Longing for family, groaning for home

It seems only fitting to end this year thinking about longing. Advent season is dedicated to intentional longing, cultivating disciplines that bend our hearts toward the longing we feel for the world to be made right rather than trying to ignore it. I have longed for many things this year, but as Christmas approaches, I find myself longing for family and longing for home. 

For my two-year-old daughters, family and home are the center of their universe. This year has afforded us more family time than we ever imagined, but because of this I have been able to hear them articulate their beliefs about home again and again. We have a small room that serves as our work from home office, and my husband and I take turns working while the other watches the girls. Without fail, when my husband or I open the door to come out of the office the excitedly say, “Daddy’s home!” as if Daddy had been away for hours. The same goes for when I get up in the morning after Andrew has been up with them for an hour, “Mommy’s home!”, or when Andrew joins us at the park after we have been playing for a while, “Daddy’s home!” For them, home is not our house; home is where we are all together. It doesn’t matter if it is the park or the brewery where we ride scooters or just in our living room when someone has been in the bedroom. Home happens when the four of us are together. 

But they also exist in their world creating family systems. When we see a woman and a child, they immediately say “Mommy! And baby!” While this might not seem unusual, they also designate parent-child relationships to people walking their dogs, “Doggie! And Daddy!” Anyone with a noticeable age-gap is designated the parent and child, any man and woman together are Daddy and Mommy. They make sense of the world by assigning family relationships, even more than that, they understand that family relationships create a baseline of identity. Family is central to who we are and they see that only a couple years into life. 

For them, and for most of us, home and family will always be connected in ways we love and probably in some ways that are difficult. But this year, as we approach Christmas, a holiday season that exalts being home with family, these foundations of identity feel shaky. Even those who are able to be with some of their family members, probably have many others who will be particularly lonely and isolated after an already brutal year. But for the Christian, family and home extend beyond our earthly nuclear family and our home is not found in a place, but in a person. 

Groaning for our eternal home

Our girls envision home as any place that they are. And theologically this isn’t untrue. As people in Christ, our home is not a place, a building or house, it is in Christ—wherever we are. But at the same time, here, wherever we are today, is not our forever home; we have an eternal home with Christ. Scripture teaches us that as we wait and live in a world that is marred by sin, we should both pray for the in-breaking kingdom of God to come, but we are also invited to simply groan. In Romans 8 Paul says, 

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. -Romans 8:22-26

We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan.

The year after I graduated from college, I moved in with a girl I didn’t know who quickly became a close friend. One Friday night we found ourselves lying in the hallway of our apartment crying because our life was so hard. It was, at the time, but remembering that night always makes me smile. I had no idea what the Lord was doing while I was groaning on the floor with Maggie. We were lonely and wondering how to navigate life post-grad, but the Lord was at work. Groaning sounds a bit pitiable, but sometimes words fail, and all we can do is sigh loudly. And scripture teaches us that this is okay, good even. Paul says that all of creation groans as if it were in the pains of childbirth. There is the hope and signs of new life coming, and yet our present experience is painful. All of creation has been groaning until now, so as we lament sin and suffering, we find ourselves in good company, groaning with the very fibers of creations, every saint that had come before us, longing for earth to be renewed. We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan. 

But more than that, the Spirit joins us in our groaning, a godly affirmation that it is ok to feel overwhelmed, distraught, sorrowful. When we don’t know how to pray or what to even ask for, God himself intercedes for us. God joins us in our pain, hearing our sighs and knowing our hearts and minds perfectly. In our groaning we have this promise; God meets us in our pain and prays for us, groaning with us in ways that we can’t even comprehend, bringing our requests to the Father who delights to provide for his children. He doesn’t leave us alone to fend for ourselves, he comes to commune with us, to dwell with us, to know our sorrow and suffering, and to promise in the pits of dispair that he will one day make all things new. 

The family of God

Though my daughters already understand the centrality of family, they have yet to understand the power of the family of God. Almost two years ago, they were baptized at our church, adopted into a covenant family. Though they could not take vows, everyone else did; Andrew and I promised to raise them to know and experience the love of God, and our church family promised to support us, to teach and encourage them, and to become their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ. My daughters see family everywhere, but they do not yet understand the power of the family to which the belong. 

Jesus, when told his mother and brothers were nearby, replied “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48-50). Jesus was telling us that the ones who believe in and follow Him are his brothers and sisters, co-heirs with Him and adopted sons and daughters of God. Nuclear family typically refers to parents and their children, the core of each family unit. But if we are in Christ, he becomes our nucleus, the center of our lives, the core of our beings, and the building block of our new family. But even more than that, we become members of his very body. He is our head, and all who believe in him are his body, all members of a single unit, closer even than our natural born family. 

In this season of being far from parents and siblings who we might typically spend Christmas with, we must remember that our family is much larger than we think—we belong to the family of God. When Paul is imprisoned in Rome, he writes a letter to his friends of the Philippian church. In the first sentences he exclaims that he thanks God with joy every time he remembers them because of their partnership with him in the gospel. Everytime Paul thinks about his family in Christ, he is filled with joy. But Paul isn’t spending time with his church family each week, he is isolated, alone in a prison cell awaiting potential execution. And yet, he rejoices. His letter is all about rejoicing and contentment because of the fellowship he enjoys—fellowship with other believers and fellowship with Christ. 

This year, if you find yourself missing family and home, remember Paul and press into the truths that your family in Christ rejoices in and remembers you, an important member of the body. You are not forgotten. Your home in Christ and your eternal home is in heaven, towards which we groan. This year, if you find yourself longing for family and longing for home, remember that the family of God is praying with you and for you, groaning with you as you groan, and that our God draws near to the broken-hearted, feels our pain with us, bears our burdens for us, and gives us the most important thing we can have in challenging times: his promise. This year, hold fast to the promises of God. 

Fall On Your Knees

Read: Revelation 5

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. – Revelation 5:12-14

The scene in Revelation 5 reveals a glimpse into heaven, and at the heart of what is going on in heaven is worship. But, if you’re like me, worship can often feel mysterious. There are times when my heart overflows with love for Christ, but a lot of the time worshipping in spirit and truth feels elusive—something I want to hunger for but often don’t. But in Revelation 5, we see worship—fall on your face, sing a new song to the Lord, overcome by the glory of our beautiful King Jesus worship. It is this kind of adoration that we will one day participate in with the angels for all eternity. Though today we gaze upon the beauty of Christ in a mirror dimly, not seeing him perfectly face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12), we are still invited, and called, to worship our risen King for what he has done and for who he is. 

What He has done

O Holy Night is one of my favorite Christmas hymns because it captures the same spirit of adoration that we see in Revelation 5. Listen to some of the lyrics:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O, hear the angels voices. 

The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger, in all our trials born to be our Friend. He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your king, before him lowly bend! 

Truly he taught us to love one another; His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
and in his name all oppression shall cease. 

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we; let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever! His power and glory evermore proclaim!

O Holy Night connects the birth of Jesus to the restoration of all things and his glorious reign forevermore, and throughout it all is worship. Fall on your knees, behold your king, bow before him, let all within us praise his holy name! But the song also articulates what Jesus has done to deserve our response of adoration and praise. He breaks into our weary world with hope, he knows our weakness and needs intimately, he is our friend, his law is love and gospel is peace, and in his name all oppression shall cease. 

Likewise, in the throne room of heaven that Revelation 5 depicts, the angels and elders fall down in worship of Jesus because of what he has done. Their weeping ceases, they sing a new song praising Jesus as the worthy one because he was slain and ransomed his people to God so that they might reign on the earth. The works of God are wonderful and make him worthy of our worship every single day. And yet, often we don’t. 

Our God has worked throughout history making a way for us to know him and love him, but it is all too easy to want more. Our world is broken, we are broken. Painful circumstances come our way, families separate, children starve, disaster strikes time and again. Sometimes the way God has worked in the past doesn’t feel like it’s enough to keep us going today. We need to learn to love God for himself as well as for the things he has done for us.

