Paying attention this Advent

by Kristin on November 29, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

I was thinking about Advent yesterday—I guess it’s sort of a pre-expectant state. Unfortunately, what I’m often expecting the week or so before Advent is that I’ll fail in some way. I won’t slow down enough. I won’t think about God and Jesus enough. I won’t make it meaningful enough, or remember the Reason for the Season. I just have this sinking expectation that I’ll rush through these next four weeks like they’re just your average weeks.

My alternate concern is that I’ll rush through these weeks in a way that feels different, but in the wrong ways. I’ll get all caught up in The Holidays, as our culture likes to carefully call them, focusing on the wrong things, for the wrong reasons—my to-do lists, gift-buying, and the pressure to uphold various family traditions, trying to find places in our busy schedules to squeeze them in. (Quick! Let’s light the Advent candles after dinner, before you have to run off to study for that exam. Great! We will all be here for two hours next Saturday—it’s cookie decorating time!)

Yesterday, I made myself slow down and breathe deeply by scheduling in a walk to the bank. It was an errand I had to run, but I talked myself down from the temptation to just hop in the car. It was a gorgeous day—the kind that’s crisp without being bitter, showing off a brilliant blue sky intersected by the black, bare branches above me. I hate to admit it, but as I walked I had to discipline myself to enjoy it, to stop thinking about all the tasks I had left at home and just take in everything that was right there, all around me.

Suddenly, I noticed a sycamore tree, shining white and glorious, able to show off better in its bare, leafless state than it ever can in the lushness of summer. It was so beautiful that I felt a pull in my heart. Then, of course, I had to take a picture of it. (That’s the photo, above.)

I walked on, my thoughts turning to the Instagram project I participated in last Advent, #AdventPicADay (which involved, as you might guess, posting a photo each day that somehow depicts what Advent means, to me). Looking for Advent each day, in the world around me, was an incredibly meaningful experience. It really grounded me last Advent. (I shared some of the photos in this post.)

But it was also very challenging. Paying attention, really seeing, is hard. And seeing this season in a way that reaches beyond the typical symbols—beyond candles and Christmas trees and cookies—takes a certain presence of mind. It involves seeing more than what it right there, beyond the obvious.

As I thought about participating in #AdventPicADay again this year, I felt myself thinking, “I don’t know. It’s really hard. Maybe I shouldn’t try to do that this year.”

In general, I’m all for giving yourself a break—lowering your expectations and not trying to do too much. But in this case, as soon as I heard my own lame excuse in my head, I knew immediately that it pointed to exactly why I should participate, not why I shouldn’t. I want Advent to be different—even challenging. I want to travel through it in a way that involves not longer to-do lists, but elevated expectations, the holy weightiness it deserves.

This will be one way to weave that attentiveness into the days ahead. Have you found actions and disciplines that make Advent more meaningful for you?

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  • HopefulLeigh

    When I saw the title of your post, I remembered how you participated in #AdventPicADay last year. I really loved the pictures you shared! I took pictures a few times but decided not to hold myself to a rigid schedule. I read through an Advent book but didn’t beat myself up if I forgot a day or two. It helped me be more open and aware, without stressing over it. I’ll probably take the same approach this year. Being mindful but being gracious with myself at the same time.

    • kt_writes

      It sounds like you have the right balance figured out! I think the key is figuring out what it is you/I hope to gain through these practices, and then staying focused on that. In other words, it isn’t the practice itself that is important, but the desired outcome (like being more open and aware). I’m looking forward to having you as a virtual companion in this journey!

  • Addie Zierman

    I love the #AdventPicADay thing as a way to keep you watching for beauty…but I also like Leigh’s idea of participating in a more relaxed way. Super-rigid disciplines with no space for life always leave me feeling under the pile. (I struggle with this too…wanting the season to be special but not really sure how to make it so. Great post.)

    • kt_writes

      I know—I think disciplines like this can be good or bad, depending on so many factors. Mostly it’s a matter of knowing yourself and setting up a system that works for you and your current life—that’s challenging in the right ways without being a burden. Giving myself grace on the days I don’t take a picture will be key! :)

  • Katie Noah Gibson

    I have these same fears: that I will fail to appreciate Advent/Christmas at all, or fail to appreciate it in the “right” way. I do love the readings from my Advent book (Watch for the Light) – the title phrase alone has done a great deal to inform my understanding of Advent. And I’m not on Instagram, but I enjoyed seeing people’s photos and taking a few of my own last year. Participating in my own way.

