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”.


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!!



**All images copyrighted 2010 :: RedThreadPhoto.com

The conversation the other night was very human centered.  It revolved around “my choice”, “my free will” and everything “me”….I was talking to a friend who was trying to hold tight and fast to her belief system but what she was unable to comprehend is that her belief system has trapped her.  There may be a God “somewhere out there” for her, but she has made herself the center of the universe.  Everything was about her right to choose.

Now I am not opposed nor do I deny the fact that we have choices to make in our journey of faith, but I just don’t think the adventure starts with us.  I believe there is an initial igniting of my soul from Some Outside Force…the Spirit quickening me to life.

So I asked this friend – so stuck in her choosing world – did she choose to fall in love?  Or better yet….did she choose the initial attraction to her husband?  I knew my husband at 15 years of age and we were good friends.  I never thought I would date him let alone marry him, until one day, something happened to me.  It was an awakening in me and my eyes began to see him differently.  I didn’t choose it…it just happened.

I would contend that this is how it is with God too.  He is always around whether we acknowledge it or not, but we don’t have eyes to see Him.  Through His graciousness and great love for us, He enters into our deepest places and gives us the capacity to see.  It is not always a large movement, but the first move is His.  He begins the dance of awakening in us.

I think this is what is meant in Ephesians when Paul says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that {faith is} not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”  (Eph 2:8-9)  Truly our choices come in responding to what God starts.

And I don’t think this is just for those who don’t have eyes to see God yet.  I think that this is a continual work and gift of the Spirit…always trying to wake us up and open our eyes to something new.  We may ignore the subtle movements, and like my friend, move into a life driven by our power, our choices and our rationale.  But He is a relentless pursuer…He is always trying to give us eyes to see Him and get out of our “me-worlds”.  It is mysterious and wonderful.  It defies explanation, but cannot be denied once it has been experienced.  It is to stand in wonder in the absence of words.

Albert Einstein once wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and all science.  He to whom this “emotion” is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder, or stand in rapt awe, is as good as dead.  His eyes are closed.”

I cannot “do” the spiritual life.  No amount of good choices, hard work, and effort can make it happen.  (Well I guess I can try, but it will leave me tired, disillusioned and stuck on myself.)  This is because faith does not start with me.  It comes from outside of me.  The mysterious emotion that Einstein talked about cannot be mustered, but it is given.  Our job is to lean into it once it happens….to keep looking once we have been given eyes to see!

{slowly going through the Psalms of Ascent….they are becoming my prayers on this heart journey I am on….hope this makes sense}

The house is huge.  There are all sorts of bright colors and flashing lights enticing me to come in.  The music coming from it is an eerie mix that invites my feet to bounce along rhythmically without thinking.  The line of people waiting to enter appeals to my sense of not wanting to miss out.

But once I enter the “Fun House” at the fair, I find the inside to be a series of strange and distorted corridors – not a “house” at all.  There are stairs that move under my feet and a group of mirrors that bend and twist my image into ridiculous reflections.  As I walk through this labyrinth, there are places that the floor drops out from under me, only to jut up into my next step.  And to exit I must navigate my way through a spinning, whirling tube causing me to list to one side, fall down, and roll back to the bottom of this orange and yellow keleidescope.

This would all seem like a lot of fun if  it wasn’t a picture of my life right now.  Rolling, tumbling, trying to catch my balance before and I fall and distorted pictures of who I am.  Too much noise, too much color, too much jolting and upheaval….really, just too much!

So I cry with the Psalmist,

Woe is me for I sojourn in Meshech.  For I dwell among the tents of Kedar.  Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace….”

Everything in me cries out to escape this place!!  Then the strangest thing happens…I look over to the operator of this disturbing ride and I see Jesus.  We make eye contact, He nods, smiles and in that moment lets me know it is time to leave.

I do not claim to be a theologian but the longer I walk with God, the larger His ways and love expand beyond my capability.  Here I am being jolted and tumbled, unsettled and disturbed and it is Him that is doing it!!  I want calm and He seemingly brings chaos.  I want safety and He brings disturbance.

Dan Allander writes “our striving for {self-protection} must be interrupted by a prophetic voice that will sing cacophony to undermine our idolatry.”  (Now that is a sentence to unpack and not move away from too quickly!!)  Jesus Himself sings this dissatisfaction into my life…in order for me to get up and leave!!  He wishes to undermine those answers – even the good ones – that I trust in to bring me life without Him.  (The crazy thing is…I feel like He previously gave me some of those answers and now He is shaking them to a breaking point!)

Lord, I feel like You are singing noises and moving structures that are causing my “pocket gods” to fall off the shelf and my whole house to rumble.  I know not what needs to happen…but I will ask you to continue to bring rumblings of dissatisfaction until I am willing to leave the house, put on my shoes and go on a new journey with You.

And so my journey with the Psalms of Ascent begins.  They begin where so many journeys begin – with harsh, discordant tones.  But it is that very pain “that penetrates through despair and stimulates a new beginning” (Eugene Peterson).  Psalm 120 says “In my trouble I cried to the Lord and He answered me”.  He answered with disturbance, dissatisfaction and the shaking of the “fun” house because this I know….before I am willing to go on a journey, I must, by necessity, also be willing to leave somewhere I have already been.

It has been a while since I have posted anything.  Life has seemed a little like I was taking a spin in a blender….not sure it is going to stop, but I know I need to start writing again.  I’ll need to sweep the cobwebs off of this site, but I did write a post the other day for a friend and you can check it out here!  I am so glad to have a God who is not embarrassed!!

I have grown up in a tradition that tends to be skeptical of “pre-formed” prayers.  On a good side, I think they just don’t want prayer to be rote and something we do without really engaging our being in.  On the ugly side, our prayers tend toward narcissism and an inordinate fascination with ourselves.   I love to talk to God, but find sometimes I just don’t have the words and one of the saints who have gone before me does.

Today I borrow a prayer from one of them.

We, without a future,

Safe, defined, delivered

Now salute you, God.

Knowing that nothing is safe,

Secure, inviolable here.

Except you,

And even that eludes our minds at times.

We did not want it easy, God

But we did not contemplate

That it would be quite this hard

This long, this lonely.

So, if we are to be turned inside out,

And upside down,

With even our pockets shaken

Just to check what’s rattling

And left behind,

We pray that you will keep faith with us,

And be with us,

holding our hands as we weep,

Giving us strength to continue,

And showing us beacons

Along the way

to becoming new.

~ Anna McKenzie