In my first few years of truly knowing and following Christ, I based my actions and routines on other Christian role models around me. My thinking was that since they seemed mature and happy and growing in their faith, then my success hinged on my ability to mirror them as closely as possible. It failed miserably. I grew increasingly frustrated because the things that brought them life weren’t bringing me life. Roughly 4 years into my faith walk, I felt as though I was beating my head against a wall, making “sacrifices” that would hopefully be pleasing to God, pleading for God to intervene so that I could realize some growth, and on the verge of shutting the whole thing down.
As we enter into the Advent Season, some of us might feel the exact same way: burnt out, frustrated, stuck in the same routines, and unable to understand why all of our hard work—our sacrifices in the name of Christ—aren’t leading to a deeper joy or growth. We’ve become like the priests in Hebrews 10: “day after day standing and performing (our) religious duties; again and again (we) offer the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin”…or lead to joy…or help us get out of the rut we’re stuck in. That was me, 10 years ago—and if I’m honest, can still be me today.
The reason that I didn’t shut the whole thing down was because of a prayer prayed over me by someone I barely knew. They prayed that God would break through and reveal a faith that wasn’t based solely on the faith of others—that I would realize His desire for a personal, intimate, individual relationship with me. At that moment I realized that faith isn’t about checking off boxes for the sake of checking them off, just like sacrifice was never intended to become a meaningless routine—even if routines and boxes become comforting in our moments of crisis and doubt.
And there-in lies the beauty of Advent and Christmas: It’s the time of year where we wait and expect God to turn the entire system upside down. It’s when we await the birth of the “priest (who) offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy…And where these (sins) have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”
My prayer this Advent Season is that we might allow ourselves to relax into deep relationship with God, away from the confines of structures and sacrifices and box-checking, which is made possible because of the arrival of the King.
This video recently showed up on a couple of friend’s Facebook and/or blog pages, and it’s absolutely perfect. It shows everything that’s beautiful and majestic about the sport of fly fishing….as seen through the eyes of a child.
Video by Ben Galland.
This year for Advent the church that we attend put together a daily devotional written and edited by members of the congregation. I wrote two, one focused around Isaiah 11 and the other around Hebrews 10. Here is the one for Isaiah 11, with the Hebrews 10 one to follow in a few days.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we live in a black and white world, or a grey one; a cut and dried world, or a world of paradoxes. On the one hand, just a few weeks ago our country was deeply entrenched in the labeling of ourselves as either Democrat or Republican. On the other hand, we live in a country deeply mired in a 4 year recession, and yet we still manage to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to go see “The Avengers.” We simultaneously want to preach the American dream where anybody can succeed if they only put forth the effort, but we also can be quick to define who and what is acceptable. But it’s not just us. These same divisions and desires have driven humanity almost since day one.
So what does this have to do with Advent? Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything. As I’ve been thinking about Isaiah 11:1-9 over the last few days, it’s dawned on me that Christmas is the ultimate balancing act between the black and white and the paradoxical. Here we have the birth of a child to an unwed mother, in a country where he wasn’t a citizen, into an economically dire situation, and yet this child was born in the knowledge that he was both fully God and fully human and was the Savior of the world. This child came to teach a message that was both black and white (“love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself”) and a complete puzzle (“the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”).
That this child fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 11 is yet another example of this. In these 9 verses it says that he won’t judge with his eyes or ears, but with righteousness and justice, and he will strike the earth and slay the wicked not with bombs and technological warfare, but with the breath of his mouth—his words. And then there’s the pairings: the wolf and the lamb; the leopard and the goat; the calf and the lion; the infant and the cobra. All of these natural enemies will live together and lie down together because of the presence of this “shoot from the stump of Jesse”—Jesus.
Advent, then, becomes a time for us to examine how we live between the black and white, and the grey—between the here and now and the not yet. It gives us the chance to live in the paradox of being able to sing “Come thou long expected Jesus” and live into the salvation given through Jesus 2000 years ago. It gives us the chance to rethink everything that we know about God stepping into the world in both a black and white and paradoxical way, because He knew that the world needed to see both.
When I was first learning how to fly-fish in college, my immediate love of the sport had absolutely nothing to do with the fish I was catching (in fact, it wasn’t until my 6th or 7th time being on the water that I landed my first trout), but was instead based on the focus to detail that is required in every aspect of the sport. While the spin-fishing for bass and bluegill that I had grown up with usually consisted of the same “cast, retrieve, cast, retrieve, cast…” sequence over and over again, fly-fishing on the other hand presented a new situation on almost every cast. It was this constant monitoring, changing, or adjusting that drew me in from the start, and that still fascinates me to this day.
When photography entered into the equation with fly-fishing, my interest quickly went to the small, intricate details of the sport. While grand landscapes that show the beauty of the places trout call home are very appealing, just as appealing are the incredible spotting patterns and hues of colors on fish, the delicacy of the natural insects, and the textures present in the artificial flies used to catch fish. In some ways, these small details guarantee that no two fish, much less two days on the water, are ever the same—and therefore guarantees that I’ll continue to go back searching for more.
