Advent 2: A Sonnet

I’ve barely squeezed out a sonnet for the week (2 hours before the week ends, at least in my time zone). But somehow I did it!

Collect for Advent 2:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

My sonnet for Advent 2:

Oh Merciful God, come help us hear
Your messenger birds, the prophets preach
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,
The kingdom of heaven is in our reach.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
Repeats their morning warning song.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
The kingdom of heaven is coming along!
Come help us see and still our sins
That we may come to, joyful, greet
The perfect sun that’s entering in
In earthly form for us to meet.
Helped by those birds, who say awake,
In you, through Christ, we may partake.

 

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Advent 1: A Sonnet

I used to write poetry. A few poems in middle school, a few more in high school, and a few semesters worth (enough to get me rather burnt-out) in college.

These days, I don’t write poetry, although I continue to write poetically.

And as of today? Apparently I write sonnets based on collects (pronounced coll-ects and amounting to short prayers focused on one theme, for those who don’t know) from the Book of Common Prayer, inspired by the liturgical-year sonnets of poet-priest Malcolm Guite.

Maybe, just maybe, this will even be the start of a spiritual practice of sonnet-writing, in which I try to write a sonnet for each week’s collect. Maybe. Stay tuned.

Here’s the collect for Advent 1:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And my poem for Advent 1:

Almighty God, come give us grace
To wipe the dust from corners dark,
To clear in us for you a place,
To set the wreath and light the spark
That must precede our every flame
That must precede our every fire.
Your son so humbly, spark-ly came
To make more light be our desire.
We’re making room, so visit please
In hurried, blurry homes and hearts.
You visit and the darkness flees
From oft-forgotten crevice parts
Through him who lives and reigns with you
And readies us for Advent new.

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On Grandmas and Hospitals and the Ministry of Presence

I’m pretty sure my grandma is invincible. At 93 years old, she’s broken bones, to be sure, and been sick an average amount. But she just keeps living — the kind of living that just never gives up, laughs at the little things, prays about all the things.     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But this Wednesday she was taken to the emergency room with enough weakness and nausea to merit a couple days in the hospital. As soon as Mom called with the news, I was off to the hospital.

Here’s the deal: visiting a hospital is awkward. There’s few places like it where visitors so deeply don’t know where to go, what to do, what to expect.

Do I bring a present? Do I tell jokes? Do I say something wise?

Sure, sure, and sure. But, those things are optional, it seems. I learned that afternoon that, at least when visiting a hospital, I don’t have to come prepared with a plan of what to do — probably shouldn’t in fact; in a hospital, plans can change as fast as a heart rate. I don’t exactly have be a chaplain or a nurse or a Patch Adams.

I just have to be.

In a recent Advent sermon, I heard mention of Henri Nouwen’s notion of the ministry of presence.

“It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

In the hospital, I saw more and more, like Nouwen, that maybe the first thing should be to know the patient’s name, help them eat and drink, hear about their hurts and hearts and hunger, hold their hand while they get blood drawn (even if you both cringe…because, well, at least you’re cringing together).

When they need an advocate, be an advocate. When they need a listener, be a listener. When they need a translator to dumb down the doctor-speak, be a translator. Just be.

When they need a walker or wheelchair or something (and you can’t locate one), be a walker. Yep. When Grandma had to walk to the bathroom, Mom would take up the rear, prepared to prevent a fall, and I would shuffle along in front holding my arms out straight and stiff and saying “Use me as a walker. Use me as a walker.”

I think about sitting on the edge of Grandma’s hospital bed, holding her very frail, thin-skinned hand, with all its IV tubes and ID bracelets, and I think about Advent and I marvel that God would come and be with us. That God, in Christ, came to sit alongside our lives and hold our hands. That Immanuel, God with us, practiced the ultimate ministry of presence and calls us to follow in his footsteps just however we can.

The Gift of Advent

advent-wreath11As a kid, I’m pretty sure Advent meant little more to me than the chocolate-filled calendars that Grandmother sent over around Thanksgiving (which I’ve since learned to be liturgically inaccurate, as they tend to start on December 1st regardless of whether that’s the actual first Sunday of Advent). There was an Advent wreath off to stage right at my big Baptist church, but as soon as it was lit up went the light show and off we went singing anthems about “Joy, Joy, Joy.”

