Sunday Nov. 29, What are we waiting for?

Advent begins and we are reminded to wait: wait for the child of promise, wait for the freedom of God’s people, wait for the light to break our darkness.  We wait, and as we wait, anticipation and hope grow. Jesus is coming. Again. You can count on it.

This is one of my favorite seasons of the year because for me Advent is a stay against our tendency to settle for the way things are. Celebrating Advent means to awaken to the possibility that a new world is not only possible, but it is on its way.  Jesus is coming, and the powers, structures, presidents and presidents-elect, economic institutions, and nation states do not have the final word. We can rest assured that Christ comes with his kingdom and:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:50-55, from Mary’s Magnificat).

This year, we are more ready for Advent than ever. We have heard the songs of the disenfranchised and the dissatisfied: the fear of COVID-19 and economic collapse; the continuing violence against people of color, immigrants and LGBT communities; the counter-violence against law enforcement; and distrust of our media, our political systems and structures. If there was ever a time when the message of Advent resonates with people, it is now.  We get it, we do not need to settle for what is. But we can dream. It is time to imagine what possibilities Jesus brings in his wake.

This isn’t a time to wait and see, what our political transition may bring. This is a time of actively seeking Christ’s coming and all it means for life today: 

When we are lonely and feel cut off from our communities because of a pandemic, we cry, Come Lord Jesus. Can our isolation become a cloister where we meet the coming Christ?

When we are overwhelmed by fears of losing of livelihood and economic well-being, we cry, Come Lord Jesus. Do we dare prepare the way of the LORD?

When immigrants fear that they or their loved ones will be deported and their family will be torn apart, we cry out, Come Lord Jesus. Can we invite Jesus into this reality?

When abuse and sexual assault is overlooked, excused because of expediency or we hear victim blaming, we shout, Come Lord Jesus. Will we extend Christ’s mercy to the broken?

When our fear of violence and terror causes us to reject the poor, widowed, and orphaned and the refugee, we sigh, Come Lord Jesus. May we meet Jesus in the vulnerable?

When we hear about ongoing injustice, the racial bias of our criminal justice system, or police violence against People of Color, we dare pray Come Lord Jesus. Will those that hunger for justice be satiated?

Waiting for Christ’s coming doesn’t just mean that we wait for some final cataclysmic event when all that is wrong is made right. Christ is coming but he also has already come. Bring him with you in your waiting so together we may be the change we want to see in the world.

Come Lord Jesus, Come.

Monday, Nov. 30 Blessed Are the Wait-ers!

Waiting is the thing we do between the things we wish we were doing. We
wait in traffic during our daily commute. We wait in supermarket lines and for an open parking space at the mall. We wait to be seated at our favorite restaurant.  We wait because we have to, but we don’t like it. When we don’t have to wait, we feel blessed. 

We are an instant society. We (re)heat our food in 2-4 minutes. We have instant access to information via the internet, text friends,  share photos, Skype family, Zoom each other. We have smart phones with us at all times so we can instant message and instagram selfies of us eating instant ramen. We stream video, download books and music. All our favorite retailers have one day shipping. Wherever we can we eliminate waiting from our life.

On another level we hate waiting because we wonder if we are just wasting our time. If we are stuck in traffic or in a queue, we feel we are missing ‘real life.’  Or worse, what if our waiting comes to nothing? Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting For Godot (1949)and Christopher Guest’s brilliant mockumentary Waiting For Guffman (1997) both name in their titles characters who never showed up (oops, SPOILER ALERT). And what about all those ways we wait and watch for God to break into our life and circumstance but we just don’t see Him? Cancer. Racism. Violence. War.  We cry “How Long O Lord?” and pray we aren’t waiting in vain.

Advent is a space each year where the church is invited to wait. In one sense this waiting is counter-cultural.  Our culture says blessed are the activists, the go-getters, the movers-and-shakers, the innovators, those-that-git-er-done. Of course we all know waiting is sometimes necessary. People who have not mastered the skill of waiting make poor financial and life choices. Delayed gratification is a sign of emotional intelligence and if you wait to eat your marshmallow you may get two. We know this, but we dislike passivity and honor those who make things happen. 

And yet when we open our Bibles we are called to wait, to watch, to press eagerly in to God, anticipating what He will do.  I read the Beatitudes this morning (Matthew 5:1-12) and was struck how many of those Jesus called blessed occupy liminal spaces– the stuck in the in-between places:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .” –the poor wait (the purview of the wealthy is they don’t have to).
  • ” Blessed are those who mourn. . .” –those longing for comfort and joy while stuck in the land of grief
  •  “Blessed are the meek. . .” The passed-over, last-picked, the unobtrusive. Not the-movers-and-the-shakers; nevertheless they will inherit the earth.
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. . .”- -those hungry and thirsty waiting to be filled.
  •  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . .” -those who show the mercy they long for through chronic injustice and ongoing wounds.
  •  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. . .”–the ones who learned to hear God’s voice despite the cacophony of competitors.
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .”–those taking stands against the systemic violence and apathy of our age.
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted. . .” -those suffering for holding out faith in cultures antagonistic toward it.

