IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT on July 23, 2012, I slipped and fell in the bathroom of our hotel room in downtown Indianapolis during a family vacation. My head slammed onto the sink and then the floor.
The noise from my fall awakened my spouse, but when she asked me what happened as I lay on the floor, all I said was, “I’m okay.” Seeing no visible sign of injury, she returned to bed. A stomach bug was making the rounds, so she figured that it must have nabbed me. My vomiting every hour or so the remainder of the night only seemed to confirm this assumption.
At dawn, however, the first words out of my mouth were: “I think I cracked my skull. You’d better take me to the emergency room.” My wife knew something must be wrong, because I never suggest going to the hospital right away. The physician on duty thought I probably had a mild concussion and that I would be able to go home that day, but a CT scan was needed to make sure.
Afterward, he told me that his earlier hoped-for diagnosis was wrong. Instead, I had fractured my skull, with a subarachnoid hemorrhage and a small epidural hematoma under my left frontal region. In other words, I had a traumatic brain injury, and my life was at risk. In fact, I immediately was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital nearby where neurosurgeons would be better able to treat me.
The activities of the Christian community should be no less vigorous as we enter the mid-month point in January 2016 and the energy of the Christmas season has passed. In fact, it is on this second Sunday after Epiphany (the Christian feast day and season known as “manifestation”) that an honest evaluation of our situation locally, regionally, and abroad should be made.
I wonder if God calls us to celebrate waiting because the lie we’re all most susceptible to is that if we just get what we want, we’ll be ok. When this is our mentality, we actually forget to live. We become so future-oriented that we can ignore the presence of God in our midst and the signs of the Divine work in this world. We can miss out on the good things he provides daily, hourly.
This is my first Advent as an ordained minister, and I am attempting to quickly learn so many things. Including: what Advent means in different cultural contexts; how to determine the "accurate" themes represented in each Advent candle on the wreath (I've come across at least 4 or 5 different versions thus far); preparing our first discussion series informed by our devotional readings; creating children's worship lessons for the season; writing liturgy and sermons to reflect the mood of the season; and crafting a Christmas Eve service to include children, musical numbers, poetry, and stories.
All this while also correcting 35 final essays, grading 35 final presentations, and finalizing semester grades for my delightful students.
So what's the irony, you ask? Well, in addition to preaching on signs of hope last week, I also spoke about Advent as a space carved out in our church year to wait in eager anticipation of a promise not yet realized. To be still and contemplate the movement of the spirit in the midst of the bustle all around us. To think on hope even when so many are simply thinking of shopping and trips to the mall to snap a photo with Santa.
And yet what do I find myself doing? Anything but waiting, being still, and taking time to ponder hope.
“A time to wait.”
I’ve always struggled with Advent as a time of waiting and awakening. What exactly are we waiting for and what do we need to be awakened to? Are we waiting for the baby Jesus? Is it a sentimental journey of ‘feel good’ when Christmas comes so I can contribute to the treasury of empire? Am I to wake up to some coming event that will happen in the future?
The historical Jesus has already come. God has entered our humanity. St. Paul says that humanity is now God’s temple (1 Cor. 3: 16-17). If we really believe that, are not we — who call ourselves “Christian” after our founder — the incarnation in our time? I think we need to wake up to that reality. As my spiritual mentor Richard Rohr says, following the mystics, “We already are that which we are seeking.”
One summer my cousin Betty and I sneaked through the barbed-wire fence of a neighbor’s orchard and ate so many wild plums right off the tree that we almost made ourselves sick. Betty was 13 and I was 9, and I adored her. I still do.
Betty is dying right now. She might not make it till Christmas, which is really bad timing in my opinion. Yes, I talk with God about this. It’s one thing for me to lose a beloved cousin: I’m old enough to know from experience that, while the pain can feel like a raw wound that might never heal, losing those we love is a normal part of life. But I keep wondering, What kind of message is God sending to Betty’s family by jerking her away from them during this holy season of Advent? Doesn’t God care that they are already plunged into grief in anticipation of losing someone they love so much?
Yes, I talk with God about my fears, too, mostly in the form of questions from the little five-year-old kid inside me. What’s going to happen? Where are we going? What will it be like? Will it hurt? Do I have to? And, Why?
But wait! What if we‘ve got it backward? To revisit that waiting-goes-both-ways thing: Instead of us waiting on God, what if God is waiting on us?
John Dominic Crossan poses that question in his book The Power of Parable. He notes something that’s obvious: Jesus could be very impatient. He wasn’t one to just sit back and wait for things to change. As Crossan sums it up: “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God‘s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.”
There’s so much to be done — what’s important is to do it now. This moment is a gift. This opportunity to love someone else is too precious to waste.
If all we do is sit and wait for things to change, then we’re like people trapped in a perpetual state of Advent. We never get to our own Christmas morning. We do nothing more than wait.
And all the while, someone is waiting on us.
What does the Christian life consist of? What does God expect from us?
Here’s Jesus’ answer, according to Matthew’s Gospel: “Wait faithfully. Together. Or else.”
Sure, that isn’t an exact quotation, but it sums up — again, according to Matthew — what Jesus says to his followers when he instructs them about how they should live after he has departed from this earth.
