Complaining at Christmas?

The Wise Men Journeying to Bethlehem – James Jacques Joseph Tissot

It’s Christmas week. The fourth week of Advent. The time when all the scurrying and baking and frenetic wrapping reach their zenith. This can also be a season ripe for complaint.

Complaint about the weather. Complaint about traffic jams, visiting relatives, toddler fits, and shopping trips. In the midst of candy canes and popcorn cake, we prop-up idyllic Christmas celebrations, which can be unexpected setups for disappointment. Even in this season of comfort and joy, grumbling can rise like steam from the wassail.

I’m certainly not immune to complaining. Even if I don’t voice my dissatisfaction, my mind is all too eager to write a negative script. Why? M. Craig Barnes suggests, “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul.” (Pastor as Minor Poet, 16) Barnes goes on to add, “The primary symptom of a soul that has become sick is that it becomes blind to the poetry of life.” (38) When we complain, the presenting issue may not be the issue.

Complaint may seem off-topic for an Advent meditation, but the ubiquity of societal (and personal) grumbling is evidence of our longing. If we’re wrapped too tightly in wish dreams, our senses dull to the grand story unfolding before us. How enthralling, explosive, and poetic was the Incarnation! The shattering of time with the advent of the Christ-child was a longing fulfilled. A promise kept. The genesis of hope and assurance of renewal that affects this very moment.

Even so, we wait. Our souls lament as we cry, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

And yet there’s a song in the air! Can you hear the Creator singing His melody of grace harmonized with justice, mercy, and kindness? Release yourself into the mystery, wonder, and beauty of Salvation’s song that satisfies our soul’s longing and extinguishes complaint.

As we celebrate Christmas this week, let’s remember the One who had justification to complain, yet never did. Who with incomparable humility carried the Song of Love to the Cross and sung redemption into eternity. Thanks be to God for the gift of our Savior — Jesus!

Merry Christmas!

A Prayer against Complaint

Holy Song-Singer and Word of Life,
Jesus, our Savior, strong and good;
Forgive my complaint and steep me in joy —
Have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
(Philippians 2:5–8, NIV)

Food Democracy

Long ago those miniature, plastic-coated spoons disappeared from our home. They accompanied the gnawed sippy cups and Bob the Builder plates that were sent for recycling. It has been a while since my wife and I battled a toddler’s will against ingesting liquified carrots, spaghetti, squash, pears, chicken-n-dumplings, and other assorted glass-jarred baby foods. In their first days of semi-solids, our children did not hesitate to express their preference for specific types, textures, and flavors of food.

Those preferences continue but have matured to include philosophical and ethical considerations. Instead of struggling through a preference for Apple Blueberry over Sweet Potato, food is chosen by convictions about organic, processed, vegetarian, local, free-range, fair trade, and all-natural characteristics. Even so, my family’s passion for fulfilling their dietary needs is no less intense than when pulverized peas were ejected in a moment of disapproval.

As I’ve watched these convictions develop, I’m surprised by my push-back on beliefs that differ from mine. When I find them unreasonable, confusing, altruistic, or unbalanced I respond with an exasperated rebuttal through a raised voice. I’ve been cynical, skeptical, and grumpy. I’ve balked at purchasing foods that cost more, smell funny, or crowd-out my preferred choices in the pantry. A fan of simplicity, my reserve of patience runs low when I’m required to prepare different meals to accommodate convictions I don’t agree with.

While diversity makes our lives interesting, it can also bring conflict. In my previous post, I mentioned my affinity for solitude and contentment with quiet, peaceful spaces. That independence affords me a measure of control over my circumstances. I can manage and even steer clear of volatile issues as I protect myself from having to reconcile my own convictions with others.

Yet, consistent isolation or cloistering with like-minded people can foster attitudes of justified self-centeredness. Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader said, “All men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.” (The Search for Common Ground, 104) Does Thurman’s proposition apply to the food fights in my household? Absolutely. If I willingly shut-down or fortify myself against different ideas, beliefs, and behaviors I risk not only stunting my development but limiting the quality of my relationships.