Blessed are those that wait! The poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty, the wounded healers, the longsuffering saints, the peacemakers and the persecuted! Jesus is coming! Wait for Him! He calls you blessed and blesses you as you wait!

In what ways does waiting make you feel anxious? In what ways do you experience God’s blessing as you wait?

Tuesday Dec 1, “Blessed are the Waiters”

One of my favorite Advent songs is the Taizé song, Wait for the Lord, from the ecumenical Taizé community in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is a short, meditative call to wait, drawn from Psalm 27:14:

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.
Wait for the Lord: keep watch, take heart!

When I use this song in Worship in Advent, I occasionally get some push back. Some think the minor key mournfulness sounds too sad. We want more celebration, having mentally already moved on to Christmas. Who wants to be sad in church?

But beyond our inability to make space for lament in contemporary worship, the song presents another difficulty. We are exhorted to wait for the Lord whose day is near. Near? Really? If you look at the state of things in the world, the day of the Lord feels a long way off. Everywhere we look we see deceit, division, abuse and assault. We cry come Lord Jesus but live through days where our rich people are violent; and all the people are liars (Micah 6:12). There doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.

Do we believe Jesus is coming back and when he does he will repair our broken world? How we answer this question will determine how well we keep watch and wait.

Proverbs 13:12 tells us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” If waiting for Jesus is like waiting for Godot—a fruitless exercise with no hope on the horizon—then to hold out hope is to torture our souls. If we believe Jesus will come and fulfill our deepest longings than we can bear up under almost anything. Delayed gratification only works if the awaited One proves true. But, do we have the mental space and spiritual imagination to believe in the promised One? Too often, we settle for lesser goods. Our hopeful imagination only takes us as far as what presents are under the Christmas tree. Our commodified Christmases, invariably disappoint. The sweater unravels, the toy breaks, our iPhone overheats.  We are haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: petty disappointments, bruised feelings and broken relationships. Do we dare hope another world is possible? Can we yet hope?

Wait for the Lord, his day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart. 

Wednesday Dec 2 Waiting vs. Not Waiting.

As we parse what it means to wait for the Lord, I am reminded that in Jesus’s returning, God’s blessing is with the wait-ers–those of us stuck in the in-between. The Kingdom of God’s future in-breaking should affect our lives in the present. Our waiting is not passive but an eager watchfulness for signs of the Kingdom. We live into what we anticipate.

To wait is to be dissatisfied, to long for more and kick against the status quo. This is Advent. It isn’t piously and passively biding time. We wait and we groan for restoration and justice, for reconciliation and wholeness, for peace on earth and good will towards humanity, for a new heaven and a new earth. These things are bound up with the God revealed in Jesus—the one born in a stable and nailed to a tree.  Because of Christ’s coming we were given hope. When he returns all will be restored. This is why we wait.

Here is our choice: we can wait or we can ‘not wait.’ To wait for the Lord is to admit we are in trouble and to long for His salvation. To not wait means to settle for what is or to rely on our own resources to solve our own problems. This could mean reliance on technology, politics, philosophy, spirituality, science, or whatever. Whatever we make so we don’t have to wait.

Revelation, the last book of the Bible, closes with these words, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.  If we are honest, we have real problems and no good solutions. If ever there was a time we need a savior it is now:

As Christians we are people of hope, dissatisfied with the status quo who hurt with those who are hurting. To not wait, means we simply settle for what is and try to make the best of it. Christian hope drives us to discontent as we eagerly anticipate a kingdom where all injustice, war, victimization, poverty, violence, sorrow and grief will end. For you we wait Lord Christ.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus

Thursday, Dec 3 The Old Woman Waits

Paula Gunn Allen’s poem C’Koy’u Old, Woman describes waiting:

old woman there in the earth/ outside you we wait/ do you dream of birth, bring/ what is outside, inside? old/ woman inside/ old/ woman outside/old woman there in the sky/ we are waiting inside you/ dreaming your dream of birthing/ get what is inside/outside” (Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-87, West  End Press, 1988). 

Allen had in mind the sacred feminine, which underpinned her Native American, and feminist spirituality. Highly critical of colonial Christendom, much of Allen’s work was aimed at recovering the place of the feminine in Native American Traditions, believing that western beliefs in patriarchy blinded them to the significance of women in Native religion and culture. But the waiting and longing in her words bring me to Advent. I am reminded of Elizabeth, the old woman who had given up dreaming of birth, finding herself pregnant in her old age. She would give birth to John, the forerunner who would prepare the way for the coming of the promised Messiah

And I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:19–24, NRSV)

Advent is the season of waiting, not just for a boy wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger, but for this Old Woman Creation who groans and longs for the Kingdom of God to come to fruition in our midst, who longs to be free from bondage and decay but fulfill her divine purposes.

