Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not This Year (Honest Thoughts on Advent Waiting)

This is first Sunday of Advent. The 4-week season that presses us toward Christmas and the Incarnation. When we welcome Emmanuel as He moves into the neighborhood as a baby born in Bethlehem's obscurity.

Advent. The season that marks the beginning of the year in how the church tells time. The season named from the Latin "adventus" which means to come or arrive. This is the season that will end when the divine splits human history and is birthed now in flesh.

And culturally, we Americans often misunderstand the meaning of Advent. Advent is about preparation. Getting ready for what Christmas will bring. It's about fitting ourselves for the coming of Jesus - the Christ child. 

There's something beautiful in the idea of preparation. Of being set for what is ahead. Practicing and conditioning one's self, mind, heart for the future. Being primed for the yet unknown. 

There's also an general excitement surrounding how we ready ourselves for Christmas. An expectation that comes for the promise of gifts and goodies at the end of Advent. The thrill of Christmas day is what propels us, as we hope and wait for all that could be. As if the waiting will be worth it. There will be no disappointment. We can freely fling our arms wide and receive whatever is given because it will be good.

And when the end of November comes, almost every year that I can recall, I have met Advent with a sense of delight. Something about this time of year that makes the world seem better, friendlier, hopeful. And my heart has involuntarily responded to the thrill of the season. As if I can't help but be caught up in the goodwill among most men.

But not this year.

This year, my heart is unresponsive. Flatlining in the wake of grief and change and unknowns. This year, waiting doesn't seem to promise a good end on December 25th. In fact, it is hard to see any end to the waiting in my heart this year. 

Oh, I know for Whom I wait. I know His name and I am sure of His character. But as this Advent dawns, my heart dreads more waiting. 

That's why this sentence brought some solace to me last night:
"The character of worship during Advent is more solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year." (

Solemn, I can do. Quiet, I can do. Less festive, I can do. Looking backward, to how believers have historically approached this season of "arrival", we find it was done in a much different attitude of heart. It seems quite contrary to the way we approach and even worship in Advent today. 

I am finding camaraderie with the ancients this year, for nothing in my heart is leaping for joy. There is very little in the waiting that brings comfort for me right now.

We picture waiting as the wide-eyed excitement of children straining for a glimpse of reindeer. But sometimes the waiting couldn't be farther from that truth. Sometimes the waiting is the hard part of the journey. The birthing pains of a future yet unseen. Sometimes the waiting doesn't hold any thrill at all. Sometimes waiting is just the endurance to hang on another day. The challenge to stay faithful without fanfare.

And I began to wonder who in scripture might have understood waiting as I do this year? And surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, I easily listed nearly twenty examples of those who knew a season of waiting when it was far from amenable or desired.

- Noah and his family waiting on the ark 
- Abraham and Sarah waiting for the fulfilled promise
- Joseph waiting for the cupbearer to remember him in prison
- David waiting to be king after his anointing
- The enslaved Israelites waiting for deliverance
- Moses waiting on the mountain while the people waited below
- Elijah waiting for the famine to end accompanied by a widow and her son
- Jonah waiting in the belly of a fish and under a leafy tree
- Mary waiting for the life inside her to grow (and perhaps for her faith to be vindicated. her reputation to be restored)
- Mary & Joseph waiting in Egypt for Herod to die
- The wisemen waiting for the sign of the star
- King Herod waiting for the wisemen to bring word of the whereabouts of this Jewish King 
- Mary and Martha waiting for Jesus after sending word of Lazarus’ illness
- The woman with the issue of blood waiting for healing, 
- The man paralyzed for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda
- Jesus waiting at the well in Samaria
- Jesus waiting before the Sanhedrin and Pilate for their opinion concerning his guilt
- The angel waiting at the tomb for the women?
- The disciples waiting in Galilee for Jesus to appear after the resurrection
- The disciples waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit
- Peter waiting in prison
- Paul waiting for his sight to be restored after losing it on the road to Damascus

I am not sure any of these examples of waiting warrant the giddiness of anticipating Christmas like we do in this brave, new world of ours. 

I know my waiting doesn't.

I know a family still waiting for an estranged child to come home and to discover the love of God. I know a couple who are waiting (or perhaps have given up the waiting) on becoming parents. I know a city of people still waiting for the water that flows through the pipes to be declared safe for consumption. 

All of these examples can bring a melancholy to the process of waiting. Grief can dull the sense of expectancy. And so can weariness. And loneliness. And feeling unheard and unimportant. So can being powerless and without leverage. So can praying the same prayers for months and years with no change.

Advent is a season of preparation. A waiting for something that is still due to arrive, still yet to come. And for some of us in our world, the waiting is just plain hard, somber, sad, heartbreaking, distressing. 

You see, this Advent, I am waiting... 

for the night I can tuck my kids in bed without tears for a beloved pet we had to put to sleep.

for the deafening ache of missing my dad to dissipate.

for the silent phone to ring with news of a job.

for a steady income so we can secure new housing.

for my pace to slow.

for my soul to breathe.

for my trust to increase.

for my courage to stretch.

for my fear to wane.

for hope to come easily on it's own.

This Advent, I am waiting. 
But there is so much about the waiting that is unwelcome. Unnerving. Uninvited. 

And I happen to believe this is no reflection of a lack of faith on my part. My disdain of the waiting doesn't mean I am losing my way or walking away from God. I would argue the exact opposite. With every step I take into this Advent, I am exercising greater faith than ever. I am certain Jesus came in Bethlehem and I am confident He will come again to set all things right. And when I don't feel a thing in this heart of mine, I have no doubt that He is still the God who is Emmanuel. He is God with me...even in the midst of this waiting in which I do not delight. 

This short, instrumental piece is one that seems to reflect a part of my soul for this Advent. There's a longing in the melody of the oboe. A discontent within the notes, as if straining for something more. Something distant and out of reach.

And that's my waiting. No clear end in sight. No excitement in the meantime, yet an acceptance of what is because I know who is in it all. And so the final notes of the song bring a kind of resolution. I trust that is true for my own heart as well. I didn't ask for so much of this waiting and I am not thrilled with it's presence in my life. 

Not this year.

Come Christmas, however, maybe I will have made a little more peace with my waiting. Or maybe I won't. Either way, I am trusting the One who has been given the position as Prince of Peace. Either way, Jesus has come, is come, and will come again. God has been, is, and will be with us. And God is with me. 

"...and he will be our peace..." - Micah 5:5

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