Monthly Archives: December 2013

Advent Cheer

By: Brent Bailey

I started celebrating Advent when I realized I was pointed in the wrong direction.

For most of my life, even now, the rhythm orienting my life has been the school calendar. The way I define my place in time usually follows a certain pattern from “The semester’s just starting” to “Things are starting to pick up” to “It’s hectic midterm time” to “It’s like the calm before the storm” to “Don’t talk to me, it’s finals week” to “School’s out, and I’m free!” If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll usually start my answer with one of those time markers. Describing myself in those terms forms my identity: Because the rhythm of my life is the rhythm of school, the label of “student” is closer to the center of how I perceive myself than many other labels.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James Smith describes how we’re constantly surrounded by different influences trying to form us and orient us and, ultimately, “determine what we love.” He calls those influences liturgies—collections of stories, images, ideals, practices, etc. that are powerful enough to determine for us what we dedicate our time, energy, and attention to. Smith describes a few different liturgies in United States culture, like the shopping mall or the stadium, that have been particularly effective. (The amount of time Americans spend over Thanksgiving shopping and watching football suggests he may be on to something.) Smith argues churches need to offer liturgy so robust it can counteract the pressures of those competing liturgies. The end result is that we’ll love God (and dedicate our time, energy, and attention to God) more than we love material possessions or a football team or anything else.

I don’t remember who it was that described the liturgical calendar to me as a rhythm orienting the lives of Christians. (The longer I stay in Bible college, the more all the books, lectures, and conversations blend together.) Having grown up in a Christian tradition that didn’t use the liturgical calendar, its language was mostly unfamiliar to me, but I started noticing how certain friends seemed to define their places in time by those Christian seasons: “I’m so ready for Advent to arrive.” “This season of Lent has been really rich for me.” I started to wonder whether planting myself on the Christian calendar could form my identity in the same way the school calendar had, whether it might help me to move that “Christian” label closer to the core of my identity.

A couple years ago, I started participating in the rhythm of Advent. Let me be honest: I’m still an Advent baby, and that means I’m still really bad at it—listening to Christmas music before Christmas, accidentally starting a Sunday early last year (Seriously, how hard is it to check a calendar?), that sort of stumbling. But I’ve noticed it’s already beginning to change the aroma of December for me, such that the culmination of Christmas isn’t the post-finals nap or the gift exchange or the viewing of A Christmas Story (Precious as those moments are!). It’s the arrival of Jesus, the one who comes to us where we are and gives us a new identity.

That’s the direction in which I want to move.

Strengthening the Fiber of our Relationships

By: Janet Mendenhall

It is still dark as I sneak out of the house and head to a local gym. Middle age has made it harder to stay physically fit, so this has become a daily activity. I am disciplined and consistent, but I am also in a rut. The young girl at the desk tactfully points out that I might want to try a free trial of a new class they were offering as an alternative to my usual “routine”. I decline, because… well, I am stuck in a rut. I am comfortable with the equipment I am using — meaning I know how to use it and am only mildly concerned about making a wrong move or otherwise looking ridiculous. Ruts even in exercise are not useful for growth.

A friend invited me to tag along as her guest at her gym one recent Saturday morning since it opened earlier than mine.  We did the quick, 30-minute interval workout she usually does. It wasn’t overly strenuous, but it was different. And when I woke up, some muscles were sore. I realized I hadn’t been waking sore most days, so I was likely not experiencing muscle growth.  You see, muscle growth occurs when there is trauma. During strenuous exercise, there is actual damage to the muscle fibers. In response to that damage, cells outside the muscle fibers rally to repair and increase the density of the existing muscle, making it stronger. Thus the exercise enthusiasts’ mantra: “No pain; no gain.”

I recently offended a dear friend of mine. It wasn’t intentional. In fact, I was surprised when she called to confront me.  She was honest and straightforward, yet somehow still kind. I was devastated. I had been inconsiderate and not trustworthy, characteristics I would typically pride myself on. My prideful heart immediately began defending itself, but stopped short. I listened, and with a broken heart, apologized, asked what I could do to make things right and thanked her for her honesty. I was certain things could not be restored. Things would never be the same. Her hurt would be too much, my shame too great. As I hung up the phone and unsteadily continued the meal I was cooking, I began thinking: This was uncomfortable to me because it is so rare in my life. Not rare for me to offend folks, I am sure, but this straightforward, honest response caught me off guard. It is neither routine for me nor comfortable. And it hurt. There was trauma. There was actual damage to the fibers of our relationship.

My friend has called again. We have laughed and shared from our hearts. We have confided in one another. Our relationship was not destroyed; as it healed it was in fact made stronger.

I haven’t altered my exercise regimen yet. I understand the principle of muscle growth, but I am still plodding through my same routine without the unwanted but essential soreness. My body could be stronger, but I am settling for muscle maintenance, instead of muscle growth. Maybe I will commit to a new routine in the coming New Year.

As sad as that is, it would be sadder to not alter my routine interactions in my relationships, and just maintain them when they could grow stronger. And if we as the body of Christ could practice this exercise principle more routinely, just imagine the gain.