Trade in your to-do lists for A Story, this Advent! This first appeared in the FOL Covenant Church newsletter and website, December 3, 2019.
A few years ago, I discovered that I had stopped reading fiction. Oh, not completely, I suppose, but all the voracious and fascinated fiction-reading of my childhood and young-adulthood had been replaced by books about how to do things (parenting, writing, art, cooking). How could I have changed so much, I wondered.
Last night I read a story by George MacDonald in which a character stops reading fiction (he had been a fan of Milton and Spenser). Then he stops reading history, and eventually reads only politics and current events. He finds that “he had been growing fonder of business” which the author tells us is a bad sign for a man like him. The story made me think of that year when I realized how little fiction I had read. I, too, had grown “fonder of business”—of figuring out how I could get things done well. Feeling very responsible as a parent of young children, I gave way to the American worship of productivity and the practical. After a time, it was only attractive to read or think about things that would make me feel competent, and books that I would do something with.
So how did God rescue me from my growing narrowness? I made some efforts to change my patterns that year, but I was not very effective—when habits have become tastes they are hard to change. God’s rescue came from my desire to read to my children. I wanted to give them the joy I’d had in stories, and reading to children seemed a responsible, practical thing to do. I did it for the children’s sake, but God used it to work on my heart. Again and again, over the years since, I have found myself crying, worshiping, or convicted. I am more alive and open to the Spirit when I have set aside self and entered into a story.
How on earth does this relate to Advent? It relates because Christmas is, above all, a time to read and enjoy a particular story: the story of Jesus’ birth. On the other hand, it is also a time of year when over-allegiance to productivity becomes very tempting. There have been Decembers when I have spent more time reading my To-Do list than my Bible. In a “To-Do” mode, it is easy to start treating Bible reading itself as a kind of productivity: checking it off a list, or feeling the pressure to wring a daily application from a very familiar text. Jesus’ story is not like the parenting and cook books; it’s not a story to do something with. It is a story to be enjoyed. We need to open up the beginning of Matthew, and the beginning of Luke, and enter in like the child with a favorite storybook. We need to lay aside self, and let the story—and the Holy Spirit—do something to us.