Anticipating Advent

This week marks the beginning of the advent season. And while most people are beginning to decorate their homes with lights and dress their Christmas trees with tinsel, I’m reflecting on the meaning of advent and some creative ways to observe the season this year. Having not grown up in a church that observed the church calendar, advent as a set season of reflective preparation and anticipation was foreign. Our church had a Christmas eve service, but never mentioned the season much before or afterward.

But this year, as part of a series we are doing with the youth, we are spending time over the next few Sundays to reflect on the meaning of the advent season and how, as a church, we can use this time as a reminder  of God’s gift of grace that came through Jesus and the good news that he was when he first came into the world.

In light of this, I was thinking of a few ways I could observe the season as a period of prayerful, reflective meditation on who Christ is, what he came into the world to do, and how the season of advent is a season of revelation. Here are a few I came up with…

  1. Take some time each week to read through the Christmas narratives. ( I prefer the Lukan account but the Matthean account works just as well.) We often save the reading of these narratives just for Christmas, but try reading them in the 3-4 weeks leading up to the 25th. Use the time to reflect on their meaning outside of the holidays. Christmas is the beginning of Jesus’ mission on earth and reflects the gospel he would begin to preach 30 years later.
  2. Read and reflect alone and with others. Make advent a time of personal preparation as well as community fellowship.  If you have a family, read it together! Allow the anticipation of advent to become something that brings people together as Jesus’ birth brought together poor shepherds and rich wise men!
  3. Observe a kind of act that marks the progression of the season. I could never understand the importance or meaning of an advent calendar until I began observing the season. Other people light candles or put up particular decorations. Observance of these acts are not so that we become slave to ritual, but that, via physical act, our hearts and minds sharpened. The marking of the progression of time in anticipation of an important event helps us to prepare our hearts and minds, keeping us focused as we look forward and helping us get back on track when we lose our way.
  4. Let the season guide the prayers you pray. Using a devotional or a prayer book (if you’re a high church type) can be helpful in marking the season of advent. Personally, I have found Bobby Gross’s Living the Christian Year (link) to be very helpful, not only for advent, but for aligning my prayers towards the church calendar.
  5. Celebrate and let your excitement for the season grow through acts of service for others. Find a local soup kitchen, shelter, or other ministry to serve in during this season. I would encourage you to serve more than once! And each time you do serve, reflect on what God has done for us by sending Jesus, his son, and get excited to celebrate this season of advent. Let your excitement center around God and what he has done in Christ. The greater the excitement, the more we will be motivated to go out to serve and give and share the love that God has shown us in the advent of Jesus.

These are just a few practical suggestions that have helped me over the years. I find, often, that it is so easy to get distracted by the cultural trappings of the holidays that the heart of anticipation for the advent season is lost or dissipated. Taking time to pull away from these things to reflect in preparation for Christmas in the weeks beforehand allows us not only to grow more deeply in our relationship with Christ, but also to grow our love for people around us and motivate us to passionately serve, give, and share the love of Christ.

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Thoughts on Ferguson (and what it has to do with a Chinese church’s youth group)

Race has dominated the national conversation for the past few months in light of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson,MO and the subsequent events following. There have been no end of the number of published opinions, blogs, posts, and tweets, not to mention the broadcast media frenzy, that has accompanied the tragedy surrounding this situation. But amidst all of this, what struck me as extremely strange was how little my youth group students knew or even thought about this situation. While the airwaves and internet was filled with headlines about what was going on, many of my students told me they had not discussed the situation in home or at school. But as circumstances reached a boiling point this week with the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson and the protests and riots that followed, I felt deeply compelled to share with my youth group students, the majority of whom are suburban 2nd generation Chinese-Americans, not only the importance of what was going on in Ferguson, but what that meant for them and how they should respond.

You see, issues of race never really make their way into most of the Chinese-American church community, at least not that I have experienced. Before taking classes in Asian-American Studies at college, I had no idea about the murder of Vincent Chin and how the horrific situation that played out then is similar to the realities of life for African-Americans today. I had no exposure to the statistics that show how disturbingly racialized the entire criminal justice system is. But what bothered me the most was that people at church would talk about the love of Christ for sinners and then turn a blind eye (or worse yet, a finger of blame) to these injustices. I would often hear sentiments like, “he must have done something to deserve it” and “you can’t blame the police, they are just doing their jobs.” Not only did these strike me as insensitive, but they seemed to me to be diametrically opposed to the way we are supposed to respond as Christians to injustice and brokenness in this world. How was I, a Christian and a Chinese-American, supposed to respond?

It was in answer to this question that I shared the following thoughts with my youth group. These are just the general notes.

  • Introduction:
    – Ferguson is in the news. There are many opinions, lots of heated debates, and arguments. The circumstances are tragic and they bring the issue of race to the front of our minds.
    – How many of you have heard? We don’t talk about this much. As Chinese-American (henceforth, C-As), we avoid topics of race at home and at church. I never heard race ever mentioned in my church growing up.
    – But this matters to us, both as Christians and as C-As. If we claim we love all people, this matters to us. We cannot separate ourselves from these situations. If Christ’s love is in us, we need to respond. We must respond. But how?
    C-A Response
    – The two ways most C-As respond is 1) apathy or 2) blame.