Jesus’ advent is not just a backwards glance at a historic event but a cosmic hope that all that is wrong with the world will one day be put right.

Luke’s gospel hints at this cosmic scope:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”(Luke 22:25-29).

We are in a season of hope, of longing, and of waiting. Waiting not just for us, but for this old woman who dreams of birth and longs for the day: New Creation. 

Friday December 3 Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Advent is always a three-storied affair. We rehearse the ancient story of Christ’s coming—the angelic visitations, visions and John’s voice crying in the wilderness. We look ahead to Christ’s return when all our brokenness and pain will cease, and when He will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Advent is also now. To celebrate Advent is to inhabit the in-between, to remember and to hope, we wait, but our waiting is active. There is work to be done.

Too much is made about the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of God. We may look around at all the violence, victimization, suffering, disease, racial hatred, and distrust and say “God’s Kingdom has not come in fullness.  When Jesus comes again, life will be different.” True enough, but to speak like this is to forget. We become passive fatalists and fail to re-member the One who declared to His beleaguered and downtrodden people that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  The Christian hope is that although the Kingdom of God is not yet, it is now.

The first Advent inaugurated the reign of Christ. To live in light of Christ’s coming means to be his agents of shalom, participating in all the ways Jesus’ flips the script of empire and challenges systemic injustice. But if we don’t also have a vision of the consummation of the Kingdom, when injustice and violence cease, we will succumb to despair.

Christmas is coming and if you believe in Jesus, you know his first coming matters. Jesus is coming again, one day. To believe this is to hope in the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises. In 1923, Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to Great is Thy Faithfulness (reflecting on Lamentations 3:22-23). His fourth stanza reads:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow captures our Advent hope. We have the strength to face the brokenness, pain, and injustice in our world, to become change agents and subversives because we trust what God has done in Christ, and what he will do again. We also have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). The Spirit of Christ indwells us, we have his presence to cheer and to guide as we strive to welcome Christ’s kingdom more and more.

Jesus is the Spirit of Advent Past, the Spirit of Advent Present, and the Spirit of the Advent Yet to Come.

Saturday December 5: Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Emily Dickinson was a recluse. She spent most of her adult life in seclusion, at her Amherst family home. Publishing only a few poems during her lifetime, she made her sister, Lavinia, promise to burn her papers after she passed away.  Had her sister kept her promise, the world would never know her short lines and slant rhymes. 

 Eschewing Second Great Awakening revivalism and the rigidity of New England Presbyterianism, the Transcendent yet haunts her poetry. I hear it in poems like ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

Dickinson describes hope as a bird, that never quits singing despite storms and cold and roiling waters. This is a poignant metaphor. Hope, for her, was resilient, irrepressible. The bird perches in the soul and “sings the tune without the words—/And never stops—at all—.” Hope is the stubborn songbird whose song is carried by the breeze, all the sweeter in strong winds. A melody that warms us through the storm.

Hope, this buoyant birdsong, doesn’t quit. It persists. Despite the weather, sometimes despite the evidence, “in chillest lands—/and on the strangest sea.” Can hopes be dashed and destroyed? Dickinson allows for the possibility, “and sore must be the storm . . .” but the emphasis here is on the constancy of this birdsong in our souls. 

Advent is the season where we turn our ears toward the bird singing in our soul. In terms of the Christian story, the song she has been singing, does have words. For two thousand years, she sings, “the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15).” This song is resilient and the songbird keeps singing despite wars, and rumors of war, families being torn apart and placed in detention centers, environmental degradation, disease, the fear of economic collapse and personal bankruptcy, poverty, trumped-up legal charges and the wrongfully convicted, death and the raw experience of grief. Through wind and storm, in tundra and tempest, the song rings out, “the kingdom of God is at hand.Dare we hope that God’s redemption and righteous reign would break into our broken worlds? 

Dickinson’s final two lines indicate that the song of hope is not coercive. : 

Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

A young Emily Dickinson rebuffed revivalism when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She didn’t reject the gospel story per se, she did reject manipulative attempts to get her to respond in a particular fashion to the call of Christ. When Dickinson attended church services with her family, she appeared disinterested. She has cemented her place in history as the patron saint of the spiritual-but-not-religious. 

It is worth asking here if Dickinson is right. Does hope really ask nothing of us? Not even a crumb? I think she is right to say that hope does not demand, coerce, manipulate us. Definitely not. But does not the songbird, invite us, inspire us, and move us to sing along?

The Kingdom of God is at hand. How may we join in the song?