First Sunday in Advent

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There is a scene in the larger Christmas story that is implied, but not described. That’s a good thing, because it was private, but it’s a moment that reminds me of the flesh and blood reality of Advent and Christmas. An old Jewish priest named Zechariah was chosen by lot to serve in the Temple by burning incense. While he was in there, alone, he encountered the angel Gabriel. Gabriel announced that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, and that son would be John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Zechariah asked for evidence, given that he and his wife were well past the years when they expected babies. It may be that he demanded evidence, rather than asked, because Gabriel’s response is stern, and rebukes Zechariah for his unbelief. The consequence was that Zechariah’s voice was put in time out until the baby was born. Everything was going to come to pass as Gabriel had said, but Zechariah would not be able to verbally tell anyone what had happened in the Temple. He emerged in silence, clearly having had some sort of vision, but only able to gesture to the gathered worshipers to try and communicate.

What happened next is what captures my imagination. Zechariah finished his time of service at the Temple and went home to Elizabeth. The New International Version of the Bible says, “After this his wife became pregnant…” (Luke 1:24). Though she would soon be visited by a pregnant virgin, Elizabeth became pregnant in the typical way. So, sometime after her now-silent husband returned, the ordinary sex life of a faithful, elderly couple intersected with the prophecy of an angel and the creation of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus. I’m struck by the mixture of everyday life and the work of God. Elizabeth and Zechariah were old, but had no children. They had probably been married for decades. Months and years of hoping for a baby in a culture that paired a woman’s worth with her fertility had so far brought nothing – no pregnancy that we know of, no baby. What had they endured in those years? How many times had their hopes been raised, only to be dashed again? What had people whispered about them? What well-meaning but ridiculous advice had their family and friends given? How did Elizabeth and Zechariah work out sex between them in the midst of all that? However they had worked it out, over all those years, into that came this angelic pronouncement: Elizabeth was going to have a son.

Do you imagine that Zechariah told Elizabeth what Gabriel told him? As he walked home, probably over multiple days, how did he decide whether or not to tell her? The Bible describes the couple as, “righteous,” living out God’s commands “blamelessly.” One of the things I take this to mean is that Zechariah was a loving husband. So, how did that play out as he approached his house, and his wife? They lived in a culture and time of quite distinct roles for men and women. He may have wanted to protect her from another disappointment. He may have been bursting with the news, unable to keep it to himself. And yet, if he was going to tell her, how was he going to tell her, given his silence? If he did tell her, what could that possibly have been like for her, after years of hoping for a baby, and then menopause, very reasonably ending those hopes? What was it like as they reached for one another, in the swirl of all of that?

No matter what all the answers to those questions are, at some time “after this,” Zechariah and Elizabeth both had before them the evidence of the truth of Gabriel’s message. Elizabeth was pregnant. Perhaps in fear that it was too good to be true, perhaps in awe at this wondrous gift from God, Elizabeth kept to herself and their house for five months. I’d like to return to her response a bit later this week. What I am especially mindful of as I consider their story now is that their part was to do the next, normal, human thing. God’s part was to provide the unseen, and in their case, truly the miraculous. Again, I shake my head at the mixture of everyday life and the work of God.

I wonder what resides in the, “after this,” moments of our ordinary lives in this season. After what do we find ourselves? After getting married, after losing a parent, after moving, after the first child ventures out in the world. I wonder if there are places in our lives where we have given up hope, in which God would have us hope again. I wonder if there are places in our lives where it is time to give up hoping in ourselves or other human beings, and place our hope in God. Whatever those places are, there are normal, everyday life things ahead of us to do. They all matter. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s sex life. The way we eat today. The 12-year-old’s birthday celebration. The eye contact with the person we’ve hurt, or who has hurt us. The next diaper change. The car line at school. The next time we pick up our phones. The way we handle being single, or widowed, or married, or divorced.

Most of us have not been given a promise as specific as Zechariah and Elizabeth. We do not know the outcome of either God’s silent, invisible work, or our next human thing to do. Sometimes that not knowing grows the frustration and longing through which we wait in Advent. Perhaps the hope of Advent is that the way we live next will be woven together with all the unseen movements of a God who loves us.

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Waiting in Advent

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Several years ago, I discovered I loved Advent. I was teaching a women’s Bible study in a church that doesn’t recognize Advent – just Christmas. Having grown up with an Advent wreath in church, and having observed Advent in my own spiritual life as an adult, it made sense to me to teach from that season in the weeks before Christmas. What I didn’t anticipate was how much it would resonate with the women in that class, and in my own heart.

