I have been meditating a lot on the story of a man named Cleopas from the Bible. He and another (unnamed) man were walking to a town called Emmaus after it was discovered that the body of Jesus - who was killed 3 days earlier - was no longer in its tomb. I can only imagine the amount of decompressing these two were undergoing with all that had happened, not only in the last 3 days, but in the entirety of the last two and a half years.
Before Jesus was crucified, he had walked the earth, demonstrating powers that backed his claim to be the son of God. He showered those who walked among him with miracles of love. This attracted both the attention and the disdain of the Pharisees. The Pharisees claimed blasphemy, while the citizens found the words of Jesus to be true. Jesus challenged people to think outside of their logistical box and to meet with God in a different way then had been taught in the synagogues. People were evolving in their theology, and Jesus’ divine love was the catalyst to this change. He challenged the notion that anyone was an outsider, he redefined what was unclean, and he refuted any tradition that put limitations on healing and loving people. Those who were observing Jesus were likely to have found their doctrine turned upside down.
As Jesus walked the earth he was constantly speaking of a new kingdom, and in this new kingdom, he was to be king. The hopes of the people were rising at the notion of this man of love overtaking the throne of oppression and empire. At the height of their belief, at a time when they came to trust the word of this man named Jesus, that’s when he was killed. For 2 and a half years their beliefs were in constant motion: from skepticism and doubt to confusion and wonder and ultimately to belief and certainty. And just like that, Jesus was crushed by the empire he claimed to one day overtake. He was crushed by the oppression of the very people he was to rule. The disciples were told this would happen, and even they were confused when it came to pass. They saw the broken body and believed the incompleteness instead of seeing past the physicality of the body to the sweet fulfillment of a promise.
So Cleopas and his friend are walking the 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus and trying so hard to make sense out of their disorientation. How disillusioned and devastated these men had to have felt when all that they believed seemed to have come untied, and to be proven false. They were discussing the events when it says that Jesus came to them in their speaking. In the midst of their disappointment and confusion, their disenchantment, in the midst of wrestling with their darkest hour, Jesus appears and walks alongside them. The men were shocked when this mysterious man hadn’t heard the scandalous news of what had happened. They shared the story. They shared that they had hoped Jesus was really the one to redeem Israel. They hoped. Past tense. They were already giving up. Eventually, they saw that this man walking with them was, in fact, the risen Jesus. He had been good on his claims, they had just been disappointed by their own expectations.
The road to Emmaus is such a beautiful story to me. One that gives me so much hope. A hope and a reassurance that God will come to me when I am disoriented, in the depths of sorrow, and even when I am nothing but doubt. He will show up for me when my theology is all wrong and when I’ve missed the point entirely. He will show up on the journey and he will reveal himself just as he did the two confused men on the dusty road to Emmaus. This story shows us that in our pursuit of Truth, Truth Himself walks beside us.
After quite the sabbatical from church, I have found myself ready to enmesh once again. This is such a huge step for me, it's been about 5 years of this intentional time away. I needed to avoid anyone else's theology, assumptions, and certainties. It has been a transformative time of taking and adding bricks of understanding to rebuild the very tarnished building the temple had become.
It's incredible how this furlough has allowed me to lose the certainties I had unintentionally clung to. As certain theological bricks were removed, I began to see that the Bible in it's entirety had gotten so warped, so involuntarily intertwined with modern culture (specifically that of a capitalistic, American culture) that the whole system felt grimy.
After stepping away for a significant time and allowing this newness to wash over me like a fresh baptism, I have become inspired once again, to pick up my bible with eager eyes and a hunger to read with wonder and imagination as if I have never read this book before. Because in so many ways, I haven't read this book before. I haven't read this book without preconceived notions and a complete willingness to listen without knowing any of the answers. To read without any formulated response or opinion, but to just read and take in. To sit with the text as it was in all of its mysterious wonder.
A group of friends and I got together for dinner and had been challenged beforehand to think about what promises we were standing on for this season in our lives. Every woman came with a beautiful scripture that was so intimate to their lives, something that was filling them with hope and assurance. When the inquiry was passed to me, I proudly shared that I didn't have one yet. It was exciting to me because I wasn't conjuring something that didn't feel right, I wasn't grabbing on to something that had given me life in the past, I was okay with not knowing yet. I was okay with the anticipation of seeking my next promise out like a hidden treasure instead of returning to a tired map that had lost me over and over again.
