Advent: The Coming of Grace


“Every hour is grace.”  Nobel Peace Prize winner and famous author Elie Wiesel said that.  I’m not familiar with the context, but I suspect his definition of grace may be different than mine.  Still, I can’t get the quote out of my head.  It seems to capture the essence of my life.   

For me, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is a season of grace.  A season both on my calendar and in my life.  I seem to come across grace everywhere. 

I recently read a fascinating novel entitled Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger.  There’s a lot about grace woven into this piece of fiction.  A quote from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus about “the awful grace of God” provides background music for the whole story.

I’ve also been working on a new retreat topic: Gritty Grace.   I’ve been combing through scripture verses on grace—124 of them, it turns out.  I’ve also come across some great quotes on grace.  I like how Max Lucado put it: “God answers the mess of life with one word: Grace.”  One of my favorite Philip Yancey books is What’s So Amazing about Grace?  I remembered this recently when I saw the title of his latest book: Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? I can’t wait to read it.

Then I exchanged emails with our son-in-law about his most recent sermon.  “This one was harder to prepare, he commented.   “It was on grace . . . so maybe it should be hard to understand?”  Richie has a way of saying some pretty profound things in short sentences—a gift I’d like to have!  But it got me thinking. 

Grace is indeed hard to understand.  God’s relentless, remarkable, amazing grace.  Free, but not cheap. Costly grace. Oh, how it cost Him. Words from an old hymn come to mind: “Amazing love! How can it be?  That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?”   I resonate with Anne Lamott’s words: ”I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Grace: It came with Christmas.  The Gospel writer John heralds its coming: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 17)

This is a good season to be thinking about grace.  Of course, that’s true of any season.  But Advent may help us focus.  I’m finally reading Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas—way behind many of you, I suspect, as it came out in 2013.  I’ve just started the book, and grace has found me again. I love how she describes Advent: “This slow unfurling of grace.” (p. 5)

Wishing each of you a “slow unfurling of grace” in the days ahead.

Advent in I-Don’t-Know-Ville

It occurred to me recently that the answer to almost every question in my life right now is: “I don’t know.”   With Woody’s recent retirement, we have made plans to move “back home” to New England.  We are in the process of purchasing a condo under construction in the Boston area.

But from there on it’s all questions.  When will we move? I don’t know.  It depends on selling our current home.  When will the house sell?  I don’t know.  What will it be like to move “back home”?  Is it even possible to do that?  Or was novelist Thomas Wolfe right when he famously proclaimed “You Can’t Go Home Again”?  I don’t know.  What about that biopsy you’ve been putting off?  When will you get that done?  I don’t know.  It depends on getting a major insurance mess straightened out.  How long will that take?   I don’t know.  And what about the results…?  Well, you’re getting the picture.

I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one living in I-don’t-know-ville.   Tons of people I know and love are living there, too.  Will the never-ending international adoption saga never end?  When will we meet these children?  WILL we ever meet these children?  When will my prodigal come home?  WILL he/she come home?  Will this court case ever get resolved and justice—and mercy—prevail?  Will the doctors ever figure out what’s wrong?  Will the money last till the end of the month?  To name just a few questions in my prayers for those I love.

It seems to be an Advent season of I-don’t–know.  Which brings to mind the fact that there were a lot of I-don’t-know people at that first Christmas.   Joseph and Mary must have had plenty of unanswered questions on that road to Bethlehem.   And when they had to flee to Egypt.  And a thousand other times in the parenting of Jesus.  What was God up to in allowing life for His son to look like this?  And the shepherds and the wisemen: What does this amazing birth mean?  And Simeon and Anna in the years they waited to meet Him: “How long, O Lord, how long?”

But they did know one thing, and it’s the central truth of Christmas: God is now with us!  “And they will call Him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.”  (Matthew 1:23)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like living in I-don’t-know-ville.  It makes me nervous.  I am, after all, half-German, firstborn, and off the charts on the Myers Briggs J-scale.   I like answers better than questions.  But maybe there’s something to be learned here from those first Christmas people.  And more importantly, from the God who invaded their world.

