Advent


Image by Tara Malouf::copyright 2010

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Ever noticed how when it comes to taking pictures, we like to clean up, wear our best and look amazing?  I have always laughed with my clients (I’m a professional photographer) that the family portrait is a depiction of about 30 seconds out of our 365 days in a year!  A true family picture would be a little rougher on the edges – a shirt untucked, a dirty faced kid, at least two people looking off doing their own thing and that one slightly crazy family member that we are never sure what he will do!

While I enjoy the “cleaned up Christmas greetings” I receive in the mail, I am worried we sometimes do that to the picture of the birth of our Savior too.

See…one of the things my family does during Advent is to go back to the beginning – to Genesis – and read the stories over again.  We read of a Creator God, a Redeeming God, a Delivering God and we read the true, unedited and NOT cleaned up escapades of humanity.  In fact as we read the account of Abraham, Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah the other day, I was struck by the fact that these are not “children’s stories”.  (Try reading those accounts with your kids straight from the Scriptures and see what sort of questions you have to field!!)  But the cool thing is…this is the picture God has given us.  And He is not embarrassed!!  Abraham is a mess sometimes and he is considered the “father of faith”.  I find that comforting!

During the season leading up to Christmas, we also hear lots of songs that I think have skewed our thinking.  “Silent Night”??   While it is a lovely son, all I can say is “I think not”!  I have delivered two children and there was not silence, nor calmness, nor lack of a mess.  I looked anything but angelic after the process and the red, pruny babies I held really did cry!!  I think of Mary – in a barn, exhausted, trying to figure out how to nurse her Son, puffy-faced from the water she was retaining and from the pushing during delivery.  Of course, she is amazed and staring sweetly at this Newborn but I imagine she is also super hungry, shivering and – had she known what it was – would have loved a hot shower at this point in the journey!  Of course, add to all this the scandal of being pregnant before she was married and trying to come up with a insane story of how angels talked to her and this baby was somehow God’s Son….well, I all I can say is I think we have the “slightly crazy” member of the family picture in place!

And then there are nativity sets…Now I love a good nativity scene as much as the next person but it has always struck me as a little too “cleaned up” for reality.  Maybe we should all go get a little wet and moldy grass to put down under the creche (or maybe a piece of poop to add a little realistic, pungent aroma?). The shepherds probably looked far less like the creator of my nativity imagined and more like the homeless guys I pass as I drive out of Costco.  And then there are those strange “Magi” guys.  True, they may not have arrived that night, but since most nativity set include them, I will too.   These men were some mix of kings AND astrologers!!  They sought the signs in the skies and though astrology is clearly forbidden in the Old Testament, God still invites these men into the picture through a language they understood.  Once again….God is not embarrassed of the people in the picture nor asks them to “clean up”.

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To all this I say, please keep sending the lovely Christmas card greetings, but let’s not try to clean up the Christmas story too much.  It was real, it was human, it included people we would have never picked to be in a family picture.  But they are there….and God is not embarrassed by their presence.

I wrote a piece for what is rolling around in my soul for this Advent season – about the difference between living in illusion and living in expectation.  (You can find the post here on Christine Sine’s blog.)  And as is often the case after I write something, I am all the more challenged with the thoughts.

Perhaps my Advent journey this year is more about “naming the illusions” – to borrow a phrase from Rohr – that I have lived in for so long.  It is about no longer turning inward and creating my own false story, but rather turning outward to God and waiting for His true story to unfold.  Just last night I was struggling with a deep sense of being inadequate (for anything in my life) and I had to name it as an illusion.  Not that I have it all figured out now, but the simple first act of naming an illusion loosens its grip on my soul.  To see it as false reminds me that God has a better (more true) story for me.  But it is hard work with the Spirit nonetheless.

When I was little, we used to go to my grandparents house all summer long.  They lived on a lake and the days were spent swimming, boating, laughing and playing (for me at least!).  I am so grateful their house has been passed down and remains in the family!  Now my kids get to go there and have some of the same experiences I had as a child.  However, a few years ago as we walked on the lawn of the front yard, I began to find pieces of broken glass – a lot of them!  Realizing that this wasn’t just one broken bottle, but the yard was filled with shards of broken glass, we went to work to dig them out of the ground.  I obviously didn’t want a dangerous sharp edge lurking just below the surface of the earth to pierce anyone’s feet.  We picked up as many pieces as we could and then hired a guy with some machine to come in and dig up the rest.

That’s what I feel like is going on in my heart during this Advent season.  Illusions are being exposed and the danger they pose to me and others means they must be addressed.  I just wish there weren’t so many of them!!

