Advent Reflections: The Candle of Peace.

In my life, peace is too often an afterthought. I’m not naturally a peaceful person. Productive? Yes. Problem-solver? Yes. Able to see the brighter side of most events (but also somehow to feel all the things in a paradox that is confusing even to me?) Yes. Energetic? Yes. People-oriented? Yes.

Peaceful? Tranquil? Restful?

Umm, that’s a hard no.

I would rather clean bathrooms than do yoga and host forty people for dinner than take a nap. I want to want to love the idea of a silent retreat but it actually makes every fiber of my being cringe in horror.

Obviously silent retreats themselves do not create peace in a person, my point is just that I’m not even a person who seeks peaceful occasions out. I like order and I like structure but it’s primarily because it lets me accomplish more things in life. I think I was just born with a bit of an old soul and I live constantly aware of the passing of time. I want to meet all the people, visit all the countries, try all the foods, read all the books and experience all the things.

Creating peaceful moments in my life will probably be a lifelong exercise. It’s one reason I pay $10 an hour to go to the sauna a few times a month. I need the stillness and forced contemplation that it provides. The mandatory quiet, the controlled breathing that is necessary to handle the increased temperature and the decreased vision (turns out glasses quickly steam up in saunas when you try to write your weekly menu in there). I need it all.

I need to force my body into regular stillness to think well. To remember all the things I can never accomplish through endless activity. I need to be called back to remembering the peace of Christ. It’s why I plant myself in front of sunsets and pray liturgies that help center my mind when I want so badly to do something else that I consider watering my fake plants or color-coding the bookshelf (I badly wish just one of these ridiculous examples wasn’t drawn from my daily life).

It’s why I come back again and again to Jesus, he who has the words of eternal life. I’ve tried many other things but I return to him because, as it turns out, the peace, the Shalom, that I need isn’t found in any meal, experience, person, song, book, gift or plane flight available on earth. I’ve looked enough places to know that by now.

The pages of scripture also call me back:

Peace be with you. Peace and grace to you. The fruit of the spirit is…peace… seek peace and pursue it, My peace I leave you. Peace on earth. Make every effort to live in peace, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, the peace of God guards you, those who promote peace have joy, the Lord blesses his people with peace, great peace have those who love your law, you establish peace for us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a person who just wakes up peaceful (though I badly want to be). Yet, over the years I’ve come to deeply trust the second chances of the Gospel. The slow and patient work of a God who grows new things in us one day at a time. The goodness of the King whose son Jesus fills me up with every good thing I am lacking by his finished work on the cross.

I don’t need to (and can’t) manufacture peace, purchase peace, cross it off my to-do list, or find it organizing the closet. What I can do is faithfully put myself at the feet of Jesus, in the pages of Scripture and through prayer. In the circle of a community committed to living out the Gospel. In these places I am changed.

And each time, even when I feel so un-peaceful I can hardly see him, He Is There. The Prince of Peace. Working in whispers and changing in millimeters. And then my heart stills once again and there is peace to press on this pilgrim journey continuing to believe in his promises.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.

Isaiah 55:12-13

Advent Reflections: The Candle of Hope

We lit the first advent candle, the candle of Hope, in the cold, dark garage today. Right there next to the washer and dryer in the midst of dirty laundry, unpacked suitcases boxes that hold more boxes, storage items for the church plant, tools, the parked car and two curious cats desperately attempting to hide in the shoes.

We lit it there because there in the midst of the chaos, the clutter, the unfinished and unresolved and unlovely things that fill our lives, there is where Hope comes to us. There in the midst of all things we close off from the rest of the house is where we can be reminded that all will be made well. I want my kids to understand that. I want myself to remember that.

I once read that “candles are lit in homes where people are trying to pay attention” and I’ve thought about that many times since. I’m not naturally a restful person; I like to go places and see people and create systems and talk in tremendous detail about the nuanced meaning of all of it. I think better when my hands are busy and I’m energized by thinking of ways to plan trips on a dime, build community in simple ways, adapt a recipe, plan a school activity or…organize a closet (I’m clearly a thrilling person to be married to).

This season of Advent, celebrated by candlelight is one of the most meaningful spiritual practices I have because, choosing to see by candlelight, necessarily limits my vision. I’m not distracted by so much because I literally can’t see it and don’t have to fight the urge to go dust my fake plants instead of being in the word of God. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned more of my own limitations and how to wrestle myself down to sitting still. I have to intentionally put myself into places where I can’t do anything else and building rhythms, like celebrating Advent, is one way my heart is stilled and my faith is strengthened. It’s one way I’m learning to pay attention to Hope.

