Defining “near” & “close” (Advent, week 1)

by Kristin on November 29, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Carlos Martinez

“Accommodate means two different things,” my ten-year-old explained to me last night, as she worked on her vocabulary homework. “One of them is just a fact, like how many people will fit in a movie theater. The other meaning is about doing what you can to help people. That seems so different!”

It is different—very different! One meaning just says “Here’s some space if you want it. Take it or leave it. It is what it is. First come, first served.” The other says “Who are you? What are your particular needs? How can I go out of my way to help, and to make things easier for you?”

In fifth grade, a big part of learning vocabulary is recognizing and understanding a word’s different meanings and nuances. You’re really forced to think carefully about the context. What’s happening around that word? What is the tone? The intention? How might it be misinterpreted?

Advent: A perfect time to switch out of auto pilot

As adults, we so quickly assume we know it all—it’s easy to shift into auto pilot, forgetting to pause and think deeply about what we mean, and what others are trying to communicate. Thankfully, deep thinkers and good writers are able to make us stop and do the double-take that words deserve.

That’s what happened when I read this year’s theme for Christine Sine’s annual Advent post series: “Jesus is Near: How Do We Draw Close?”

Well, to be honest, it didn’t happen the first time I glanced at Christine’s email. I was trying to shift gears from Thanksgiving to Advent (it’s always a bit of a shock when it all happens on the same weekend). Alright. Advent. I know this drill. I’ve been celebrating Advent for as long as I can remember, lighting candles one by one as the weeks progress, meditating on what it means to wait, with expectation, etc. etc. Let’s get this post written!

But this morning, when I sat down to actually write something, I saw Christine’s beautifully composed, intriguing theme in a new light: “Jesus is Near: How Do We Draw Close?” Suddenly I was able to read it through the eyes of my curious 10-year-old. What does it mean to be near? What does it mean to be close? What’s happening around those words? And if Jesus is already doing one thing, what’s my responsibility for participation in all of this?

Striving for a closeness that can’t be measured with rulers or calendars

We all know that geography—distance measured in miles, feet or inches—is only one way to define closeness. I feel very close to my husband, Jason, even though he’s at work right now—not close enough to touch. People in long-distance relationships are capable of an intense closeness that can far outweigh that of two people who are in a strained relationship in the same town, or even the same room. Strangers packed into a bus or subway travel along shoulder to shoulder, while keeping the greatest emotional distances possible between them.

It seems clear that the kind of closeness we’re talking about here, in relationship to Jesus and Advent, requires action and participation. For instance, my coffee pot is near—just in the next room—but not close enough to do me any good, unless I get up, walk over there and pour myself a cup. I can be warmed by the smell of coffee, and comforted by the fact that I know it’s there, waiting for me, but I can’t experience the warmth or the caffeine until I decide to get involved—to do something about whatever lies between us. I’m not talking about the 10 physical steps from where I sit to my coffee pot, but those other things like my laziness, more important priorities, and my lukewarm desire. If I don’t want it badly enough, if I decide it isn’t important enough, then it just sits there, in the next room.

This is where I will get myself into trouble, as I shift from my coffee analogy back to Jesus. :) But I have no doubt that Jesus is near, just as sure as December 25 is on the calendar. What is our active part in season, this relationship? What is getting in the way? What can we do to infuse it all with personal meaning, and draw close?

I will be exploring these question each of the next three Mondays of Advent. I hope you’ll join me in bringing meaning to the words “close” and “near”—I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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  • Ray Hollenbach

    Each year at Advent I’m reminded of the great reversals going on in the first-century world at the birth of Jesus. A teenage girl from Israel carries not only the Son of God but also the public shame of an unwanted pregnancy. A pacifist king is born who will undermine a Roman Empire built on physical force. And (especially in Luke’s gospel) people of privilege miss all the majesty while people of no account are invited to celebrate when God Himself comes to earth.

    You’ve begun your Advent series with a contrast of near and far. It puts me in mind of rich Pagan astrologers–total outsiders to the chosen people of Israel–who traveled a great distance to kneel before the Christ child. Meanwhile, just five miles away in Jerusalem sat the learned scholars and priests who knew enough to answer correctly (“where will the new king be born?”) but were not moved to action and worship, even though the hope of Israel was close at hand.

