Our Ever-Attentive God of Hope

We begin December with an ever-increasing list of demands. I find myself tackling the tasks at hand from the time I awake each morning to the time I retire each night. Though I thought I’d begun to prepare for Christmas earlier than usual, I suddenly find myself behind schedule. I was extremely excited to have completed this week’s reflections early only to realize that writing for the rest of December will be a challenge. Still, in spite of all that there is to do, I’ve decided not to allow this pre-Christmas frenzy to get the best of me. Rather, I’m going to take a deep breath and to approach all that lies ahead one step at a time. Will you join me in slowing down just long enough to attend very closely to all that we encounter this First Sunday of Advent?

As I enter church, our Advent Wreath catches my eye. Purple and pink bows mark the candles which call our attention to the four weeks ahead. The green accents which marked the hope of Ordinary Time have given way to purple. With that hope intact, we watch as Advent’s violet hues beckon us to embrace the passionate sentiments of the weeks to come. Through the scripture readings, we will retrace the steps of the Israelites who cried out to God in their misery and who received God’s comfort in response over and over again. Our hymns call us to wake up and to prepare. We search our hearts and adjust our priorities to make room for God to dwell among us and within us. Today, even our most familiar prayers demand our attention. Advent 2017 challenges us to invite God into every aspect of our lives. Finally, I realize that I’m actually most grateful for December’s arrival. Advent has given me reason to slow down, at least while I’m in church, and to remember that I’m not alone in enduring the trials and tribulations of this life. For as long as God’s children have walked the earth, life among us has been difficult at best.

The pain we experience when our circumstances run amok is as ancient as the scriptures. The prophet we call “Third Isaiah” speaks from his own intense suffering (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:2-7). In spite of the effort he puts into his relationship with God, Isaiah fills up with anger and doubt. He fumes over the Israelites’ continued unfaithfulness to God. He simply cannot stand by and watch their evildoing any longer. Isaiah fumes even more vigorously at the Lord God who seems content to step back and observe as the people engage in their iniquity. Isaiah glares heavenward and asks, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” In the face of the many personal and societal ills which besiege us all these days, you and I may be inclined to pose the same question to our ever-patient God. I admit to turning my eyes heavenward far too often to ask, “If you don’t want things to be this way, why don’t you fix them?” Fortunately, Isaiah moves past his anger and uncertainty toward God. In the depths of his heart, Isaiah realizes that God has been listening all the while. He and the rest of God’s people have never been alone in their misery. Finally, Isaiah prays, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are the work of your hands.” Finally, Isaiah understands that, because we are the most beloved work of God’s hands, God remains with us in everything. Truly, God will be with us all regardless of what lies ahead.

This First Sunday of Advent, we gather around God’s family table where we’re reminded that we’re in the best of company as we make our way to Christmas. Just as God was present in the best and worst of Israel’s history, God is present in the midst of our personal histories as well. Just as God placed Isaiah in the middle of Israel’s troubles to improve things as best he could, God places you and me in the middle of this world’s troubles to do the same.

It occurs to me that your and my Advent To-do Lists are actually Advent Opportunity Lists. Whether we find ourselves on the arm of our elderly parent or of our unyielding child, whether we suffer with an impossible job or an endless job search, whether we are sick in body or sick in spirit, whether we long for peace in this world or peace in our own hearts, each of us struggles to find our way, one moment at a time. It is during the difficult times that we must imitate Isaiah by acknowledging God’s presence. We must remember Isaiah’s prayer to the Potter who created us for these very moments. When we open our eyes and our hearts to God who knows our troubles better than we know them ourselves, we will somehow manage the tasks before us. These moments of grace in which we find God at are sides are what we prepare us for Christmas 2017. These moments of grace are what prepare us for the amazing things to come. Be ready! Just watch for what God has in store!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Blessed with Hope and Love

As is the case with most people, my life becomes increasingly busy with each passing day as we near Christmas. With this in mind, my husband and I began our Advent and Christmas preparations a bit early. While I contemplated this First Sunday of Advent writing, my dear husband raked up the last of this year’s leaves. After staring at the empty page before me for what seemed like hours, I decided a change of scenery might provide some inspiration. Though I intended to head outdoors for a quick walk, I stopped to admire the large piles of leaves that flanked the parkway in front of our house. Either my husband had tended to those leaves extremely quickly or I did actually sit at my computer for far longer than one unproductive hour. With that, I walked around the house to compliment Mike on his productivity.

Seconds later, I found the poor man in the midst of evergreen branches which were strewn about our patio. Mike had turned his attention to the barren planters which once boasted the colorful blossoms which we enjoyed this past summer. Mike had already filled two planters with a variety of those branches, colorful red twigs and a few faux poinsettia blossoms and berries. His creations looked at least as attractive as the decorations that have appeared in stores everywhere for the past several weeks. When he realized I was there, Mike told me, “I decided to take advantage of the warm weather and get these pots done.” This declaration enticed me to get something done as well.

I scrapped my plans to walk and set out to find Christmas Cards. Mike had seen a nice selection at Tuesday Morning a few weeks earlier and he advised me to start there. With a bit of unspoken skepticism, I agreed. When I arrived at the store, I found the card display precisely where Mike said it would be. There were numerous boxes to choose from, but not enough of any one design to meet my needs. We normally select one card to send to everyone on our list. Still, I perused box after box. In the process, I found five cards which I really liked. Each one featured lovely artwork and an inspiring greeting. Though these messages focused on varied aspects of Christmas, each one expressed the true meaning of this special day in its own way. As I selected the boxes I needed, I laughed at my less-than-hopeful attitude at the onset of this quest. I had left home with the intention of finding the perfect card with the perfect message at the perfect price. I did not expect to find it at this store. In the end, I had found five perfect cards with five perfect messages at a far better price than I expected. In addition, I found inspiration for this writing.

Every year, I begin Advent with the resolve to keep the true meaning of Christmas in my mind and in my heart. Every year, I struggle to do this with the rest of God’s people. How difficult it is to reconcile the trials and tribulations of this life with the absolute miracle which occurred in Bethlehem so long ago! When I returned to the scriptures, they reminded me that our struggle is nothing new. Though their settings seem somewhat remote to us, our biblical counterparts suffered in many of the ways we suffer today. These troubles might be economic, health-related or legal. They might be matters of the heart, matters of faith or matters of need. Regardless of the source, unrest played merciless havoc with our ancestors in the faith just as it plays havoc with us today. In the earliest times, God responded through the prophets. In Bethlehem, God responded with Jesus—the same Jesus who continues to respond to each one of us today.

Mike’s unexpected handiwork with our planters inspired me to set out on my Christmas Card search. My encounter with those inspiring images and verses rekindled the hope which had been but a flicker an hour earlier. I am quite certain that, throughout Advent, you and I will encounter the unexpected in many forms. However these adventures unfold, the final outcomes depend upon us. When we remain open to God who responded to this world’s troubles by sending Jesus, we remain open to God’s most precious gifts. Our hope in the things to come and our certainty regarding God’s love for us arm us to deal with the unexpected in all of its forms. When we do so, we inspire those we meet along the way to do the same. This is our Advent journey: To share our hope and to spread God’s love as only we can.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved