This Advent, Nan Thomas will share four Sunday reflections with us on these themes: hope, prepare, watch, and rejoice. Nan is deeply thoughtful about spiritual formation, a topic she pursues as an InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries staff member and as Associate Director of Faculty Development at Union University. In addition, Nan was part of the founding team that imagined the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) and made it a reality. We’re grateful for her ongoing advice and encouragement, and for this Advent series.
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. — Mark 13:35-37 (ESV)
It strikes me increasingly just how hard-pressed people are nowadays. It is as though they’re tearing about from one emergency to another. Never solitary, never still, never ever really free, but always busy about something that just can’t wait. Amid this frantic hurly-burly we lose touch with life itself. We have the experience of being busy, while nothing real seems to happen. The more agitated we are, the more complicated our lives become and the more difficult it is to keep a space where God can let something truly new take place…
And yet we know that everyone who has allowed God’s love to enter into his or her heart has not only become a better human being, but has also contributed significantly to making a better world. The lives of the saints show us that. And so I say, make room in your heart for God and let God cherish you. There you can be alone with God. There heart speaks to heart. — Henri Nouwen, The Lord is Near: Advent Meditations From the Works of Henri J. M. Nouwen; p 3. Creative Communications for the Parish; St. Louis .
Please note that Nouwen is writing this truth twenty-two years ago! Added to this busyness that he describes is the additional encumbrance of being connected to cell phones and living more and more inside our own individual stories. Once again, Advent invites us to place ourselves in sacred time, where we encounter the wonderful truth about real life “that when we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.” (Eugene Peterson, qtd. in Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God; Bobby Gross. InterVarsity Press. )
As we abide in God’s story a sense of purpose for our lives becomes more real.
Everyone longs for a deeper sense of purpose, wanting to be sure that what we do matters . . . and more importantly, that we matter. The purpose for a real life seems best described in the two great commandments: loving God with all that we’ve got and loving our neighbor as ourselves—each and every day. If we do nothing else each day, besides those two commandments, then we are living real lives and fulfilling our purpose. Our capacity to fulfill these two commandments begins with knowing that we are loved by God, and that truth enables us to die to ourselves, our encumbrances and our sins, a little more each day. This is present day living. Watching and keeping awake requires us to live in the present. But we don’t often live in the present. The following prayer based on a passage by Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, has served to draw me back to the present again and again.
Forgive us Oh Lord, for we do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us . . . We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future . . . the past and present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. — Lightly adapted from Pascal, Pensees, 172. Translated by W. F. Trotter. Letcetera Publishing. (2015).
This Advent, take a little time to abide in the story of God; drawing near to Christ, to him alone, being still and watching. When we are still even for a short time, we can let go of our encumbrances and the sin that so easily entangles and settle ourselves in this larger, real story, and thereby live more fully in the present. It takes intention and attention to recognize God’s active presence in our lives, making all things new. We all need time to sit with God and accept and embrace what he is doing in us and through us.
Closing Prayer: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, For with blessing is His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, Our full homage to demand.
King of Kings, Yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of Lords, In human vesture, In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
As Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph, Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to His presence as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Lord Most High!
—The Presbyterian Hymnal; Westminster / John Knox 1990.
Consider what encumbrances are making you hard-pressed these days, never solitary or still. When might you spend a little time settling into God’s story?
Image: Levitan, Isaak Ilʹich, 1860-1900. Silence, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48987 [retrieved December 1, 2016]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
About the author:
Nancy Flack Thomas has been on InterVarsity staff for twenty-seven years and currently serves on the Faculty Ministry leadership team of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, with a particular focus on staff training and spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as the Associate Director of Faculty Development and previously as an adjunct professor of political science at Union University, a Christian liberal arts university in West Tennessee. Through each of these positions Nan seeks to encourage Christian faculty in their spiritual and professional journeys.