Wisdom from the Wasteland

Since before I can remember, I’ve been afraid.

I’ve been afraid of nearly everything yet somehow I learned how to function without everyone noticing I was being controlled by my fears.

I started a “fear journal” recently where I’ve been writing all the things I can remember being afraid of since I was a kid. Most of my specific fears can be boiled down to the same general fear; feeling out of control.

I’ve come to realize I have a low tolerance for uncertainty; predictability is my ultimate goal and unexpected problems my worst nightmare.

Thomas Merton

If you had met me a few years ago you would have heard about my job which I’d been doing for seven years and considered my “calling,” the great apartment where I’d been living for over three years just a short walk from my office in my favorite neighborhood, the girl I was dating and expected to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m guessing you would have assumed I was in relatively good health and had my stuff together.

That is who I was…above the surface.

What you wouldn’t have seen – and what I never would have shown you (even if I had been aware of it) – was the storm of insecurity building inside of me.

The first waves crashed against the shores of my life early early that summer, when the following things happened in the same week…

On Tuesday, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
On Thursday, I learned my position was being eliminated.
Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I broke up.
Throughout the week, faced the reality that my apartment was going to be torn down.

My life became dark as the clouds of shock, pain, loss and uncertainty rolled in.

I experienced the full range of emotions, often within minutes, enduring many difficult days and even darker nights as I struggled to make sense of what was happening.

Stain glass

Like many people, I had come to know myself based on what I did, where I lived and who I was connected to; so when all three were taken away in a short period of time, it felt like I had lost my identity. Add in to the mix that I’d been living with untreated anxiety and depression and I lacked the mental and emotional capacity to handle what I was going through.

I hadn’t faced many difficult things in my life before it fell apart, so I had no experience with the emotions I was feeling, and wasn’t sure how to handle them.

Based on the stories I had heard of people getting knocked down, I thought the right thing to do, the brave way to respond was to get right back up, but there was something inside of me saying that wasn’t a good idea.

I was numb and although I’m a fairly sensitive person, I didn’t show any emotion in the beginning. I didn’t know how to, and when I finally felt emotions coming it took several days for them to reach the surface.

I remember talking to a friend who had recently gone through a divorce and he described being scared of his emotions because he worried that once they started they would never stop, as if he was falling into a well without a bottom. That’s a pretty good description of how I felt.

There was a park near my old apartment and in the evenings I would walk there and try to clear my head. In the middle of a grassy valley there was a big droopy tree and one night I found myself climbing into its branches where I found a place to sit and think. Ironically, I was scared of heights and rarely climbed trees as a kid, but I discovered a sense of safety in that tree and returned there often during those difficult days. I had found a place where I could hide from the world, although I realize now I was also hiding from my feelings.

When I finally sensed that my emotions were ready to boil over I decided to watch a sad movie in hopes that it would help get my tears started.

I chose a movie that seemed like it would do the trick and set aside a Friday night when I didn’t have anything planned the next morning, so I’d have plenty of time to recover from whatever happened. When that night came I found all sorts of excuses not to start the movie but finally sat down on my couch and pressed play. It was a sad story about a family coming together after the loss of a parent and at most times in my life it probably would have made me weep, but my defenses were still up and I didn’t shed a tear.

While getting ready for bed that night I looked at myself in mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. He looked sad and in the same way I feel empathy for another person when they’re telling me about their emotional grief – especially when I notice their eyes start to shine and I can tell a tear is making its way from the back of their eye to the corner where it will finally slide down their cheek – in that same way I could see the emotion in the eyes of the person looking back at me and I felt his pain. The first tears I shed after all of that shit happened in my life did not actually come from my own pain but from the sense of empathy I felt when looking at the pain in the face of a stranger, a stranger who happened to be me.

Once the tears started they flowed uncontrollably and I wound up on my living room floor, rolling around and gasping for breath as the sobbing came from a place deep in my soul I didn’t realized existed. I would come to call this “vomit crying” or “puking emotion” and I experienced these dark nights of the soul often during the first few months, and although they were scary, I began to realize they were cleaning out pain that had been buried in the deepest, darkest corners of my past. After becoming more familiar with these intense experiences of grief, I decided that when I felt ready to talk about all of this I would tell my whole story; including my struggle with mental health, my fears and insecurities and even the nights crying on the floor.

