Happy New Year! According to the Christian calendar, the first day of Advent is also the first day of the new year.
This year, most of us are happy to see 2020 go and pray 2021 brings a sense of fresh hope and new beginnings as we leave behind a year fraught with tension, strife and fear.
Not so fast for me, though, as this really is “my favorite time of the year.”
The Latin word for Advent is adventus, which means coming. In this season we are offered an invitation to rest and reflect as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus. We look forward to the celebration of His first coming along with the anticipation of His second.
The invitation is to step out of the frenzied pace of December and tip-toe into a place where we can sit a few minutes, quiet our souls and listen to our longings. We were made for more. We long for our hearts to be filled with His peace. We long for the day we see Jesus face-to-face. We, indeed, were made for more.
As we anticipate the celebration of the joyful, yet humble birth of our Savior, may we prepare our hearts for new birth as we invite Jesus to do a new work in our lives. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
During this season, as we begin a new year, may we recognize our dire need for a Savior. And may our hearts be drawn to this time of longing, to the invitation of a still small voice Who gently whispers His great love to us, through the birth of a newborn and the coming of a King.
Emmanuel. God with us.
And they shall call his name Emmanuel, (which means, “God with us”). ~Matthew 1:23
Perhaps it’s because of the circles I run in or maybe because it’s long been a topic near and dear to my heart, but I seem to hear more and more these days the call to “the two greatest commandments” God has set forth to us as His disciples. They’re familiar scripture to most of us who’ve been in the church any length of time.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIV).
Even Jesus says it. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it…” Lately, as I’ve reread these verses and been reminded in sermons and devotions, I’m discovering there is a key component, seemingly hidden in there, a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t really taken notice of before.
Let’s read again the second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is! Love your neighbor. As yourself. As yourself. Yourself. Do you see it? Nestled in that second commandment is the key component Jesus gives us, which we so often overlook, “Love…yourself.”
This seems to be counteractive to many of Jesus’ other teachings. We read throughout scripture to put others above ourselves, to deny ourselves, in humility count others as more significant, don’t seek your own good, but the good of others, and so on.
I’m learning these days to find the balance in loving myself well so I have what it takes to put others needs above my own and truly care for those around me. Similar to the instructions when beginning a flight, we need to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. Only out of the overflow of loving ourselves well can we love others as Jesus commanded. As author, Geri Scazzero writes, “A healthy spiritual life includes a careful balance between serving other people’s needs and desires and valuing my own needs and desires. Instead, I put most of my efforts into caring for others at the expense of my own soul.”
Taking a closer look, I don’t think we can effectively love our neighbor until we first love ourselves. While it sounds easy, we know it’s not. Between human nature, circumstances, past experiences and lies we’ve been told by ourselves and others, we continue to live with the fear that we’re not enough and don’t measure up. We convince ourselves of our unworthiness. Somehow, it seems more spiritual to live with a sense of false humility. I sometimes feel the blood of Jesus covers everyone else’s sin, but it’s just not enough for mine.
Lately, I’ve been asking God to show me what it looks like to love myself well. A few of the answers I’ve received include being more intentional to take a Sabbath rest each week and discerning when to say no.
I’ve often wrestled with the definition of Sabbath; is it a defined time legalistically set during the week, with rules as to what you can or cannot do? Or is it a commandment God gives us for our benefit, a time of rest He modeled for us after working six days to create the world? Reading through the Old Testament, a few commentaries and various books, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, Sabbath is a 24-hour period of taking a break from my normal routine, resting and enjoying God’s presence. Typically, this includes a time of corporate worship as well as quiet, personal reflection. It might also include reading for pleasure, walking in the woods or on the beach, taking a drive in the country, shopping for fresh produce at a market, talking to my children or FaceTiming with my grandchildren. Perhaps it’s hosting a Sunday afternoon cookout with my husband or a tea party with my girlfriends. It’s important to realize here how personal one’s practice of Sabbath is, as it can be tempting to subject our values on others. (For instance, my husband LOVES to do the laundry. It brings him great pleasure in every step and he looks forward to spending a few hours of his Sabbath washing and folding clothes. For many, however, this is not a task that brings delight.) What brings us delight may not do the same for others. Part of the beauty of Sabbath is having the freedom to find delight in Jesus and rest for your soul in your own unique way.
