Monday, December 17, 2012

Waiting with joy

"We'll arrive in two more hours!" My friend Kt sent me this text message a few minutes ago, letting me know that she and her husband Wyatt would be arriving soon. Several of my Texas friends have families to visit in Florida, and Alabama makes a perfect halfway-haven. Yesterday I spent all day looking forward to the arrival of Amanda, Zachary, and Baby Lily; today I've been receiving frequent updates as Kt and Wyatt draw near (Wyatt sent the best so far: "Over the river & through the woods / To Bethany's house we go!).

Yesterday was also the third Sunday of Advent: the Sunday when most churches light a rose-colored or blue candle, its color a symbol of joy in the midst of a penitential season. Many liturgies call this Sunday "Gaudete" Sunday -- "gaudete" is a Latin imperative, meaning "Y'all rejoice!" The coincidence of personal and liturgical expectation has set me pondering what it means to rejoice as we wait.

My parents named me "Joy" (it is my middle name), and my teachers trained me to be a scholar, so this morning I curled up with a thick volume of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (My college boyfriend gave me the entire 10-volume set for Christmas one year. That, and a harp. But that's a story for another entry). At first I thought I should look up χαίρω. This verb means "I rejoice" and appears in familiar Bible verses such as Philippians 4:4-6, a passage often used on Gaudete Sunday. However, as I looked at my Greek New Testament, I realized that of all the times "joy" appears in the New Testament,  it appears most often in Luke, and Luke uses a different word. In Luke 1, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary receive astounding promises: they all learn of children--their children--whose coming will be a cause for joy. The verb for "rejoice" or "be joyful" in these passages is αγάλλομαι. Stick with me now, because I learned some fascinating (and practical) things about joy from this word.

Kittel's notes, first of all, that the verb αγάλλομαι is a "new construct" derived from an older Greek word that means "to make resplendent, to adorn," and the new word builds on its source, meaning "to adorn oneself," and even "to be proud."  Aγάλλομαι only appears in Biblical language (both the Septuagint and New Testament) and in early Christian writings. Unlike χαίρω, which appears in Greek texts throughout the ancient world, and which can refer to many kinds of merriment, αγάλλομαι never loses its religious connotations, always meaning "joy in God or joy before Him." Perhaps most fascinatingly, αγάλλομαι refers to joy in both the present and future; faith makes future joy real in the present. And finally, even individual joy--such as Elizabeth's delight in finally conceiving a child--is always eschatological and communal: my joy will be bone-shakingly real to me, but is also yours as it looks forward to the full redemption Christ brings.

My fellow word-nerds probably enjoyed that lesson in etymology, but what does all that Greek say about how I can practice the joyful expectation of Advent? Here are a few thoughts, which I have derived both from Herr Kittel and from the experience of waiting for my beloved friends to reach my door:

* I adorn myself and my life in order to demonstrate my joyful hope.  As I wait for friends, I make sure that my rooms are in order, that the lights on the Christmas tree are shining. I put on a favorite shirt and brush my hair. Even before my friends arrive, I will show that I am about to participate in something wonderful.  As I wait for Christmas, I hang symbols of hope on a tiny tree, inviting all who enter to read evergreen signs that foretell unending joy.

* I allow the joy-that-is-coming to direct my work and ways. Because I am confident that Kt and Wyatt will come, I have set dough rising for bread. The smell and texture of that food--already good, but not yet ready to eat--remind me of what will come. Similarly, because I know that Christ has come, comes now, and will come again, I strive to reorient my life according to that arrival. For this reason I went to grad school and spent six years learning to lead others toward the love of wisdom, rather than plunging into a more lucrative profession.

* I use language that sets my joy apart from the world's happiness. This one is hard, much more than a reluctance to curse or swear. It is grace, seasoned with salt. Paradox instead of proposition. Stories that speak otherwise. Handwritten letters. I long for the day when creation ceases to groan and begins to sing. I long for the day when language doesn't falter before truth, but until that day, I can try to make language dance even as it stumbles.

