A week ago, I woke up to palm trees; not my usual Advent sight. It was strange to see faux Christmas trees twinkle against ocean waves. Instead of book stacks, piles of dog-eared papers, and rainy days, birds sang in the day and sunshine warmed my toes. I actually read a non-school book propped up on my legs. This trip was unusual for us; part Christmas gift, part spontaneity, part rebellion to our hard-working ways. That night at dinner, a low and lonesome timbre broke over the lanai; not my usual Advent sound.
An island man, strong and brown, ran barefoot through the hotel grounds lighting tiki torches. A line of children swished behind him. The islander shined shirtless with banded bicep tattoos and garland around his head. He stopped at the top of the steps and blew his seashell trumpet with a long, low, vibrating note. He repeated the call several times. A hush fell over the diners and the children behind him. He had captured our attention with the dusky call of a conch shell - a pū. After his twilight welcome, he took off running back toward the ocean, children laughing on his bare heels. Then the dinner conversations rushed back in like the tide.
But in that brief hushed moment before everyone returned to their meals, I heard the conch notes linger, hanging on the humid air. Maybe because it was the Advent season, I heard it as one of the calls in the Christmas story to notice a change was coming: John the Baptist cring out in the wilderness, Gabriel announcing new life to Mary, angels calling the shepherds from their fields, the shining star beckoning the Magi from far away. Those first Christmas calls required some sort of movement both inside and outside. An inner call to pay attention, make room, be ready, receive with open arms, be surprised, be brave. And an outer action to move, go see, follow, speak up, give generously, live expectantly. Our Advent invitations are similar.
God's call is an invitation to turn toward him and notice his already-made movements towards us. It is God who comes to us first.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Fleming Rutledge says we should always pay attention when we hear the word, "behold". Jesus' birth was not general or generic. It was particular and personal. The angels in Scripture come to people with specific names and places and predicaments. That is how God visits us, too. Martin Luther points out Jesus' birth was for us and unto us. He writes, "Christ must above all things become our own and we become his." That means give and take, togetherness with Jesus, and that we know him and keep on knowing him. We must continually know him and allow him to know us. This is why we cultivate a listening life so we will recognize Jesus' voice. We are getting heart-ready on the inside so we can act on the outside in concert with what God is already up to.
How do we know what God is already up to? I am learning to start by listening to God's invitations both big and small. When I heard the conch shell herald, I heard the big Advent call to listen up, open up, hope against hope, make room for new life, and believe the unbelievable - that the God of the universe has visited us in skin and bones. But not only visited; in some way remains with us always.
But what does Immanuel mean if not God with us in our everday life? I am learning God's invitations come to me through everyday moments: my tears, my fears, my losses, or even the things or people I avoid. Others come through my happiest moments, celebrations, or dreams come true. All announce places to meet God, be shaped by his hand, and join him in his work. Of course, in real life, not all of God's invitations come with the blast of the pū. Still, we can learn to hear the whispered ones almost as if they did.
The thrill of God living with us came to me again on our last island day when we visited a local church called Church by the Sea. We entered the breezy sanctuary though rough lava rock walls. We worshipped from fiberglass pews open to salty air and singing birds. Mother Mona asked us the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?". John, that fiery preacher who seemed so sure of himself when he cried, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.", now from a prison cell, isn't so sure. Somehow that is comforting to me, that it isn't always simple to believe when life takes hard unexpected turns. Jesus answered John by describing how people's lives were changing with healing, forgiveness, and brand new ways of living. Mother Mona asked if we knew who we were waiting for or if we had grown tired and were looking for someone else?
Her question is a good one because I can get discouraged with life, weary of waiting, or worse, forget Who I'm waiting for. How can we remember? When John grew unsure, he asked Jesus a question, "Are you the One?. Asking questions seems a good pattern for us. Reminding each other is another good one. We listen and answer the Advent call by interacting with God's invitation together (not alone) and again and again (not one time only).
With the last blessing at the Church by the Sea, we stood as a community to the sound of two conch shells blowing loud, low and long; long enough to feel the rumbling invitation — come and see, follow me, bring a weary heart, yours, a friend's, a stranger's. Be surprised. It sounded like a Savior's call.
Some Advent questions to ask ourselves:
Where is the Spirit calling you to pay attention? How do you recognize His voice?
What is God asking you to receive into your life?
Where is God asking you to go and see? What is already happening there?
Do you know Who you're waiting for? What will you do while you wait?
My favorite Advent books to enjoy:
Before you think its too late, consider we still have the 12 Days of Christmas ahead and that the Magi didn't reach Jesus until he was a toddler. You're not too late!
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