Advent Week 2: Celebrating in Community

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions–as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.

It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms…It is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at…when you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light…And above all, you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.

In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.

-C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity 

How delightful it is, after some time, that I have found a room that has become a home, that reinforces the liturgical practices that restored my faith, that provides a community in which to experience the Advent season like I never have before.

The richness of language in the Book of Common Prayer–which, when not directly quoting Scripture, draws heavily on it–sustains my thoughts longer than I thought possible.

I found the Anglican daily prayers before I entered the room of the Anglican church, and consequently “celebrated” Advent and the other liturgical seasons alone. Though this may have been necessary at the time, celebrating the season of Advent in community makes all the difference. From the Advent wreath that marks the passing of time, to the liturgical color of the season (for us, Advent is represented by a deep blue), to the Advent collect, to praying through the season with others, I have found a home which my conscience moves me towards.

Whatever room you are in, I hope that you find yourself fully engaged in the traditions of your community this Christmas season. And if you find yourself in the hallway, perhaps this season of darkness, light, and new beginnings can provide clarity and hope as you wait.

 

Advent Week 1: Suggested Readings

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

It’s finally here! A new year, a fresh start. This past Sunday was the first day of Advent, which is the first day of the liturgical calendar. And I find it more refreshing to celebrate Advent as my new year then the actual New Year: It marks the beginning of a story that will unfold (instead of a unwritten possibilities), it comes with habits and rhythms and suggested resolutions (instead of having to come up with them all on your own), and it gives you a community in which to live out these practices (instead of leaving it all up to you!).

Advent is a season of waiting, hoping, and longing. It is characterized by the darkness of winter as we wait for the light to arrive in three distinct ways–the Jews waited for a Savior, we wait to celebrate His birth, and we also wait for Him to come again. And most importantly, it is a time of invitation. We are invited again to enter into the story of Christ while we invite Christ to bring light into the dark places in our lives.

As you begin to walk through Advent–for the first or the 50th time–here are some suggested readings.

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Waiting on the Word by Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is a British poet who is a master of the English language. Waiting on the Word is his anthology of seasonal poems from various authors for each day of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. This is definitely my favorite book I’ve found on Advent! Highly recommended.

 

Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross

Not sure what Advent is all about? Or the rest of the liturgical year, for that matter? This is a great place to start. Even if you are familiar with the liturgical year, this book will take you deeper into the ideas and practices that shape each season.

 

The Seattle School’s Advent Reflection Series

The Seattle School is on the 5th year of this series, which comes straight to your inbox with reflections on Advent through prose, poetry, music, and art. Definitely one of the easiest ways to stay connected with the season!

 

On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius

Have you ever wondered why the incarnation was necessary? That is the question Athanasius sets out to answer in this short theological work. I have to include this quote: “You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of the its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.”

And if you’re looking for a good novel…

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens has the odd gift of teaching his readers how to love the oddest of people. I realized shortly after reading Dickens for an entire semester that my perception towards strangers and acquaintances and friends had become much more charitable. Not only is this a great reason to read one of his works, but this particular novel begins during Christmastime. It is a story of darkness and shadows, of hopes and expectations, of generosity and forgiveness. Obviously, everyone is reading A Christmas Carol this month (right?), but if you’re looking for a longer work, this would be my recommendation.

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Tuesdays continue to be a day of respite from my typical schedule. In our school’s block scheduling, it turns out I only have one class on Tuesdays—a mere hour and half spent discussing books with students. The rest of the day is filled with reading, preparing lessons for the week, talking to co-workers, and watching the clock.

This is, of course, before all of the essays begin flooding in and I’m spending my afternoons defending the world from the onslaught of comma splices. But now—and I’m assuming for the rest of the year—there will be moments of rest in which I can pursue my own interests. This year I’ve decided to renew my commitment to Sabbath Tuesdays, a time in my work week during which I reflect and reconsider what it is I actually do on a day-to-day basis. It’s only the fourth week of the semester, but I’m already finding myself stepping into routines without any thought behind them, just because they pave the path of least resistance. Pausing mid-week allows me—compels me—to remember that there is a force at work besides myself, and that much of what I do is left to grace.

This past week, my sophomores read Beowulf. We discussed monsters and kings and warriors, had a Grendel drawing competition, and some students even presented a short Beowulf musical, complete with a torn and bloodied arm thrown across the room. More than anything, though, Beowulf is a story of legacy—of genealogies and familial relationships, of hearsay and stories of old. Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten? Warriors are immortalized not in their heroic actions, but in how their story is recounted by the generations. Even Beowulf’s last order is to construct a barrow so his people remember him beyond his time.

Today I realized that many of my students were not yet born when the planes hit the World Trade Center, and that their version of the story depends entirely on the preceding generations’ storytelling. What will be remembered? What will be forgotten? It is on days like these that I feel the weight of teaching: we are essentially writing history in each of our communities by deciding how to tell the story.

Today also reminds me that our extended discussion last year concerning heroes in the Iliad is also essential, as it ultimately casts a vision of what action is required and honorable in a situation like 9/11. These great stories of the past have told us what is important and what is not—just as the stories we tell reveal what we hold most dear.

So here’s to another year of passing the days with high school students, reading great stories, and pausing to consider the narratives I tell.

On Tuesdays, Harvey, and Learning in War-Time

Twenty families from my school were flooded during the storm. Others lost power for several days, and all of us watched helicopter and boat rescues happening just a few miles from our homes. Time seemed suspended for a week; by Tuesday, August 29th, few Houstonians knew what day it was, and the foreseeable future only extended as far as Labor Day, with the entire workforce of Houston wondering when it should report to duty.

For most teachers and students, that day was yesterday, September 11th. Two weeks after Harvey’s devastating rains pummelled Houston, the schools opened their doors again, only to remember another heartbreaking day for Americans with flags at half-mast and videos of planes crashing into towers. And as Florida and the surrounding islands face 15-foot storm surges and the West Coast prays for some sort of salvation from the flames, teachers around Houston welcomed their students back to school.

Last Tuesday, September 5th, was my first day back to school as a teacher, and at first it didn’t seem right. We anxiously asked colleagues how they had weathered the storm; many of us left work that afternoon to volunteer at shelters or clean out homes; some returned to places that weren’t home, without any possessions they could call their own. Yet, there we were, planning curriculum and preparing our classrooms.

What do you do when the most routine part of life—the school day or work day—is interrupted by events outside of your control? When it’s not just your personal day, but an entire city’s? For days, Houstonians watched volunteers drop everything and head our way with boats and supplies, eager to respond to disaster quickly. Many people literally saved lives during the storm for no other reason than seeing the water rising on the news and deciding they had to do something about it. The situation repeated itself with work teams reporting for duty in Houston neighborhoods, tearing out drywall and wood floors and cabinets.

But now, Houstonians must return to work, even while the disaster continues. Many spend their weekends tearing apart flooded homes or volunteering in shelters or cooking meals for those in need. But this question has haunted me for the past couple of weeks: How can we devote ourselves to life as usual while so many are trying to recover and others are being hit by new disasters? Is there such a thing as normalcy in a world with Harveys and Irmas and fires and terrorists?

C.S. Lewis addressed this during World War II. In a speech given to Oxford students in 1939, he reminds us that there is no such thing as normalcy; we’ve merely convinced ourselves that every day we live in security. Students in 1939 were obviously concerned about their own responsibilities, their own families, their own survival. Why go to school? But Lewis reminds students that there is something much larger at stake: “But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.” After apologizing for the language in his polite British way, he goes on: “…we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.”

For Lewis, war merely aggravates the normal human situation: that all things come to pass. He claims that there will always be a distraction to study—whether it be love or war or politics or jobs.

As a teacher, Harvey has only increased my desire to read great texts with my students. A few weeks ago, I addressed how Charlottesville made me consider my curriculum in light of my students deciding which rally to attend or protest to join. The same goes for Harvey—my students are the future first responders, the future mayors and city officials, the future generation that will be calling the shots and saving lives during the next Harvey. I want to equip them to make those decisions.

Lewis, as always, has a broader, more eternal vision:

 “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”

It is Tuesday, September 12th, and our city has gone back to work. The tension within all of us, of doing our jobs or learning or teaching post-Harvey’s destruction, is one that has been there all along: there is no promise of tomorrow or of security, and yet we go about our lives each day. May we humbly offer ourselves to what we are called to do each hour, whether that be engineering, cleaning out homes, serving food, or learning.

Sabbath Tuesday: An Education 

This week, I’m in Colorado with my students from The Covenant Preparatory School. We’ve been whitewater rafting, hiking, eating, fellowshipping, and sometimes sleeping!

Initially, it seemed like an odd time to take a week-long trip; the students have only had classes for three days, then we headed north to Buena Vista. Classes will resume when we return, but teachers have already had to deal with the curriculum struggles that come with a week away from the classroom, right after school has begun. 

I’m quickly realizing, however, that this week is as much a part of my students’ education as sitting in the classroom discussing The Iliad. If I’m truly concerned with the whole person that I’m teaching, a week in Colorado should be considered an indispensable page of my lesson plans.

As I was hiking with my seniors today, I noticed their reverence for God’s creation around them. I saw them encourage each other, become better listeners, and grow in their friendships. Most people consider trips such as these “bonding times.” And though that is a great benefit, the best thing about this particular trip is watching my students learn how to contemplate the beauty around them. They aren’t allowed to have any sort of device with them, so in these few unplugged days, they are learning how to see. 


I’m off to dinner! Happy Tuesday. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Summer’s End

You may protest my title, as summer isn’t officially over until mid-September, but for teachers and students August marks the beginning of a new season. As a student, I’m excited to get back into classes and a routine.

And yes, this year I’ll also be a teacher. I’m thrilled to be teaching upper school English at The Covenant Preparatory School while I finish my masters. I’ll be teaching in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and going to night class once or twice a week.

Though I couldn’t be more excited to get back into the classroom, August feels like one long Sunday night—it’s a season marked with apprehension and planning and making sure everything is in order. Bring on the syllabus-making, the book ordering, the stress dreams…get ready to meet new students, new colleagues, a new classroom.

The easiest way to compensate the nervousness is to overwork. I’ve stayed up until 2am before organizing notebooks and lesson planning. I’ve spent 12 hours straight in a classroom hanging posters and boxing up old books. And though August will bring some long work days with it, my desire to control every details reveals a lack of trust.

A few months ago, Will and I started a new project on the back porch of our apartment. It may look like a science project gone awry, but it’s a hydroponic plant grower. When we first picked out the small vegetable plants, I don’t think either of us really believed we’d harvest a couple of jalapeños, a tomato, and a banana pepper in two months time. Though there were some difficulties in the beginning, and Will had to recalculate the water mixture, most of our time has been spent waiting and hoping.

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This is how I’d like to think of my new teaching assignment this August—as a garden. What needs my care? What will just take time? Where might I need to make adjustments? When will I realize that I can’t control the growth of another living thing?

In Wendell Berry’s poetry (which inspired these posts in the first place), he reminds workers that

And yet no leaf or grain is filled

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

My job as a teacher (and often as a graduate student as well) is not about measured outcomes and production—it is about the faithfulness of tending a garden even when I don’t have complete control.

So if you’re a teacher, or someone whose August is stress-filled, don’t let this be a month dictated by work alone. We must remember to maintain moments of rest, to let August be a time of tending gardens and leaving it to grace.

Rest is not death; it is life, and all life bears fruit.

-A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

Sabbath Tuesday: Summer Days

fullsizeoutput_75dSummer always seems glorious to me at the outset. When I was teaching full time, it meant days when I could read what I wanted, days without grading papers, days of sleeping past 5:45 a.m. Now that I’m a student, it means days of reading what I need to read for my own studies instead of classes, days not spent on campus, days free from responsibilities of essays and deadlines. And for most everyone else, even if they are not on an academic schedule, summer often means time off, traveling, a change in workload.

But summer comes with its own troubles. As carefree as it may appear, the absence of routine and work can take its toll. In past Sabbath Tuesday posts, I’ve written about the beauty of work paired with rest—something Wendell Berry often explores in his poetry: “When we work well, A Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.” So what happens to us, those whose lives are dictated by the academic calendar, whose work suddenly subsides for a few months?

At the beginning of the summer, it is easy to think that the time off will be one long Sabbath after the difficult academic year. But there is a difference between a break and an intentional rest. Sabbath moments during the school year were a breath of fresh air in the midst of the heavy workload, but now, summer is just one long break. How I choose to spend my time can determine how much rest actually happens during these three months.

The difference between a break and a rest reminds me of the difference between fast food and a well-prepared feast. Fast food (for those of us who like deep-fried things) is something we look forward to, something we crave. If you’re a Texan like me, you probably agree that summertime and Whataburger go hand-in-hand—it works for late nights, post-river trips, and after you’ve climbed up Enchanted Rock. And it tastes good. But we are aware that it is a quick fix that doesn’t contribute to our long term health or nourishment.

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At a cabin in North Carolina with good friends, feasting and resting.

