Tag Archives: advent

making room

© erin dunigan 2012

nara, japan                                                     © erin dunigan 2012

“….any happiness that is demanded from life never becomes happiness because it is too narcissistically and self-consciously pursued. The ‘joy that the world cannot give’ always comes as a gift to those who wait for it, expect it and make room for it inside themselves.”

-Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas Day 2

advent: waiting


waiting                                                                                   © erin dunigan 2009


“Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves. This is exactly what it means to be ‘awake’ as the Gospel urges us.”

-Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas, Day 1

the ‘christmas spirit’ ~ on sheet-mulching and incarnation

I realized the other day–a realization that was a bit troubling, actually–that I don’t, this year, feel much in the ‘Christmas spirit.’

last year while in London in December I came upon this 'santa flash mob' in Trafalgar Square

Don’t get me wrong–I’m no ‘Ba Humbug.’ No, it’s not that. It’s just that, well, something has seemed to be missing for me this year. I didn’t even listen to my Christmas music until significantly after Thanksgiving–a patience that has not really ever been successful before.

As I continued to ponder this somewhat unique occurence in my life I began to realize something else–in my attempt to ‘dwell’ during advent (the season preceding Christmas in the Christian calendar) as a way of trying to create space for a bit of ‘being’ amidst what is typically a season of much ‘doing’, I had wound up doing something else as well.

Central Park, in snow. From my first winter on the east coast.

A bit of backstory: for most of the past decade, really, I have had a Christmas season tradition of being in a big city to enjoy the decorations and ambiance of the season. While I was in seminary that big city was New York, which is an incredible place to be for ‘experiencing the Christmas spirit’–from the ice skating rinks in Central Park and Rockefeller Center, with its tall tree and lower level Starbucks serving holiday eggnog lattes, to the wandering in front of store windows, or even a Christmas concert at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, to hear its choir, or a trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockets. Even after seminary I continued to make the December pilgrimage.

Last year, rather than New York, I was able to be in London during December–another fantastic big city experience of the Christmas spirit.

But this December I have spent in the very small town of La Mision, Baja California, which wikipedia says has a population of 920. This has been by choice, as I mentioned. There are no ice skating rinks, though the temperature in my house (with no central heat) could probably sustain one. There are no decorated storefront windows, except for the ‘sponsor a winter outfit for an orphan’ tree in Maganas, a local taqueria. I did get a tree this year–it’s a meyer lemon, and I planted in the ground on the first Sunday of advent. One of my neighbors stealthily hung a beautiful Christmas wreath on my front door, but that’s the only decorative element in the house that gives a hint to the season. I did have an eggnog latte, back when I was in London in mid-November, and though there is a Starbucks 40 miles away in Ensenada I have not been there to see how ‘eggnog latte’ translates into Spanish.

So, it really isn’t surprising, considering the context, that it occured to me that I don’t feel all that much in the Christmas spirit this year.

Except for that it is.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I love enjoying the ‘festivity’ of the season, from lights to decorations to the smell of pine, and the colors of beautifully wrapped gifts. I think it is a fantastic way to enjoy life, family, and celebrate the season.

But, at the end of the day, if I were to try and communicate ‘what is the underlying meaning of Christmas’ or ‘what does Christmas really mean,’ though those things would be in the mix, they would be in a supporting role, not the lead. For me, as a Presbyterian minister (and an ordained evangelist, no less) and a person who is trying to live my life in the way of Jesus, shouldn’t there be some sort of ‘God stuff’ in the mix? It is, arguably, the biggest day of the year in the Christian calendar.

Because what I believe the underlying message of ‘the Christmas spirit’ is about is that, ultimately, God/Spirit/Divine/Source/Breath (they are all just our attempt to put words on something that is unnamable, aren’t they?) is not far off, out there, distant or remote, but rather right here, with us, in our midst, amongst us. The fancy theological word for this is incarnation, which, put simply means, ’embodied in the flesh, or a concrete or actual form of a concept.’

Back to my original pondering, about the Christmas spirit…

The thing is, this advent I haven’t just been sitting around contemplating and watching the clouds go by. And I also haven’t been boycotting the mall and it’s crazy search for that parking place, though I have to admit, it’s a bit of a relief.

yesterday's sunset, looking inland...

What I have been doing is quite a bit of work in the yard–sheet mulching two large areas to prepare the soil and keep out the weeds for what will become the site of spring planting. I’ve been baking bread and pasta and cooking soup. I’ve been spending time with my neighbors. I’ve been reading and learning. I’ve been trying to maintain a mindfulness of beauty by making photographs. I’ve been participating in activities that are trying to help others who are in need.

Incarnation, embodied in the flesh, the actual or concrete form of something.