Advent, as practiced by Christians through several centuries, looks little like it does in American culture today. The main focus of Advent, historically, is looking forward to the Advent of Jesus Christ that is still in the future. It is a time to recognize that this world is not as it should be, as well as the sure hope that someday it will be put right. It is to state the ache of living in bodies and families and countries that fall so far short of what we long for and need. It is to own up to the fact that, sometimes, as we feel those longings, God seems silent and far away. Finally, it is to surrender those longings in hope that someday we will see the face of Jesus, and all of those aches will be wiped away in an instant, for we will see God.

Advent is located before Christmas on the calendar because Christmas tells the story of Jesus’ first Advent, when He came as a baby after God’s people had heard nothing from Him for about 400 years. Generations of people had been born, lived, and died, without the promise of a Messiah being fulfilled, without any updates from God via prophets, with nothing but silence. Those 400 years of silent anticipation mirror our own gap and silence. Jesus said He would come back. That was over 2000 years ago. What the heck?

But you won’t find “What the heck,” or anything stronger than that, on so-called Advent calendars or Christmas cards in America in 2019. Advent calendars count down to presents, or maybe to family, both of which can be dicey, and neither of which have guarantees. Maybe, “what the heck?” would be more honest. It would be for me. As I’m writing this, my next-door neighbors are 3 days into life after the loss of their 28-year-old daughter. She had children who are 10, 8, and 6 years old. Her funeral is the day before Thanksgiving. What kind of Christmas are those children going to have this year? What kind of Advent calendar isn’t repulsive and insipid in the light of that kind of loss. What the heck?

Advent comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Jesus comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Just as His birth shattered the silence of God and ushered in hope the first time, His presence now, and His future coming, call us to drop our, “What the heck?” laments at His feet, to weep the tears we have locked away, and to stubbornly hope in the One who promises peace, joy, and love to people who desperately need Him.

When I taught that Bible study years ago, this tension of ache and hope brought tears and laughter to that little group of women. We found solace in the outward traditions of Advent – the wreaths, the Nativity scenes, the hymns. The tangible things helped us truly witness the joy of Christmas in our terribly imperfect world. I have seldom experienced the presence of Christ as I did in those weeks with those women.

This year, I have had a growing sense of longing to return to that joy and peace via writing about it. I’m setting about to write from the perspective of someone waiting through the ache to the hope. I don’t know which one will surface on any given day. What I know is that I want to live and write truly of both. I want to have a heart with room for joy, peace, and love this Christmas. I want to wait for Jesus to break the silence of my longing with Himself.

Would you like to join me?

I’ll be sending out something that I write, plus a suggested spiritual practice for that week, on each of the four Sundays of Advent: December 1, 8, 15, and 22, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In between those times, I’ll be posting occasional short pieces to this blog.

If you’d like to receive those emails, you can sign up here.

 

 

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Benediction

BCI sat in the drab airport, swiveling my head from side to side, checking my phone for texts every 30 seconds or so, trying to breathe deeply and relax. I wanted to see him first. We had had months apart, and then a 2-day visit that stirred all our grief. Then, two weeks of mostly silence as far as he knew; for me, two weeks of desperate advocating with those who, humanly speaking, held his future in their hands. Finally, there I sat, and then stood, and then sat again, looking for him.

I saw him a moment before he saw me, before his cousin pointed in my direction. Whatever happened in that moment is lost, because the next moment he saw me, and he ran to me. There was my boy. His backpack was bigger than he was, bouncing all over the place as he ran across that cold tile, past those lines of people coming and going, and wrapped his arms around me as I knelt to hold him tight. Have I ever been so certain or so scared as at that moment? Who was I, that a sad, scared boy would run to me for safety? What would it mean, to take my new son back home forever? What about the baggage that was bigger than he was? What about my own? I needed a benediction, an utterance, a blessing, something to help me get my bearings in this new life.

I needed the joy and ache of the last time Papa called me by my name. We were walking through his yard, talking about the weather, the lake, the plants, and those blasted tumors on his right arm about which “they” weren’t doing enough, he said. He was dying. We all knew it, and we had told him. He faced it bravely when he grasped it, and then the dementia took that knowledge away, a strange and twisted gift for his last days. All of that ached as I stepped ahead for a moment, looking down at the grass, for some odd reason noting the spongey feel of it under my foot. Papa wanted to tell me something, but my back was to him. Then he said it: “Leanne.” I wish I had a picture of my face at that moment. Papa had called me by my name. I think I must have been about 5 years old as I turned toward him. He hadn’t called me by my name in a long time. He knew who we all were that summer, but often fell into frustration referring to anyone who wasn’t present, sighing and saying, “Your mother…” and pausing for us to fill in the blank of that person’s name. But in that moment, he didn’t just know who I was. He knew my name, and he spoke in the voice I had heard since before I was born. In that moment he was the man who taught me how to fish, the one who really believed I could be an astronaut. He was the one who lent me money when it grieved me to ask, somehow in a way that reminded me who I was again – someone he believed in, someone he loved and protected, someone worth loving and protecting. There would come a time in the following months when I cried out to God, “I don’t know how to live in a world with no Papa in it!” But in this moment, a kind and strong man called my name with gentleness, and somehow that was enough. Even in the moment, my heart lifted up with joy and I thought, “Oh, a benediction!”