Who He is

Adoring Jesus is not only about what he has done, it is at least about that, but it is also about who he is. This is the difference between prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of adoration. Thanksgiving is thanking God for the ways he has revealed his character in our lives and what he has done for us. But adoration is about loving God for who he is. It is often difficult to even express our love of God in ways apart from how he has acted in our lives—God’s actions are always a perfect reflection of his character, but loving God for what he has done is just a part of loving him for who he is. 

When I worked with college students, the question came up that if God never answered another one of your prayers and your life became like the life of Job, would you still love Him? Most of the students said, how could we? Their love of God was fixed primarily on what God might do for them in the future, not what he had already done for them, and certainly not for who he was. But when Christ entered the world, the Magi and shepherds came and bowed before him as a tiny infant, a baby who hadn’t done anything. The full glory of God manifested itself as a baby, and even before he spoke a word or healed a blind man, Jesus was worthy of our worship simply because of who he was. 

In the throne room of Revelation 5, the elders and angels worship Jesus because of what he has done but also because they experience the glory of Christ. The same glory that passed over Moses and covered him because it would be too much (Ex 33:22), the same glory that kept Israel away from Mount Sinai (Ex 19:23), the same glory that dropped Uzziah dead when he touched the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6:7). God’s glory is the summation of all of his perfect attributes—his perfect justice meeting his perfect righteousness, his complete power held in tension with his boundless mercy, his just wrath and his gracious compassion. When we come in contact with this utter perfection, we cannot help but worship. 

Jesus is described as both the conquering Lion and the slain Lamb, images that capture the beauty of this King we worship. He is not just a roaring Lion who judges the world with wrath, he is also the meek and humble Lamb who gave himself up for the sake of others. Christ in his glory is the beautiful one who draws us into worship for who he is.

In this season, may we adore God both for his actions towards us in the incarnation, but also for the perfect beauty of Christ; his glory that will one day be fully revealed and we join with the heavens in declaring, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:12)!”

Reflect: Spend time considering what God has done in your life that is worthy of worshipping him. Reflect upon what those gifts reveal about God’s character that is beautiful and worthy of your adoration. Take time to thank God for his gifts and to adore him for who he is.

Waiting and Hastening

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13

Karl Barth uses the language of waiting and hastening to describe advent; in this time between advents, we are caught in this tension of waiting patiently for the day that our God will return, and hastening, actively preparing for the day to come. Waiting and hastening. One of many seeming paradoxes of faith. They feel like opposites—waiting is quiet, sedate. But hastening is waiting in action, eager preparation when there is much to do, much to be done before that for which we wait arrives. 

Being pregnant with twins made for a rather abnormal pregnancy. Besides there being two humans fighting for space under my lungs, I had dozens of ultrasounds, spent hours each week at the doctor’s office, and most importantly was told from day one that they could come at any time. After the initial shock, my husband and I settled into 8 months of waiting and hastening. They could come any day, but there was much to do, much to get ready, much life to enjoy before our family doubled. Just before my birthday in June my doctor said that she didn’t think I would make it much longer, and we entered into an even higher pitch of anticipation that would end up lasting almost two months. The trill of expectation was almost too much, a high-wire of emotion that we could not stay on very long. But that was our reality, waiting for the girls to arrive, hastening with our time. 

Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins just before his death, in a series of parables about the final judgment. The parable is about the time that we live in today between comings, and the parable is about waiting and hastening. The virgins, who symbolize the Church, the Bride of Christ, are waiting for their groom to arrive. They are all waiting, but only five of them have been hastening: preparing, planning, readying themselves for whatever may come. The groom is delayed, at least, he hasn’t arrived when they expected him. The virgins grow tired and fall asleep, but are awoken by the cry that the Bridegroom has come! The wise virgins trim their wicks and go to meet him, the foolish ones have run out of oil and must go find more. When they return it is too late. It seems that the waiting isn’t enough in this parable, we must be hasteners. We must be people who are preparing, readying ourselves, waiting with action day by day. 