Let me address the “or else” part first. That usually attracts the greatest attention.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus seems a little infatuated with judgment and retribution. At the conclusion of each of the four parables he tells within Matthew 24:45-25:46, the section that comes just before the plot to seize and kill him springs into action, certain characters don’t fare so well. They are cast out to where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” locked out of a banquet by the guy who presumably invited them in the first place, tossed into “outer darkness,” or punished in “eternal fire.” Along with the book of Revelation, Matthew’s Gospel has generated a large share of distress through the centuries.
Are these promises about judgment authentic warnings spoken by an uncomfortably stern Jesus, or are they brutal revenge fantasies put into his mouth by ancient Christian communities that had lost the ability to trust their own members or to put up with differing opinions and practices? We may never know.
Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.
It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?
Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.
Advent candles lit round the world declare our longing for the coming of Christ. We wait. And, in our waiting we hope, we pray, we yearn. Advent is a season where our energies and passions for all things to be made right are kindled. Christ, the precious Baby in the manger, is coming for us all to celebrate. Consider Him.
Despite the hunger, the fatherless, the ailing. Despite the wars and senseless violence. Despite all of the reasons to say there is no redeemer.
We wait for the Christ child.
Our faith is rooted in such anticipation. Mockers have innumerable examples to declare the reasons why God is dead. Centuries of proof. Holocausts, molestation, shame. The Church waits despite its own pollution and contribution to the lack of justice.
Yet these things merely point to the coming of the Child. If the world were made right by our collective longings for occupation, for the 99 percent, for cosmic good, we’d see equitable dispersion of wealth, of food, of housing. We’d live the Marxist dream of community. We would all be haves.
"Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" - Luke 1:45
I'm thinking about promises this morning. Conceptually, that is — I've not yet progressed to specifics.
At church Sunday, the sermon was on joy. The pastor noted how much of our joy is anticipatory: we feel joy when we get great Celtics tickets, even though it's weeks before tip-off and we have no idea how the game will go. He described the joy he felt in waiting at the alter for his bride, even though he didn't know how their marriage would unfold. What we have in these moments, he said, is the promise of something we're excited to witness and be part of. And we have joy in those promises.
I have all kinds of promises from God, both the ones in the Bible and the personal ones He whispers in my ear. It's hard to believe these promises sometimes. (I tend to have more confidence that the Celtics will show up and play than I do that God will.)
As I write, I'm stuck in the Central Wisconsin Airport (near the bustling metropolis of Wausau, Wis., for those keeping score at home). And, you guessed it, I'm waiting. Fog in Minneapolis prevented our plane from landing there, and now I'm left sitting in a very small regional airport with no restaurant and no coffee and no concrete sense of what the rest of my day will look like as I make my way to California. All I can do is wait.
I do know, barring something entirely unexpected, that I'll eventually make it to San Francisco. Right now I'm living the axiom offered by Tom Petty decades ago: "The Waiting is the Hardest Part."
Advent, a season during which Christians honor and attempt to approximate the longing for a Messiah more than 2,000 years ago, is often described as a chance to exercise our patience muscles. Advent can serve as a season of anticipation and hope and longing, void of desperation. This is Advent for those who already have most of that for which they wait. But for countless people around the globe, every additional day of waiting comes with a heavy price.
“Long Time Gone” is David Crosby’s anthem of hope in jeopardy. He wrote it the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I believed in him because he said he wanted to make some positive changes in America, and he hadn’t been bought and sold like Johnson and Nixon – cats who made their deals years ago with the special interests in this country in order to gain power,” Crosby wrote in the liner notes of the 1991 CSN boxed set. “I thought Bobby, like his brother, was a leader who had not made those deals. I was already angry about Jack Kennedy getting killed and it boiled over into this song when they got his brother, too.”
In the ‘60s, the Kennedys represented hope for change: racial equality, economic justice, and abolishing the death penalty, for example. Five decades later, you still don’t see many long-haired politicians, but that hardly seems the matter of dire culture import that it apparently was in 1968. And now we have a black president. Still, on the whole, Crosby’s words seem prescient, rather than anachronistic.
Almost 50 years later, we’re still giving legal benefits to some couples but denying them to others, not to mention that we fill our prisons with brown-skinned people, too many women are still ashamed to report rape or domestic violence, greedy people hoard resources while others go hungry, and the president who campaigned on hope hasn’t been able to bring any real change in our unjust economy.
I was standing there on the shore, jeans rolled up, my ankles in the surf.
It was day two of the Rob Bell event and people were surfing.
Rob brings in a couple of surfing instructors and, if you want to, you can rent a board and take a lesson. It's a good time. I watched a lot of people surf for the first time as I stood on the shore ...
Jesus was not just present for a year or two; he was present for 30 years before entering his formal ministry. There is an element of lingering inherent with submerging. It is a willingness to be present to the point of feeling like we are wasting time, when in reality we are leaving ourselves open to be used by the Spirit in ways we be might otherwise have never been aware of. Lingering is not simply walking aimlessly in circles; it is knowing what we are looking for and being intentional with our time and presence.
Jesus, with his building vocation as Messiah and inaugurator of the kingdom of God, spent time to linger, to be fully present and submerge into his context. And he did so for 30 years. Being the one chosen to redeem all of humanity, I have to wonder if he ever felt as thought he was wasting time at any point during the first 30 years of his life. After all, he had a lot of work to do and a renewed story to tell and invite God’s people into.