Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Something Worth Celebrating

This past October I spent a lot of time on the internet trying to track down good songs from the early 1950's. My granny, a self-professed lover of Madame Butterfly and Frank Sinatra, was about to be surprised along with my gramps with a surprise 60th anniversary bash. Cousins flying in from around the country, lots of good food and a slideshow to commemorate it all. A slideshow that needed songs they'd actually recognize.

So, with songs like "Too Marvelous", "Harbor Lights" and "When You're Smiling" ringing through my head, my family made the 12 hour drive through the boondocks of southeastern America to get to St. Petersburg, FL.  Once there, we spent hours upon hours at the beach and pool, reminiscing about old family trips to the Cape, our favorite memories of growing up with Granny and Gramps and begging them to tell us stories maybe we used to be too young to know. As it stands now, the youngest cousin is in grad school, so I think we all pretty much count ourselves as adults, at least on our good days.  We deserve the messy stories now.

I can safely say it was the first time I've ever even come close to hearing my grandparents reference any kind of sex life or even admitting that having 3 kids under 4 years-old might've been a tad insane. My granny spoke about the time that my gramps was off to war and she was raising a child alone, unsure of whether he'd even meet that child(my mom).  They talked of good times too, of remembering when each of us was born and the things we did in our teens that were so incredibly foreign to their own experiences. (These stories mostly related to any and all music we'd play around them, not the least of which was my brother's foray into angry German rock. My gramps had a LOT to say about that at the time, as I recall.)

My family isn't perfect. We have a lot of craziness that goes on, as much dysfunction as the next family. But my grandparents have stuck together for 60 years. Sixty unperfect but committed years. I couldn't help but compare my meager 7 1/2 to that number and hope that in about 53 years, my own grandkids will have something to celebrate, some crazy chance to hear insane stories about what dating was like in the early 2000's (which to them will likely sound like the stone age) and the fact that I didn't even own a cell phone and had to use calling cards to talk to my fiance when we were engaged long distance. The movies we watched and the songs we danced to will be long forgotten classics to them. But I imagine, just like it was for my grandparents in October, that those memories will not be as distant for us. That our wedding song will be just as special, that we'll easily remember the birth of our son and every detail of any subsequent births of our (hopefully) grandkids.  That, though we won't have led a perfect life without suffering or had a flawless marriage (who could?) that we'll have stuck it out and learned more about God, each other and ourselves than we ever would have had we never made the commitment to each other in the first place.  

G and G on their wedding day- December 22, 1950
60 years is no joke. As that slideshow played through pictures of their dating and wedding day, he handsome in his uniform, she gorgeous in a late 40's style dress...as Frank sang about the world smiling and pictures of my aunt and uncle and mother flashed across the screen on family vacations, I was so deeply thankful. Thankful that I was a part of this family, that I could be a part of something so worth celebrating.  That I could see before me not a perfect couple, but a couple who has yelled at each other, been frustrated and laughed more times than they could count...a couple who has suffered, who parented well and parented poorly, who have lost many friends and family to disease and old age and who have done all this and more together for more than 60 years. Who I'm sure have been tempted to give up more than once. I am so deeply thankful that they didn't.
G & G on the night of their anniversary party, October 2010

The joy of my grandparents at this celebration was infectious, their clear love for each other and us was overwhelming- it felt like it must've been obvious to everyone around us.  It may sound trite, but I think at least in this one instance, Frank was right. 

"When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chocolate Calendars and Being Enlarged

Growing up, my only real understanding of the word Advent was undeniably linked to chocolate. Each year, around Thanksgiving, we'd get one of those little cardboard calendars with all the windows in it. And then, each morning from then until Christmas, we'd get to open up one little window and start the day with a piece of, to be quite honest, pretty terrible tasting chocolate. Even though this was not a gourmet experience, I looked forward to it each year. When would we start the advent calendar? When would my door be adorned with a hanging festival of treats destined to rot my teeth and create nervous sugary energy for my first class of the day?

One of the great things about going away to college and getting involved in faith communities of people with varying backgrounds is that you begin to learn about other traditions.  Meeting and living life with so many people of various backgrounds in the past 14 years has shown me that there's so much more to Advent, even beyond all  the quirky family traditions out there.  My church didn't talk much about this current season- sure, we did it up for Christmas Eve, singing all the carols and rejoicing in the Christmas story, but I had no real idea that the season before that glorious night had any real purpose to it.

As a perk to my job I receive a box of books every other month. These are usually new releases from InterVarsity Press- I think the ideas is that as campus ministers we're the best way of getting the word out on a hot new book. So, I'm supposed to read these and then pass them along.  Admittedly, I rarely open these books. Maybe I'll read the back cover and possibly glance at the introduction. To be honest, I already have so many books on my shelves crying out to be read that these books usually find a place beside those, to be read at some distant time.  Last year, however, I remember opening up that box and seeing this book called Living the Christian Year. At the time, I was on sabbatical and navigating church hunting and trying to be open to a more liturgical and traditional way of understanding the Christian life. So, after reading the back and glancing through the intro I decided to commit to it. Ironically, though, as the chaos of pre-Christmas life took over, the book ended up back on my shelf.

This year, however, as the beginning of Advent coincided with some deep disappointments and setbacks, I ran back to that shelf and vowed that I would, finally, figure out what this Advent thing is all about. No poor-tasting chocolate substitutes, but the real thing. And I have been so met in the searching.  Kathleen Norris, who is quoted in the book, says "I've learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny."  And as I've read through this book and sat in the scriptures that are meant to frame this season, I have felt a deep mystery about it for the very first time. A deep longing and expectation, not that God will answer my own selfish prayers, but just that I would know the Christ child. That I would expect God's movement in our world. That I would desire more than what my own eyes can see and my own dreams can hope for.

The main idea that the author sits in for the season of Advent is the idea that we are enlarged by waiting. That through restraint, quiet, retreat, fasting and rich tradition, our own souls become so filled with longing for God that they are literally grown during this time. He asks some great questions. "How can we experience Christ coming anew into our already full lives? How can we be absorbed in hope when we are so harried? How can our lives be enlarged in so brief a time?"

Ultimately, he answers these questions with the following quote from Lucy Shaw.

During the waiting times God is vibrantly at work within us.And if through the Spirit of God we have been united with the Father in dynamic relationship, if God has sown his gospel seed in us, then Jesus is being formed within us, little by little, day by day. But we have to wait if the Word is to become flesh in us.  And that kind of waiting feels like work." 

If you're like me, waiting feels totally counterproductive. Who am I to sit back on my heels and wait for something to happen when there are roughly 2 trillion things to be thinking about and accomplishing at any given moment. Shouldn't I be able to DO something here? Can't someone write a book about advent with three neat little steps to help me accomplish this enlarging work of my soul?

But that's just it- the ringing answer is no. Probably someone has actually written a book that will tell me exactly what to do, but I'm pretty sure I shouldn't read it.  I'm pretty sure that really the only thing I'm supposed to do is step back and wait. Trust that the living and active God is deeply at work in my soul, stretching it and filling it with deep expectation for only Him.

This is not easy or passive work but surely this is better work than the enlarging that a chocolate calendar would likely accomplish at this point in my life!  My prayer is that, rather than consume a piece of bland chocolate each morning, God would slow me down before the day even starts. That the racing mind that I awake to each day would be stilled in the early morning light so that my day might not reflect our cultural obsession with busyness and consumerism this time of year, but that it would undeniably point to the Christ that I am waiting for.