Healthy religion tells us what to do with our pain, and when the church fails to lead us to meaningful theology around suffering, humanity is at a loss. Humanity has been at such a loss because of the modern church's propensity to a// make pain synonymous with sin or b// to settle into suffering too comfortably by calling it God's sovereignty.
The warped gospel that preaches prosperity foolishly claims that suffering doesn't happen if you are following in the very strict footsteps of a micromanaging God. If you have pain, you have stepped off of the path. However, the text of the Bible clearly demonstrates that suffering is just a part of it all - just and unjust alike. Pain isn't always a consequence of our misguided and sinful nature, but exists because we participate in life itself.
Then there's this contrasting notion that whatever happens is God's will. While God is definitely sovereign, the economy of sin can and does have influence and affect over our lives. Whether the suffering is self-induced or strategically placed, I don't believe that we are to suffer for the sake of suffering.
With all of the misery I have endured, I have been able to rewrite my theology of pain. The years following my naivety of believing the aversion of suffering was real, disenchanted me and also clarified that I was not operating out of faith at all, but legalism, bondage and works. I was a victim at best, and felt baited and betrayed at worst.
What I realized through many years of trying to understand this complicated relationship to pain was this: suffering is an invitation to create, and pain is the prophet that whispers the deeply difficult truths into your ear and waits for you to allow your ego to destabilize, that waits for you to heed the invitation to co-create something new, to live from a deeper place, and to know the goodness of God more fully.
I realized that all of that pain that was stored up inside of me was the thing bringing the real suffering to my life, not the difficult circumstances. Pain was a calling presence that revealed to me that there is always a way to find deeper meaning, and that's by finding God Himself in the thick of it.
I finally understand the difficult emotions that can accompany the holidays. This year was loaded. I was balancing the animosity of a child with sadness and uncertainty while trying to grasp the hope and joy of the season for the rest of the family. While the days were hard, the morsels of connection were more meaningful than ever.
While it would be easy to feel slighted this Christmas, I have come to see that this season is all that it should have been. The schism of pain and peace, union and unrest, is a call into the blessedness of God. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s definition of being blessed is this: seeing God in the world and trusting that God is at work even in things we can't see, or understand, or imagine.
Mary was considered blessed to behold Emmanuel - God with us - yet, her life didn't look very blessed to me. From the time she became a pregnant, unwed mother until the day she watched her son die a ghastly death on the cross, she was on an unimaginably tough journey. But she had vision, she had assurance, she had faith in the promises of God.
While I'm not comparing my life to Mary's, I do have to say that this season isn't one that comes with a face of joyfulness. Blessings can surely come through hard things, through tense relationships with our children, through strain and stress and uncertainty. Blessings aren't material objects that are mere emptiness to our souls, but the ability to believe the goodness of God even when what we see is contrary. So I am blessed because I know that God is still with us, is still with me.
The celebration of the birth of Jesus is an appropriate time to feel the ways that life crumbles around us. It's the perfect time to feel the unrest of our souls and to realize that Jesus' birth was profound and ancient, and also ceaseless in that, if we continue to receive him, he will be re-born in each one of us, too.
artwork by Scott Erickson // scottericksonart.com @scottthepainter
The last candle in the Advent wreath has been lit, and takes us into the theme of birthing. We've just been guided through the phase of journeying, which is the preparation, the holy surrender that leads us straight into the delivery room of self; the very place we experience new life. These last days have pushed me past my physical limitations, far exceeded my emotional willingness, and charged me straight into the phase of wanting to just quit. The same point in delivery where the body turns into a ball of fiery pain and where it's realized that there is no turning back. It's not just the apprehension and reverence of overwhelming physical pain, but the fear of what your life will be after this thing is born. The fear of change, of the unknown, and the responsibility of nourishing the life that was gifted.
This same pain that can swallow a person whole is also the kind that vanishes as soon as the cry of the baby is heard. Just like that, the pain that has overtaken and owned the body, is gone. I'm hoping to be on the other side of this delivery soon. I hope that through this process I can hold the weight of what I've been given with greater wisdom, more gentleness. I hope that the fruit of what I bear will not look at all like me, but will resemble something close to the peace and joy and hope and love of the Lord who is the giver of life. And I hope to become a graceful midwife to those who need gentle hands to hold them in the pain of their own transitions.