Hope is the foundation, the answer, the surety and the final word. The pulsing undercurrent of life that sustains everything. It comes first and last, it’s the whisper before we’re even sure someone is speaking and the final word to each question. It’s the reason we cling to the belief that all be well even though in our painfully broken world all is not well.

Jesus is our hope.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Hope was hard won. Jesus grew up from a baby in a manger to a king who gave everything and triumphed in battle. This hope has grit which is why it can give grace.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14

We are free. We are a hope-filled people. We know how the story will end and we can live in the endless strength of that hope even as we also wait through days of sorrow and wrestle with our own humanity.

I want to remember that well this Christmas. That in the midst of the brokenness and pain of our world I, we, would see the prophesied and precious gift of God and the foretaste of completed redemption that his birth was and is. It’s the hope of the world and the hope that we need to press on down the road of our own pilgrim journeys as we wait for our world’s third day.

553

It has been 553 days since I was standing here last.

On May 28th, 2018 I was waiting in this parking lot holding my kid’s hands while Tom was in the garage with our van and a mechanic who was tirelessly working on Memorial Day. Our tire was close to shredded and nothing was open because of the holiday, we were still 100 miles from El Paso, had $2,000 to our names and knew three people in the city we were about to call home. The second we drove into the city we had to drop $400 to have the two, front tires replaced and then had an awful first night at a hotel we didn’t have time or money to change (we slept on top of the made bed on a spread out picnic blanket and the kids shared one, air mattress covered in beach towels we had in the van).

In October of last year Tom’s part-time work hours were unexpectedly cut in half and there were multiple months last fall we received less than half of what we expected to financially. Since last fall I have taught 1,171 classes for VIPKid our of sheer, financial necessity and Tom has spent multiple weeks traveling to complete, crawlspace jobs while interning, working two jobs and working hard to lay the foundation for the church plant.

People ask us a lot how we know we were (and are) called to work in El Paso. The honest answer is that God didn’t write it in sky, it’s just that this city is where our desire to be working and the clear needs of the area intersected. We’ve doubted many things since we’ve been here but I can honestly say we’ve never doubted IF we were supposed to be here. Since we’ve come El Paso has found its way into the news for a myriad of heartbreaking reasons that have confirmed the need for a church that loves Jesus on the east side of the city.

Standing in this parking lot today on our way back from Thanksgiving in North Carolina was surreal.

In the last 553 days God has opened doors and knocked down walls to make His church grow. He has sustained us spiritually and financially literally more times than I can begin to describe. One small example happened this summer – the Chromebook I was teaching on for VIPKid would no longer be supported by the company’s teaching platform and we had to buy a new laptop so we didn’t lose the income source. As we traveled to North Carolina for my sister’s wedding our paths crossed with a woman I haven’t seen since I was about ten years old. She handed us a card which had a check that covered, almost to the penny, the exact amount of the laptop.

Why share all of this now?

Because of all God has done.

We have church-planting teammates now when we came without a team. We have a lease for a meeting place in the heart of the area we’ve desired to be working in since we first visited El Paso in April of 2017. We have a core group that has grown to almost forty people. Tom will be able to receives a full-time salary from the church starting in January after two years of piecemeal income. We have completed all the licensure and insurance requirements for the pest control business (our long-term goal is for this to eventually provide our income so we don’t require a salary from the church).

Jesus is faithful.

I know that now in reality in a way I knew in theory in 2017. Sometimes I think we get this idea of calling a little wrong in the church. Sometimes we (sometimes I) seem to think that if God is in something it’s going to be proven by a smooth road or glassy sea. Sometimes we seem to think we have to wait for the victory lap to proclaim His faithfulness in the race or the opened gift to testify to the goodness of the giver.

I’m pausing now to speak to the faithfulness of Jesus because whatever comes next, He is good. We’re at the very beginning of this stage of church panting. We haven’t even had our first service yet (here’s to you, January 12th! 🙌🏻) but here, at this turn of seasons, I want to remember His faithfulness. Remember that He is worthy. Remember that He uses flawed, broken people to help express his goodness to people on a hurting earth.

I’m not saying we’ve done everything right and I would never argue against the need for careful planning or preparing well BUT when we micromanage out the chance for failure or need for faith from our spiritual lives than we miss out on knowing Jesus in a profoundly more intimate way.

These words from Isaiah 58 are ones I’ve returned to over and over again in the past two years. There is no more fitting way to end this first blog post than with them. We have miles and miles to go in this world of church-planting but I badly want to remember at this stage what God has already done and for this to be the work of the church in El Paso.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”