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a bundle of cinnamon sticks tied with twine, surrounded by pine cones, walnuts in the shell and small frosted star-shaped cookies

Leading the Way: Advent and Christmas

The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are increasingly filled with busyness – meals, shopping, decorating, pageants (so many pageants), cookie exchanges, caroling, mission projects, crafting and, oh yeah, worship. All of it is good. The gathering, the fellowship, the sharing of joy and hope and resources, the cookies. But it can become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the year, we published a piece on showing up. And we still believe it is important to be present as leaders in the church. However, it is important to be fully present when you do show up. At this time of year it can be so easy to be constantly distracted by all the other things we “have” to do while attempting to enjoy and fully engage in the thing right in front of us.

Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton just talked about this in her December article for Living Lutheran, Disengage the Autopilot. Turns out even presiding bishops can be so preoccupied they don’t even notice anything on their commutes to work. And that is what this time of year can so often feel like – you aren’t even noticing what is happening around you. Even as you are trying to make it all so magical.

Advent is a time for preparation. And preparation involves planning and making choices. If we try to everything we could do, everything becomes less meaningful because we are simply trying to do it all, not invest real time and energy into what matters most. So, as leaders, we want to model this kind of choice to the rest of our congregation.

You might even ask yourselves, together as a leadership team, what things must be done and which things you might let go of. Which of the Advent and Christmas events that your church does match the mission, energy and time of your congregation? Which ones have become disconnected from giving life to the church and its members? Then make sure to also make those a priority for your leaders.

Perhaps every single activity you are doing is amazing and life-giving, but no one person could attend them all. Don’t try to. Instead, make sure that the leadership team is represented at all of them, but only go to the ones that you can participate in and be fully present.

Make sure your pastors are not trying to get to everything, either, beyond stopping by – especially if you are the pastor. Pastors are not separate from the rest of the leadership, nor are they superhuman. If you want your pastor (or yourself) to be fully present and deliver amazing Advent and Christmas sermons, worship, education, etc., they need to not be overwhelmed by the season, either.

Show up, yes. But make sure you are working with your fellow ruling elders and pastors to make sure when you show up, you are not distracted by the next thing on your list. This is not just for you, but it is so that you can model how to have a meaningful Advent and Christmas to others, giving them permission to breathe and enjoy this season as well. Let us slow down, not set the holidays on autopilot, and truly be there when we show up.

Peace, friends.

two glass and one paper bag luminary on a table in front of a group of people in the distant background

Focus on Resources: Sabbath Space

We don’t often think about space when we think of Sabbath. We think about it figuratively, as in making space in our lives for Sabbath. And this makes sense because we tend to think of our time as a commodity – to slice it up into pieces, and parcel it out to work, family, chores, play, spirituality, sleep. We think of it as a physical thing that we can get a hold of and manage.

Perhaps this is because time is not manageable. It is abstract. It ebbs and flows, moves quickly like a rushing river, then slows down like molasses on a cold day. We want to control it, but it seems to control us. We neglect some of the things we can control, or at least touch and grasp in reality. Like the physical space and objects around us.

We may not have the ideal space. We may dream of a bigger house, or an office with a door that closes. We may want to live in a forest, but are surrounded by streets. We may share our space with more people than is comfortable. Or be uncomfortably lonely.

Sometimes we fill our space with endless trinkets and toys, or clear all the clutter away in a fit of KonMari cleaning, hoping to find meaning in the things, or in the lack of them. We dress up our space or dress it down. But what if for Sabbath we simply gave ourselves a break?

A Sabbath idea of space might be to look around at a less than ideal space and find the good things about it. Or, in a place that is perfectly comfortable and familiar, to take some time to remember all the reasons we love being there.

In Judaism some families choose to follow stricter guidelines, making sure to finish preparing their Sabbath meals before sunset on Fridays, not using electricity throughout the Sabbath, walking instead of driving (these are just a small sampling of possible practices), while others incorporate more modern interpretations of Sabbath into their practice. The point is not be oppressive, but to give rest to even the objects that do work in our lives – in the past this might mean your donkey, today it could mean your car.

