Moving Toward Suffering During Advent: From Indulgence for Others to Awareness of Others

Advent Candles
Last week I wrote about moving toward suffering during the season of Advent because God moves toward us in order to suffer alongside us and to redeem us. It’s especially tempting to mistake our commercialized version of Christmas with actually moving toward the suffering of others. It’s far too easy to buy someone a gift that isn’t necessarily needed instead of something far more personal, transforming, and costly.

We may make someone feel good with a gift—at least for a little while. Indulging in a friend’s or relative’s desires feels really great. We’ve gotten them just what they think they want. Perhaps we meet a real material need that a person has. However, we shouldn’t confuse meeting a material need with actually being present and involved in someone’s suffering.

There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts, but I personally find it far too tempting to think that my obligation to others during the holiday season ends when I’ve given a gift that represents a significant enough financial outlay and meets some kind of need for the other person. I think we all know deep down that spending money on someone is often far easier than actually being present and bearing that person’s burdens.

Rather than using financial generosity or gift giving as an excuse for disengaging with others during the season of Advent, I’ve been asking how I can actively meet with people in their suffering. It often involves giving up chunks of time or serving others in ways that are difficult for me. I’ll be honest, there have been moments in the past week when I felt like I couldn’t handle meeting someone’s need. Bearing someone else’s burdens feels like a potential black hole that could consume far more than I’m willing to offer or at least feel able to offer.

When we move toward someone’s suffering, we open ourselves up to situations that are beyond our control, and we won’t be able to limit what exactly another person will need.

That isn’t to say that gifts or money are insignificant. There have been seasons when friends dropped off meals for us that really saved us. We’ve done the same for others. However, gifts or meals or other physical objects are no substitute for the moments when someone needs us to bear burdens by his/her side.

For this advent season, I’ve been asking myself whether I’m aware of the suffering around me. Am I seeing the people who are in need? Am I willing to be physically present along their sides in order to support them when they need the most help? Are there times I can move beyond a meal or a financial gift?

I’m still buying gifts for friends and family. However, I’m trying to move beyond what I’m getting for people in order to ask whether I’m actually “for” these people. Am I willing to truly see them, to see their needs, and to make sacrifices in order to be present alongside them with their suffering?

For all of my hesitation and substitutes for being present alongside those who are suffering, I have a suspicion that I won’t be the only one alongside those who are suffering. In fact, if you’re wondering where you can find Jesus during the season of Advent or if you’re struggling to experience Jesus, there’s a very good chance you can find him. Try spending some time alongside those who are suffering, broken-hearted, and struggling.

If you’re looking for Jesus during Advent, he’s with those who are suffering.

Are We Moving Toward Suffering During Advent?

Advent Candles

If I have made one big mistake as a Christian, it’s been wanting to help people from a distance rather than drawing near to them. You know, pretty much the opposite of what Jesus did.

For instance, the author of Hebrews called Jesus a high priest, which made him a mediator between God and humanity. A high priest is supposed to be among the people—all up in their business, so to speak. Despite being so close to us in the midst of our flaws and weaknesses, words like “merciful” and “empathize” are used when discussing the ministry of Jesus. Have a look:

Hebrews 2:17 (NIV)

“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

The author Hebrews goes on to say:

Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

We could summarize the ministry of Jesus like this: Find people trapped in sin and suffering, join them, and restore them to God. He is merciful and kind, empathizing with our weaknesses and then healing us. However, in order to be truly merciful and in order to fully heal us, he has to also be fully among us, present with us even when we’re at our worst.

My church has been talking a lot lately about being present with those who are suffering during Advent. In fact, our big picture mission is “to be a community of prayer that engages suffering.” I kind of hate the word “engage” because I think it sounds a little too impersonal or detached, but it captures the right direction and intention. If there was ever a time of year to think about being present among those who are suffering or in sin, Advent is the time.

Jesus came down to earth in order to be present among us, to show mercy. He wanted to fully see, hear, and understand. He wasn’t detached from suffering. And when he encountered suffering, he drew closer to the people, listened to them, and offered to help those willing to receive it.

I like the idea of helping, but it can be tough to draw near to others and to be fully present. There’s always a great excuse, whether I don’t have enough money, time, or emotional reserves.

For advent, I wanted to ask what it might look like to be present among those who are suffering and how we can help.

Perhaps today we need to begin with a simple truth that will make everything else all the more meaningful: God is present among us first and foremost. We’re not in this alone, even if we sometimes feel like it.

We could be in the midst of a dark night of the soul.

We could be distracted.

We could be traumatized.