When I find myself experiencing repeated frustration, negative emotion, stereotyping or making assumptions, I’ve given my desires inappropriate priority. I’ve allowed my convictions to corrupt my relationships. Henri Nouwen said, “Our human relationships easily become subject to violence and destruction when we treat our own and other people’s lives as properties to be defended or conquered and not as gifts to be received.” (Reaching Out, 119) My goal should not be to convert critics or overpower dissenting voices. To get vegetarians to eat meat or Ford owners to drive Chevys. Those aims can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and division. As a believer in Jesus, my behavior is to support a peaceful unity. I’m to do justice, love kindness, and be humble. This does not mean I jettison my convictions. Nor should it imply that I be silent when I disagree. To the contrary, I should engage, speak, and advocate.

The Apostle John noted that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Notice the order: grace then truth. The grace our Lord gifts to us should inform our interactions and relationships. We should be kind and hospitable, listening first to understand. We should not fail to offer dignity and respect to everyone, allowing for disagreement while not maligning or disparaging one another. In short, we should love each other.

In the past few years I’ve learned a lot about food. I’m grateful to be led by my children into a new stewardship of my food consumption. Beyond food, I’m seeking to assume a humble, grace-filled, listening posture that promotes dialogue and relationship. I’m praying for strength to hold my convictions while being kind to those who think differently. I’m asking the Spirit for a holy courage to speak with gentleness.

In this third week of Advent, as we continue to ponder our “doing” (week 1) while being diligent with our togetherness (week 2), lets also consider our words, thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Are we advocates and unifiers? Does the grace of Christ pervade our interactions even as we stand firm in our convictions? From peas to politics, how we relate to one another is an indicator of what we think about God.

A Prayer for Unity
Heavenly Father, Obedient Son, Comforting Spirit —
Unified in divine diversity;
Temper our spirits with grace and truth,
and quicken our love toward peace-filled community.

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:10, ESV)

A Converted Caravan

The photos shuffling on the display of my computer are of the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson, Wyoming. During the summer of 2018, my youngest son and I, along with a handful of other fathers and their sons, set-out into that remote part of the American West for an 8-day adventure of vigorous hiking.

While the mountainous vistas are worth every step, such trips are not without tense moments and uncertainty. Weather, terrain, injury, illness, and mental fortitude are ever-present variables. During our 24-hour drive to the trailhead, our group pondered some important questions: Would the trail be navigable? Would there be good places to camp near a potable water source? Would the snow pack cause us to re-route and lengthen our hike or send us bushwhacking? What do we do if a bear eats our food, and did we bring the bear spray?

Our concerns were not unfounded. We encountered snow. We detoured. But there were no bears. More serious and unexpected, however, was our encounter with illness. As the days passed, one of our teammates became weak and exceptionally tired, struggling more and more with the rigor of uphill climbs. To assist, we lightened his load by dispersing items in his pack among the group. This continued until he walked packless, clutching only a small bottle of water. Still, his body wearied toward delirium and heat stroke. We stopped and rested often. Fully spent on our final day, our sweat-drenched friend groaned as he sat hunched over a scraggly Western Pine, and wept. We wept, too. And prayed. As we baked in an arid, sun-soaked valley, miles from our exit, a new dimension was demanded from our fraternity.

That hiking experience is not unlike the Christian life. The journey of faithful living is arduous, unpredictable, and shouldn’t be done alone. Yet in our current culture of rugged individualism, we might be lulled toward habits that isolate and behaviors that exacerbate a prideful disposition of, “I’ve got this!” And this individualism can seep into our spiritual practices. How? For me, I’m very content with quiet mornings of coffee, reading from Scripture and another book (or two), a bit of conversational prayer, and some writing. Just God and me and the stillness of the pre-dawn morning. While this solitary practice has merit, if I neglect to supplement my peace and quiet with face-to-face interactions, I’ll be spiritually under-developed and relationally malnourished.

