I shared with some of you that over my recent vacation I received a massage (PERFECTION!) and I spent a couple of mornings on the traction table at physical therapy. All of it to help my low back which had taken a beating following my knee injury.
I will admit to feeling a bit unnerved at the thought of being on the traction table. I was told that it was intended to gently stretch my spine and open up the spaces in between my lumbar vertebrae. But what I imagined in my mind was more like that scene from Braveheart in which Mel Gibson's character is violently broken apart, torn limb from limb.
So as my physical therapist strapped me to the table and the treatment began, I felt myself stiffen, afraid of what would happen next. But as the pulling began to happen, pain was not at all what I felt. Instead, I felt a gentle stretch–loosening the stiff and painful places in my spine, and an opening of the spaces between my lumbar vertebrae. All off it helping me breath deeply once again.
I think Advent is the traction table that our hearts, minds, and spirits are desperate for. In Advent we prepare–internally–for Christ to be born in us. Through, ritual, prayer, song, and reading, we allow ourselves to be stretched, so that the stiff and painful places within us become flexible and pliable. We allow ourselves to be pulled–gently–so that the closed off places inside of us can be opened to hope, peace, joy, and love and we can once again breathe deeply of the Divine. In this way, Advent is less about breaking apart and more about being broken open.
So, my fellow Way-followers, as we move down our Advent path, I wonder what places in you have been closed off and are now in need of opening? Where are the stiff and painful places in your heart, in your mind, or in your life that longs to be stretched and pulled by hope, peace, joy, and love? Where are the spaces within you that long to be broken open?
On the traction table of Advent with you,
Christmas music from the Rat Pack still provides some of my favorite sounds of the Christmas season. Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and of course, Dean Martin formed part of the soundtrack of my childhood and, particularly, the holiday soundtrack of those early days. And yet, as we head into the season of Advent this Sunday, it's a song outside of a Rat Pack Christmas that is letting its melodies roll in my heart and mind: Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head."
In the song, Dean Martin is crooning about love and the suddenness of it all. He's talking about how kissing a girl took him by surprise and opened his eyes to parts of life that they had previously, presumably, been closed to. By the end of the song, Dean is singing about how the woman he kissed at the beginning of the song is now talking marriage. "Tell me quick," he sings, "Ain't love a kick in the head?" The phrase, of course, was used at one time in history to describe, "something surprising or something that suddenly makes you realize something."
The season of Advent is our "kick in the head." It is the time of the church year that surprises us and opens our eyes to something new...at least it's intended to do so. And yet, more often than not, the first Sunday of Advent especially feels more like a kick in the teeth than a kick in the head.
So listen, I know that Advent just days following Thanksgiving feels jarring. It feels like an abrupt U-turn. It sometimes even feels like an outpatient procedure without any anesthetic. But what if the disorientation and the whiplash nature of it all is about opening our eyes to something new? Or surprising us with something new or new to us? What if Advent is just the "kick in the head" we need to get through these longer nights and colder days? What if the message of this season is simply to prepare to be surprised?
I don't know, but I think this year I'm going to lean in and find out. I'm going to take the whiplash and the kick-in-the-teeth feelings I get every year during the first Sunday of Advent and let them be signposts for surprise--for something new--for something I have yet to realize about life, faith, myself, or those around me. I'm going to wait and see and prepare my heart for whatever this season has to teach me. I'm going to be present to the presence, and I'm going to invite you all to join me to see what we might realize together.
Tell me quick, ain't THAT a kick in the head?
On Sunday afternoon my voice sounded raspy. A couple of days later, it still is. I'm not ill, but I do know that I led worship on Sunday. I also sang with the choir, which meant that my voice was pretty much in use on Sunday morning nonstop.
So why on earth do I do this to myself? If you were present on Sunday morning, you know the choir was 13 people strong. Certainly my voice would not have been missed. Certainly I could have sat this Sunday out and just did the pastor-y things and saved my voice. But still, there I was, running back and forth between the choir loft and the pulpit. But why?
The short answer is because I wanted to. The longer answer requires a bit of context. You see, I haven't sung as part of a choir since I was in middle school--and then, it was only because it was a part of the middle school curriculum. I have virtually no training. I can barely read music. And I require a strong singer next to me so that I can match my voice to theirs. I miss a number of notes. I read the wrong verse sometimes. But always...ALWAYS...I find something deep and true when I sing with others.
You see, the long answer to why I sing and lead worship all in the same Sunday, is that leading worship rarely affords me the opportunity to actually worship. But when I sing, I'm not the leader of anything. I'm just another alto in a sea of other altos, sopranos, tenors, and basses. I'm not expected to carry the song myself--in fact, it's best if I don't. I'm only expected to "jump on the train" (as Kent Jager says) of the song along with others and let the music carry us someplace new. Someplace different. Someplace, I think at least, a little closer to the Divine. Someplace--incidentally--that I just don't think I could get to myself.
