I often speak of self-care during the holidays, and one of the ways in which we care for ourselves is to focus on our spiritual journey during Advent. Rather than getting caught up in the chaos of the secular season, we can enjoy all the season has to offer while remaining anchored in love, joy, peace, and hope of the coming of Christ. And yes, we are caring for our own souls this way, but we are also caring for the world around us as well when we do this!
My husband, a fellow pastor, wrote and preached a sermon that speaks to the spiritual journey of Advent. I was touched and inspired by his words, so I wanted to share them with you. Below is his sermon. Trust me, it’s worth the brief time it takes to read through it!
Preparing the Manger of the Heart
As we observe the first Sunday in Advent, we might think about this time between now and Christmas as a journey. As Christians we have the opportunity to begin on a journey of the heart to receive the light of Christ in the world…or we can get run over by the secular hype of consumerism and the holidays. We have the choice to consciously move toward Christmas seeking a personal spiritual transformation. Here is the GOOD NEWS: we have the ability to control our own holiday stress!
With the imagery of a journey in mind, we first need to determine our direction. Directions are important; if we dive in without taking enough time to think about where we are going, we might get disoriented. The Boy Scouts of America was a program that my dad valued as a youth. In later years he greatly supported my own goals in becoming and Eagle Scout. One of his stories that has stuck with me reminds of the value of having a grounding direction. When he was a scout, a group of boys went on a campout in the hills where there were some old mine shafts. The boys went off to explore the mines. The first tunnel they went in was a big cavern, but they soon discovered that the wall at the back of the cave ended about a foot below the ceiling, so the boys helped each other over this wall. That then led them into the cave network. After an hour or so of exploring the network of tunnels, someone asked how they would find their way back out. At this point they began to panic as each tunnel looked the same as the last, and with very little light they got disoriented. There was one young scout who claimed he knew the way, yet the older boys had been paying little attention to him. After finally getting their full attention, they asked how he knew where to go. He said he knew that they had been walking past the wall they climbed over because on their way over, he had undone his neckerchief and placed it on top of the wall with a rock holding it down.
Isn’t it interesting that the least experienced or likely among the group had not gotten so caught up in the excitement of the adventure that he forgot his grounding?
We Christians can dive in head first and put up all the lights, buy all the gifts, make it to all the parties, bake all the cookies, and so on…and become disoriented, missing the spirit and the potential spiritual growth in our own lives. If it is our goal to experience something spiritual this season, we must seek actions to move us toward that direction.
A goal I held at one time in my life was to thru-hike the Colorado trail from Waterton Canyon southwest of Denver to Durango, a mere distance of 486 miles. A hiker traversing the entire length of the trail will gain 89,000 feet in elevation. It takes most hikers 4-6 weeks to complete the journey, although a distance runner holds the record for completing the trail in 10 days, 19 hours and 5 minutes. The biggest obstacle for through hikes is how to carry enough food for the journey. Most hikers make preparations to mail food to post offices in small towns along the route so that they might pick up extra rations along the way. With weight being a critical issue due to every ounce counting, some make it a practice to remove all of the labels from their clothing. Proper preparation means make-it-or- break-it on this journey. I know of two gentlemen in the state that tried to undertake this journey with only the equipment that would have been available in the 1860’s. Though they undertook this journey in the summer months, they quickly found that leather-soled shoes and wool blankets, along with state forest fire-bans, made it impossible to keep warm and complete the journey.
Like this illustration, spiritual preparation for our journey might begin with a personal inventory, noting what things give you life, or draw you closer to God, while also noting what seems to drain life and add stress.
Take note if adding extra commitments to the calendar makes you feel anxious. For example, if there are friends who have waited all year to get together, would it be better to schedule a gathering after the holidays? Allow yourself the grace to make boundaries and limit what you choose to do if you feel that you are becoming overcommitted. There is actually scriptural evidence of this. In the book of Luke it reads, “But the news about Jesus spread all the more, and great crowds came to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. Yet He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray.” If the Son of God allowed himself time to care for his spirit and recharge, you certainly can too!!
If we have taken the time to discern where we are going, and we prepare ourselves, our next step is to begin the journey or to take action toward receiving Christ. In fact, one of the things I like about the notion of journeying through Advent is that it implies motion, or action. Advent is a season of waiting. However, even if we just seem to be waiting for Christ’s birth, there is a difference between active waiting and passive waiting. There are passages in Scripture that imply a sense of urgency about preparing ourselves for the coming kingdom. Personally, I don’t expect Jesus’ second coming to happen this Christmas but there is, nevertheless, a real truth to this urgency.
The first and practical reason why we should be urgent in preparing our hearts for Christ this Christmas is that with the other distractions of the season, it all passes too quickly. I have always celebrated the 12 days of Christmas rather than just Christmas day. This helps me continue to spend time focusing of the coming of Christ’s light into a dark world, and I don’t feel that all the buildup has suddenly vanished.
The second reason why we should be urgent in preparing our hearts to receive or renew Christ is because we live in a broken and hurting world that needs action from those who have experienced the light of Christ. Our own personal spiritual relationships will become even more fulfilling when we take the love of Christ into the world. In a letter to the United Methodist Church, released on November 22, 2016, Bishop Bruce R. Ough expressed such urgency in his call that we are to
“remember who we are” in this time of tension and anxiety and work to overcome hatred and discrimination….and
As Christians this call to action is nothing new, and I know that many of you already strive to live lives that imitate Christ, but what the Bishop is expressing is that the world needs our love now…more as much as ever.
Where I see the urgency during this time is that during this season, we have the chance to touch lives, which might be closer than at other times to receiving the love of Christ, because there are many outside the church who are hoping to receive something meaningful.
In this season of Good will, there is the potential for glimpses of the Kingdom of God. Here’s what I would like to propose in making our hearts mangers to receive Christ: That we visualize the Kingdom. Not just talk about it in the sense like “Oh wouldn’t that be nice.” But strive to invasion it as a reality.
U.S. freestyle Olympic skier Emily Cook says that prior to beginning her run, she visuals not just how she would like to perform, but all of her body’s senses, from the cheering of the crowd and ringing of bells, to the buzz of lights and the feeling of the muscles. This mental visualization then flows right into the action of the run itself. This is where I offer the final advice for preparing the manger of your heart…visualize finding, receiving, and personally knowing Christ this Advent, and then let that visualization become a real action.
I’ll leave you with one final image. My Dad was never one to serve the homeless, or get involved in Christian action that could be uncomfortable. This was not to say that he wasn’t a great man of faith, but he served his faith through being on the Trustees or working spiritual retreats like the walk to Emmaus…places where he felt good to be in Christian action. Three years ago the church he attended hosted homeless individuals over the week of Christmas, and on the night of the Christmas Eve services the homeless were housed on cots in the halls of the church. As can happen when there are things outside our comfort zones, there were some that commented that this was not appealing to those coming to enjoy the worship service. Yet of all people, my Dad really got into helping these people. He even helped an intoxicated man pass out onto a cot. On Christmas Day as he told me about this experience I could tell just what an impact it had made on him. He got it; he experienced Christ in a very real way. He found the spirit of Christ…not in a worship service or a book study…but in helping a man who hadn’t showered and was reeking of Jim Beam into a safe, warm place for the night.
My prayer for this season is to get past the glitz and glam and begin on a journey that prepares me to experience the love of Christ in a real way. Amen.