That uttering of my name held 40 years of loving and being loved. I didn’t expect it just then, but it washed over me and lifted me up when I was exhausted and spent – and it came from a dying man. It was like another time of grieving, 14 years earlier. Papa’s wife, my Nana, had died. Somehow God had put it in my heart to speak at her funeral. I spoke about her chicken soup, and other less pleasant remedies she used to take care of us. I spoke about how she knew us, each of us, in ways that were uncanny and sometimes annoying. I watched their faces as I spoke, and I knew that Someone much larger and more gracious than I was speaking. I saw the wonder, and felt it, as we laughed in the middle of our loss. And then it was time to sit down. I said, “Amen,” and walked down the steps to the front pew. I barely knew what had happened, and had just started to wonder at it, when my brother put his arm around me. “That was the best speech I ever heard in my life.” My brother said that. Did I know, until that moment, how much I wanted him to think well of me? Did I know, until that moment, how much he loved me? I don’t think I did. He spoke the benediction to my eulogy, though I was the only one who heard it.

I don’t know what benediction may or may not have been spoken in the dreary airport that day last October. I’m not sure if what I’m about to write actually happened, or if I whispered it in my head. Somehow, the girl Papa called, “Leanne,” the woman Travis held at Nana’s funeral, took the hand of a little boy in an airport, and said, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Amen.

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A Long and Winding Road

My friend, Linda, has written a beautiful and tender book:

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Release Date: July 1st, 2014

from Anaiah Press

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Review:

When I received my copy of Linda Brendle’s new book, A Long and Winding Road: A Caregiver’s Tale of Life, Love, and Chaos, I rejoiced, and I hesitated. I knew it would be good. I read Linda’s blog all the time, and she has been a friend and encourager to me since 2006, the year before the 7-week road trip chronicled in her book.

So why the hesitation? It was because I knew this story would be so much more than a travelogue. It would be both balm and challenge. There would be tears, maybe sobs, along the way. It would engage my heart in ways that would be painful, yet healing. I would laugh out loud…and then sigh. All those things were true. Linda has gently and skillfully told the story of her life and the ones she loves, and along the way she has written for every weary and uncertain heart that comes across her words.

This book will, perhaps, appeal first to caregivers, who walk alongside aging parents or family members with special needs, battling exhaustion and second-guessing themselves. If that’s you or someone you love, please let me tell you: Linda gets it. Early in the book you’ll find a few italicized sentences that echo the hearts of every caregiver I’ve ever met. Buy the book for those sentences alone, and then go on the journey with Linda and her family. I think you will remember the beginnings of your own journey, and the love that helps you put one foot in front of the other on the darkest and brightest of days.

Here’s the thing, though: this book is for everyone. I would recommend it if you are:

  • Married
  • Single
  • Divorced
  • A parent of an adult child
  • An adult child
  • Codependent
  • Wondering what “codependent” means
  • Someone who struggles with mental illness
  • Someone who loves someone who struggles with mental illness
  • Someone who knows your way around gray and black tanks, and 30- and 50- amp hookups.
  • Struggling to make sense of how the way you grew up keeps affecting you today

Yep, pretty much everybody.

My favorite thing about this book is the way Linda is both honest and honoring with her parents’ and other loved ones’ stories. She writes about real people: flawed and wonderful, broken and delightful, foolish and wise, weak and powerful, and she does it in a way that is winsome and tender. This is not a book of cliches or blame or too-easy spiritualizing. It’s a book by a woman who has experienced the wonder of knowing and being known, loving and being loved, no matter what that looks, feels, or even smells like.

My hope for you is that you don’t hesitate, but that you pull up a chair under the awning and savor every moment. May God bless you as you do.

