It should not have surprised me, but it did. I remember putting the CD disc into my Tahoe’s Bose stereo because I simply couldn’t wait to get home. Driving down Peachtree Street, Paul Simon began this album with the driving beat of an acoustic guitar on the first cut on his new offering, one I had anticipated from my patron genius on a album entitled with the curious phrase, So Beautiful or So What.
That first song shocked me with its theme, not at all what I was expecting, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”. A contemporary Gospelish song, set in the context of the busyness of the Christmas season, exhorting one to “bear it in mind”, to get ready for power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day. As he sings the lyrics, talking about how crazy life gets in this tinsel-tangled time before that magic day in December, he interjects a black preacher man exhorting those unaware that one needs to get ready. And in a traditional “call and response”, the preacher calls so there is no mistaking: Get ready, ready for Christmas Day!
Now, I know. Christmas is a cultural holiday that pulls all into its powerful wake. It is all about the commercial reality of a boom time for merchants, selling goods to make a profit at the very end of the fiscal year. I’ll never forget my visit to an sporting goods/outfitter in Tyler, Texas, to visit my friend, the owner, Alan Haynes, Alan was hosting me for a festive holiday lunch. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, how was business. Alan, with a twinkle in his eye, responded with the Texas humor I came to love, “Business is great! I only wish Jesus had a brother born in June!” He was getting ready for Christmas Day…… but with a green tint.
Getting ready. Within the Christian community, the four Sundays before Christmas intentionally are designed to help us prepare our souls for the new time of birth, symbolically incarnated in the birth of the Baby Jesus. The season of Advent. That’s the drill for those of us in the Christian tradition, but it was chosen by the early Church to coincide with the seasonal Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in terms of the Sun’s distance. It is about the coming of Light into the Darkness, symbolized by adding a candle to an Advent wreath, culminating in four lights ablaze, with the punctuation of the lighting of the Christ Candle on Christmas Day. Getting ready.
Approaching the season of Advent, merchants like Alan aren’t the only ones who are busy. Clergy tend to get a “deer in headlights” look. They are busy planning for the press of time due on the onrushing Christmas festivities that come with the influx of visitors to ogle the cute Baby Jesus. There are “end of the year” concerns with money, both closing out the financial giving that may define the shape of the parish, plus preparing a budget for the coming year. In certain denominations, end of the year reports and performance evaluations loom. Add to that, there are a never-ending procession of social events, some fun, most not, where the pastor is expected to attend if not perform a functional role. A group of clergy that I meet with regularly have named this time of Advent as a “whirlwind”, intimating the blinding, circling chaos of activity. Finding a way to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind seem to be the trick. Get ready.
Certainly this is true for all folks in the busy seasons of life, especially this time around Christmas. How do you stay grounded in the craziness of life? And when life serves up some unexpected twists and turns without regard for your particular and peculiar situation, how does one keep one’s centeredness? How do you stay balanced? This is something that faces us all. I am going to be writing of some of the ways I have found to be useful in my peculiar whirlwind with the hope it can be helpful to you, particularly in this season of Advent, getting ready for Christmas Day.
One of my basic and central disciplines for staying centered has been that of journaling, that is, writing down what is going on in one’s life, one’s mind. Journaling may be my most basic method of advancing my personal quest for increasing self-awareness, even in the distractions of business and busyness. It really is as simple as writing down what is happening, how you are reacting to those events, and noticing the hopes and fears that may emerge. Come to think of it, that is what I listen to when I am listening as a therapist, coach, or spiritual director. It captures what my old professor, Dr. Chuck Gerkin, wisely told me to look for in my life and in the lives of the people I was trying to help: what’s going on?
Journaling has been a constant in my attempt at being self-aware in my life. I was introduced to the general concept by a high school teacher who encouraged me to read Walden, the journalings of Henry David Thoreau as he lived alone in the woods, seeking to discover himself, to clarify his identity. For me, it meant keeping a composition book, writing down stray thoughts, verse, quotes, and wonderings. I actually have a few of those early journals and am amazed at my descriptive entries, even though I was a little short on perspective.
Later, I came across Ira Progoff’s method of depth journaling as we hosted him at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University in Atlanta. Progoff developed a method of journaling that would cross-reference each day’s journaling with specific additional journaling on dreams, expansions on themes, hopefully leading one into a depth that is not possible by mere daily posting. I found it incredibly helpful during times of critical decisions as I was making my way through life. Dreams emerged, which I could correlate with happenings within my life, and in fact, recurrent themes predominated. The Progoff method, called the Intensive Journal method, can become ponderous, particularly if one has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I can’t help but have images of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, journaling as to his various bodily functions. Unlike him, I tend to keep my journaling simple but see value in the variety of methods that have emerged.
The plan I am offering to you as you enter this season of Advent is a simple one. First, set aside a dedicated journal in which to write your thoughts. It can be a simple notebook you pick up at the local. pharmacy or a moleskin type journal available at specialty shops. I have noticed a plethora of new offerings of a variety of formats, such as the Daily Focus Planner, the simple Panda Planner, the Monk’s Journal, just to name a few. These are helpful, suggesting areas of reflection, but one does not need a fancy format. Just get a notebook and begin. Set it aside in a place that is secure and not liable to be opened by others so you can write your thoughts in the rare air of freedom, with an assurance of confidentiality.
Set aside a time, a regular time where you will commit to intentionally record your thoughts and feelings during this season. It can be early in the morning before the day goes into full-tilt boogie, or it could be at the end of the day as you becoming settled for a review of your day. It can vary, perhaps out of when it is convenient, but I have found the regularity of a specific time to be helpful. For me, I tend to use the morning, jotting down notes from any dreams of the past night, agenda for the coming day, feelings about the day ahead. You make the call. This is for you. But I encourage you to give it a shot over the next thirty or forty days and see how it goes. Get ready.
For starters, let me give you a few simple prompts:
- Begin the journal entry by recording the date, the time, the weather, the feel of the space you are in. This is useful for future tracking.
- Jot down your general feelings, thoughts that are emerging/
- Record any dream that may remain in your memory. Don’t fret if there are none.
- List three things for which you are grateful on this particular morning.
- What are the growing edges of your life? Where do you feel that you are being called to grow?
- Be still, quiet, silent for a time. What thoughts, feeling emerge. Write them down.
- Are there areas calling you to explore? Are there lights of hope on the horizon of the future breaking in?
It’s that simple. You don’t need to complete the above list every day. If one topic seems to call for more attention, give it. Go with the flow. Don’t over-complicate it at this point. Just commit, and then do it.
After you’ve done it for a week, you might reread your journaling on Sunday or Monday to see if there are themes. Make a separate journal entry for that.
With dates attached, you can revisit your thoughts and musings months or years down track. I have looked back at my journaling from significant times in my past and found it helpful, even transformative. But that’s down track. Let’s get started NOW. Get ready.