But what does it look like to have your oil ready? Second Peter is a book mostly about the return of Christ and in it Peter says that in light of Christ’s imminent return we must live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting and hastening for the coming of the day of God (3:11-12). To hasten then is to be actively pursuing the things of God, growing in love for Christ, walking by his Spirit and bearing its fruit. Hastening means growing day by day in our devotion to Jesus, that is how we prepare, that is how we wait. 

But the obvious problem is that waiting is hard, especially when our world seems to deteriorate more and more into sin. This is the advent question—how do we do this? How do we wait in brokenness and darkness and suffering? Why won’t you simply make all things right? This is the advent question, and the only answer is the advent promise; as sure as Christ came into the world once, he will come again. In the meantime, we find comfort in the words he has given to us.

Reflect: How has it been hard to wait for God to fulfill his promises?

Pray: Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications… I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. My soul waits for the Lord More than those who watch for the morning— Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel From all his iniquities (Psalm 130). Amen.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

And in despair I bowed my head // There is no peace on earth I said // For hate is strong and mocks the song // Of peace on earth, good will to men // Then rang the bells more loud and deep // God is not dead, nor does he sleep  // The wrong shall fail, the right prevail  // With peace on earth, good will to men. – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Scripture: Luke 2:14, Isaiah 65

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, the poem that would become the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, during the Civil War after hearing church bells play Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The song, which alludes to Luke 2 (Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men) created a dissonance in his heart; the beauty of the music and celebratory lyrics must have felt disingenuous, offensive even in the midst of war that mocked the peace it declared.

In despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men. The themes of despair, sorrow, and longing probably resonate more deeply with us this year. Protests, black men and women murdered without cause, political upheaval, hospital beds overflowing because of the pandemic, natural disasters. The whole earth seems to be groaning in despair. But Advent is a season in which we enter willingly into the tension of the grief and pain of a broken world while holding tightly to the promise that our God will make all things new. 

Unlike vague holiday cheer, Advent does not put on a happy face or overlook pain; it squarely faces the reality of our fallen and sinful world and says God is not dead, nor does he sleep! It is the bells that ring more loudly and clearly reminding Longfellow of this truth. The bells ring every day, day by day declaring that God is with us. He is with us in his word that reveals his character and promises, he is transforming our minds and actions by his Holy Spirit, he is loving us through his body, the Church. He is not dead or asleep, he is Emmanuel, God with us.

But more than simply reminding us that God is with us today, Longfellow reminds us that the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, goodwill to men. In medieval traditions of advent, the themes were not love, joy, peace, and hope, they were death, judgment, heaven and hell. While that sounds intense (and much less Christmas spirit-y) the reason judgment is squarely situated in advent is because the Christian story is oriented around the promise that one day, our God will set right all things that have been broken. Judgment sounds frightening, but in reality, it is just judgment (justice) that our culture so desperately craves. We long for the broken things to be fixed, for hate and sin to be conquered once and for all, for righteousness to rule. And this is what Longfellow points to. Our God is not dead or asleep, he is with us, and he promises to return, make all things new, and to wipe away every tear (Rev 21).

Today, as we see the brokenness and despair in our world, we are invited to be bell ringers who testify to God’s presence and promises. He is with us today in our midst by his Spirit and one day, in the advent we long for and anticipate, the wrong shall fail once and for all, and the right prevail for all eternity with peace forevermore. 

Today, we ring the bells, rejoicing in a minor key, rejoicing while we are still weeping because we know for certain that one day all things will be made right. This is the Christian witness as people who live in between Advents: ring the bells, more loudly and deeply, that our god is alive, with us, for us, and returning to make all things new. 

Reflect: In what ways can you ring the bells of hope and the promises of God in your life?

Pray: Heavenly Father, help us to wait in the tension, acknowledging the suffering of our world, its need for mercy and hope, lamenting the pain of sin and death, but also hold fast to your promises. Give me joy and hope in your promise that you will return and make all things new. Amen.