Wow!!  The year has flown by and here we are standing on the threshold of a new Christian year!    It has been a full (and sometimes tough) year for me…and because of that, there will not be a printed version of  the StoryFormed Calendar this year.   Printing costs are up and I felt like my creativity was diminished this year.   However, back in the summertime, on a road trip, I had a vision for what I wanted the Advent page of the calendar to be (if we would have printed one).  Well…I had a flurry of creativity the other day and decided to design it.

I want to give the Advent page as a gift to anyone  wanting to shape life around God’s story.  You may download the PDF below and print it up yourself (it is an 11×17) at a local printer, or use the “smaller pdf” if you just want to see it on your own personal electronic media.  And tell anyone else who might be interested….just remember, the picture IS copyrighted and not to be sold or used in print or electronic media – other than personally – without giving credit to the author (Tara Malouf/Red Thread Photo).

The door of Advent is opening to us…let us live in expectation of what God wants to do in this new year!!

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**All images copyrighted 2010 :: RedThreadPhoto.com

Reading the story of Elizabeth and Mary this morning in the silence of a dark, sleepy house, I had these thoughts:

Both Elizabeth and Mary were expanding women.  Despite the gap in age, they found themselves in much the same predicament.  Something was growing in them that was pushing the edges of their physiques.  They were expanding beyond anything their bodies had ever experienced.

But not just their flesh, their minds and hearts too were being stretched.  What was God up to?  How is it that the old woman and the virgin are in the same position?  Neither should be pregnant.  What about all the messiness since angels had appeared and delivered their messages?  How would they explain what they knew to be real?

I remember being pregnant with our first child and looking at my rounded belly at six months thinking, “oh this isn’t so bad!”  Little did I know the stretching of joints, organs, and skin that would take place the following 12 weeks!!  Just when I thought I could not get any bigger – that surely I had reached the limit of my expansion – my skin magically found a way to stretch even more.

And so it is with God, I think.  He comes and plants something in us – something to be grown to fruition.  He finds us unprepared (and full of questions) for what He is about to do but that does not deter Him.  Instead, He grows us and stretches us to make us fit habitations for His handiwork.  He doesn’t ask us to understand but just to respond with Mary, “I am the Lord’s…may it be to me as you have said.”  Then He stretches our souls and hearts past the point of recognition – little by little…..and arrives (many times) in messiness and at an inconvenient hour!

Lord,  I know I carry You in me – in my flesh.  What I do not always know is what You are growing in the dark recesses of my body.  Sometimes I feel nothing – even doubting that I could be pregnant with Your Spirit.  Other times, a flutter, a kick, reminds me of Your presence.  More often, an uncomfortable stretching sensation – for You are expanding the limits of my heart and soul.  But it causes discomfort and I can no longer wear the clothing I used to wear.  I cannot see the inward development that is occurring.  Instead, I must trust that this expansion is from You and will be delivered in the proper time.

My family and I take an Advent pilgrimage of sorts each year.  It happens around our dinner table as we slowly take a journey toward Bethlehem.  We open the pages of the Scriptures and wander with the friends we find within – from creation to the birth of Jesus.   This year I have been struck with a question that Christine Sine asked…”What are we waiting for this Advent season?”  I took the question and mixed it with the point of view of being in the middle of the story of the Scriptures, and here is my answer:


I stand on the edge of unformed worlds and watch them come into being.  I see light, brilliant color and exquisite detail.  I hear rushing waters, animals calling to one another and the sound of footsteps on the gravel.  I hear the words “it is VERY good” and those words are forever imprinted upon my psyche.  They churn in me images of intimacy with the Creator, my fellow bipeds and all creation.  I taste joy and sweet glory dripping off this newborn terrestrial ball.

Then tears…the sound of pitiful weeping and the thud of an apple falling to the ground.  The taste in my mouth turns bitter with pride, shame, hiding and toil.  I feel the jolt of a planet askew in its orbit.  I must squint for the light has dimmed, my eyes relegated to the spectrum of shadows.  I feel the stabbing pain of jealousy, murder, arrogance, love of self.  I am disoriented with the rest of the planet.  I have become “homo incurvatus in se ipsum” – man bent in on himself.  I am trapped and only a whisper of “it is good” lies  below audible frequencies in the regions of my heart.

I am hot and weary from wandering a planet that does not cooperate with me.  I hear promises and I hope; I trust…I long.  I celebrate moments of light when the “very good” seems to well up almost to crescendo but then…always falls flat.