Referring to the collective of professing Christians, Jamie Smith said, “Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone.” (On The Road With Saint Augustine, 51) More importantly, Scripture commands us to make togetherness a priority. (Heb 10:24-25) It is in our gathering that we apply salve to wounds and reorient those who’ve strayed. We support and carry those who are weak. We encourage, edify, celebrate, and grieve — together.

In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen said: “The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.” (88-89) From time to time, each of us will be desperate and tired, mustering our last bits of courage to take one more step. When those moments come, we need each other.

In my previous post I challenged us to consider our “doings” — our involvements, behaviors, and activities that determine who we are becoming. I’ve been meditating on my “doing” this past week as part of the Advent season. For the second week of Advent, I’m going to consider how my desire for introverted independence tugs me toward seclusion. I’ll be evaluating the balance of time alone with time in community.

How about you? Are you wandering alone? Are you regularly engaged with like-minded people of faith? Do you have friends who both challenge and support you? Do you consistently give of yourself and your resources for the good of others?

To finish the story, we made it out of the Gros Ventre. It required patience, humility, empathy, encouragement, and of course God’s kind providence. Looking back, it was a privilege to pace with our hurting friend during that intense and painful episode. He couldn’t have done it without us.

As people of faith, we’re members of a glorious caravan. We journey together. This day, let’s encourage one another to walk by faith, trusting the One who gives us hope through His birth, death, and resurrection — our traveling companion, Jesus Christ.

A Prayer Against Isolation
Friend and Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ,
Pioneer on the path to glory;
Invade my realm of detached independence,
amend my affections with desire for your people.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
(Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV)

An Advent of Becoming

It’s been a long slog through jack-rabbit starts and anti-locked stops. Back roads and main roads and residential roads. Blind spot blindness and forgetful signalling. Missed turns and tight turns but always (fingers-crossed) a safe return. Now we’re rounding the final turn with our youngest child. Number five. Just a few more hours to log and we’ll be done — forever — with driver’s education.

Our progression toward becoming safe, proficient, confident drivers requires the acquisition of knowledge and skill. We study the rules of the road. We practice driving to gain familiarity with  vehicle characteristics. We travel on different types of road to master the nuances of city, highway, and residential driving. We push buttons, turn knobs, and adjust mirrors to develop our man-machine relationship. Learning to drive is a process of doing specific things to foster driving competency. In short, we do to become.

What we do — the activities, involvements, relationships, and places we inhabit — determines the trajectory of our life. Our “doings” mold our imagination and develop our character. Pause now, just for a moment, and review this past week. Ponder your everyday activities. Your noble acts, secret indulgences, and subconscious routines. Where did you go? Who were you with? What conversations did you have? What did you do to rest and refresh? What caused frustration and how did you respond? Don’t bury, ignore or conveniently forget a thing. God is neither unaware nor surprised by you. It’s important to dwell upon your doing because it directly affects who you are and who you are becoming.

The life of a Christ-follower should be a deeply earnest, all-out effort of submission and contrition. An uncompromised commitment and trust that God will come alongside and masterfully balance our pain and progress toward becoming more like Jesus. Granted, me writing (and you reading) those words oversimplifies the process. While I long to be more Christ-like, it doesn’t take much to knock me off kilter. It could be a poor night of sleep, frustrations at work, parenting struggles, misunderstandings, illness, a dwindling bank account, loneliness, headaches, shopping malls, or a rough driver’s ed drive. Even running out of coffee can unleash my dark side.

Photo by Rota Alternativa on Unsplash

Christian living is neither simple nor automatic. It’s packed with mystery into which we must venture by faith. But faith requires… faith. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff said, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” (76) To trust is to risk. And rather than release my moment-by-moment existence to Jesus by faith, I’m tempted to corral my activities into safe places. I craft what I believe will be a simpler, easier path that routes me around pain and keeps me in relative comfort. But if my doings are self-protective acts of distrust, then who am I becoming?