Changing how we use the physical things around us changes how we see them. If we decide not to drive, we can only go places we can walk to, and we will see things as we walk that we do not see when we drive, or we will see them at different angles, for different amounts of time.

Regardless of whether or not a Jewish family chooses to use electricity over the Sabbath, the lighting of the candles before the Sabbath evening meal is a common ritual among practicing Jews. Eating by candlelight changes the appearance of the room, the food and the faces around the table. It feels intimate and warm even in cavernous or crowded spaces. We cannot always change where we are – we do not always have the means to move or travel – but we can change how we use or see where we are.

During Advent and Christmas, Christians spend a lot of time transforming our spaces. We put up decorations, bake Christmas goodies, hang greens in churches and homes, and move furniture around to accommodate guests and gifts. We light candles for Advent and Christmas Eve, put Christmas lights on trees and houses and throughout the streets, build fires in fireplaces and yards – light in the darkness that reminds us of the hope of Christ.

For many people Advent is the Sabbath of the year. It can be busy – preparing for Christmas, celebrating Christmas, recovering from the preparation and celebration – but it is also a time set apart when we also change around our physical spaces and engage our senses in new ways, all to prepare our hearts to be changed. Again. The gift of this faith is the chance to do it all again – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time in between the festivals, and through it all, Sabbath. A chance to change how we see the world every week.

So, turn off the lights, light a candle, and look around.

clear glass globe on a rock in front of a pier going out into an ocean, the pier and sky inverted in globe

Focus on Leadership: Doing a New Thing

Here in the United States, the season of Advent follows closely on the heels of our celebrations of Thanksgiving, which seems quite appropriate. The national celebration of Thanksgiving is not without controversy. The stories we tell about the origins of the celebration tend to center a mythical peaceful shared meal, and flatten out the real stories of the interactions, personalities, ideals and ideas of those involved, whether European settlers or indigenous occupants of the land being settled. Likewise, the stories we tell during Advent can flatten out the realities of a difficult story, as we remember the joys and the angels, and forget that that joy was a surprising gift in the face of a difficult new reality.

Advent is about the preparation it takes to do something radically new. The preparation of individual hearts, a family, a community and a world. And even with God’s own messengers delivering the message, “Do not fear,” it did not mean that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were going to have an easy life. Before the birth of Jesus, they have to confront their own feelings of inadequacy, confusion and worry over reputation. After the birth of Jesus, they have to undertake a harrowing road trip to a faraway land, not certain when or if they would be able to ever see their families again. All of this for two young people who had likely never gone further than Jerusalem.

Beginning something new tends to come with more questions than answers. We have never done it before, so it can be difficult to know if we doing it the right way. If there is a right way. The church in the United States is on the edge of something new. That, we know. What it will look like, what we will look like, afterward, is something we are not sure of yet. It is tempting to tell easy stories – to reach into the past to find comfortable models of doing church that worked then, or to assume that all people who follow Christ will be able to find a common way of working together simply because we have the same ultimate goal.

The reality is that none of this is easy. Our Advent scriptures do not let us off the hook, either. But, they give us an excellent guide on how to deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. They tell us to prepare ourselves because we cannot know how we will react when we meet strangers who do things differently, who may not like the same foods or speak a different language. We are told first not to fear. We are told to prepare our hearts – not to harden them, but to leave them open, soft. We are told that we will take the familiar ways of life, and turn them on their head. We have to be ready for how we think the world works to be overturned. And we have to be ready to meet the fears, anxieties and differing expectations of what that means or looks like.

These are the things that do not change, however: our God loves us no matter what, and calls us to join in loving all creation and created beings in the same way; part of that love is looking out for your neighbor – if we are not making sure your neighbors are safe, have food, aren’t lonely or sick, we aren’t doing it right; change is coming – will we continue to extend our love, or will we try to hoard what we have and hide? Be prepared – be awake, look for God, love others. It is both the oldest command, and part of bringing in the new thing God is creating in our midst. We are going to find ourselves doing many new things, doing old things in new ways, and becoming new people. How will we respond?