My therapist and spiritual director were incredibly supportive throughout the whole process, but especially in the beginning when I was struggling to make sense of what I was going through. I began taking medication for my anxiety and depression, tried to exercise or at least go outside and breathe fresh air regularly, I meditated/breathed and I slept…a lot. I read books and watched movies, talked the ears off my family and close friends and listened to the same music on repeat because it felt comforting to have melodies to accompany my emotions.

Near the end of the summer, just before my apartment building was torn down, I rented a storage unit and put most of what I owned in a 10×10 closet, locked the door and drove to my family’s cabin. I spent a lot of time in the woods of Northern Wisconsin thinking, reading, walking, napping, praying and pleading with God to get me through the hell I was living.

I sensed that getting another job right away and trying to live a normal life would be a bad decision, and rather than sign another lease and move into a new place before knowing when or where I’d work next, I moved in to my sister’s basement (the best of several bad options). I lived with her family for a year and it was mostly a positive experience.

When I finally started to feel like I had regained some balance and was able to see beyond what was right in front of me, I began to realize that my situation was an opportunity; because without a job, a home or anyone whose needs/opinions had an influence on my decisions, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted…I could travel, go out for fancy dinners and take risks without having to worry about work or other “adult responsibilities.” I hadn’t asked for it, but I had been given a chance to reclaim my life.

At some point during all of this I read about a study connecting gratitude and joy. Apparently, some psychologist had discovered “the pathway to joy begins with gratitude.”

It made sense but I was skeptical, yet I continued reading and learned that this claim was not based on just one, but actually hundreds of studies, all of which suggest that practicing gratitude…

+ increases positive emotions
+ reduces depression
+ strengthens relationships
+ helps people face stressful life events

It was like reading a list of my issues and needs…

I was painfully aware that I hadn’t been experiencing “positive emotions” and it was becoming clear that I couldn’t become a happier person just by wanting to be happy, so I decided to trust the research and try something big.

I had already decided I wanted to travel but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, but I knew there were adventures in my future and didn’t want to have them by myself, so I came up with a plan that would help me express gratitude to my family/friends and have some memorable experiences.

So on a mid-summer night at our cabin, sitting around the table after dinner surrounded by dirty plates and a few empty bottles of wine, I gave my pitch:

“Look at me as if I’m a foundation,” I began, “and I want each of you to submit an application for a grant to have an adventure with me. Something YOU have always wanted to do, that we’ll talk about forever!”

Thankfully, they took me seriously, and for the next year I made it my mission in life to make my family and friends’ dreams come true. I called it “make a wish” and it became the best, most rewarding job I will likely ever have as I spent my days researching, planning surprises, hunting for deals on flights and putting together trips and experiences to honor the love and support I had received throughout my life from the people who were most important to me.

It was fun and memorable, exhilarating and exhausting, incredibly life-giving while also completely unsustainable – both financially and medically (so many rich meals, good beers, fancy cocktails, greasy snacks and not nearly enough exercise or sleep!).

The best parts were being able to give the best of myself to the people who mean the most to me, being right next to someone I love when they were doing something they’d always wanted to do, remembering how good life can be and facing some of my fears along the way.

Between my adventures I continued meeting with my therapist, took solo trips to my cabin where I could recover and plan my upcoming trips and during each adventure I was able to process my thoughts and feelings with the person I was with.

It was an incredible ride and it hardly felt real, because not only was I doing things so out of the ordinary for me, but I was living like a retired person in my 30s!

I had many profound moments of wisdom and inspiration along the way, and one that stands out was driving through the mountains outside of Banff with my friend Matt and hearing a song that described my journey, I was “learning to dance with the fear I’d been running from.”

I can’t believe how much destruction had to take place in my life to get my attention and make me aware of my issues with fear, control and insecurity. Brene Browns says “The universe isn’t short on wake-up calls, we’re just quick to hit the snooze button,” and looking back on my life I know that was the case with me because until it was derailed I was working ridiculously hard to avoid dealing with my stuff. [The word “stuff” is an incredibly insufficient way to represent all the pain and confusion and trauma from my life.]