This Sunday (December 1) is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, which kicks-off with the season of Advent. Advent is a sacred time of anticipation, longing, and mindfulness. A four-week period to reflect on the cosmic conjunction of the divine and human in the God-Man, Jesus. As we enter Advent, join me as I seek to infuse my Christmas preparations with intentional “doing” as I ask God where I’m at on the path of becoming. Consider whether you’re stepping toward Christlikeness or wandering wild? Perhaps you’re earnest but aimless? Maybe it has been some time since you did any serious spiritual work. No matter your present circumstance God sees, knows, and cares. He beckons you onto the footbridge of faith.

Together, let’s commit to using this pre-Christmas season to evaluate, confess, repent, and pray. Let’s seek the Spirit for counsel and comfort as we invite a personal advent of spiritual refinement. Let’s reform our doing with great expectation for what we’re becoming!

A Prayer for Becoming
Omniscient Father of Providence,
progenitor of life and breath in my soul,
weave my doing with the Fruit of your Spirit,
call forth in me what I’m to become.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
(Romans 12:9–13, NIV)

November’s Fourth Thursday

Photo by Nitin Bhosale on Unsplash


November’s Fourth Thursday

November clouds,
tucked in layers
gray and broody
skim fields
strewn with remnants
of harvest.

Kitchen table,
trusty fixture
gouged and timeworn
nexus
laminated with
bygone conversations.

Communal meal,
homespun tributes
to Grace
assembled for appetites
primed for
autumnal feasting.

We gather,
seasoned with
sadness and mirth
as familial presence
nurtures and stokes
our gratitude.

Copyright © 2019 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

 

Opening Voids

matthew-henry-130381-unsplash
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Some quickly said, “I’m in!” Others needed time to ponder the consequences. And there was one who said, “I won’t do that, but I will do something.”

My family’s pre-Lenten agreements about eliminating, minimizing, or committing to a daily practice for six weeks was a profitable dialogue. We are different people with affections and desires that run the spectrum.

In our abstinence and sacrifice during this season of Lent we open voids in our living. Spaces occupied not only by want, but invitation to something new. It could be a fresh gift of grace that leads to deeper repentance. Or courage to re-engage a strained relationship. Maybe it’s just a fuller sense of joy and contentment. The literal and figurative fasting of Lent is a gateway to spiritual transformation.

As we anticipate the celebration of the Resurrection in a few weeks, let’s continue to contemplate the path of Mary’s child — from swaddled baby to bludgeoned outcast. The God-Man rescuer of humanity from itself. A friend to sinners and hope for the world. A Savior worthy of more than we can give (or give-up).

In our temporary Lenten sacrifices may our spirits connect with our Lord’s sacrifice of Himself for our eternal good. A Redeemer who didn’t cling to comfort or power but came lowly to serve. And when tempted to renege on our 40-day commitments, may these words come to mind:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I Felt That

Last week I met with a longtime friend. We’ve been meeting once a month for quite some time. As we chased away our 6 a.m. tiredness with a cup of dark roast, we caught-up on work, kids, summer plans, and his vision for making maple syrup.

After a while our conversation went below the surface as we dialogued about feeling the presence of God. We both wondered at how we experience Him in tangible ways? How do we really ‘feel’ God? It should be said that neither my friend nor I are known for our expressive personalities. Emotions aren’t at the forefront of our relating. Even so, we do feel things deeply and certainly long for meaningful connection with God.

Today I’m replaying that conversation. Why? Because this morning I definitely felt God’s presence. Not ecstatically, but with a calm confidence that He is near. That He is aware of me. That He knows and understands and cares about me specifically.