This week's Advent theme is "journeying." It's about the in-between places. It's about the times we get so close to comfort and certainty only for our lives to upend once again.
It's about going down those dark and dangerous roads, when we have no resources of our own and all we can do is turn to the One who journeys with us. The One who lights the way, even if only with a tiny torch.
While the uncertainty can feel more like a burial, and we get confused and all of the signs are misleading, it's in this exact place that we see that it is really an invitation: to know ourselves better, to know Him better, to see the journey as forward movement. To see the journey as a promise of reunion rather than a banishment to the barrenness.
Journeying is like a baptism - a coming to life, a re-awakening - but when you're beneath the murky waters waiting to emerge, it seems painfully similar to death itself.
Then...then you come out of the water alive and it helps you to cling to the little light you see, to remember the miracle of survival and the comfort of Christ's presence.
Remember those lessons. Keep them close to your hearts because we are an in-between people who will continually be journeying towards our New Jerusalem.
Yesterday we lit the second candle on our Advent wreath and have been contemplating this theme of "acceptance." This is a concept I have both wrestled with and have scars by. My inflexibility, this gnawing preconception that I have control over my life, and the personal offense I feel when I am bombarded by life itself, is all fruit that shows my inability to accept what is.
Assumptions, of course, are not privy to me alone, but I've struggled l o n g and hard to let go of this illusion of control. My biggest teacher has been my anxiety disorder. I have tried all sorts of techniques and manners of escape, but the most successful approach I have had with anxiety has nothing to do with it's eradication, quite contrary, with its embrace. I don't fight it anymore, because I've learned that only causes more anxiety. No, I let it in, I sit with it, I pay attention to it, and I understand that it is fleeting and wait for it to pass because it always passes.
Acceptance doesn't mean I've surrendered any and all hope of healing, it certainly doesn't make anxiety pleasant, but it frees my mind from the weight of endless self-reprimand long enough to see it as one of life's struggles - as something out of my control - and to allow it to teach me a lesson instead of resisting it so forcefully that it pulls me under. So while I am not healed, I am different, and acceptance has the power to do that - to transform you on the inside.
Imagine how hard the plight of Jesus' life. In the garden before his death, he wrestled, yet came to an acceptance that dying was necessary, and knowing it was didn't discount how painfully hard it would be.
Imagine how hard it would have been for those who were waiting for the King they had heard and hoped about through the generational prophecies. It seems they would naturally be expecting Jesus to come as some sort of political superpower with the intention to free the slave and overthrow the oppressor. When Jesus came as a little baby instead, I think it would be safe to assume that people were flustered and confused, maybe even a bit angry.
Gradually, Jesus was seen in truth and accepted as the savior, and along the way people were freed of their own expectations and called into a very new way of life. A way of life that was quite paradoxical to what they had known, but one that had such depth and breadth, that they welcomed it anyway. Because when we accept what is, we free ourselves to receive.
We all have that same invitation today: to understand our powerlessness as a gift, to stop resisting hard things, and to experience the peace that can come with our surrender.
As the soft glow of that one small Advent candle dances shadows across the wall, I am drawn back to that word “waiting.”
My default is not waiting. It is doing. Waiting to me seems inactive, especially when I see so many things that are undone in me and around me.
I began thinking about Mary and saw that, for her, waiting was about making space. There were so many unknowns in Mary's life when she was gifted the Prince of Peace in her womb. She was given something so huge, and yet, there was really nothing she could do except wait.
What if waiting is really an act of permission we give to allow the work to be done on our behalf? Sometimes we're called to action, and sometimes we're told to be still and let the work be done in us and grow us in ways that our efforts could never produce.
There is no more that I can do for myself. I see that now. It feels dark and helpless at times. In others, a huge relief. I don't know a lot of things, but I do know that God always shows up. I may feel impotent in certain situations, and that triggers me, angers and frustrates me, but I can't help but wait with expectancy.
I certainly don't have the faith of Mary, but I fell my swelling belly of promise and know that this season will produce life in the end.
All around the world people are lighting the first candle of the Advent season. This is a tradition I love, one that has been so joyful and meaningful to me, but one I am struggling to feel connected to this year.
"Hope" is the theme of the first candle, and if I'm being honest, I don't feel a lot of it. It's been a rough season for me, and my own light is dim. "Hope" feels too grandiose, so when I found a different (yet similar) theme, I felt that I could stand behind it with more integrity. This theme contemplates these four pillars: waiting, accepting, journeying, and birthing. It felt more honest; more like the process that I am in, than a proclamation of attributes I simply don't have.
