It’s easy to despair over the dream of quiet Advent contemplation. It must be nice, we think, to have enough free time in December to go on a retreat or read that Advent book or snuggle up with my journal…
We’re not exaggerating this feeling. We’re not wrong or out of touch. We’re busy! And yet, the calling we have into our lives (messy though it may be) is real and chosen. There is work — good work! — to be done, How shall we move forward?
Advent offers an invitation.
Let’s turn our minds to the concept of Advent. Behold: four weeks to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our world, to tune up our souls and make ready a space within our hearts for God incarnate. The time for preparation is limited, an echo of our mortal, physical limitations. And in the space of this time, we also have ordinary tasks to complete, humans with whom to connect, and sanity to preserve.
As Bette Dickinson writes in Making Room in Advent, the story of Jesus’s birth is inherently human — incarnational, earthy, and absolutely acknowledging human limitations. Mary herself faced difficult circumstances and must have made a conscious decision about her next steps. In her final weeks of pregnancy, I will hazard a guess that Mary did not wish to travel to Bethlehem for the census. I imagine she would much rather have remained at home near her support system, with familiar surroundings, experienced local midwives, and easy access to a cradle that had not been used as a feeding trough. And yet she accepted the task before her (did that woman ever say no?) and did the work of travel, of asking for help, of gamely complying with an improvised birthing center — all for the sake of fulfilling her call to bring Jesus into the world.
Zeroing in on our vocation and acknowledging our humanity, we find the tools we need to sharpen our focus and free us from extraneous burdens. (Although uncovering one’s purpose is beyond the scope of this article, it’s close to our hearts here at The Well — if you’re stuck on that, reach out and we’ll talk.) Let's talk about what it means to clarify focus and cast away the extras. The preparation needed in Advent isn’t about completing a list of tasks, but is instead an invitation to embrace our finitude and the radical decision to not do everything.
You can’t do it all.
I don’t know what the idea of “not doing everything” looks like for you, but in my own life it can be downright painful. I have dreams and visions! Left to my own devices, I’ll just keep adding new tasks to my list. My optimistic nature always tricks me into thinking that things won’t take as long as they actually do.
The truth is: I resist facing my own human limitations because in my deepest self, I think I have pretty great ideas. I have this fantasy of a superpower in which I can stop time for everyone else — just like pressing a pause button — while I continue checking off tasks, pursuing goals, or even just getting a solid eight hours of sleep. Wouldn’t that be fun? The ultimate superwoman hack!
As Bette says —
What if our limits are not an obstacle but an invitation? What if our limits are the very place where heaven touches earth? Because the beautiful mystery of the Annunciation is this: God chooses to dwell within our human limitations….And when he dwells within our human limits, our souls expand to accommodate his infinite presence in our lives.
Could it be that the Spirit of God might show up even more tenderly when we put down our to-do list and invite him in? I feel certain it is true and right. But even if we are convinced of this truth, we (usually) cannot simply abandon our responsibilities. We may not have a Martha in our lives who can pick up the slack while we sit at Jesus’s feet. Instead, let us look at three practical strategies.
1. Permission Slips
Brene Brown tells of a practice she has instilled within her own life of writing permission slips for herself. “I have permission to speak up even if I’m not an expert,” she might write. “I have permission to call a time-out if a conversation is getting too heated.” What would your permission slip say? Today, I think I need to write a permission slip that says, “I have permission not to do everything all at once,” and to free myself to work methodically on the tasks ahead of me, one at a time.
2. Slipshod Is Okay
It’s also possible that you need to lower your own standards. I know, I know! It’s shocking. But my conversation with Eeva Sallinen-Simard and her illumination of the injustice that comes along with constantly moving goalposts has really stuck with me. What would it look like to do an adequate job instead of an amazing job? Often, this is absolutely enough.
3. Memento Mori
There is one surefire trick to bring everything on the checklist into perspective. Dark though it may seem, a keen awareness of our own mortality can help focus our attention on those things and people that are most important to us. And when time is limited, isn’t this our wish? If you have the stomach for it, take a moment to pull back and get clarity on what really matters to you — then do it.
We're only human.
So, this Advent, let’s wrap up the concept of “embracing humanity” and let that be our gift to baby Jesus. It might even edge out the frankincense and myrrh! Let’s eat nourishing food. Let’s get some sleep. Let’s move our bodies. Let’s do our work reasonably well and refrain from adding more drudgery to the list. There will be things that won’t get done, and that’s okay. You might need to have a conversation with God about it, or you might find a friend to ground you in the real world. And in the end, let’s remember that we’re here to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus in the world and in our lives.
Photo by Tohm Brigitte on StockSnap