While I should (and do) know that such qualities of God are true, I don’t always feel them. And what’s intriguing about my sensing God today is that my experience of divine closeness arrived through a circumstance of disappointment. A door closed. Yet my spirit is unexpectedly settled. Relieved, even. So I believe this peace — that exceeds my understanding — is a touch on my soul by the Spirit as Comforter. In gentleness He affirms that I’m enveloped by a holy gaze.

Oswald Chambers wrote: “Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading. It is literally a life of faith, not of understanding and reason — a life of knowing Him who calls us to go.” (My Utmost For His Highest, March 19) Today I experienced a fresh sense of God’s presence. His nearness to me. It was a generous mercy in a difficult moment. An unreasonable gift that pulled me toward knowing and loving my Creator more.

While the rough spots in life are not my preferred mode for developing faith, I’m glad to know that in every moment God sees me — and cares. So I’m praying for a more literal faith in exchange for my project-managed life. I’m praying for a stronger sense of God’s dwelling with me and the courage to rest in His good plan.

Winter Sleep

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Light on Grand Haven Pier, Grand Haven, MI | 2014, C.S. De Man

 

Winter Sleep

In the dry frigidity
of winter white,
Jack Frost winks
at the vacuous cold
while dancing a
crystalline waltz.

Chilled and quiet
a vibrant living pulses —
preserved in watery depths
and sappy limbs
and burrows of
slumbering furry-ness.

Creation huddles,
wrapped with anticipation of
vernal rays entwined with
the Caretaker’s
warm whisper of
“Well done!” and “Welcome!”

 

Copyright © 2019 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

Listen to This

seeing-shepherds-ii-daniel-bonnell
Seeing Shepherds II by Daniel Bonnell

It was so quiet my ears hurt.

Standing in that chamber is an eerie, disturbing, and unsettling experience. It’s a room in which you can literally hear your heart beating and blood flowing. Scream all you want, but no one will hear. Such are the qualities of an anechoic chamber. A room specifically designed to absorb nearly every bit of sound energy.

My occupational journey afforded me experience with an anechoic chamber. It truly is an uncomfortable yet fascinating room. And while echoless chambers are valuable in specific contexts, the absence of reverberating noise isn’t normal. Sound is ever and always bombarding us. And no matter our quality of perception, sound is inherent to our lives.

A father to five, I’ve become acquainted with all manner of sound and noise. My children have solidified my understanding of hearing versus listening. Rarely do my kids fail to hear what I say, but they sometime chose not to listen. Listening is an active engagement. An attentive behavior that willingly receives and responds. And when done well, listening can be a physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes spiritual experience.

Our path this Advent season has taken us through a specific weekly focus. First it was humility, then peace, rest, and now listening. Each of these characteristics or behaviors takes cues from the others as they shape our thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. As we humble ourselves to God’s authority and settle our spirits with a peace-filled rhythm of rest, we can enhance our steps toward right-living with contemplative listening.

Listening is a helpful spiritual practice. It opens our heart and mind to a divine dialogue as we welcome that still, small voice that sings over each of us. And while we don’t need an echo-free environment to experience God’s presence, the many and varied activities of the holiday season make it particularly challenging to create listening spaces. But it is possible.

Over this next week, join me in setting aside time for quiet, sacred idleness. Rise a little earlier, make a warm beverage, and turn on the tree lights. Settle into a comfortable seat and open Scripture. Maybe dwell on a prayer from The Valley of Vision or sit with the incomparable Rossetti or Hopkins. Accent your contemplative listening with some instrumental music. Whatever calms your spirit, craft your listening space so it assists in dialing-down your task-making mind and dampens the pressure to ‘do’. Be still. Allow the beautiful advent of the long expected Jesus to invigorate your listening toward a grateful response of, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Our Savior has come!

A Prayer for Listening
Son of God and Son of Man,

Incarnate Word of life and light;

Disrupt my routine with listening spaces,
and tune my soul to your song of love.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
(John 10:27, ESV)