I walk, I lie, I settle down, I am oppressed, I am delivered, I run back to tyrannical idols.  I obey, I distrust, I watch generations die,  I hope, I am faithful, I disobey.  I watch leaders rise and fall, I cry in agony, I am carted off to foreign lands, I watch God be faithful, I am deafened by His silence.  And I wait…I long…for that “very good” rhythm.

I hear the sound of weeping again and this time find my face and hands wet with tears.  I cry as a sojourner in a strange land.  I hear the words of the prophets and they stir my soul awake with words of justice, wholeness, and intonations of “very good”.  My tongue, so used to bitterness, perceives ever so slightly, the taste of joy once again.

Then I hear nothing….

Heavy weighted under this unbearable nothingness lies my hope.  It is suffocating – being executed by the crushing weight.  In its final breath, a single Baby’s cry rings out and shatters the grip of this oppressive foe.  The weary planet shudders and takes, at long last, a gasp of fresh air.  The Baby’s cries reverberate to the outer edges of the universe and command the attention of a King.  The planet stands up straighter and a new creation process is put into place.

The Advent journey ends here for many, but I do not think it should.  For we  live in the unraveling story outside the pages of the Book – a story not so different from the one gone before.  A story of longing and waiting and hope.

Though able to breathe, this planet still wheezes and coughs within its brokenness.  It groans for full restoration – for the new creation to be complete.  And I stand on its infected skin hearing children crying and people yelling.  I feel the pain of wars and hate and cruelty.  I, like back at the beginning, still taste the bitterness of sin.   I still live with that awkward curvature of my soul.

And I wait…Though I catch glimpses of Reality, I long for this Baby to return in the fullness of His Kingdom.  I long for Him to immerse a tired creation once again with the fullness of His glory.  I long for peace.  I long for a world put to right.  I long for the reign of a just King.  I long for healing and for joy to be the only flavor in our mouths.  I long for rest…for Shalom.  And I long to live fully in the dance of “it is VERY good”.

(But Lord, as I wait for Your Son to come again and to make His Kingdom fully established, let me labor to make to make it a present reality- more visible wherever I am. )

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of moms the other day.  I always feel as if I should take off my shoes when I enter into a room full of young moms because I know I am standing on holy ground.  Though often mundane, tedious and exhausting, mothering children is truly entering in and co-laboring with God.  (There is a similar post here.)

I spoke on being Simply Present – connecting with God and our children in the moment at hand.  (Something I will confess that I am always practicing – never perfecting or becoming an expert.)

So as we are in the midst of a culture who is so frenzied about finding and purchasing  just the right gift for a certain date, it got me thinking as to what is that “perfect gift”.  True, it is different for each person, but for kids I think it is the gift of our presence.  After all I do believe that every kid’s favorite toy is Mom or Dad!

So I am challenged as the current outside my door rushes to the malls, to hang lights, to concerts, to parties, to purchase, to mail and to mmet all the deadlines – how do I live differently?  As a mom I want to choose to give gifts that my children “will love rather than ones that meet deadlines” (thanks to Maggi Dawn for these words).  And the gifts they love???  To be together, to play a game, to read together, to snuggle as they are going to sleep, to help them make their sandwich for their lunchbox, and to have a place to talk about their day.  I did a photo shoot yesterday for a family that was in the middle of the decorating frenzy and trying to get the perfect Christmas card picture.  Half way through the session, we were down on their beach and dad started a bonfire.  We warmed ourselves around the flames,  the family toasted marshmallows and the boys were just loving the very presence of their parents.  I photographed these moments and afterward mom said to me “I get so caught up in schedules and timing that I forget to live in the moment and have a fire on the beach and eat marshmallows at 10 in the morning.”  Those are the gifts that don’t come on the “right date”, but rather in the right moments.

My dad gave me a wonderful gift 13 years ago although I don’t know if he knows it and I didn’t know it until weeks after he “gave” it to me.   I was six months pregnant with my daughter when my dad, who had bravely fought cancer for three years, died.  After our daughter was born I remember nursing her one exhausting night almost at the end of my rope, wanting that certain date when she would sleep through the night, when I realized the gift my dad had left me.

In his death, he taught me that I am not guaranteed another day with my children – there are no “certain dates” that I am promised.  But what I am given is the moment at hand.  And that is all I am given – the moment before me to be fully present in.  To play, to sing, to talk, to correct, to cook, to connect, to whatever…but not to let a certain future date on the calendar overshadow the NOW.

Lord, as I am preparing and looking forward to the celebration of Christmas, may You help me to live in the waiting and expectation of Advent.  Help me to be simply and fully present – each given moment – to You, my family and to those You put before me.  Help me to be like You – giving good gifts in the right moment and not on a certain deadline!

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