So, my voice is tired today. But, OH, my spirit is full. Not because I am the best singer. Not because I am the best preacher. Not because I'm trying to "do it all." My spirit is full because I entered the song. I entered the song, I melded into something larger than just myself, and I was reminded how the Spirit of God moves through quarter notes and half rests. I was reminded of how God shows up in a familiar refrain. I was reminded of the holy thing that happens when just 2 or 3--or even 13--of us join together.
That's why I sing...what about you?
No one ever tells you about the empty days. This is interesting, I think, because the empty days are much more frequent than social media and conversations with friends and family would lead us to believe. Empty days, as I call them, are when the cup of our lives are drained due to loss or grief or to-do lists and messes that seemingly never end. They are days when the people in our lives or the commitments in our lives demand from us a great deal of energy and effort--so much effort, in fact, that we feel emptied through the giving.
Not talking about empty days doesn't make them any less prevalent...it just makes us question them and question ourselves. As if we might be doing life wrong or something if we are feeling unproductive, fruitless, or even useless. As if the emptiness is somehow outside of our human experience, rather than a regular and integral part of what if means to be alive.
This couldn't be farther from the truth! No one is meant to spend their lives full--in body, mind, or spirit. For a constant fullness leaves no room for anything new to be added. It leaves no room for growth and evolution and transformations.
Author and spiritual midwife, Joyce Rupp, says, "While the process of emptying may be painful, it can also be 'growthful.' The empty times may feel useless, fruitless, and non-productive, but they are actually a means of our falling into the immense depths within ourselves where we see more clearly, learn to be less controlling, long more deeply for God, and touch life with greater reverence and gratitude. We enter into the deep realm inside of us that is filled with the mystery, awe, and endless beauty of God. Emptiness is a gift that opens us further to the transforming power of God."
You see, Dear Ones, the empty days are no reason to panic. We can breathe through them and be filled--in time--by them. We needn't rush to fill them with insights or feelings or "good vibes only"...we can just look into the emptiness. We can just abide with the emptiness. We can, as Joyce Rupp proposes, simply "go inside the emptiness and be with God."
Gazing into the gift of emptiness with you...even when it doesn't feel like such a gift,
This past weekend we had the pleasure of having my two younger sisters, my brother-in-law, and our little nephew down for a visit. My spouse made a delicious lunch complete with a beef brisket that we all shared and enjoyed together after a group of us got back from taking my nephew to Autumn Acres out at Stam Garden Center.
I, personally, had never been out to Autumn Acres (I always thought I would look kind of silly showing up with no kid), but it really did not disappoint. There were cannons and slingshots and sandbox filled with corn. There was a corn maze, goats and a donkey, a hay bale run. And, of course, there were tractors.
This, by far, was my two year-old nephew's FAVORITE part: The tractors. There was a tractor that we sat behind on a trailer as part of a hayride through the corn. There was a tractor staged just for picture taking. And there was a lawn tractor pulling a train of modified barrels for children and their adults to ride.
Near the end of our time at Autumn Acres, my nephew saw the tractor we had ridden behind for the hayride pull up to the loading area to take a new group of people on a ride. Before any of us could blink, off he ran, trotting down the hill with abandon, just as fast as his little legs could carry him, pointing and joyfully shouting "Tractor, Tractor!" all the way down the hill.
As I watched him running, I couldn't help but smile. Then I began to wonder: When was the last time I went after anything with as much abandon as my little nephew went after that tractor? When was the last time I was so filled with joy? But all the while I was scanning the memories of my heart and my mind for the last, great, joyous moment in my own life, I was missing the fullness of this joyous moment with my nephew.
Brene Brown says, “Twinkle lights are the perfect metaphor for joy. Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments – often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments. Other times we’re so afraid of the dark that we don’t dare let ourselves enjoy the light. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration and faith.”
Sometimes I think we get really focused at finding the next big, great moment--the next big experience, the next big event, the next big milestone--that will bring us joy, but I wonder if while we're looking for joy, it's happening without us? Maybe we're so busy running with abandon toward the next extraordinary moment that we think will bring us joy that we're missing the little bursts of joy happening right in front of us in this very ordinary moment? Maybe the only reason joy is missing from our lives is because our presence to the current moment is also missing?
In Psalm 30 the psalmist reminds us that "Joy comes in the morning." We often read that as a future promise, rather than a right now truth. But friends, what if "the morning" that the psalmist is talking about is THIS morning? What if joy is here right now, in the simple act of waking up next to the person you love the most for another day? What if joy is here right now, in a steaming cup of coffee? What if joy is here right now, in something as innocent and frightening and wonderful as a little boy running down the hill after a tractor?
May you run with abandon toward the joy that is permeating your life in the ordinary little moments, and may those moments take your breath away.
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.