* I consider my joy to belong to all who are called by Christ's name, and I remember that we are waiting together. If my brothers and sisters cannot share my joy, or question it, then I must mistrust it, too, and call it happy-pretty-something-or-other, but not joy, not Advent, not Christmas. I ask, "How might my wealth, my tranquility, my strength add stones to the roads in the Kingdom of God?"  Whether I wait for a train, a friend, or a messiah, good company takes so much sorrow out of the delay.

In many ways, my life right now is like the third Sunday of Advent. After years of wondering if I would ever finish my PhD, my life has turned into a tall rose-colored candle. I recognize that I do not, cannot, yet enjoy all the things I am waiting for in this world or the world to come. Nevertheless, this Advent balances so much of the agonized, uncertain waiting I experienced last year. Waiting is hard, and darkness often threatens to snuff out the pink candle along with all good lights. But for those of us who have new words for "joy," there is no fear that the dark will overwhelm our hope. The darkness has never comprehended the light, and for this reason, above all, we wait with joy.

Waiting with joy. 

Most of us have experienced difficult times of waiting, but can you think of a time you were able to wait for something with joy? 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

the lines have fallen

Trail on the University of Mobile Campus, October 2012

I'm trying to understand tonight's feeling: this weight of gratitude, hope, and sorrow that has been brooding above me, keeping me warm on this winter's night. To this end, I've drafted five different entries. Not one has worked. I've tried to tell stories about how moving here is different from my many transitions in the last ten years. I tried reflecting on what I learned this semester. I tried describing the difference between being "Dr." and "Miss." I tried to understand why this semester feels so momentous, though I have been teaching college English for six years now.

Maybe the stories aren't ready to hatch yet. Or maybe I'm too tired to tell them well. They may come later,  but right now I just feel too broken with joy and hope, wonder and repentance, to trust very many of my own words. For now, only this:

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
                                                    (Psalm 16:6 ESV)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The first adventure

December always makes me nostalgic, and last night I pulled an old journal off my shelf. In it are the annals of my freshman year of college, and I have decided to post an entry from that journal--an account of a trip some friends and I took after our first Honors party. It was the sort of journey that might not seem important to an observer, but it radically changed my understanding of life and community. Ten years later, the prose seems a little too precious and poetical, but I can't fault my 19-year-old too self too much for affected language: every flute and flourish was a sign of how deeply I was falling in love with new friends and with the idea that home could be a place where adventures happen. 

December 8, 2002

How wonderfully blessed I am! Last night as Keith, Mark, Rachel, Emily and I left the Honors House (it was about 11:30, after the Christmas party), I sat in the street to better see the stars, which were glinting as though polished by the chilling air. Someone said, "We should go to the mountains and see the stars there." Rachel, always eager to make dreams reality, asked, "Whose car are we taking?" "We can take mine," Keith offered.

And then, unbelievably, beautifully, we were on our way. No one wanted to hesitate or discuss, lest some sober voice kill our momentum. At first, Emily was reluctant, heeding her keen concern for being prepared, but we prevailed, and she joined us.

Even before we came to the mountains we were giddy, heddy [sic] with one another's company. Sevierville, Gatlinburg were dreaming in electric color -- when the road rose along a ridge and we stopped to look down into its valley, it looked like a field sown with seeds of light, or a shimmering lode in the dark wall of a mine. There too I saw a tree spangled with stars instead of leaves, just the image I think Wordsworth must have known when he wrote, "Shine, poet, in thy place, and be content."

Driving on, we entered the parkway through the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, our headlights following the road like two needles embroidering a dark cloth with bright, serpentine stitches. High enough now for snow--the child's joy in seeing a season's first snow never diminishes. Hands numb from icy caresses, eyes wide in the clean darkness, ears turned to a hidden river, shouting for joy in its coursing, completely unselfconscious. Even the pain of warming as we drove onward was rich to me.

The final lookout on the parkway was most amazing. It hinted of large beauty to be shown in daytime, but in the darkness the magnificence of the earth was draped, serving only as our foundation for turning to the sky. So much was visible, so many stars who are not preeminent, but vital. Andromeda, the Ursae, and the Pleiades were revealed, and we even saw the soft ribbon of our galaxy....There were shooting stars as well, some briefly precious, and one like a long drop of melted silver.

By this time Emily was glad she had sacrificed scruples for spontaneity. [...] All night I was so full of love and thankfulness to God. We returned at five this morning, but none of us were sleepy in church, even with only three hours of sleep. I think we were still too thrilled by our adventure. Thank you, God, for laughter, and hugs, [...] for cappuccino at four am and safety home. For shooting stars and silent nights....holy nights.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Being useful isn't enough

Ideally, the culture of a Christian congregation should be such that every member feels valued, noticed, encouraged, tended. This need may be particularly urgent for single adults, who may not have many other relationships in which they experience love.

Doing it right.

A friend of mine and fellow blogger (explore her lovely words here) recently sent me a link to an article entitled "Serving in Ways Married People Can't." The author discusses the ways in which the freedom of being single allows one to go and give in ways married people (especially those with children) cannot. As far as it goes, this article is really good, and it reminded me how thankful I am to be able to decide, for example, to spend a month in China on a mission trip.

Indeed, if I were to write a book on "How to Be Content as a Single Christian," a chapter on "Being Useful" would have a privileged spot in the table of contents. I love being useful, whether that means serving in the nursery so parents can worship, sitting on a committee, leading a Bible study group, or something else. Like my mother, I savor the rush of endorphins (and perhaps also pride) that comes from accomplishing some necessary work.

At the same time, being useful is not enough to establish the contentment of an unmarried man or woman. We must know that we are beloved.

Theologically, I know that, as a member of the Church, I am the Bride of Christ. However, that assertion doesn't always assuage loneliness. I've heard many preachers use an illustration that makes much the same point: two parents hear their a child crying in the night, and going into his room, assure their little boy that Jesus is always with him. "I know," the child sobs, "but sometimes you need someone with skin."

My Texas church gave "skin" to Christ's love in many ways.  Having visited several other churches since I moved, however, I am beginning to wonder how many congregations intentionally look for ways to make single adults feel not only useful, but beloved.

You can read through my blog archives to for examples of how a church can make a single woman feel   so loved she can hardly bear the weight of it: celebrating important life events (here and here), asking to hear her story (here), providing small groups for study and support (again, here), teaching her to say good-bye (here). I could list so many more: giving hugs, cultivating friendships, offering dinner invitations.

No matter what practical expression that love takes, churches should fight the assumption that single adulthood is a time to be as useful as possible, and that Jesus will satisfy our need for love until marriage comes. For some us, marriage may never come. If we are to experience human love, oh church, it must come from you, and it must come now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent Decorations, Part 1

Last week I wrote about my decision not to put up my Christmas tree immediately after Thanksgiving (read all about it here), but I wouldn't want anyone to think that I object to decorations per se. Rather, I love having little elements to signal the natural, academic, or Christian seasons of my home. This weekend, in honor of Advent, I did introduce some new elements to my house. First, the Advent wreath, which I used yesterday to welcome the first Sunday of Advent.

While I live here, Advent will be "the season in which I don't use my record player." 

I also brought out my nativity scene, but its arrangement represents my efforts to approach Christmas slowly and thoughtfully.

Can you guess what's missing?
The angel has delivered divine messages to Mary and Joseph, while the shepherd remains occupied with his flock. 
The Magi will spend several more weeks journeying from afar--at the moment they are
in the exotic land of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. 
That's all for now. The tree will come up soon: probably this Saturday evening in preparation for the second Sunday of Advent. I've never done decorations like this before. Usually I pull all my ornaments and other Christmas things at once, but I am enjoying this experiment. It feels less like swallowing a whole bag of candy at once, and more like savoring a deep, warm cup of cider

How do you decorate for Christmas? Does everything go up at once, or do you bring things out slowly? 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hoping for Advent

My Texas church welcomed Advent in a beautifully Baptist sort of way: on the first Sunday of Advent we would have a potluck lunch, followed by Advent-wreath making in the fellowship hall. Cutting and arranging juniper branches with friends became a time of hope and reflection even during the most busy doctoral semesters. Sunday morning worship would include a time of lighting and discussing a candle from the church's large wreath, and many years the sermons during Advent would follow the lectionary texts used by our high-church kindred.

Celebrated in this way, Advent slowed the season down for me, encouraged me to study church history, turned my eyes to familiar passages of Scripture, and prepared my heart for Christmas.