    “Paying attention” is the great theme lately – this phrase and this idea are everywhere I look.

    • kt_writes

      I’m still waiting to hear if there’s a man out there who has these same fears and guilt! Is this a female thing? It doesn’t seem fair! But I’m glad to not be alone in it. We can work on paying attention together, and on being gracious with ourselves. (Btw, I also have—and love—the book Watch for the Light. I need to make sure to dig it out of the holiday supplies this weekend!)

  • Caris Adel

    “I want Advent to be different—even challenging. I want to travel through it in a way that involves not longer to-do lists, but elevated expectations, the holy weightiness it deserves.”

    That’s what I want. I’ve never ‘done’ Advent before. The last couple of years I’ve tried it a little bit, but it’s been sporadic readings, and ‘oh crap we have to light two candles this week’, haha. I really want to form those habits of watching and waiting in myself, and in my kids. I haven’t figured out what things I’m going to try and do yet though. It’s been nice having a week between thanksgiving and advent to get ready.

    • Lisa Colon DeLay

      there are some great devotions for Advent newbies (me 3 years ago). Enjoy this Advent season, it really helps us practice the presence of God and avoid xmas burnout.

    • kt_writes

      I agree—I’m so glad Advent didn’t begin Thanksgiving weekend this year. I grew up in a family and church that observed/celebrated Advent, so it has always been a special time for me. We did various versions of Advent calendars that were fun. One of my favorites was creating a large paper Christmas tree to tape to the pantry door in the kitchen. We wrote the dates of Advent on it, then each evening my brother and I would make an ornament to put on the tree, covering the numbers day by day. Anyway, there are all sorts of ways you could do it. I’ll look forward to hearing what you do!

  • Kari

    I was just thinking yesterday about the thing you read this summer about Advent photo-a-day.I might try that this year, so this post was timely. :)

    We have a book that we read every other year and we have an Advent calendar from our years working in the Christian bookstore. I am looking forward to creating some new traditions with Atticus.

  • lauralynnbrown

    I took Advent photos last year without knowing that was an organized thing. Maybe I’ll get on the Instagram wagon this year. My tribe does not observe Advent, but I’ve spent time with tribes that do, and I’ve felt something like yearning for it this year.
    There’s an Advent calendar in the kitchen, and an Advent anthology, God With Us, that I’ll be reading through. I think there will be something else and I don’t know what it will be yet. I have wondered whether some folks approach it with a commitment similar to Lenten practices.

  • Erin Burke

    I often feel like I struggle to make advent meaningful in the way I want it to be meaningful. My favorite advent thing in recent years has been to do the following the star devotional at They have lovely advent readings every day, and last year it made me really feel the waiting season of advent.

    • kt_writes

      Thank you for the link to the “following the star devotional!”

  • Lisa Colon DeLay

    I LOVED your pict per day thing last year….but I think it shouldn’t be a burden. Commit to a pict a week. Any more than that is frosting on your Advent cake.
    (don’t fight human nature…account for it in your plans…..that via Tim Ferriss who allows a diet Cheat Day once per week. It’s my daughter’s b-day and I have my cheat day today, and I feel like screaming with joy. CUPCAKES!!!!!)

    This was a great reflection. Thank you.

    • kt_writes

      Very wise advice, as always. I want to push myself, but not in a way that’s unnatural and stressful. Balance! (Hope those cupcakes were delicious!)

  • Corrie Aw.

    My approach to this dilemma is to not force myself into something, especially not in the holiday frenzy (decorating, baking, even Christmas music) just give myself some space. And God will find me there. It might sound lame, but I never feel stressed out in Advent.

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  • themoderngal

    I love this post. I think my own efforts are similar to yours. I’m trying to slow down, and I’m giving myself permission to drop things that are lower priority and not be in such a rush to get the rest done. I want to be more fully present, and Advent is a great place to start.