The second way I’m learning to love myself better is by saying no to good opportunities. This enables me to have the time and energy to say yes to the best opportunities. Reminding myself of my limits and boundaries are healthy practices to loving myself well. And in turn, to loving others “as I love myself.”
Loving myself well is truly a key component to loving God and others more fully. As I discover ways to care for myself, I discover how to love and care for others as Jesus commanded.
We have several photos and memories of our young children dressing up in “big people’s clothes.” They especially loved to wear my husband’s combat boots. He’d get home in the evening, sit in a chair and take his boots off. Inevitably, one of the kids would be seen a few minutes later attempting to walk around in his huge boots. They never made it far, but were always up for the challenge. Occasionally, they’d try on his whole uniform. Oh, how they wanted to be like their daddy. (Apparently, from the photo, so did I?)
Our youngest daughter, Britain, was well-known among my friends as an early lover of high-heels. She especially loved to visit our friend, Lee, in Norway, who would grant Britain access to her well-stocked closet of fashionable heels and boots. The boots were longer than her legs, yet she would strut around the house until she’d fall down, her feet and ankles weary from the strain of wearing shoes that didn’t fit. At age four, she was intent on becoming a fashion statement, just like Ms. Lee. (Katie, pictured below, also loved high-heels!)
Recently reading in 1 Samuel, I came to the well-known story of David and Goliath. David, a small shepherd boy, young and inexperienced, as Saul notes, volunteers to come against the giant Goliath. I can imagine Saul muttering, “Seems rather foolish,” under his breath. Nevertheless, he agrees to this absurd move, and begins to prepare David for the unequal match.
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So, he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. (NIV, 1 Samuel 17:38-40)
And you know the rest of the story. Not even trusting in his five smooth stones, rather trusting in “the name of the Lord Almighty,” David defeated Goliath.
How many times do we think we need someone else’s accessories or attributes in order to accomplish a task? If I had her platform, if I looked more polished and put-together like her, if I only had her education, or her resources.
But God, rich in mercy, has given us everything we need to complete the tasks He’s given us. No need to borrow another’s armor; God has equipped us with our own battle gear, and it’s a perfect fit.
One month ago the upheaval of racial injustice once again invaded our masked, distant and socially deprived nation.
In the days and weeks following, I continue to sit and listen to God, asking Him to determine my next steps.
In my devotional this morning, I came across these thoughts from Mother Theresa, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look only at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one. You get closer to Christ by coming closer to each other.”
One person at a time.
When I see the masses, I am easily discouraged. What can I do to alleviate the problem? It seems so huge and I am so small. A tiny drop in a massive ocean.
I tend to be mathematically challenged. Equations, constants and coefficients never made much sense to me. Sometimes the way God uses math doesn’t make much sense in human terms, but He makes up for it exponentially in eternal dividends.
I love one person at a time. Because they have been loved, they in turn, love another. And they another. And they another. All the tiny drops collectively begin to make a little wave. And God moves among the small waves and joins them with others to make larger waves that crash against fear and hate and self-righteousness. And all the ugliness. And the injustice. And the divisiveness.
I owe many of my friends an apology. Sitting down to write them a letter, my thoughts go something like this:
Dear Friends of Color, (That sounds a bit odd as I usually don’t differentiate between my friends of color and the others. Technically, all my friends have color. At any rate, it seems like today this is an appropriate distinction.)
I want to tell you first and foremost how sorry I am that I haven’t said something before now. You may have been waiting, or maybe not. I have reasons but they’re not valid excuses. They may help explain my poor choice of actions, but I’m aware they don’t excuse them.
I’ve been silent because honestly, I haven’t known what to say. I struggle with whether I need to apologize on behalf of my race, on behalf of my church, or just on behalf of me. I’m pretty sure the latter is the only one that matters.
I’ve been silent because, to be completely honest, I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job in the area of race relations. And I thought we (you and I) were good with where we were relationally.
Growing up in the military, I thought racial tension was at bay. I watched people of every color work together, serve together, live together and play together. I naively assumed this is how the rest of the world operated. I realize not everyone saw the military through the same eyes. Please forgive my ignorance.