The church I've been attending in Alabama has many virtues--hospitality, generosity, concern for the poor, active missions efforts--but overall it shows about as much awareness of church history as a shopping mall. Consequently, I've been pondering how to keep the season without the support of a local congregation.

When some late (but all the more serendipitous) graduation money came to me in the mail last month, I decided that I would buy a beautiful Advent wreath. I found one from Abbey Press, which is housed at the beautiful archabbey of St. Meinrad in southern Indiana. It arrived the week of Thanksgiving, and on Saturday I covered my turntable with a green cloth, placed the wreath there, and filled it with holly from the bush that grows outside my office.

Sunday morning I followed the morning readings from Common Prayer, but I set aside the last hour of my day to welcome the first Sunday of Advent. I made myself a little order of service (which you can read here), turned down the lights, and read through the daily reading from Watch for the Light, then Isaiah 9, then the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I asked God to teach me how to keep my lamp trimmed and burning, how to make sure my oil was ready for the Lord's coming.

Finally, I stood before my wreath and sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" while I lit the first candle, the candle representing hope. For an instant, I felt terribly alone in my private Advent hour: pitiful, even, with my quavering voice and makeshift liturgy. I missed the friends whose voices have caroled that with me for the last six years.

Strange to say, that loneliness washed over me like a wave, passing quickly and leaving me clean: so clean, swept free from distractions or uncertainties. Advent, I realized, belongs to those "who mourn in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear." I do not mean that I feel in exile in Alabama -- hardly so. However, that salt tang of that sorrow reminded me that my hope as a Christian should answer creation's exile, and that this season should revive my dedication to impossible prayers: prayers that a beloved skeptic would return to the faith, prayers for all the lonely adults in our hyper-individualized culture, prayers for reconciliation among denominations, prayers for revival in North Korea and jubilee in Iran.

I let the candle burn for nearly an hour. With the house lights off, I sat in my favorite chair and watched the candle shine. Its light sang my own words back to me: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel...."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Why I need a fake boyfriend

This really just happened.

As I stepped out my door to head to the University of Mobile's Christmas Spectacular concert, I nearly stumbled over an unexpected crowd at my doorstep. I share my open-air landing with three other apartments, and sometimes my neighbors across the way will sit on the landing or its steps to smoke. The people sitting outside the door tonight were not my neighbors, but were (I think) friends or relatives who had come over to watch the Alabama game. I found a woman in her fifties or sixties, an infant, and two men about my age, both shirtless (in December?!).  I said, "Hello," and this is how the conversation proceeded:

Woman: "Well we were just admiring the flowers you have out here in pots -- and the rocking chair. That makes it all real homey. And you are gorgeous!"

Me: "Oh, thank you. I especially like keeping the rosemary because--"

Woman: [interrupting me] "Are you single?"

Me: "Yes."

Woman: "Well, hey, these are my boys here.  That's Cody--"

Cody: "Hey."

Woman: "--and that's Jessie."

Jessie: "Hey."

Woman: "Baby, you are just gorgeous! What do you do?"

Me: "I'm an English professor down the road at the University of Mobile. Actually, I need to be on my way -- I'm headed to a concert to see some of my students perform."

Woman: "Well stay safe! You really are gorgeous! Bye-bye, baby!"

Cody: "You be safe out there."

Me: "Umm, okay! Nice to meet y'all."

I could still hear them talking as I headed down the three flights of stairs toward my car. Just before I reached the ground floor, I heard the woman say, "Well Cody, why didn't you talk to her?" Cody responded, "I tried, Mama, but she ran off!"

As my Mississippi-mother has often reminded me, people in the deep South are "in your business" to an extent they are not in Indiana or even Texas. As I've discussed before, I don't take offense at questions about whether or not I am single, but  I'm never sure how to answer the question graciously, particularly when the ambitious mama of two shirtless men is the one asking.

When total strangers ask about my love life, am I allowed to lie and say I'm dating or, more securely, that I'm already bound to an arranged marriage? At least then I wouldn't find myself tongue-tied and bashful outside my own door!

Have you ever been in a situation such as this? How do you (or how should I) answer the question, "Are you single?"