At some point I wondered: What about those of us who for one reason or another — whether due to melancholic temperament or mental illness or the mere fact that it’s cold outside — have a hard time with “joy, joy, joy”?

The gift of discovering the season of Advent, for me, has been its gradual introduction of joy.

As a writer, I know that good stories build. There’s an introduction, characters meet, suspense rises, hints are dropped like gingerbread crumbs to lead the reader along.

And, as a reader of Scripture, I know that God’s stories build too. They build for 40 days and 40 nights of flooding. They build for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And apparently God took 9 months to come to us, to be like us and with us (which makes me wonder what Mary was doing and thinking and feeling all that time).

I’m glad that God’s stories build. It doesn’t provide the instant gratification of, say, chocolate Advent calendars. But it does provide enduring identification of God’s story with ours. It’s like God saying: “Take your time with finding your way — or your way back — to life and light and joy. It’s OK to take your time. I did.”

A while back, I was at a wedding reception and happened to be really not in the mood to be at a wedding reception. Getting dressed up and hearing a homily about love and smiling perfunctorily for pictures was quite enough. Then, it happened. A friend dragged me to the dance floor…then encouraged me to dance…then, in an admittedly well-intentioned effort to raise my spirits, reached out and lifted my cheeks into a smile. It stung for a second — first on my cheeks, then in my spirit. That quick exchange communicated that my less-than-joyfulness was essentially unacceptable.

Advent tells me that God isn’t out to lift my cheeks into any forced, festive smile. Rather, God is interested in lifting my life — even if it takes a while.            

Advent tells me that less-than-joyfulness (acquired joyfulness?) is actually remarkably acceptable — commendable even. 

Advent says that, no matter what the Hallmark cards and holiday commercials say, you don’t have to have “joy, joy, joy” now. You just have to start living into the story of joy. One page at a time. One step at a time. One candle at a time.   

And He Shall Be Called Wonderful Counselor

Some people picture God as an old man with a beard. William Paul Young in The Shack pictured God as an African-American woman. Christmas reminds us that we can — and should — picture God as a baby in a manger.Topic_Counseling-Mental-Health

As for me? I often picture God as a counselor. A lady in a turtleneck, maybe 60 years old, sitting in a swivel chair, holding an over-sized yellow notepad, and looking at me with just the right balance of calming and compelling.

Compelling me to consider facts about my life that I’d rather not consider. Calming me with the reality that she’d be considering them with me.

I think I picture God this way because, especially at Christmas time, we read in Isaiah 9:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What does it mean that Christ shall be called “Wonderful Counselor?” Let’s break this down…

Wonderful.

Not just competent but wonderful. In the field of professional counseling, areas of skill required for licensure are referred to as “competencies.” But “competent” sounds so negative, so…mediocre.

And mediocre we are. A friend once told me about meeting with a therapist at a university counseling center to discuss her process of aging out of foster care. The therapist suggested that my friend might try the “Family Issues” Support Group. After an awkward silence, the therapist admitted: “Although that might be more for students who…uhh…” And my friend finished the sentence: “…who actually have families?”

I think of all the times I’ve said something insensitive or unnecessary, all the times I’ve been told something quick and clichéd to a hurting friend, and I thank God that His ways are “higher than our ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9). That He says what is right and true (since He created Truth, after all), and He can’t be surprised by what we say (since He created us, after all), and He has absolute patience with our long processes of grieving or recovering or learning (since He has eternity in mind, after all). That He is wonderful. That He is God.

Counselor.

Not only is He God, but He is God with us. 

A counselor’s goal is to sit with us, to listen with us to the content of our lives. They talk about “therapeutic alliance,” meaning that their primary goal isn’t for clients to “word vomit” all our feelings (although that happens) or for counselors to “knowledge vomit” all their sage solutions. Rather, their primary goal is for a trusting relationship to be built, from which feelings and solutions can emerge.

As I heard a psychology professor once say, change doesn’t happen because of the counselor or because of the couch but in the space between the two, the space where the words pass back and forth from one person to another.

Maybe, too, change doesn’t happen because of a wonderful God tucked away in heaven or because of competent people laboring away on earth but in the space between the two, the space where heaven meets earth.

The little space in the manger where a heavenly child is born on earth — “and He shall be called Wonderful Counselor.”