Declutter

Our house has to be cleaned before it can really be cleaned – it’s that bad. It’s probably always been that way, but it’s a whole lot easier to notice after a year of accumulating all the stuff new parents do. As my wife and I were lamenting the state of our house the other night, one of us said to the other, “Our biggest problem is that there are a whole lot of things in rooms that don’t belong there.”

Clutter, of course, isn’t a problem reserved for the kitchen counter. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to growing in the spiritual life.

Advent, this season of preparation, is a great opportunity to evaluate our lives and determine what is essential to life with God and what is an extra that prevents us from experiencing the gifts God wants to give us.

One of the easiest places to see how and where our lives have gotten cluttered is by taking stock of what grabs our attention. One of the most difficult things for anyone in 2017, and particularly for those of us trying to live in a connected relationship with God, is to stay focused on the things that keep us connected with God and with one another.

The opportunities for distraction come before our coffee is made. By lunch we often find ourselves becoming experts on whatever topic has trended. By bedtime we often know much about plenty but little about what we most desperately need.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, then, is what is it that grabs our attention. It’s a conversation that Jesus had again and again with his disciples – probably because they, like us, had a whole lot of trouble keeping their attention trained on Jesus even when he was right next to them. They didn’t have college football to take up their time, but they did struggle to make sense of politics, they did get tempted by the allure of comfort, and they spent a lot of time spouting their own opinions instead of listening to the One who had come to show them a better way.

The uncomfortable truth is that the topics which grab our attention are the topics that shape our lives. We can know a lot about the new coach at Tennessee but that doesn’t do much for us when we lose our job. We can have passionate opinions about the President’s latest tweet but they don’t help us sit in silence to hear a word from a holy God. We can spend a whole lot of time finding the perfect gift and still miss the gift of the presence of the ones we love.

The church, at least those churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often begins Advent by listening to Jesus call his disciples to watch and pray. Last week we listened to the words of Jesus from Luke 21 in which he told the disciples to focus their attention on learning how to spot the signs of his second coming. What he wanted them to learn was how to focus their attention on what truly mattered.  What they really needed wasn’t to marvel at the beauty of the Jerusalem temple but to pay attention to the signs of God’s work in the world.

In many ways that is what this season is all about – learning how to retrain our eyes to see what really matters. Advent is a chance to make room in our lives to receive the Lord who will come again. These four weeks are an opportunity to clean out the things that aren’t essential so we can notice when God moves into our neighborhood. It is an invitation to recommit ourselves to finding the life that is found in receiving the gift God wants to give us.

During the course of the last couple of months I’ve been journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius with the help of Kevin O’Brien’s beautiful book, The Ignatian Adventure. There is plenty of wisdom in these pages. And yet much of it can be distilled into this – learn how to repent of the patterns that separate us from God and live into those patterns that help us spot God’s presence in our midst.

We have been created for the purpose of loving, worshiping and serving God – and the key to such a life is, “to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free us from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.”

What is it that prevents us from loving, serving and worshiping God? Once you know that, get rid of it. What is it that helps us see all that God wants to show us? Make room for that.

Get rid of clutter and make room for light to shine. This isn’t just good advice for a cleaner kitchen. This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

 

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A Great Interruption

You can’t help but notice it if you pay attention.  When we stop talking long enough to listen and look up from our phones long enough to observe, we see it on people’s faces, we hear it in the way they talk, we can even feel it in the way they breathe. People are tired; but more than that. We’ve rushed past tired and exhausted and made our way to full-blown weariness.

We can sing knowingly the Old Gospel Line – I am tired, I am weary I am worn – because we know it. As we notice the clerk in the grocery story line or the neighbor in the pew or the colleague just trying to hold it all together, we know this is true. We see it in these strangers, because it would be too painful to see it in ourselves.  But we know it there too.

We know it all too well – what it is like when everything comes hurdling towards you and everything you have tried to keep hidden and beneath the surface finally breaks through. We know what it is like when all the stuff we have to do and all the emotions we have been feeling get the best of us and we just can’t hold it down anymore.

We know this weariness.

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We are weary with anxiety that what we have hoped for might never come, weary from sensing that the dreams God has put on our hearts might actually be an impossible vocation. We are weary of being unable to hold up our end of the bargain and live up to our responsibilities, wanting desperately to be there for everyone we care about while knowing deep down that if something doesn’t change there is no way we are going to make it.  We are weary from seeing our friends and our loved ones hurt and feeling completely powerless to do a single thing about it.

We are weary of the news, how weary we are of and from the news, weary from the words and images and sounds that serve as a never ending cacophony of bad news. And those images – we are so weary of those images – another attack, another shooting, another leader who isn’t who we thought they would be or who we hoped they would become. We are weary, most of all I think, of how we talk to one another, or how we talk past each other and how we talk about each other.  We are weary because we are so exhausted and overwhelmed by the way the latest crisis of the day is no longer an event that radically upends someone’s life, but instead is just another opportunity to be outraged and a new excuse to rip someone apart.

We know where it really counts that the status quo won’t cut it, that there is a wide gulf between the way things are and the way we need them to be.  What we need more than anything else is an interruption from the chaos and way out of our weariness, even if we can’t see how or where it will come from.

This is the message of this Advent, this watching and waiting that we are doing – watching for signs of light and waiting for a new way despite the piles of evidence that scream otherwise.

In the midst of all this weariness and hurt and pain and anguish and fear and dread we do what we always have done – we watch and we wait for the Light of All People.  We watch and we hope in expectation for something new that comes into a world where not everyone has a place to stay and in the midst of a story that painfully reminds us of the meaning of Holy Innocents. We wait and we pray for Good News of Great Joy even, and especially, as our vision to see God in every person still seems horribly dimmed, as our friends still get sick, as our parents still decline, as our neighbors still fear for their lives and as the threats and the forces and the powers and the principalities still rage on.  In the midst of it all, we watch and we pray and we hope and we wait.

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We wait in hope for Christmas because Christmas is the interruption we desperately need.  That’s what this day is. Christmas, that God became like us for us – comes as the Great Interruption we had hoped for even before we knew to hope for it. Christmas comes to shatter the awfulness and brokenness of what is and to lead us to imagine and participate in the beautiful and holy of what now can be.

This baby we are waiting for again comes to interrupt the exhaustion of first-time parents wondering if they can be everything this precious gift needs them to be.  The Prince of Peace comes to interpret our unceasing thirst for vengeance.  The Word of God comes to give us the words we need to be people who see God in every person, even and especially when that gets hard.  The Teacher who said my burden is light comes to interrupt our despair and depression to remind us that despite it all hope isn’t lost, because hope never fails.

And so we wait.  With tired faces, full calendars, and short fuses that spring from weary and burdened souls, we wait.  We keep watching and we keep praying and most of all we keep waiting – for we know that into the weariness of our burdened lives Christmas is coming with the force of a Great Interruption.

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