When It Just Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

It’s four days till Christmas. I’ve pulled out my Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer socks, I’ve wrapped all my presents, listened to my fair share of a cappella carols, and watched more sappy made-for-TV Christmas movies than I care to admit, and yet… it just isn’t feeling a lot like Christmas. I think a big contributor to this lackluster holiday is that Jack Frost isn’t nipping at my nose. I’ve been dreaming, hoping, wishing for a white Christmas, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards this year.

More than that, my heart seems to have been reflecting the weather lately. Mostly grey and dreary, inconsistently sunny, but not doing what I’d been hoping.  There’s this expectation, (mostly internally) to enter into this nostalgic celebration and to reconnect with a sense of reverence and joyful anticipation that Advent embodies. Despite my half-hearted attempts to get in the Christmas spirit, all does not feel merry and bright…

The disequilibrium–when my emotions don’t match my intentions used to cause a lot more angst. I would try to white-knuckle my way to feeling what I thought I was “supposed to.” I’m much more wary of those “shoulds” now– recognizing them from off in the distance- bearing the heavy burden of shame and bringing exhaustion in the pretending. But this year,  I’m observing this phenomenon with less judgement and more observation.

IMG_4507I desire to enter into the season of Advent with genuine longing and celebration. I want to answer the invitation to “let every heart prepare him room.” What does it look like to engage with that when my heart is made up of fickle emotions, or lack thereof– behaving more like my cat when she’s being aloof– staring nonchalantly from across the room, but darting into the distance when I try to come close. I can’t force my cat to respond the way I want her to, nor can I seem to coerce my emotions to come on command. It requires patience, not paying attention and maybe if I sit still long enough they will come close. 

Advent is about remembering to the point of celebration that our rescuer came to be with us, and remembering to the point of longing that He’s promised to come again. And if our finite and fickle hearts could glimpse the depth of this astounding truth, it would change everything.

I can write those words, believe them even, and still feel stuck in the numbness of familiarity that comes each Christmas. However, rather than that honest admittance to myself and you dear reader causing a downward spiral into Not-Enough-ness, I can trust that Immanuel means he came close so that I didn’t need to rely on my own feelings or actions to draw me close.

I heard someone a few weeks back talking about Peace in Advent– A buzzword in this season and something our hearts are longing for, balm for a world reeling from violence and discord. A lack of peace felt so deeply globally, relationally, internally, especially during this time of year.

But peace is not a transcendent sentiment that we see on glittering Christmas cards, nor is it an abstract place we strive to arrive at through perfection and control. Peace is a person.

A human who humbled himself and became nothing. A real person, not a doe-eyed, pristine white baby next to some docile donkeys on a two-dimensional flannelboard in your Sunday School memories, but a living person who is still Immanuel, just as much as he was in that small town in the Middle East all those years ago. And God With Us is also named the Prince of Peace. And he’s pursuing this fickle heart of mine, even now, four days before Christmas. And in the reminding myself of that, I can let go and enter into the moment, contradictions and all. Enter towards the one who came to be with me.

On Listening…Well

I heard on NPR the other day…

(is a phrase that make some eyes roll and others’ ears to perk… or perhaps both happen simultaneously)

But for real. I was driving home and overheard a man being interviewed. John Francis, the Planetwalker. He gave a TED Talk about choosing to take a vow of silence that ended up lasting 17 years. His story is fascinating, but he said this line, something he discovered about himself before he was silent. He said “I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I’d stop listening, and then I’d start to think about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong or to show them how smart I am.”

That honesty floored me.

I have been on the receiving end of this kind of “listening” before. Nothing shuts me down quicker than not feeling listened to. I think I have built up patterns in conversations to actively avoid that subtle carelessness from others that leaves me feeling so small and deepens the wound of feeling not known. I’d rather be a head-nodder, a question asker, a listener than to start to share something only to be cut off or be met with a distracted attempt to feign interest.

I am an introvert. Which means, as a pattern, not always, but often, I take on more of the listening side of conversations. I could feel a puffed up sort of pride about this, but as John Francis told what his vow of silence revealed about his heart, it made me wonder about the underlying motivations of how and why I listen.

IMG_4906How often do we listen just long enough to be able to prove someone wrong?

How much is my listening more about me looking like I’m a good friend listening well?

How often do our minds wander from the present moment as we retreat into ourselves and our own castle of introspection?

In what ways is the constant noise, external and internal, keeping us from really listening?

I think I’m often guilty of not listening well when I’m valuing productivity over people. I don’t necessarily fall in the same trap of listening for the sake of building an argument, but I start tuning out when the conversation gets in the way of getting things accomplished. A rather nasty internal conversation starts to play simultaneously when someone else is getting in my way of my to do list. And then I am disgusted by my own impatience in the moment, so the internal dialog gets even more cluttered.

It’s a fact that when I am over extended, stretched thin, or overwhelmed, it is nearly impossible to be fully present. I think, for me, the first step in being able to truly listen is to have healthy boundaries. If I’m not pouring into myself, getting enough rest, and able to remain in quiet long enough to listen to myself, there’s no way I can extend that to others.

IMG_1535From that place of rest, I am able to truly see people, to be able to genuinely ask about their stories, and listen, without an agenda. This is a gift, not something I can do on my own, but in those rare moments where my ego is graciously out of the way, and I’m not listening to prove anything, and I’m not trying to find an escape, I am connecting with another human. That kind of listening is a form of seeing and being seen. Simple, lacking pretense, beautiful connection.

These moments are rare, but they are worth chasing after, worth cultivating and making space for in our lives.

This kind of wholehearted presence, this silencing of noise and attending to the moment comes at a cost. It requires unrelenting practice and patience. It requires bravery and the risk of both being seen and being misunderstood. And the likely chance that in this true encounter with someone else, will mean entering into unknown territory, beyond the safety of familiarity or expectations, out of the boundaries of your knowledge or comfort, and without a clear guidebook or protocol of how to respond. True listening invites us into encounters with that which is other than us. A humbling, terrifying, mind-shifting, beautiful thing. A heart expanding thing.

“And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.”

Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane