Jenny Call: Oh, Joy

As we circled the dining room table to light our family’s Advent wreath, the kids got into a fight over who would light the pink joy candle.

I was not feeling very joyful after a full day of trying to keep them engaged and at peace along with working a few hours, attending an evening church service, and participating in our annual tradition of driving around to see the Christmas lights.

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I was tired and frustrated, and wondered why the reality of our family traditions never matched the glowing image in my head of how it “should” be. I was ready to give up on the Advent candle-lighting entirely, but my son reminded me that we had skipped our Bible story reading the night before and had promised to do two tonight.

Should it really be this hard for us to have regular devotions in a family where both parents are ordained ministers? I often feel like I’m failing in the spiritual development of my children, a difficult irony as I have devoted my life to faith and ministry.

The expectations for ministry, discipleship, and parenthood are set exceedingly high for Advent and Christmas. Not only do we preach on waiting, but on the lofty gifts of the season: hope, peace, joy, and love. Meanwhile, the only gifts my kids can think about are American Girl dolls and Legos, and the waiting is excruciating for them.

We speak about light, but our world seems engulfed in darkness as we struggle with reports of torture from within our own government, racial injustice in our law and courts, and increasing allegations of sexual misconduct in our universities.

I remind the college students I serve who are going through finals about the importance of self-care and rest, but my own calendar is full of events with little space for Sabbath renewal. We talk of the joy of the season, but so many people are grieving, hurting, and lonely. We work hard to create magical memories for our children, but worry that it will lead to selfishness and entitlement.

It can feel like too much, and the demands and expectations become a burden instead of opportunities for joy and celebration. Meanwhile we are all waiting to feel something different . . . to be fulfilled.

Our family is in the process of joining a new church. As we were talking to the Associate Rector about the membership process, she asked how the church could help support and nurture us in faith. We answered that they were already providing what we needed.

I asked (with a little hesitation) how we could better serve the church. I want to be actively involved in serving the church, and yet part of me is so weary that I wonder what I have left to give.

But her words were thoughtful and encouraging. She responded, “Just keep doing the ministry you are doing. You are doing the work already. In fact, your most important work is in the ministry of parenthood, and that is so hard. Let us feed you so that you can keep ministering to those in your care.”

I felt both the relief and the challenge in those words.

Too often, I find myself depleted and find it difficult to serve the ones closest and most important to me. I am short on patience and short on faith that the seeds we are planting will take root.

But that’s where the meaning of Advent hits me.

I have always loved the mystery and tension of the “now…but not yet” nature of waiting for something that has already happened. We share the Gospel, knowing that it is true because we have already experienced it in our own lives.

But we wait for fulfillment, when the good news will truly be born in our hearts and transform us. We light candles to remember the light that shines through us from Christ, even in the darkness that surrounds us. We wait, and yet we already have the gifts of hope, peace, joy, and love; they are just waiting to be accepted and opened.

I see these gifts in the wonder of children waiting on Christmas. I see it in my daughter who takes a communion wafer, breaks it, and whispers to me, “The body of Christ.” I hear it in my son singing wholeheartedly with the Christmas hymns. I feel it in the welcoming community of a church that accepts us for who and where we are in our journey.

I know it in the joy that is revealed to me when I understand that God is already present in our messy beautiful lives, just as they are. Emmanuel, God with us. Thanks be to God.

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Rev. Jenny Call is the chaplain at Hollins University in Virginia, a mother of two school-aged children and part of a clergy couple. Her essay, “Letting Go” appeared in A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood (www.helwys.com). She blogs at www.hopecalls.blogspot.com.   

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