I’ll probably never write thank you letters to the people whose decisions led me to go through any of this, but I’m grateful for all of it because the beauty that has grown out of the rubble has made it seem almost worth the difficult parts.

I’ve continued struggling down the road of reclaiming my life and identity and am proud of the person I’m becoming, but I’m not ashamed of who I was. The old Andy was a good guy but parts of him needed to die so the new version of me could be born. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll be forced to change but will hopefully be more ready next time (and I pray it will be less painful).

Truth

I realize I’m not the only one who has gone through something difficult and I have a great deal of respect for the courage and strength people show in the face of their challenges.

Life, for each of us, is a combination of beautiful and painful experiences and between waking up each morning and going to bed at night we can never know where we’ll find ourselves on that spectrum.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from this is that the “hardest thing” you have ever faced is equal to the “hardest thing” anyone else has faced.

It’s a matter of perspective, not comparison.

Not everyone would have the option to do what I did in the wake of major life disruptions and I will be forever grateful for the time, money, freedom and support that allowed me to take a break from my regular life and focus my energy on reclaiming my life.

Grief is an all-consuming experience and when you’re in the middle of it you can’t see or hear much outside of yourself. It’s disorienting and debilitating, yet somehow you can feel love in the comforting touch of someone who cares or support in the tears of someone who seems to understand. I want to thank everyone who helped me during this difficult journey; it is for them and because of them that I now live and move and have my being in this beautiful and messy world.

life after birth

The following is a parable that was adapted¹ from a short story written by Pablo Molinero in 1980. The original story can be found in Molinero’s book Morphogeny.

womb

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

“I don’t know,” said the second, “but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

“That’s absurd,” the first replied. “Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery can’t be possible.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

“Nonsense,” the first replied, “and even if there is life, why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and it takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence you can perceive Her presence, and when you listen closely you can hear Her loving voice calling down from above.”

……………………………………………………………………………

¹ Mr. Molinero did not give anyone permission to adapt this story, but despite his criticism and disappointment, he is glad the story has been read and appreciated by so many people in recent years. You can read the original version here.

a story about a bird.

Brad Montague is a positive and creative guy you may not be familiar with by name, but you have likely seen the funny and inspiring Kid President videos he created with his younger brother-in-law Robby (who plays Kid President).

Here’s a clever new story from Brad that reminds us that – like the little bird in the story – we each have a unique song to share and although it’s normal to worry about what other people think of us, not singing deprives the world of our beautiful music, while singing on the other hand, makes you feel alive and gives others the courage to sing their song as well…so sing on, little birds, the world’s in need of brave birds who sing with joy!

To learn more about the great work of Brad and his wife Kristi, visit montagueworkshop.com.

heartbreaking beauty

For many of us it feels like the world has been flipped upside down since the election, but despite how things may look or feel right now, there are plenty of good people doing incredible things amidst all the pain and fear. Here’s a story that shines a light on the beauty found in the heartbreak all around us…

Four months ago, 33-year-old Jared Buhanan-Decker of St. George, Utah, lost the love of his life and wife of 12 years, Sharry Buhanan-Decker, during the birth of his son J.J.

While J.J. was successfully delivered by C-section, Sharry died of a rare condition called amniotic fluid embolism, in which the fluid surrounding a fetus enters the mother’s bloodstream and causes abnormal blood clotting.

“Counting down to it as the happiest days of our life, ended up being the worst,” Buhanan-Decker reflects.

As he was going through mementos Sharry left behind, he found a surprise on his computer: six voice recordings of songs she’d written years ago.

One was a lullaby for her unborn son.

Unfortunately, the songs were in a format he couldn’t convert.

Desperate to hear Sharry’s music, he went to Reddit for help.

Within hours, dozens of people offered to fix the file formatting. One even offered to record string accompaniments for the tracks.

“I remember one of the first ones a guy was just like, ‘I’ll have this done within an hour,'” Buhanan-Decker said.

Once he could finally hear his wife’s voice again, the words were bittersweet.

“Baby don’t worry about a thing/I’ll be okay, I’ll be all right,” the lullaby goes.

