The cups during Coffee Hour still said “Give Thanks” on the Second Sunday of Advent, and I took it not as a gentle, timeless suggestion but an omen: I was going to be running two weeks behind for the entire season. And it’s true: I’m finding out four days before Christmas that I should have fully committed to the idea of a kids’ tablet sooner than four days before Christmas, because at this point, not even Amazon will take the opportunity to get my kid hooked on an irresponsible amount of screen time while she’s trapped on a plane next week. The four pounds of chocolate chips I bought at Costco are unlikely to be turned into cookies, given that I spent prime baking time knocked flat by a bad cold, a pounding headache, and food poisoning. And whatever else is left to do will be at the mercy of the bomb cyclone barreling across the Midwest. Give Thanks!
I’d had some grand spiritual plans for Advent, none of which came to fruition. Among my sixty-five open Chrome tabs on my computer is one for a very nice Advent devotional that I never got around to buying. My year-long Bible reading plan had me rolling my eyes at Elihu’s finger-wagging in the book of Job earlier this month rather than marveling at Mary’s Magnificat.
So obviously there was nothing to do tonight but go to church. There was only one midweek Advent service left, and I’d wanted to go the whole time, but packing the kid back outdoors at 7 p.m. is a daunting proposition, one that requires having gotten through naptime with some actual sleep in pocket (for the kid, not for me! I WISH), a low-intensity dinner prep and cleanup, and enough energy in at least one adult to make it out and back. We pulled it off, though, and rolled up to the parsonage in reasonably good spirits, adults and kid alike. (Give Thanks!)
The confirmation class gamely lit the Advent candles, and Pastor Claire led us through the Vespers service designed to help the faithful welcome the dark of night—the longest night, the Winter Solstice. The semi-formal service allowed for some space for conversation and coloring a mandala, with hearts encircling flickers of light. I like this kind of thing. I’d have liked to have taken one of the big boxes of 64 crayons and shared them with someone new and read the names of the colors out loud to them. Instead I found myself coloring the mandala with the thick toddler crayons we’d brought with us under the strict direction of the kid, at least until she lost interest in the mandala and asked me to “draw happy hearts” on the back of the paper. As you can see above, I did just that, with Dakota adding some happy cubes, because why not.
Christine asked me recently if I have trouble saying no to her, and I generally don’t. My child has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to just about everything: toys, clothes, food, attention, affection. She is in absolutely no danger of being neglected in any way. So I tell her no often and cheerfully, just to give her practice with it, and she generally takes it pretty well. If I really felt like coloring the mandala my own way, I could have, and probably would have.
I could have been more on top of the trappings of Christmas, too. I’m already thinking about a flow chart for next year, plugging repeated events into my Google Calendar. I got Mary Oliver’s Devotions in a Secret Santa exchange to go with the very nice Advent devotional that I swear I’ll get next year.
But I did a few important things this season. I kept submitting writing pieces, even to a few long shot publications and contests. I had a long phone conversation with my longest friend and scheduled another. I thanked my daughter’s teachers for helping her to love school. I reached out to some people I’ve missed and worried about. I may have gotten a lot of things wrong this Advent, but I drew a few happy hearts around a few folks, maybe even around myself. And maybe that was the spiritual practice I really needed.
Advent is the season of drawing as near to God as we can, knowing that there will still be distance remaining. Christmas is the celebration of the closing of that gap, of God moving the rest of the way—all the way—towards us. Whatever practices we did or didn’t do, whatever shapes in or around our hearts remain unfilled, whatever detours or wrong turns we took. God and sinners reconciled, as the hymn says.