Friday, December 09, 2005

Christmas Rush: An Advent Meditation on Luke 2:16

“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Luke 2:16 NIV)

I want you to take just a few seconds right now and think through your schedule for the next couple of weeks. What do you have planned? Where will you go or who will be coming to you? ‘Tis the season. Everyone seems to be on the move and in a hurry. It seems especially true at this time of year, but if you do any driving around Atlanta you know it’s true all the time. We are a people in perpetual motion. We never stop. And strangely, the hours of the day around this city that we designate “rush hours” are the hours when we can barely move at all.

I don’t have any illusion that someday this will all change, that we’ll suddenly decide to quit living this way. Living at full capacity is simply a reality, and honestly it isn’t always a bad thing. There’s energy, a “buzz” about it that can be exciting. Living with intensity and urgency isn’t the problem. My concern is that our urgencies are misplaced. Our hurry isn’t making us better people; it doesn’t seem to bring a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose to our lives. Far too often our hurry leaves us depleted, irritable and exhausted.

About a year ago I had taken my children to school and found myself sitting in a long line of traffic at a very short light. The light stayed green long enough to let three or four cars slip through and then went back to red. Every time that light went to red, so did I. I don’t know why. I was not late for an appointment. I wasn’t being expected anywhere. I just hated being at that light. I hated missing the green and having to wait. Eventually my car crept close enough to the “zone.” Only one car separated me from the light. When the light turned green, the person in front of me didn’t move. I looked and noticed that her head was lowered and she wasn’t even looking at the light. She appeared to be digging around in her purse. Meanwhile the clock was ticking. There was no way I was going to miss that light. I leaned on my horn (but I did that in a very Christ-like way). My hurry made me impatient and irritable- for no good reason.

Charles Hummell says that most of us live under the “tyranny of the urgent.” We are driven by things that seem urgent and demanding, but aren’t really important. We are driven by time, driven by the clock, driven by others’ expectations. Other cultures have some proverbs about how we live in the West. A Filipino proverb says that people in the west live with little gods on their wrists. An African proverb says that Americans have watches but no time; Africans have time but no watches.[1]

The answer to this dynamic is not to be languid and listless in the way we conduct our lives, but to harness that intensity in a worthy direction. If we are going to live with intensity and urgency, I simply want to be intent and urgent about the things that matter. We get a picture of this in Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, and particularly in the announcement to the shepherds.

When Jesus was born, there were some shepherds working the night shift. I’ve worked the night shift, and everything seems to slow way down at night. You can’t sleep, but there is a stillness that settles in with the deep darkness. Suddenly, the stillness and darkness is shattered by the shining glory of God and the voice of an angel. The voice tells them good news: unto you is born a savior.

After this brief sermon and a rousing anthem from the heavenly host, the shepherds say to one another “Let’s go and see it.” And then in Luke 2:16 we get an interesting detail. “They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph.”

The word that gets my attention is the word “hurry.” The KJV says “they made haste.” I don’t picture night-shift shepherds as men who frequently hurry in their work. Following livestock in the deep of night is not a career for ambitious type-A people. But at this announcement – unto you is born a savior – they make haste. They rush off. They hurry to Bethlehem.

It seems that there are two ways to live with urgency and hurry in our lives:

One way is an urgency and hurry that comes because we feel pushed and driven. This is a hurry born of fear and arrogance. We’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t meet someone’s expectations, perhaps our own silent expectations that no one else knows about. In addition, there is beneath all of this a kind of arrogance that behaves as if everything depends on me.

The other urgency is where something we desire, something we yearn for, draws us to it. It is an urgency that comes from being pulled toward, not pushed. Mark Buchanan calls this kind of urgency a “Holy Must.” Jesus lived this way. His life was all about doing the will and work of the Father. A Holy Must produces a kind of intensity in our living that isn’t fear driven.

That’s what we see in those shepherds. The announcement of the savior’s birth gave rise to hurry, urgency, intensity. They made haste. They went to seek it out and to see it – and then they went to tell about it.

Knowing the savior, sharing the savior. What could be more urgent?

