Advent 101

Have you ever noticed that groups develop their own kinds of codes to communicate? For example, liking something has a whole new connotation after Facebook. We have our own codes in the church, too. Words like grace, forgiveness, mercy, sin and communion all have a particular meaning in the church. We even have our own calendar which starts in late November or early December, and includes strange seasons like Advent and Lent.

Both Lent and Advent are seasons of preparation. They are times which encourage us to prepare our hearts, minds, and lives for a significant celebration. Lent encourages us to prepare for Easter as we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Advent is the season of preparation before Jesus’ birth. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and leads up to Christmas Day.

Part of the confusion with Advent is that it lines up with the secular “Christmas Season” beginning after Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas. But, the Christian Christmas season is actually AFTER Christmas! You know that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas?” Well it is based on the season from Christmas through January 6th, or the Epiphany.

The Christmas season is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, where Advent is a time of preparation for that birth. Advent is a time of waiting, of anticipation. And, waiting is something that I don’t do well, and I don’t think I am alone. When I get into the checkout line at the grocery store, or at any busy retail outlet, I get anxious. I grumble about the slowness of the line and wonder why I am cursed to always choose the slowest line. I think the license bureau gets such a bad reputation because of this same thing, waiting.

It’s hard to wait. It can be even harder to wait for a birth. Talk with just about any mother in the last month of her pregnancy, and she is likely to express that she is “Ready to have this baby!” There are a LOT of emotions tied up in that statement. Those emotions of waiting and anticipation are what Advent is all about.

Each of the four Sundays has a different theme: Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. To help us think about those ideas we include the lighting of Advent Candles in our worship services. Each Sunday another blue candle is lit to remind us of that week’s theme. And we light the candles from the prior weeks to celebrate the building anticipation.

Then Advent comes to its completion on Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve we retell the story of Jesus’ birth through the reading of scripture and the singing of Christmas Carols. And we light not only the four blue candles on the wreath, but the central, white, Christ candle as a reminder of Christ’s presence with us. Then we conclude our Christmas Eve worship by singing silent night and each person lights a candle and we surround the sanctuary with light, reminding each and every one of us that we carry the light of Christ with us.

I look forward to celebrating Advent with you this year, as we anticipate the coming of Christ even as we remember the anticipation of Jesus’ birth.

Look! Christ is coming! Behold, Christ is here!

Servant Leadership

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
John 13:13-15 (NRSV)

In my leadership research, a recurring theme is the importance of servant leadership. Jesus led through service, and encouraged his disciples to serve others as well. However, there are several ways to serve. You can serve because you are required to do so, as in the case of a slave or an employee. You can serve because you have the ability to fulfill the needs of another, as in the case of someone who works at a soup kitchen. And, you can serve because of a friendship with the person being served.

In an article about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in the 13th chapter of John, Sandra Schneiders describes the differences between these three motivations for serving. In the case of required service Schneiders writes that this model of service is always based in a difference in power and, as a result, domination. She notes that, in this kind of service, exploitation and oppression are inevitable. This is due to the difference in power between the superior who has the right to demand service and an inferior whose duty it is to render that service.

In the need-based model the server acts on behalf of the other because they understand that they have the ability and power to meet a need, whether real or perceived. Although need-based service may be preferential to requirement-based service there is still a power differential. This inequality in the relationship is problematic. As a result of the unequal relationship, the server acts out of a sense of superiority, of having something that the served needs and cannot obtain on his or her own. This kind of service usually only continues as long as the server maintains some sense of superiority over the persons being served.

As a way of overcoming these obstacles, Schneiders offers service based on friendship. She defines friendship as a relationship that is built on a foundation of equality. In this kind of relationship there isn’t a difference in power, but both people are equals. As a result, service between friends does not have the same inequalities as service that is required or need-based. Service between friends occurs when the server seeks the good of his or her friend. Ultimately, the relationship between friends means that the server’s own good is achieved, but this is not the goal. The entire focus of service in a friendship is to attain the goal of the good of the other.

As Jesus stoops to wash the feet of his disciples he does so out of friendship. In that same evening Jesus will declare “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). This focus on friendship transforms the concept of service. Schneiders writes that “Jesus’ self-gift was not, in John’s perspective, the master’s redemption of unworthy slaves but an act of friendship.”

There is one more wrinkle to this idea of servant leadership. Sometimes I struggle with asking for help from others. I have a hard time allowing others to serve me. I think that has to do because I have given into the notion that there is a power difference in service. I am uncomfortable being served because I don’t want to demand service, nor do I want to feel that I am somehow “less” because I am being served. However, the idea of service resulting from friendship transforms the notion of service for me, both as the server and as the one being served.

I pray we all may experience the transformative power of both serving others, and being served by others.