On the other hand, summer is also a time when hospitality blossoms. Cook outs and barbecues abound, extended families reunite, friendships deepen. The slowing down of work welcomes the thoughtfulness of day-long meal preparations before friends arrive. These kinds of meals—I mean the slow-cooked brisket, side of beans, watermelon salad, coleslaw, peach pie—have a different impact on both our bodies and souls than those quick Whataburger stops. They are deeply nourishing to both our relationships and our bodies.

So far this summer, I’ve struggled with the idea of Sabbath, and I assume that some other academics have too. It is difficult to crave nourishment when you’re already in the midst of a break. Sabbath looses its attraction when work subsides, and the importance of rest and renewal and remembrance fades. This morning I was reading in Jeremiah about the house of Jacob that turned their back on the Lord. They were said to “go after worthlessness, and become worthless.” This is my greatest fear for the summer: that I’ll only eat Whataburger, go after worthlessness, merely “take a break,” and not be renewed when the school year starts again.

May we pursue Sabbath and the nourishment it brings even in times of less work.

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Tubing on Lake Travis in Austin, TX with my little brother Austin. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Our Unruly Affections

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

From the Book of Common Prayer 

This prayer was part of Sunday’s service, and it won’t leave my memory. If you skipped over it to read my words, go back and read it closely.

The liturgical calendar, like nature, works in cycles: Advent comes in winter, Lent coincides with the approach of Spring, and ordinary time sets in each summer. And our weekly practices work this way, too, as we labor for six days then worship and rest on the seventh. Part of the idea behind Sabbath Tuesdays is to make these cycles of life even smaller. Just as we get in the habit each year of looking forward to Easter, and the weekly rhythm of celebrating the resurrection each Sunday, these reminders should come also in our daily pauses and practices.

The prayer above, meant for the fifth Sunday of Lent, reminds me what Lent and Sundays and daily disciplines are for—re-ordering our hearts away from the “unruly wills and affections of sinners” and towards “where true joys are to be found.” Perhaps the season of Lent focuses on this re-ordering more than other seasons; it is, in fact, one of the main reasons to fast. But Lent is not the only place that God brings into order our unruly hearts. This yearly practice becomes one echoed each Sunday as we again confess and break bread together; this weekly practice becomes daily as we turn to God in prayer, asking Him to continue the re-ordering process. Even in the midst of the “swift and varied changes of the world,” this new order becomes a refuge of cyclical constancy, forever reminding us of what should be.

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Sabbath Tuesday: A Hymn

Stuck in my head from this Sunday. I had to include the notes–it is one of the most beautiful hymns I’ve ever heard.

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Refrain:

Seek the Lord whose willing presence

moves your heart to make appeal.

Turn from wickedness and evil;

God will pardon, cleanse, and heal. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Hunger

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Last week, Will and I started watching a new Netflix series called Chef’s Table. After the first episode about a famous Italian who created modern Italian cuisine, we were hooked. The second episode started out with the same promise of celebrity—the chef featured is a leader in the farm-to-table and sustainable food movements. But the close of his story ended on a dissonant note. Instead of seeing him in celebration with his family because of his success, he reflected on a feeling of emptiness that he has experienced his entire life, and explained that his workaholism is a way to fill the void. He connected this void to the death of his mother, but then added that he thought he could never rid himself of it.

As I’m thinking about and participating in Lent, I’m beginning to realize that much of Lent is about recognizing our voids and how we fill them. The most basic way is fasting from food—an experience that everyone can participate in. It reminds us of our frailty as humans. Another way people often observe Lent is partaking in times of silence that they would otherwise fill with noise, whether that be music or television or talking. This silence becomes a sort of void, and we easily recognize the habitual ways that we provide noise.

Lenten observances not only point out our voids, but magnify them. The ashes on Ash Wednesday remind us of death and our fear of it, the practice of fasting reminds us of our weakness, and the act of repentance reminds us of our moral culpability. One of the messages of the season is “You are not whole, you are not well.” And hopefully, this both convicts us that our current ways of dealing with emptiness may not be healthy, and that Christ provides grace enough.

The farm-to-table chef that is aching with a void spends his life considering what should be consumed by his guests in a way that will benefit not only them but the world around them. He looks for the healthiest and most sustainable crops to feed his customers. But his soul will never be satisfied by the workaholism that defines his career; he is constantly seeking for something that will satisfy like the wholesome plates of food he offers. I hope to develop his perspective on food, but even more than that, I hope to consume wholesome offerings that actually answer the ache of emptiness, to feast in Zion, to drink of the wine and eat of the bread, to taste the living water.

May we recognize our voids, and may we consume that which is life-giving.