My first college roommate was black. The only difference I really noticed was the type of music we listened to. I had not been privy to much of Michael Jackson and Prince in my limited knowledge of music genres. Her color of skin didn’t phase me.
I was a summer missionary one year in the inner city of Buffalo. My roommate was black as was the pastor’s family and most of the congregation. I was comfortable and felt at home. Several nights we walked to apartment buildings where some of the church members lived. They called them the projects. (Ironically, my husband lived in the projects when he was growing up, as well. I just thought they were more affordable apartments for people struggling to make ends meet.) We would walk down the sidewalks and through the yards, people turning to notice us as it was summertime and kids and adults alike were outside playing and visiting until late at night. When we reached the apartment of a lady from the church, we would sit on her steps and eat and visit with her and her neighbors. At some point, I noticed I was the only white person in the vicinity. Yes, there were men who whistled and made comments, but I shrugged them off because when we were with our friend, I felt safe.
Fresh out of seminary, my husband pastored a church in a small town in north Florida. We lived in the parsonage and drove a mile down the main road and onto a side road to get to the church. Once on the side road we passed a row of small brick houses referred to as “the quarters.” In the first house lived a lady named Mary Jewel, one of the best cooks in town. We came to know and love Mary Jewel as she was the housekeeper for one of our elderly widowers.
Everyone was friendly enough to say hello to her but she knew her place; she understood the unspoken (and sadly, sometimes spoken) rules that accompanied living in a small town in the south. On the Sundays we had “dinner on the grounds” she would show up at the back door of the fellowship hall with her chicken and dumplings and pound cake. I kept asking her to come on in; little did I know her bounty of delicious home-cooked food was welcome past the threshold, but she was not. I thought that was so sad. So, I tried to show her a different way; I tried to show her I was her friend. Forgive me for not voicing my confusion at this injustice and taking more of a stand.
A short time later we joined the military and moved to South Carolina. One Sunday we went with another chaplain and his wife to a restaurant in a little town not far from the base. My husband and our friend had both preached in different services. Having given their all, they were tired and hungry. We seated ourselves and waited for what seemed forever until we were finally served. Chalk it up once again to my naivety, but I had no clue we weren’t being served because our friends were black. It never crossed my mind. I thought we’d bridged that gap back in the 60s. Please forgive my ignorance.
My husband pastored gospel services where we were the minority family. The real difference in my mind was how our brothers and sisters of color seemed much freer in their expression of praise and worship. I longed to be like them. They welcomed us and made us feel at home. I was unaware this was not everyone else’s experience.
When we moved to Virginia, we divinely ended up renting a home where we were the only white people on the street. Two years later we moved into Washington, D.C. and once again, had next door neighbors of color and many other friends of color in our apartment building. We were in the middle of a historically black but gentrified neighborhood. We listened to stories of injustice experienced by our friends who grew up in the area.
We longed to be known as that “white couple” who loved and cared for all the residents of our building – race, gender preference and religion aside. Could we have done more? Sure. But we tried to make a difference in our tiny part of the world. My heart and mind were finally opening to the reality that racial injustice was still preeminent in many areas of the country and we set out to be part of the change to our neighbors and friends.
As I’ve struggled to define my response and responsibility during these trying times, I’ve been spending more time asking God what a white girl like me should being doing.
A few things I’ve heard Him say is to become more educated about the issue of racism. I need to be informed. But a trusted friend told me I also need to be wise in who I’m listening to these days. There are a lot of people who want to educate others in their own ways and agendas. I need to be discerning in who I’m listening to.
I’m learning there is a corporate response for those in my shoes, but really, a personal response is where the Lord is calling me. Many of my friends agree with my response; some don’t. I’ve experienced division and anger and self-righteous pride in discussing my views with some of my friends. Oh, Lord, may grace abound.
The most important responsibility the Lord has called me to is to show up for my friends of color. The ones I love who are most affected. The ones whose stories I haven’t had the privilege of hearing because I thought we were all good.
My sisters of color, I want you to know I see you. I love you. And I want to know your stories. I want to enter into your pain and grief and sit with my arms wrapped around you. I want to acknowledge your loss, the death of dreams, the fear for your children and their children.`
I want to be here for you.
And I long for the day when injustice bows to Jesus.