Now, J.J. has a priceless keepsake from the mother he’ll never meet.

“I think that on some level those [songs] definitely resonate and connect with him, hearing his angel mom’s voice.”

You can read this story in its entirety and watch a video of Jared and his son on CNN.

What (I think) I Know about God

When I started working on this essay I gave it the title “God,” and it then became “What I know about God,” which I quickly realized was not something I felt comfortable claiming (for many reasons), so I changed it to “What I think I Know about God.” (Which feels a lot better, and more honest!)

As it turns out, I don’t have all that many confident thoughts on God, and before I jump into them I want you to watch another video that serves as a disclaimer for my thoughts.

I don’t like framing things in a negative light, but I think that video does a nice job of covering who God is not, which allows me to turn my attention to who God is.

By the way, did you catch the contradiction in the song? (It’s starts with the line “God is not a man” but then the chorus includes the line “He loves everyone”) – using words to describe God is tricky!

I have two basic beliefs about God…

1) God is present  

2) God is love 

If you’d prefer a description of God with more words and some punctuation, here’s one I like from Frederick Buechner:

“God is the loving, creating, everlasting and renewing presence; deeply concerned with the well-being of the earth and all its creatures.”

I can’t tell you more than this about God with any certainty, but I can tell you what I believe – what I hope to be true – about God, and honestly, that’s as much as anyone can tell you…regardless of how many theological degrees they have, because the reality is we each possess a combination of beautiful experiences and troubling questions that lead us to our own unique understanding of God.

It’s very natural to want a deeper understanding of God, or even just to know for sure if God exists, but as Buechner says…

“It is impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about God as it is to prove or disprove that goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter. God cannot be expressed, only experienced.” (Buechner, Beyond Words)

Similar to how you don’t fall in love with someone simply because they possess a list of desirable qualities, when it comes to our beliefs about God, there also needs to be a connection…

Which explains why our understanding of God is shaped by our experiences.

One of my favorite seminary professors says “There’s no experiencing the world without an experience of God, because there’s no world apart from God.” (Terrance Fretheim)

I can’t talk about God without talking about my faith, because they’re intertwined.

I’ve had a good life so far; by the world’s standards my life has been great. I hope most of you can say the same about your life. Sadly, this isn’t true for everyone. We live in a world where many people have struggles in their daily life that we can’t even imagine.

The fact that I’ve had such a good life makes it easier for me to have a positive image of God. Quite simply, my faith is based on the beliefs that God is present and loving, and because my life has been fairly “easy” thus far, these beliefs haven’t been challenged much.

Many of you already know this, and the rest of you will learn it soon enough, but there are plenty of Christians willing to tell you exactly who God is, even down to the details of who God doesn’t love. Rob Bell mentioned a few examples of people like this in the video above. But in my opinion, you should be cautious of anyone who make claims that seem to limit God’s love, because I’m just not sure how those people could know what they think they know about God…ya know?!

To quote my seminary professor again, “The narrower our understanding of God is, the more vulnerable we are to being disappointed by God.” (Fretheim)

Throughout human history we’ve used metaphors to describe/understand God. We’ve talked about God as…

  • Father (protector)
  • Lawmaker and Judge (law enforcer)
  • Rock (strong foundation)

Some metaphors fit with (and enhance) our understanding of God, while others clash with (and disrupt) our image of God.

Embedded within many of the most common God metaphors is the assumption that God has a gender, nearly always male, representing the masculine view of God which has been the dominant understanding of God throughout history.

I have to confess that for much of my life I thought of God as a man, or at least referred to God as “He.” It’s probably something I picked up in church while listening to adults talk about God, and it wasn’t until college that I thought about it and realized it no longer made sense for me to think of God as a man. Not only because it seemed odd for the divine creator of all things to have man-parts, but also because I began to realize how harmful and unfair this belief is to women, since it creates a system where men are seen as being more like God, which obviously isn’t true (example: any guy, including myself).

But it’s hard to talk about God without using gendered pronouns, and metaphors can often be helpful. I’m thankful to be among a growing number of faithful people seeking to use “expansive language” when speaking about God, either balancing the use of masculine and feminine language to describe God, or going to great lengths to avoid using gendered pronouns at all, opting instead to use multiple versions of the name “God,” often several times in the same sentence, which can often lead to ridiculous statements like “God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.” (Which is to say, God is in the business of loving people back to life – or at least back to lives worth living).