Something like love? Cultivated in the garden, or expressed in a shared loaf of bread, over a meal, amongst neighbors, and extended to those in need…

Perhaps I’ve been in the Christmas spirit all along. Maybe, in my assumption that it should look a certain way, I just didn’t know how to recognize it.

lemon trees, advent and orphans

ImageI’m a big fan of weaving things together—often things that don’t seem, on the surface, to necessarily have much in common. Take, for instance, my current mix: a lemon tree, advent, and orphans. See? I told you so…
Let’s start with advent, which most people, if they have heard of it, is in the phrase advent calendar—a calendar to count down the days until Christmas, beginning four Sundays before.  Growing up I had an advent calendar that had Bible verses in each of the windows when they were opened. I thought it was kind of a rip-off, actually, since I knew there were chocolate advent calendars out there—eating a bit of chocolate is a lot more exciting to a kid (and to an adult?) than simply reading a Bible verse.
The term advent simply refers to the season preceding Christmas. It starts four Sundays before, which for us in America is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Often the season is marked, in addition to calendars, by lighting a new candle on an advent wreath each Sunday. There are readings that go along with it, and there are even songs. But the point of advent is to be a time of both waiting and preparation. The waiting is a waiting both of the birth of the baby Jesus, but also a waiting for the coming of the Christ to make all things new. More on that later.
The lemon tree. On Sunday, the first Sunday of advent, I planted a lemon tree. (Just for the record, this is not a traditional way to celebrate advent.) It is actually the third lemon tree that I’ve planted (the first two are no longer with us, due to issues of soil, water, and a potential lack of nutrients). The lemon tree planting is part of an overall experiment to see what food producing plants and trees might be able to grow in the small piece of garden that is in my care. This experiment has included rainwater harvesting by finding ways to allow the ground itself to capture more rainwater, thus increasing its overall health. It has also included planting vegetables in both winter and summer, and persevering in the midst of gophers and some other small animal that was leaving half eaten green tomatoes on the ground. In the midst of this process I picked up a new term—permaculture, which, at its most basic, is the idea of the relationships between living things and trying to cultivate an environment that fosters them. So, for instance, planting flowers that attract beneficial insects near vegetables that need to be pollinated, or diverting greywater from sink or shower to reuse it for watering a tree.
Orphans. I know, you’re wondering how this can possibly all go together. Stay with me. In the community where I live, La Mision, there is a group of people, American expatriates, who have come together to ‘love their neighbor as themselves.’ In this case the ‘neighbor’ is an orphanage about 40 minutes away, in the Guadalupe Valley. Casa de Paz has about 48 children in their care. They are doing amazing work to become more sustainable—raising chickens for eggs, getting milk and cheese from their two cows, growing their own vegetables and using the surplus to trade for supplies such as rice or sugar. But, at the end of the day, they’ve got an electric bill to pay (close to $1000/month much of which is because they need to pump all of their water—for personal and agricultural use—up from a well) and propane to buy, in addition to the cost of feeding over 50 people on a daily basis. They survive through a bit of help from the government (which supplies money for medications for their special needs children), some outside work by the orphanage’s director Jonathan, and through donations from churches and other non-profit groups that try to help them.
So, I’ve been pondering these things, as I’ve been considering the beginning of advent this week. Of course with advent it is easy to see how we can be so busy with the ‘Christmas season’—buying gifts, going to parties, sending cards, wondering how we are going to pay for the gifts that we are buying—that it is very easy to go from Thanksgiving to Christmas without ever really having the chance to pause. Advent is an invitation to reflect.  To contemplate what this season might be birthing into our world, or asking us to bring into being.
The first rule, if you will, of permaculture, is a prolonged and thoughtful observation. Before doing anything, it is important to observe—to ponder, as my dad would have called it. For instance, observe how the rain falls on your land—is there runoff? If so, where, how fast, in what direction? How might you slow its path so that it can seep into the ground, rather than simply washing into the gutter? Of course then it is important to act on the observation—it is not simply contemplation for contemplation’s sake. But to act before such a sustained contemplation is to risk missing what is actually needed or beneficial.
Which is the same with trying to help others. Of course, helping others is a noble and worthwhile thing to do. Some version of the ‘golden rule’ (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—or, love your neighbor as yourself) is present in most of the worlds religions. Compassion for those in need is to be commended. But often we have the tendency to rush in with our own ideas of what might be needed—toys at Christmas or a meal at Thanksgiving—without that prolonged and thoughtful observation. When we do that we often feel good about our efforts, but just as likely those efforts can leave those we aim to help worse off rather than better. (For more on this see the book review Wasted Charity) This Christmas, in seeking to address some of these issues, those who are trying to help Casa de Paz have decided, rather than collect toys, to organize a clothing drive for the children. They are inviting people to ‘sponsor’ a child and provide a warm winter outfit—of a total cost of about $100/child for each of the 48 children.  
Lemon trees. Advent. Orphans. For me, what weaves these three together is the invitation—an invitation to be mindful, to contemplate, ponder and observe—and then to take that contemplation and allow it to grow into action.


**If you would like to help the La Mision community support the children of Casa de Paz by contributing to the winter clothing drive, you can send a tax deductible check made out to: The La Mision Childrens Fund and send it to:

La Mision Companies
PMB 840
PO Box 439060
San Diego, CA 92143

Please indicate that the check is for ‘winter clothing drive’ and send it before December 14.