    At the coming of the king many were invited, but not everyone drew near.

  • Meredith

    As I read this and thought about my own answers to your questions, I realized that I find it easier to draw near (or close) to God during Advent and Christmas because it’s my personal favorite time of year and somehow it seems easier to come closer at this time of year than any other. There’s something about the strong, positive memories and experiences I associate with Christmas and a sort of relaxing or letting my guard down enough to just experience the wonder of both the season and God. It’s almost as if all the other Christmas stuff – even the stuff not directly related to the birth of Jesus – makes it easier to come closer.

  • Susan

    I find it easier to be mindful of drawing near at this time of year than others, because of time with loved ones. It’s easier to feel close to the divine when you feel loved and inspired.

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, what a great reminder of the reversals the Christmas story brings. Sometimes I worry I’m so familiar with it that I’m losing that sense of surprise and holy irony. That’s what rouses our attention, our curiosity, and makes us willing to go well out of our way to see what will happen next.

    Meredith, on one hand I am completely with you. Each Advent and Christmas season I’m amazed that I can become so caught up in the traditions—especially the ones from my childhood. (I still tear up each time I’m at the Midnight Christmas Eve service at my parent’s church, which ends with everyone holding a candle and singing Silent Night acapella.) The emotion is definitely there, and I can ride it for a good long while, but as an adult there seems to be such a gap between that emotion and my understanding of what this is all really about. When I recognize that gap, the distance between me and Jesus feels so wide. Maybe this is the time of year I should just relax and enjoy the ride? I don’t know…

  • Debbe Perry

    I love the invitation to look into the words “accommodate” (both meanings), “near,” and “close.” My first reaction is that in all cases, and even when seemingly contradictory, or paradoxical, the action required us really quite simple: to open our hearts to others, to the Other. Simple, yes, but not easy.

    What a wonderful reminder. Thank you for opening this beautiful Advent dialogue.

  • ed cyzewski

    Your daughter is quite the theologian!

    I may just be reading this post through my own experiences lately, but I felt like God taught me a similar lesson. I’ve been thinking about “seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.” What does it really look like to seek God’s Kingdom first?

    While lying in bed, God kind of hit me on the head and said, “Change your to do list dummy!” I needed to rearrange my day’s priorities around his plans for me. I got up and changed my to do list for today accordingly. I was close to God and saying I wanted to obey, but I wasn’t really acting on it. And to be honest, there are a couple areas in my life where I need to move beyond words and into concrete action.

  • Kristin T.

    Debbe, my kids inspire me in all sorts of ways! Initially, I was just thinking about how carefully and thoroughly my daughter’s class is studying vocabulary, but then I realized the word she was talking to me about—accommodate—definitely has ties to all of this. And your conclusion is perfect: “…the action required us really quite simple: to open our hearts to others, to the Other. Simple, yes, but not easy.” Thank you for being a part of this whole thought process!

    ed, it’s possible that some of the best theologians have no idea what they’re doing! Maybe their hearts are just more open, like Debbe suggested. And I love hearing how you overlaid the post with your own experiences. I definitely have some to-do list changes that need to be made, too.

  • Joi

    Recently I read a short piece excerpted from some of Frederick Buechner’s writings. He shed light on 3 of Jesus’ parables that encourage us to be persistent in asking/praying. (Luke 11: 5-8, Luke 18:1-8, Matthew 7:9-11.) Buechner says it’s not “because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to YOUR door.” I love this, and I think it demonstrates both your theme of “Jesus is near” and getting “close” to God by intentionality. One possible way to do this at Christmas is to meditate on one particular line of Christmas/Advent scripture or a few words each day and fully consider the larger reality of the meanings of those particular phrases. It’s a discipline that opens the door for God to talk to your mind. One of the lines I honestly related to in your post, Kristin, was, “I’m not talking about the 10 physical steps….but those other things, like my laziness, more important priorities and my lukewarm desire.” You nailed the whole issue for me and probably most of us right there. Advent “Quiet Time” is almost an oxymoron.

  • Kristin T.

    Joi, I love Buechner, and need to pull out some of his books for a fresh reading. Maybe this is the right time to do that, in hopes of establishing some of that elusive Advent quiet time. Thanks for the inspiration.

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