Regardless of how basic or expansive your understanding of God is, it will eventually be challenged, since just as our positive experiences of life help to build and shape who we understand God to be in positive ways, difficult experiences can lead us to question if God cares about us or even exists.

We’re all living in the shadow of something painful and difficult. I’m not sure what it is for you, but about six years ago my sisters were both pregnant with their first children. You should have seen how excited everyone in my family was…my parents were about to become grandparents, my sisters were going through their first pregnancies together, my brothers-in-law were thrilled but also nervous, and I couldn’t have been more excited to become Uncle Andy!

While we were all at our cabin near the end of that summer my oldest sister told us she was having a boy and they were going to name him Emmanuel. The perfect name for a baby due on Christmas.

A few days after getting back from the cabin my sister went to the hospital because of stomach pain. She ended up having surgery for an intestinal problem, and not long after, while she was still recovering from surgery, she began going into labor because her body couldn’t take care of both her and the baby. She was only 20 weeks pregnant and there was nothing they could do to keep Emmanuel alive.

This was almost six years ago and we’ve had time to accept what happened, but if you’ve ever gone through something really difficult and disappointing you know that accepting it doesn’t make it any less painful.

When I think about my nephew, I remember his name (Emmanuel). I remember what it means (God with us), and it’s a reminder that God is with me. And this is no small thing, because it reminds me to acknowledge God’s presence when God feels most absent.

God was with my sister and her husband, and with me and the rest of my family during the most difficult moments of that painful experience. God’s presence doesn’t always feel like God’s love, and the belief that God was with us didn’t make things any easier, but it at least brought us some comfort, and that is what we most needed.

In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies the people closest to them show up at their home to mourn for seven days. They don’t try to talk or cheer them up, they simply come to be with them. It’s called “sitting shiva,” and in many ways, I think this is Emmanuel…it’s God pulling up a chair and sitting quietly with us during our most difficult days, not to take away the pain, but to remind us we’re not alone.

Fear and sadness are as much a part of having faith in God as peace and joy.

Think about how Jesus’ followers must have felt after he was crucified. They were probably freaking out, right?!

There’s a story in Luke’s gospel about a couple of disciples who are walking to the city of Emmaus just after Jesus died. They are so distracted by what has just happened that when a “stranger” joins them (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus), they somehow don’t recognize him. It’s actually not until they get to town and he sits down to have dinner with them and breaks bread Last-Supper-style that they finally figure out who it is.

Like those disciples, we can so easily get caught up in the tough stuff going on in our lives that we don’t even recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.

To confess that we believe God is present and loving is to have faith that God is with us, meeting us along the way, seeking to bring us hope and peace. In other words, God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.

I pray that no matter what is going on in your life, you can find peace and comfort in the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he appeared to them after being resurrected: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

And regardless of what you think or believe about God, may we trust that Paul’s blessing to the Romans is true, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

God loves you and God is always with you, and maybe that’s all we really need to know about God.

Amen.

Looking Back: A Tribute to Friends

The first episode of Friends aired twenty years ago, which means it has somehow been ten years since the show ended. Ten years ago I was settling in to life after college and Friends was my favorite show. I wrote this brief essay after watching the final episode.

friends

“A Tribute to Friends” by Andy Jolivette (May 2004)

There has been a void in my life ever since the Friends finale last Thursday. Over the past 10 years I have shared so many great times with those six people. All the laughs I shared with Chandler and Joey during games of foosball. Playing dinosaurs with Ross (he always got to be the T-Rex). Cooking with Monica. Singing backup for Phoebe on “smelly cat.” And of course, the huge crush I always had on Rachel (in the end, it just wasn’t meant to be – congratulations, Ross!).

We met when I was in middle school, they were always there for me during high school, and they really helped me through college. Now that it’s over, I feel like I’ve lost part of my childhood and am forced to live my young adult years without six of my closest friends. I flip through the channels aimlessly searching for something to watch. Occasionally I’ll run across a Friends rerun, but it’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend before you’re over her…I’m just not ready to see them yet.