    • Apathy: we don’t care. It doesn’t involve us. I’m not black or white. I’m just trying to live my life and do my own thing. It’s their problem, let them deal with it. I don’t need to get involved.
    • Blame: C-As value achievement. If you work hard, you succeed. If someone is poor or not successful in our eyes, they are lazy. They deserve it. Some people in my church said “Michael Brown probably deserved it.” We think we are better than other people because of what we have – grades, job, career. Race is not the issue, it’s hard work we say. Chinese people often look down on others without saying as much. This is straight up pride. Straight up selfishness. We are so easy to assign blame, especially to people that don’t look like us. We condemn men like Michael Brown to death because we think he deserved to die.
    • This may be how some of us think. But is this how the church of Jesus Christ should respond? No. Both apathy and blaming are opposed to the Gospel. John 3:16 AND 17 – Jesus did not come to condemn the world but SAVE the world. He came for love of sinners. Can we say we have the love of Christ in us when we see these situations and respond with blame and apathy? Can we be so cold? Frankly, this makes me angry that Christians would speak like this. I don’t usually share my feelings when I’m angry, but this makes me furious.
  • So How should we respond as C-A youth?
    • Prayer – if you don’t pray for people, how can you say you love them? How can we see this situation and not fall on our knees before God and cry out for justice and peace? How can we remain silent and unmoved, living our quiet suburban lives, and still say we are filled with the love of Christ? The church should be at the front lines in prayer. We need to pray for the families of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. We need to pray for healing in the community. We need to pray for reconciliation and peace and openness between Black, White, Latino, and Asian. If we truly believe that Jesus is the only answer to the deepest problems in this world, why do we not pray? We say we believe in God and that his love resides in our hearts, but we do not even come to him on behalf of hurting people. If we do not pray, we are hypocrites. The first and most important way we show we love people is by praying for them.
    • Compassion – many people try to make this a discussion of economics or politics. Some people analyze this situation so much that it loses sight of the fact that this is a human situation. People are hurting, dying, living in fear. Do you know what it is like to be judged by the color of your skin? To be sure there are economic and political and policy factors, but we must look at the situation as people, human beings. Jesus had compassion for us, he saw our plight and did not distance himself from us, but came into our situation with love, compassion, listening, and a desire to make things right. The church cannot keep its distance from hurting people. We cannot be apathetic. We cannot just say “that’s their problem.” If we are, we are missing the heart of Jesus and we show that we don’t really know him. The love of Christ for us demands that we have compassion and that we run towards hurting people to comfort and bring reconciliation. He made our problem his problem on the Cross. We cannot distance ourselves. What if Jesus thought of us the same way Chinese people often think of African-Americans? Good thing he didn’t and he doesn’t still.
    • Recognition – C-As need to put aside our judgmental attitudes and merit based view of the world. It’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of working hard and getting opportunities. The statistics are astounding as to how racialized the system of criminal justice is in this country. In a country that promotes “freedom,” an entire segment of the population is subject to living in fear simply because of their skin color and the stereotypes people put on them. What do you think of people who “dress like a thug”? We judge. But that says more about us than about them. Everyday young black men drive their cars, walk to work in fear that they will be stopped simply because they have a certain skin color. If Michael Brown had been white, we may not have thought he was innocent, but I know that because he was black, many more of us probably thought nothing of it. Just another black kid getting shot. How cold have we become? Recognize that we have a problem here. There are people in our country who do not feel safe or enjoy the feeling of security that we feel because of our skin color. Recognize the history of racism in America and the reality that black men and women are subject to hardships and lack of opportunity that you or I will never have to face.
    • Act – Youth group students have access to influence the world through social media. How many of us only have Asian and white friends? You need to ask yourself if you only associate with people who are like you. That is pride. As the church we need to step up into the world and stand with oppressed people, not blame them. Personally, we need to ask ourselves not just what the issues are, but how we can step up as C-As, as Christians, to bring reconciliation, peace, and the love of God into these situations of injustice. Christians are Christ’s ambassadors to this world and, where we see injustice and pain, are called to be his hands and feet, acting to bring about healing and justice for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, the outsider. We are called to give voice to the voiceless, to live out our faith and be serious about loving other people in real, genuine ways. We cannot stand idly by with our smug, self-righteous attitudes saying “this has nothing to do with me.” It has everything to do with us. Like Jesus came into the world for us, we go into these situations with prayer, compassion, recognition, and the desire to act, to do something to make this world a more just place so that the glory of God and the love of Christ is seen in his church. Remember the Gospel of reconciliation. God can use us to bring that into the world, but we need to act. And as we act in faith, he will use us to change the world.

There’s more that could be said and should be said. But for Chinese-American Church Youth, this is a big step in the right direction.