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Synopsis:

Sometimes reality really bites. Alzheimer’s has wrapped Mom’s brain into knots, vascular dementia has attacked Dad, and, instead of carefree retirees, we have become caregivers. Regardless, dreams die hard, and we somehow stumbled into the purchase of a forty-foot motor home. That’s when all four of us set out on this seven-week trek across sixteen U.S. states. Now, Dad stopped-up the toilet again, Mom wet her last pair of clean jeans, and David just announced that he was hungry. My head is beginning to pound, and I know this isn’t going to be the easygoing retirement we’d imagined for ourselves.

Linda Brendle takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotional and spiritual challenges that many families are facing right now. Co-dependency, mental breakdowns, and finding love after divorce are just a few of the issues weaved into this journey of caregiving. Whether you’re looking for an inspirational story to help teach you how to “let go and let God,” considering becoming the caregiver for one of your own parents, or are just looking for an entertaining travel book, this story is sure to strike a tender nerve.

About the Author:

Head Shot 1 (editor's favorite) photo credit--ConstanceAshley.com

After 15 years as a family caregiver, Linda began writing to encourage, inspire and amuse other caregivers. She loves to travel and since retiring has traveled mostly by motorcycle and RV. She and her husband live in a small East Texas town where she gardens, writes and attends church.

Author Links:

Author Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

 

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Good-Bye to My Second Daddy

I was a mess in college. I was away from home for the first time, reeling from my parents’ divorce, and very new to my faith in Christ. My first roommate’s family gave me a home and family away from home. Adoption_certificateI probably needed to know I was “officially accepted” more in those few years than in any time since.

Today I’m grieving with that adopted family and saying good-bye to the man who became my second “Daddy.” I think the day I will remember most is the one in which I went to the bank to deal with a bounced check, and, in my distress about being broke, locked my keys in my car. It was freezing cold that day, at least to a Florida girl. This was before cell phones, so I slunk back into the bank and called Mr. Mizelle. He happened to be home — just about a mile away — and he came to rescue me in just a few minutes. I remember that I expected him to be exasperated, but as I told him about bouncing the check and then locking my keys in the car, I started to cry, and he just smiled and hugged me. Even in the moment, I realized that he really did love me, and that helped me be a little bit less of a mess.

Bill_MizelleI’ll remember him listening to talk radio and arguing over the Sunday talk shows. I’ll remember his ball cap and chewing tobacco and East Virginia way of talking. I’ll remember visiting his office in the Coliseum and learning more about peanuts than I knew there was to learn. I’ll remember the twinkle in his eye as he laughed with his family. And I’ll remember the day this good man offered “official acceptance” to a cold, scared, sad girl who needed a Daddy.

 

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Disrupted

DisruptedThis morning, a cardinal caught my eye as I stood looking into my backyard.  I had been standing there, sort of numb, vaguely grateful for the sunshine and green of the yard, when the red flash focused my attention. As I watched the cardinal, I noticed a robin, a blue jay, a woodpecker, two squirrels, two more male cardinals, and, finally, a female cardinal — perhaps the reason the three males started fighting over the same 100 square feet of yard. My numb gratitude had been mixed with a much-less-than-grateful lament: “WHY can’t this dog just GO???” I would have missed a lot if my gaze hadn’t been disrupted.

I’ve been thinking about that word, “disrupted,” for a couple weeks now. Not long ago a friend described my decision to adopt BC as agreeing for my life to be disrupted. This is a friend who “gets it,” not one who tosses around platitudes, so I was bemused by her choice of words. I could almost feel my head jerk back from it; I’m pretty sure I shook my head, “no,” as I re-read it. This change to my life, this boy literally brought to my door, isn’t a disruption. He is a gift. It’s true, I sleep a lot less and I struggle a lot more. Most days I find it preposterous that anyone is given a child to raise. Still, my son is like the flash of red this morning. My heart and mind notice new things now. His life holds truth and beauty that I would hate to have missed. His battles, so often poorly chosen, expose my own sin and brokenness. The moments when he lets himself trust and relax show me more about God’s perfect and faithful love — into which we both can trust and relax — than I’ve ever seen. My son does not complete my life. That is a burden no child is meant to bear. He is a gift, a flash of red across what I thought I knew of God and life. I love him. Amen.

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Forever Started in 2013

BC & meFor all its joy, bewilderment, love, anger, grief, laughter, wailing, mourning, exhaustion, jubilation, wonder, doubt, fear, questions, rage, surrender, and hope, 2013 was the year in which a little family was born. Forever took on a new and surprising shape as BC and I began to become son and mom.

How I pray 2014 will be a year of peace, as forever settles in our hearts.

For this child I prayed… 1 Samuel 1:27

Happy New Year to you and yours. May your New Year be one of peace, in which forever is settled and true. Amen.

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