Listen: I Heard the Bells

Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. – Luke 2:36-38

Anna finds herself among the overlooked saints of scripture. Her name appears among the ranks of the angels, magi, and shepherds as she rightly recognizes Jesus as the Christ. Like the women at the empty tomb, Anna is the bearer of incredible news, and yet, not many of us know of Anna, the prophetess. It’s easy to see why; an elderly widow from a forgotten tribe is forgettable enough. But these three verses of God’s word tell us a story about what our God values. These verses tell a brief and lovely story of a faithful worshipper, and we have much to learn from her.

The Prophetess Anna at the Temple, Rembrandt

Waiting with patience. As a battered Israel wondered when God’s promises for a messiah might be fulfilled, Anna remained faithful to her God, not departing from the temple. But the word for depart has political undertones, meaning she had not deserted the temple. She had not deserted her faith in Yahweh, but was patiently waiting for the redemption of Israel and for her God to fulfill his promises to his people. Today, our situation is not so different from Anna’s. We find ourselves in a similar time of in-between the first and second comings of Christ. While we don’t know much about how the rest of Israel waited, Anna shows us that faithful waiting is indeed possible and that must tune our hearts to desire the coming of his kingdom.

Waiting in worship. While Anna waited, she worshipped through fasting and prayer. As a widow who probably did not have children, Anna’s life would have been seen as deficient. And yet in Anna we see a robust, adoring heart that does not cease to seek the one she loves. Through prayer and fasting she petitions God to fulfill his promises and tunes her own heart to hunger after her God more than anything else. This is the same posture we ought to take in our own in-between time: a worshipful heart that pursues our God day and night, praying for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. 

Joyful and triumphant. Anna’s life was probably not marked by much joy or triumph. The song goes, Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the King of angels. Oh come let us adore him. Who are the ones that this song tells us about? The faithful, joyful, triumphant ones? Anna. This song is about Anna and those who are like her. Who do not desert the faith, who seek the Lord through prayer and fasting, who long to see his kingdom come, whose hearts are tuned towards adoration. After years of waiting, Anna sees the fulfillment of the promised Messiah and he is her joy and triumph. May we too be like Anna; those who wait expectantly for our coming King in humble adoration. 

Reflect: What does worship mean to you? How does worship lead you to adoration?

Pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you that you see each of us, no matter how unimportant or insignificant we feel. You hear each of our prayers, know our hearts, and delight in us as your children. Give us joy in our waiting and worship as we draw near to you this advent season. Open our hearts to long for you and desire your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Listen: Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices // For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn – O Holy Night

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5

This December we find ourselves partakers of a weary world. We are discouraged, downtrodden, exhausted, and afraid. For the past year, we have sheltered in our homes, watched social and political unrest in our streets, lost jobs, faced natural disasters. Our world seems to be crumbling around us, and we are weary. Though the Christmas season doesn’t usually bring to mind lament and longing—we prefer to cling to phrases like “Merry and Bright” and “Joyful Joyful,” advent meets the longing of weary people in a weary world with the thrill of hope and the promise of rejoicing. 

Though today I find myself placing hope in a vaccine that will end the pandemic and rejoicing in an intense year coming to a close, these are not the promises that we long for in the advent season. The thrill of hope in advent is that our God has drawn near to us in the person of Christ. At Christmas, we celebrate the first advent, the first coming of Jesus into our world as a light shining in the darkness. Our God chooses to enter into our weary state in order that a new and glorious morn might dawn. 

But today we also live between advents, between comings. Jesus has come and ascended, but he promises he will return. And this is the thrill of hope we must cling to today, that our God has entered into our darkness once to redeem us, but he will do it again to bring us once and for all into his glorious light. That the light shines in the darkness, and no matter how bad a year can be, the darkness will not overcome it. This is what we rejoice in when we find ourselves weary—that our God has promised to come again and make all things right, and he is faithful. 

May we rejoice knowing the light still shines in the darkness, and may our hope be in the promises of our good King Jesus.

Reflect: What are you hoping for in this season?

Pray: Jesus, I confess that I place my hope in so many things other than you. Open my heart that I might know the hope of your promises, give me endurance to hold fast to the hope of the gospel, and fix my gaze upon the hope of your unfailing love. Amen.

Listen: O Holy Night