[1] These proverbs are quoted in Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 28.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Some time ago, over a long holiday weekend, I attempted to make a bank deposit at an ATM. It was one of those Monday holidays on which banks are closed. As I recall, we really needed this deposit to be there when business resumed on Tuesday. Apparently we were in good company. Over the weekend many people had made deposits at this particular ATM. The deposit slot on the machine was so full of deposit envelopes that the little intake door didn’t close completely – a fact I didn’t notice until I had already started my transaction.

When it came time for me to actually insert my deposit envelope I realized that the deposit slot was absolutely crammed full. At this point I had some options. ATM machines aren’t too hard to find in Atlanta. This would have been a good time to stop the transaction and go to another machine. But no – I was in a hurry. I was going to make my deposit. I pushed the envelope in, carefully sliding it in between other envelopes. When the careful sliding didn’t work, I resorted to some slight shoving. There was still resistance, but I was going to gain victory over this ATM. I pushed the envelope into the deposit slot, pushed it in good. It was far enough in that it couldn’t be retrieved or stolen. But just as I won the shoving contest, the machine beeped and flashed a message on the screen: “transaction canceled.” This was not good. The envelope was irretrievable. Further, I had no credit for a deposit. The bank had no record that I had actually given them my money.

This experience gave new meaning to the phrase “pushing the envelope.” Many of us push the envelope all the time. It’s a way of life. We stretch ourselves to the limits, leaving only the narrowest margins around our lives for the things we say are important: family, relationships, reflection. We seem particularly intent on pushing the envelope during the Christmas season. Church programs, Christmas parties, shopping, visiting family, receiving family – all of these things are good. Still, the sense of the season as hectic and busy is universal. The manger lullaby sounds nice, but silence and calm rarely characterize our December nights.

I learned a lesson at the ATM machine. When something is crammed full, frenetically working in one more thing, just one more little thing, is not a good idea. What is true of an ATM machine is true of us. If we insist on “pushing the envelope” we’ll eventually find our resources depleted with no credit or reward for our exhaustion.

I can’t help but hear the familiar opening line of “Joy to the World.” After announcing that “the Lord is come,” the song gives this exhortation: “Let every heart prepare him room.” Make space, clear the clutter, create a welcoming place. This line carries some powerful implications that may be lost beneath the familiar tune and oft repeated singing.

First, it suggests that right now there is no room in the heart. The space needs to be readied and created. The song seems to know that our hearts are full; filled with our own hopes and dreams and aspirations, and also filled with regrets, resentments, hurts, disappointments.

Second, the song suggests that room must be prepared and that will require us to do something, put forth some effort to get our hearts ready for the God who comes to us. When someone comes to our home, we usually have to do something to get he place ready. The God who comes to us is not passively received. But what does this preparation look like? What does it involve?

We get some help in answering this from the gospel according to Mark. Mark is abrupt in his telling of the Jesus story. He begins by quoting two prophets, and both quotations make use of the word “prepare.” I will send my messenger in front of you who will prepare your way (Malachi 3:1). Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight path for him (Isaiah 40:3). From these two prophets Mark leaps to John the baptizer, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance. Both his message and his activity are anticipating one who will come and do more than baptize with water. One is coming who will baptize with the Spirit. Repentance is the way to get ready. Repentance is the work of preparing room. It is the soul work that looks at what’s within us and gets rid of what needs to go.

Preparing room (repenting) in the heart isn’t easy to do. It is far easier to convince ourselves that we’ve got room, that our heats are ready just as they are to receive the coming Lord. But the truth of the matter is that our hearts are full. And rather than preparing room and clearing the clutter and debris, it’s easier to push the envelope and convince ourselves that our crowded hearts and lives will be able to take just a little more.

And then – as ridiculous as this may sound – in the middle of the holiest of seasons we wonder why God seems so distant and why we feel so tired. The reason may be simple. When our hearts are crowded we miss the very gift John was trying to prepare us for, and called us to get prepared for. We miss the Spirit. Transaction canceled.

There are alternatives to pushing the envelope. What would it mean for you to “prepare him room?”