For Thanksgiving this year my wife and I drove from Seattle to Portland to spend a few days with her godparents. Even though we were switching one major Pacific Northwest metropolis for another, and despite my wife’s godparents having ties to the Midwest and Colorado, I felt the need for one of our additions to the meal to have the fingerprints of my childhood in North Carolina and West Virginia all over it: homemade biscuits.
Because of my upbringing in rural North Carolina, it would be safe to say that biscuits are a familiar food source to me. Whether it was biscuits and gravy, biscuits on the buffet or as a bread option at any respectable restaurant, biscuit sandwiches for sale at my High School during morning break, or the almost “manna-from-Heaven” biscuits of Bojangles, you rarely had to go far when you developed the itch that only a good biscuit could scratch.
Even after saying all of that though, none of these delicious examples are what I think of when I hear the word “biscuit.” Instead, my mind immediately goes to 72 acres of rolling West Virginia hills, a farm-house built by my great-grandparents, and an old wood-burning oven in the corner of a kitchen that has fed at least 5 generations. It was that kitchen and that wood-burning oven that produced my earliest memories of biscuits made fresh every morning by my great-aunt Lucille.
Emma Lucille Upton was born before the world fell into war the first time, as was my grandpa Haven, and as my mom says, they were born “somewhere in the middle” of 11 children—all of which were born in the house. Lucille never married, never owned a car that I’m aware of, and other than a couple of years where she worked a few towns over, she never moved away from the old homestead. She was a steady and relatively quiet presence throughout my mom and aunt’s childhoods, and became a bit of a second grandmother on my mom’s side to my brother and me. Despite her quiet nature, she openly and deeply loved her family, with her most visible and consistent show of love to my brother and me being a green plastic container full of fresh rice krispy treats, and a metal container of biscuits that would appear every morning.
But the memories conjured up by the taste, smell, or mention of a good biscuit doesn’t stop there. See, to say that visiting my grandparents’ house was a step back in time would be a rather large understatement (as if the mention of a wood-burning oven to cook on and in wasn’t enough of a tip-off). In addition to the oven, the house was without indoor plumbing until early in my childhood, and the rooms were heated by wood-burning stoves with vents in the ceiling that would be opened to heat the rooms upstairs. As a result, cold mornings before the stoves could be stoked and trips to the old outhouse were relatively frequent occurrences. I would often sleep with my socks on, or at the very least under the covers with me, so that they were readily accessible when it was time to get out from underneath the warmth of the quilts made by my grandmother. Our days would consist of exploring the woods or the old sheds around the house, watching for deer or turkeys to run through the side field, or taking long naps on the front porch swing where refreshing breezes would often blow on even the hottest days.
It was in this context that my first exposure to making biscuits happened. Lucille would wake up much earlier than anyone else to stoke the wood stoves in the main rooms as well as in the kitchen oven, and then would move to the task of making the biscuits for the day in a small back-room off of the kitchen. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but on those mornings at the farm as a young child I would often get up hours earlier than normal in order to watch Lucille cook and offer to help. By that point Lucille was years past the need for a recipe or even exact measuring instruments, often just pouring ingredients out entirely by sight. I can vividly remember the speed at which she worked, the sweet smell of the fresh dough, and the worn-smooth-with-use handles on the flour sifter and rolling-pin. The results were just as methodical: biscuits of the exact same size, density, and taste every time, and always enough to last through all three meals and side snacks in between.
As the years rolled by, things changed around the house: my grandpa passed away in 1990, an electric oven and stove were purchased, the wood-burning stoves in the rooms were replaced by gas-run heaters, and the ability to sleep all morning that comes in the early teen years took the place of those early mornings spent watching and talking with Lucille. But the biscuits never changed.
Eventually, as is the case with all of us at some point in our lives, Lucille became too weak to continue to care for herself. Being only her and my grandmother in the house, Lucille moved to an assisted living center about 30 minutes away. She passed away a few years later, and was laid to rest at a small cemetery a mile or so from the house she spent almost her entire life in.
I’m 29 now, I’ve been married for a year and a half, and live 3000 miles away from those 72 acres in West Virginia. All 11 of the siblings that included my grandpa and Lucille have passed on, as has my grandmother, and the old house hasn’t been lived in for several years. But I often go back there, if only for a split-second, when I remember what it was like to wake up to the smell of a handmade quilt, the penetrating warmth of a wood-stove, the gentle rocking of an old green porch-swing, or the sound of my grandmother beginning sentences with, “like ole sayin’ is.” Often it’s biscuits that take me there–either the making of them (which I’ve grown to love over the last few years), or the eating of them. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll wake up early to make biscuits with my kids or grandkids, and I can tell them about that house in West Virginia and their great-great-aunt named Lucille.