I know that many people, including me, need to be reminded that “it’s just a show,” but why have those characters found such a special place in so many people’s hearts? The cast has literally been on every talk show since last Thursday, and there probably has not been this many products available based on a TV show since Saved by the Bell (I know I got a smile from some of you on that reference). So just what is it about those six coffee-drinking New Yorkers that made watching Friends the thing to do at 7:00 pm on Thursdays for the past 10 years?

My mom gave me the official commemorative coffee table book Friends…’til the end, which includes exit interviews from all six cast members. In the book, Matthew Perry (Chandler) shares something that he had heard that expresses many people’s feelings about the show. “Watching Friends is like having a really great grilled cheese sandwich,” he said. “It’s a classic, it’s comforting, and it’s always going to be there for you.”

When I got sick as a kid and had to stay home from school my dad would stay home and take care of me. He would always give me 7up and make me grilled cheese sandwiches cut diagonally, because as he said, “that’s the only way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.” To this day, I have never eaten a grilled cheese sandwich unless it was cut diagonally.  I knew my dad (and those great grilled cheese sandwiches) would be there for me if I got sick. What a comforting thing for a little boy to know.

Whether or not you liked Friends is irrelevant, but I think we all long for “classic, comforting, always there for you” things in our lives.

The Risk (and Adventure) of Incarnation: an advent sermon

This is adapted from a message I gave at Jacob’s Well in Minneapolis (December of 2012)

I think one of the reasons I love this time of year so much is because Christmas has a way of making me feel like a kid again. I wonder if it has this effect on you as well.

Just think about all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are connected in your memory with this part of December. Music, food, movies, decorations, lights!, pictures, candles, and traditions that go back to before many of us were even born.

My earliest memory of Christmas is when I was two years old. My parents had been separated for a little while and my sister and I lived with my mom in an apartment while my dad lived in our house, but on Christmas Eve that year we moved back in with my dad and became a family again.

Isn’t that a great story? And to make it even better, it’s probably my earliest memory of anything, so it’s no wonder why it’s been the story I’ve told people for years when they ask me why I love Christmas so much.

Here’s the thing about that story, it’s not entirely true.

I didn’t make it up and I haven’t (knowingly) been lying to people when I tell it, but until just recently that’s how I remembered it happening. Let me explain. I was looking through old photo albums recently and I found a picture from the apartment where my sister and I had lived with my mom. There was a date written on the back of the photo, it was from March of that year, which is after Christmas, and after I thought we had already moved back in to the house with my dad.

As you might expect, the story of my parents’ separation is not something we talk about much (if ever) in my family, and I’m very happy to share that my parents are still together today, but as I looked at that old picture and thought about the implications of it having been taken after Christmas I knew that I had to ask my mom about it, even though it meant risking the existence of my earliest and most cherished memory. Before even asking her I had come to terms with the likely reality of it not being true, which is what my conversation with her confirmed. As it turns out, my memory was mistaken (not so much wrong). She told me that we did indeed celebrate Christmas together in our house that year but we didn’t move back in until about three months later.

It’s often more comfortable to remember things the way we wish they had happened.

It’s also easier to think about things from the same perspective we’ve always thought about them from, which is usually our perspective.

I do this with Christmas, not just my memories of this time of year, but the story of Mary and Joseph, the angels, shepherds and wise men and of course baby Jesus as well.

For so long I’ve been reading the Christmas story from only my perspective, but only recently did I recognize that it’s difficult to be affected – let alone changed – by a story you’ve heard before, especially if you’ve heard it many many times and know how it ends.

Advent is a season of preparing and waiting.

Waiting has never been a popular activity, especially when everything new seems to promise us the ability to do things faster (which is the equivalent of waiting less).

We live in world that, as one of my favorite lines from Shawshank Redemption puts it, has gone at “got itself in a big damn hurry,” which leads to Advent being the season that simply tides us over until Christmas, like the salad they bring out before your entrée at a steakhouse. It may be healthy, but it’s not really what we want.

We love Christmas for so many reasons, but how much deeper might we appreciate it if we actually prepare ourselves and take time to think about what it means (both for us personally and for the world where we live)? Might we journey through Advent, lingering in this season of anticipation, perhaps feeling a bit like a pregnant woman nearing her due date, filled with excitement but also wanting to just have the baby already!?

The Christmas story has become about so many things but primarily it’s the celebration of a birth, and through that birth, God entering the world to be with us. The theological term for this is “incarnation,” which comes from the beginning of John’s gospel, which says, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.”

Those words sound pretty, but how does the incarnation change us? How does Christmas – not just the holiday but also the reality of God coming to earth – grow our hearts?

To begin responding to these questions, I’d like to introduce you to someone named Parker Palmer. (Watch this video but then come back to read the rest)

God took a huge risk by entering our world. From the beginning, Jesus was God. Fully human while still remaining fully God, which means God entered this world just like you and I did, as a baby.

Christmas was God going all in, taking an irreversible step toward us without a guarantee that things would work out. Life, as we all know, is an adventure, and God entered into that adventure with us. This is a loving and sacrificial action!

Becoming human was a risk for God but it was the only way forward, so if God is love, then the most personal way for God to express this was to become love, by entering our world and embodying the very nature of love…as a baby.

Babies are perhaps the most sacred form of life. Babies are adored (practically worshipped) because they represent the pure hope and possibility of a life just waiting to be lived. When we look into the eyes of a child we catch a glimpse of all their potential.

It is because of the potential we see in children that we are so sad, angry and confused when we hear about school shootings and priests abusing children.

But that’s why each year the story of a baby being born in a manger is a gift, because it reminds us that we too can be born into a life and into a world of new possibilities. As Parker Palmer suggested, Christmas invites us to embody what is most important to us…

Think about Christmas from Mary and Joseph’s perspectives as they found themselves in the middle of something they never would have imagined, it must have felt incredibly risky for each of them to trust God.

  • Risks for Mary: an angel tells her she’s pregnant and that it’s God’s kid. She then has to tell her boyfriend, hoping he’ll stick around and help raise the kid.
  • Risks for Joseph: his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant even though they haven’t “been together.” She says it’s God’s kid and he chooses to believe her (rather than assume she cheated on him). They get engaged and later set off on a long trip by donkey (when she’s still pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment).

You can probably say a few things about the connection between adventure and risks in your own life as well, but the reality is:

Everybody wants to live an adventure but few people are willing to take risks.

It’s like the saying: “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”

You can’t have one without the other.

Adventures are always full of risks; it’s the main ingredient. If you were to find a recipe for adventure it would list a bunch of different kinds of risks and then tell you to put them all in a bowl, add water and stir.

Yet because of our fear of taking risks, many of us are stirring bowls of water wondering why nothing cool has happened yet.

Did you realize the root word of “adventure” is actually “advent”? So there’s this connection between our waiting and preparing for Christ’s birth and the adventure we’re on as people trying to follow Jesus.

There’s a scene in John’s gospel when Jesus tells us he came so that we can have life in all its fullness, which is to say, he was born so we can be ourselves.

No one can be you except you. God has uniquely created you. You possess gifts and abilities that no one else has, and the amazing thing is, you probably don’t even realize it because they come so natural to you.

My friend Dave has a cool way of explaining this by suggesting that if you said to a fish, “hey, you’re a really good swimmer!” the fish would probably respond by asking, “what’s swimming?”

So, as another Christmas brings back memories from Christmases past, may it also draw us into the stable with all the characters from that old story, to remember –perhaps for the first time – that just as God took the risk of becoming human, we too might take a risk and accept God’s love for who we are, for our faith and even for our doubts; and amidst all the risks of doing this, that we might hold on to the promise of the angel who told Mary, “the Lord is with you…do not be afraid” (or as another translation says, “you have nothing to fear, God has a surprise for you.”)

God, thank you for Advent, a time for us to prepare our hearts and our homes for Christmas, a time when we also must wait. In our waiting for your son’s birth, help us remember that what happened in the stable was not a gift exchange but simply a gift given. Give us the faith and courage to believe we deserve this gift and live the adventure of being who you created us to be. We thank you for your son, and it’s in his name that we pray.

Amen.