The season of Advent is one of exile and difficulty in the religious Christmas story. Many people are struggling with feeling overwhelmed, turned off by the expectations and commitments they feel and not having enough, meeting our own exile and separation from each other, from reverence, and from ourselves. How do we reach into the future for some good cheer? How shall we endure our experiences of exile, being worn out, the dread of disappointing the people we love, the fear of being alone, the present grief for loved ones who have died or around divorce, incarceration, and illness?
I know well that sense of being dried and broken bones in the valley of sorrow and frustration. I also know there are real things we can choose each and every day to claim joy. Here are six ways to turn back out of exile and into belonging, some ways to trust and claim the future Christmas and the arrival of hope.
Find a good story to share. News bureaus are especially careful during the Christmas season to share stories of abundant joy and people risking faithfully to live in bold compassion and care. Find a story each day and share it. I like to make sure I share that story with at least three people, because I will return to the heart of that story’s joy three needful times and can give that joy to others.
Be the good news story to share. Seek opportunities to be those unreported good news stories. This isn’t about serving for public recognition, but about attuning ourselves to the many ways we can be generous and bold in compassion. Listen to another person who is distraught. Help someone with a heavy burden. Bring a pile of books and handwritten holiday cards over to the correctional facility or hospital. The gift of bringing unexpected joy is also a gift to our selves: we always feel better when we’ve truly affected someone is a good way, lifting all of us together.
Commit to a volunteer program in need for the next 12 months. Researching and deciding how you can help is a liberating decision, and because it is liberating, it is also scary. We are so used to limited choices and making decisions based on limited time offers, the gift of a large amount of time and a huge number of choices can make us both terrified and giddy at the same time. But once we’ve figured out how and where we can help and connected with the program or agency to volunteer with, we have present both the anticipatory joy of being useful to creating goodness, and returning to the love and joy of why we’re working so hard to make a good holiday season for our families and communities.
Visit a neighboring faith. Cultivating neighborliness is the way out of exile. One way to cultivate neighborliness is to get to know those strange to us. What neighboring faith group do you know the least well? Who is the practice of loving our neighbor calling you to meet? Go visit the mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, temple, sangha, or church. Meet the religious leadership of that community. Ask how you can be a better neighbor in this coming year. Make the commitment.
Begin reconciling with someone you’ve been separated from. Ending exile happens in many ways. We might have amends to make. We might have to forgive. We might have some difficult conversations and heart wrestling ahead. But the freedom of reconciliation is freedom from not being consumed by bitterness and anger, shame or grief and the freedom to be more loving and compassion. The relationship won’t likely ever be the same as it was; it might just be a freeing civility. But it could also become really wonderful. Neither is possible if we’re not willing to start the end of exile.
Send a joy note to a friend or family member. Take a cup of coffee or cocoa or tea and the time to write down what you admire about someone. Seal it up and send out the note. The recipient will treasure it. You’ll feel heartened and ready to live more boldly in love and compassion yourself.
Living boldly into the practices of love at this time of year, we can renew our flagging spirits and turn again to loving both the Holy and ourselves and bear glad tidings in loving strangers, enemies, neighbors, family, and friends.