We could lack training in awareness of God.

There are lots of reasons why we may struggle to recognize God’s presence among us, let alone experiencing the joy and freedom of God’s Kingdom that is already here.

If we don’t believe God is moving toward us first, we’ll struggle to move toward others.

What if you took 20 minutes each day this week to simply sit and acknowledge of the presence of God. Don’t ask for anything to happen. Don’t expect miracles. Just recognize that God is present. Focus on a simple word like mercy, love, kindness, present, heal, or another word that helps you focus on God’s presence.

Through Advent we recognize God’s movement toward us, but we’ll feel alone and forgotten if we don’t prepare a place for God to arrive and assure us that the mercy and empathy of Jesus, our high priest, also applies to us.

What to Buy Writers for Christmas

You could pick up your writer friend a gift card to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, but what if you could pick up your friend something that will almost certainly help him/her take a step forward toward publishing? What if you could give someone a useful tool for his/her writing career?

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about putting together a list of a few services and books that I use a lot as a writer, but then I thought it may be a bit more useful as a gift-giving guide. If you want to know what I use for invoices, advertising, etc., check out the end of this post. For now I give you my gift guide for writers…

 

Creating Fiction

How much would you pay to attend the top MFA writing workshops in America? Would you be interested in learning the best advice from each professor? This handy textbook is an incredible resource that provides just that. It’s an amazing book with tips on everything from characters to plot construction. If you want to publish fiction, you need the advice in this book. It blows my mind pretty consistently.

Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Go

This may be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read on writing, aside from Bird by Bird. Filled with practical advice and great examples, this book makes starting a novel easy and accessible.

A Moleskine Lined Journal

My writing thrives on giving focused attention to my ideas, and an old-fashioned journal is the perfect tool for writing down ideas and developing them without the distractions of my computer. These journals are relatively affordable, sturdy, and fun to use. Almost everything I write begins as a few ideas in my Moleskine.

A Nook Touch

You may be suspicious that I’ve included a big ticket item in my list, or you may question why I’ve chosen the touch and not a Kindle Fire. I have my reasons. For starters, every writer needs an e-reader because publishers are constantly throwing free and cheap books at us. At the start of NanoWriMo, I was able to download 6 excellent books on writing for free. Marketing companies send me free e-books all of the time about managing my website and social media accounts. There’s so much out there, you need something that you can use to read it all.

I endorse the Nook Touch in particular because it’s first of all a dedicated e-reader. There’s no temptation to check e-mail. Just read. Focus on one thing. I love that about my Nook. In addition, I like Barnes and Noble because it at least supports physical book stores where real human beings can get together, look at books, and interact about ideas. I use Amazon for some online shopping, but I shudder at the thought of Amazon closing down every book store in the country.

When it comes to technical end of things, the Nook Touch has been the darling of online technology sites with its easy to use interface that makes the previous Kindle model look like the ugly duckling.

A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book

This is perhaps my most self-serving item on the list, but hear me out. There are great books out there on how to write a proposal, how to market a book, and how to prepare for publishing. I’m not as experienced as all of those other writers, but I do have one advantage on them: I published a book fairly recently and I wrote this book right after my book’s first year. I have yet to find another book that pays so much attention to the process of becoming a nonfiction author from start to finish.

I wrote this book as a first step, an introduction to publishing that teaches readers how to plan for the future, how to write a proposal, how to write a draft of a book, how to work with an editor, and how to promote it. The reviews have all been positive, and the endorsements quite strong. I wouldn’t include this book here if I many readers hadn’t told me how the book helped them.

 

That does it for gift ideas. However, if you want to know what else I recommend for freelance writers, there are 3 services that I recommend using.

PayPal

I try to get checks from customers when possible, but PayPal makes it possible to receive payments from international clients and from customers who prefer the convenience of online billing. 

Thumbtack.com

I apply for very few jobs. Rather, I post my services on Thumbtack and set up an auto-post of my advertisement to Craig’s List every three days. I have found all of my clients through Thumbtack. Even better, Thumbtack notifies you when someone has posted a project in my field of expertise! It makes advertising so incredibly easy, I can’t imagine freelancing without it.

Freshbooks

I hate paperwork and spreadsheets, and Freshbooks makes all of that go away. By simply tracking my time throughout the week in Freshbooks, I can send out invoices to my clients and track whether they are late for payments or whether their accounts are up to date. Freshbooks allows you to manage 3 clients for free, which makes it practical for a small operation like mine, while allowing me room to grow in the future. Once again, I would hate freelancing if it wasn’t for Freshbooks.