinking and moving closer toward the celebration of the birth of Christ, is to welcome the authenticity of God’s love. Everything begins and ends with this for me.  And yet, in the rush of performance, in the haste of wanting, God’s tender grasp on my heart is loosened and within that space, all manner of doubt creeps in.
The boys on Gaudete Sunday

The more I allow performance to overtake me, I stumble further from authenticity and headlong into chaos.  I have had to learn to let go, of activities that drain me, of situations that are not good for me, of people who force me into performance for them.  It is the most difficult process.  And it does not feel good.  We are taught to be compliant.  To remain quiet in the face of what may make us uncomfortable, to extend our time even when we have less for those who need it the most.  We tell ourselves to be patient; we extol praise even if it isn’t really due.  We keep saying yes to what doesn’t matter and have no time to say yes to what does.  It seems to be an unwritten edict for most, and something we would never, ever enforce or suggest for our children:

My son Sam wasn’t invited to a birthday party.  A classmate let him know that he wasn’t, in very bald terms, “Hey, I was invited to B’s birthday party and you weren’t!”  Sam is ever shy and easily wounded.  But he’s learning to find his voice, and I was surprised to hear that he asked B. about this, saying only, “M said that I wasn’t invited to your party.  I just was curious about that but wanted you to know that it’s okay if I’m not.  I hope you have a good birthday.” 

He was told his invitation had been forgotten, but when he told me the story with some tears in the eyes that met mine in the rearview mirror at pick-up, we both knew the truth.  He wasn’t invited.  And he struggles still with why.  My instinct was anger and I wanted to call the mother who I know and ask her.  I also wanted to ask why this other child was so cruel in taunting Sam about it in the first place.  (I know that mother too.)  Sam went and unpacked and got a snack, and I thought about this, about what to say--how to preserve his dignity and moreover, to let him know that such preservation is absolutely essential:  

“Sam, here’s the thing.  I don’t think you are going to be invited to B’s birthday party.”  Nods.  “And it’s not okay that M told you that on the playground.  And it’s not okay that you were told your invitation was ‘forgotten,’ but I don’t think B knew what to say and probably didn’t want to hurt you.” Nods more slowly.  “But this doesn’t make you any less a great person and the loss is B’s and M’s for that matter.  You need to forget these people.  Be nice to them, but don’t play with them anymore.  You have so many new friends who want your time.  Be with them instead.”  “What if they ask me to play?”  “Just say thank you, but that you planned to play with someone else already.  No one who says that he’s a friend has the right to make you feel bad about yourself.  Not even for a minute.” 

Sam nods; he feels sad, and he needs to mourn this loss of possibility.  He is starting to see the performance and sifting through what is real and what is not.  It’s a hard lesson.  And it’s one that I need to tell myself too.  

I have to stop playing with people at recess who don’t make me feel very good, who lead me further away from who I want to be because of the energy it takes in watching who I am with them, I need to release the people who require performance from me.  And in the letting go, I can be closer to who I am in the sight of God.

With that, with the release of performance, with authenticity and saying no to what does not inform or nurture or feed us truthfully and honestly, time can be found.  God wants us so desperately.  And we have no time for Him, even in this season that marks the first of the Church year.  I have come to believe that the search for authenticity is directly tied to the search for God’s grace. 

I think about Mary, young, heavily pregnant, worried perhaps, uncomfortable, traveling so far to give birth in an unknown place, with nothing but faith to guide her.  Was her journey a performance?  Somehow, I don't think it was, at least in the sense of what we know now to be performance.  She knew with certainty that the end would bring a miracle.  And it’s appropriate then, that the manger is what would be used.  That the light of the world would be ushered into the most inhospitable of environments.  Dirty, fetid, rank with animal sweat and neglect.  Why wouldn’t the savior of all the world come to the lowliest place in it?  It would be the first mark of a remarkable ministry.  The first truth of an authentic life.  

As I have begun to say no, to close the door firmly on situations where I would have to vigorously perform, to stay with people who I can talk to without the unease in my spine, has freed up a seemingly impossible amount of time.  The energy I spent trying to understand the whys and wherefores of not being picked or being picked on.  Of being ignored or being disliked, the focus and attention, the sheer exhaustion of the constant expectation of others whether it was real or just my fretful perception, the collective energy spent in these matters that surrounded my performance preparation, was thoroughly and horribly excessive.  And debilitating.  The time spent fretting about those who don’t matter to us, far exceeds the time that needs to be spent being with those who do.

It is a yin/yang, a tightrope of our own making.  And the more frayed the end of those who drive us to distracted performance, the irritation directed toward those who do matter, whose end the rope is taut and strong, grows:

Don’t you understand I have to do this?

Why doesn’t she like me?

What did I say or do that was so offensive?

Why am I being treated this way?

It’s not real.  And if it is real, it shouldn’t be.  Anyone or anything that is causing this kind of frenzied performance is taking you directly away from who you are, your authentic self.  Anyone or anything that is causing you this kind of pain is taking you away from God’s grace.

Did I give enough/ do enough/ be enough?

  Yes. Yes. Yes.

God’s gift to the world of Jesus’ birth frees us from the locked prisons of performance and into a new life of truth and freedom.  But it requires we accept it.  And it requires that we give God’s grace the room in our lives it deserves to inform our steps. 

It’s simple really. 

Allow room and space for God 
in the lowliest places of your being

The dirty place, the one that is rank and damp.  Where you hold all the secrets that you do not want known.  How much you hate, how much you tire, how much you despise, and how much you wish away.  All of that locked up deep in the stable of your soulAllow Christ to be born there.  Allow the days building up to his birth to cleanse you of these things. 

The authentic comes when you do and what a glorious grace that is.  I wish this for you.  It will be the best way to welcome Christmas and begin anew.  Muck out the stable.  Allow for grace and discover the peace that comes with it.  

May your Advent season be filled with joy and expectation, your home with laughter and memories to be brought into fir scented focus, may it conclude with the coming of grace and your renewed sense of self that brings with it mercy and strength to be true to it in the New Year.  Peace be with you and thank you so much for allowing my thoughts to be a part of your life this year.  Merry Christmas!  

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