Amidst all the unanswered questions of our lives, there is one Big Answer.  What we don’t know, He does.  What we can’t control, He can.  Wherever our future takes us, He is there already.   It’s something BIG to celebrate in Advent.  A cause for great joy—yes, Joy!  Even in this Advent season of I-don’t-know.

A Certain Slant of Light

I am mesmerized by the lights of Christmas.  I guess I always have been.

My mom loved to tell how I got her up in the middle of the night the Christmas I was two, begging to have the Christmas tree turned on.  I always loved the tiny white lights that outline the shops in the center of the charming New England town which was home to our family.  And when I think of Christmas Eve celebrations over the years, I see the faces around our table in the glow of the individual Swedish candle in front of each place.

Lately God seems to be pursuing me with Light, morning and evening.  In beauty, in joyful anticipation, in reflection, in uncertainty, and in grieving (yes, I still miss my mom every day, though December 19 will be the 4-year anniversary of her homegoing).

Early this week, Woody put up the single candles that we light in each window for Advent.  Even as he did the harder work of getting cords untwisted and finding outlets and extension cords, I heard Jesus’ voice: “I am the Light of the world . . . You are the light of the world.”  This is a yearly ritual.

But then there was the light incident of two mornings ago.  It’s very dark in Wisconsin when I get up.  I was sitting in my favorite place, having my morning “Come to Jesus” conversation about worry.  I need the reminder to start every day: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.” (Philippians 4:6 NLT)  I looked toward the darkened family room and wished I had thought to turn on the light above our nativity set.  Because our conversation wasn’t finished (Jesus’ and mine), I didn’t get up and turn on the light.  But then suddenly, there it was—a tiny flicker of a light illuminating the nativity figures.  It seemed that for some reason a small electric candle on the mantle had turned itself on.

I got up and turned it off by loosening the bulb, only because these candles are particularly unpredictable and I didn’t want to burn out the battery.  Back to my seat.  The candle was back on.  Oh, that crazy candle!  I unscrewed it a little more.  I sat down again.  And the light was back on!  I’m not sure how many times this happened.  But I did feel a little like Samuel: how many piercings of the night does it take for God to get my attention?  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  (John 1:5 NLT)

The following morning, the bulb was still out of the candle.  But as I was sitting in my familiar place, the sun came up.  Cause for celebration in itself, as we don’t see the sun all that much in Wisconsin these days.  But there it was—a very distinct beam of sunshine slanting across our mantle to the nativity set.  Mostly it was still dark—except for the light slanting its way toward Bethlehem.  “A certain slant of light,” as Emily Dickinson put it (albeit in very different context).  A reminder, for me, of the True Light that came with Christmas.

Then there was my drive home yesterday in the darkness, much later than I’d expected to be.  One of those “routine medical tests” had turned out to be not so routine, and I was facing further testing and uncertainty.  Also, a recalibration of “Linda’s agenda” for getting ready to have everyone home for Christmas this year.   It was cold and dark as I drove home.   I wished we had our window candles on a timer, so I wouldn’t go home to a dark house.

But there they were, five candles radiant in the upstairs bay window.  I’m really not sure why they were on—most likely because I had unwittingly flipped a switch in that room and hadn’t noticed the bulbs lit in the daylight.  But it really felt like God getting my attention with” the Light of His presence”—again.   What did the ancient prophet say? “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a Light for me.”  (Micah 7:8 NKJV)

May God surprise you with His Light this Advent.

Waiting, Preparing, and Lighting Candles Wherever You Are

Waiting, Preparing, and Lighting Candles Wherever You Are

“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.”

These words were written from a small cell in a Nazi prison camp by Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who would shortly thereafter be hanged as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler. I recently came across this quote in a book of Advent readings and I asked myself: If Alfred Delp could write about “The Shaking Reality of Advent” in such a time from such a place, what about us, this December 2009, here in America?

I feel very pensive about Advent this year. I think it is partially because Advent is a season of waiting, of preparation, and of lighting of candles. It is a time when we prepare to celebrate The Arrival. The Arrival of a baby whose birth changed everything. Absolutely everything. Everywhere. Forever. Even in a Nazi prison cell. Or in Afghanistan. Or Iraq. Or an economic downturn in the USA. A Very Big Arrival.

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