So, alongside of my family, we lit the first candle, remembering that God's people are a waiting people. Nine months to bear the baby Jesus, Abraham and Sarah, elders by the time they held their promised child in their arms. Four hundred years as captives and then 40 more to wander after the Israelite's emancipation. The fear and anticipation of Mary and Martha as they called for Jesus to bring healing, and then placed their brother in a tomb for 4 whole days.
Hope is not something to simply conjure, but comes by way of waiting. It is a necessary tool that can help ignite genuine hope. Waiting allows me to see the miracles around me. It strips me to the bareness of soul and allows me to gain understanding of who I am beneath my fear. It changes my posture and allows me to see that this holy journey through the dark might not give me definitive answers to specific problems, but it gives me new eyes.
Patiently (and sometimes even skeptically) waiting for you is all that I have left. It's all I have to give - just showing up. Like the singular candle flickering in the darkness, I am but a faint light, but one that holds out for the promise of seeing you when you draw near.
I was listening to a podcast the other day in which I heard Pete Holmes say, "The ethics and good behavior that Christ embodied was because he had undergone a transformation, and a lot of us are trying to imitate that transformation." I had to pause the podcast to catch my breath and reel from the connections that my faith's last deconstruction embodied, but hadn't yet found words to.
Several years ago my faith felt obtuse and I began to ask all of the scary questions that were sedentary inside of me. I rehearsed the times when I tried to believe my way our of brokenness; or the other times when I tried to work my way out of darkness, and how the spiritual protocol that was supposed to yield results completely failed me. Questions like these came up and terrified me: did God fail me? Did I fail myself? Did I not apply the formula correctly? What kind of God even requires me to pass these impossible formulas anyway? And, if this was the system in which he works, was God even good?
I didn't understand the incredibly tight tension between activity and passivity, and this balance affects our discipleship to the bones. Passivity says that there's a right system of beliefs that if followed correctly, will yield fruit of the kingdom. This is the camp that tends to offer "thoughts and prayers" while offering little to no action. It's more about believing the Bible intellectually but without experiential knowledge. I lived in this camp for so long, unknowingly. I was stuck in my own head. I didn't know how to be a Christian, only how to believe I was one. I traded spiritual growth for belief because it's what was being modeled to me in the church. Belief is obviously an integral part of any spiritual framework, but we can't forget the importance of spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation is a progression; it's slow forward movement. In 2 Peter spiritual formation advances this way: "Now since you have become partakers of the divine nature applying all diligence,in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control; and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness, love."
There's a starting point and a trajectory that builds slowly and comprehensively, and it leads to love. Divine love. Without the formation of our character through faith and action, we don't know that we are loved, and therefore won't be able to give love. If our salvation is the beginning and the end of our faith journey, we will undoubtedly be doing things to mimic love, without them being from the nature of love.
Then, there's this other way - the way of action. Similar to the fallacy of just believing, we cannot get stuck in a system which says we must earn our righteousness singularly through works. Works without a heart change, feels a lot like earning. It's supposed to engage the beliefs we have in our hearts. James 2:26 says "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." Without the tension of both processes working together, we stand in a religiosity that leaves us empty, disenchanted, questioning God, and probably really burnt out. We aren't supposed to be imitating the change, we are supposed to be transformed by a life of submission.
John 15:5 reminds us that "Without me, you can do nothing." Our relationship with God is symbiotic. It is God who initiates our relationship, he reveals His presence to us, but it is us who answer that call by applying all diligence to meet him. We can't come to God without His initiation, but God cannot infiltrate our hearts without permission. There's a tension. It's belief. It's works. It's participatory.
That time when my faith was being restructured was a grace to me. It wasn't even my transformation that was being shaken, it was all of the ways I was wrongly imitating a bad perception of a good God.
When we find our place in this tension of action and passivity, we will pray and do. We will believe and show up. We will help our neighbor and share our resources with a widow. We will have love for the refugee and orphan, and an understanding of the love Christ has for us, too. Transformation has to work itself through our lives organically, it's not something we have the responsibility to make happen. We can't produce the fruit of new life without tending to the seed and the soil. Thankfully, we are relieved of the burden that says this is ours alone to satisfy. We just have to show up and surrender to the process.