WINDOWS INTO WAITING

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WINDOWS INTO WAITING

Advent Meditations on Vocation

and the Silence of God

— calling is the grace to keep on keeping on, trusting that the songs of Advent are songs of hope, a belief that somehow in some way God will not be silent forever —

For several years I have been watching a story come into being, and finally, it is about to be born.

More than four years ago I spent an evening with two friends, Mark Rodgers and Mako Fujimura, talking about the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, wondering what it might mean that it was now to be made into a film by Martin Scorsese. For hours we thought together, bringing hopes to the table, listening to Mako reflect on the centuries of Christian witness in Japan, hearing Mark talk about the complexities of making movies. And when we were done that night, we determined to step into history, in hope.

Someday the details will be told, but over the next months the wheels began to turn, and conversations of consequence took place. Nothing was easy, in fact everything was hard, very hard. If political life is most accurately described as the work of sausage-making, that is just as true for the world and work of film.

But along the way, a book was born, written in hope. Funding was found for the film, which from beginning to end was like childbirth, great groaning, trusting that the pain would not last forever. Actors were chosen, the script was worked on and worked on again, and again. Drawing on years of study, Mako spent months reflecting on the meaning of Endo’s work for both Japan and the world, giving us Silence and Beauty. And then, slowly by slowly, the story begin to born.

Two weeks ago I was offered one of the two viewings of the trailer, seen on an iPhone and so over the shoulder— and the film “disappeared” after the viewing, unable to be seen again until the trailer was released this past week. What was clear is that the film will be powerful and weighty, a profound and beautiful account of one of the most heartbreaking moments in history.

I won’t ruin it all by saying too much here, so no “spoiler alerts,” but Endo’s story is about theodicy, to say it simply. If God is there, why is he silent? If God is there, why doesn’t he care? If God is there, why do we suffer? There is nothing cheap about the question, and therefore nothing cheap about the answer.

The world will soon see what Scorsese has done with the story. A very gifted filmmaker, he is not known for fidelity to the text, sometimes choosing to tell his own story rather than having the integrity to artfully offer the story as it was written. Endo was the greatest novelist in Japan over the last generation, respected for the art of his craft, telling stories that everyone wanted to hear— even as he was also morally serious the nature of his faith, and hope, and love. What relationship there is between Scorsese’s treatment of Endo’s novel is yet to be seen. We hope, and we pray.

Yes, we hope, and we pray. The question that is the heart of the novel and film is also the question of Advent. These are days of waiting, hoping that God will not be silent forever. We sing, again and again, “O come, o come, Immanuel!” yearning for God to hear us in our hope.

We have asked some friends to reflect on Advent in light of their own experiences of longing. St Augustine was known as “the apostle of longing,” knowing as he did that the heart of every heart is longing. What is it that we care most deeply about? What matters most to us? In very different ways each of these folks have known, and still know, the stretched-taut reality of praying for God to enter into history, into the history of particular times and particular places. We know them to be people of longing, in fact knowing them well enough to know something of their longings. For none is this an abstract question, one that philosophers can wonder about to their distraction. Rather this is the line-in-the-sand question for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, and belief is born of the way that we answer— even as unbelief is born of the conclusion that there is no answer.

Thousands of years ago, Job and his friends had long conversations about this very question, born of a badly broken heart. The centuries of civilization offer us this story time after time; the very reason for being of both Hinduism and Buddhism is that human beings wrestle with heaven over the meaning of suffering. In the 20th-century we heard this again and again, children of the Enlightenment that we are. Samuel Becket playfully and painfully gave us “waiting for Godot,” concluding that we are alone in the universe. As a boy C.S. Lewis yearned for his mother’s life, living through his adolescent years with untold sorrow, and eventually gave us a story where children in their own distress were faced with a world where it was “always winter but never Christmas.” And as the 20th has now become the 21st, the world still sings the songs of Zion with U2 night after night, all over the face of the earth crying out, “How long, how long do we have to sing this song?” In every time and place, honest human beings know this question, just as honest human beings hope for an answer.

May these windows into waiting be gifts to you through the days of December, and beyond.

— Steven Garber —

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I’ve always loved the against-all-odds poem by Madeleine L’Engle, “Love Takes the Risk of Birth.” In just three short stanzas she captures the risk and the hope of bringing life into the world…and not just any life, though it is that, but the one life which renews all.

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn-–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

As a young woman eager to become a mother, on some level I understood there were dangers, risks, and disappointments, but my desire for the child and some deep echo in me to propagate hope far out-weighed them. Now as an older woman, I am far more experienced in the risks and the burdens the world has for us all. Am I also more convinced of the hope?

I’ve been pondering over the past couple of years the phrase “steadfast love and faithfulness” used so often to describe God. Only steadfast love and faithfulness could have taken the risk of birth into such suffering for the sake of the rebirth of creation. Though I often feel defeated, melancholy, and to blame for life’s circumstances, I want to choose steadfast love and faithfulness, against all odds, as the truth through which I see.

In this season of waiting for a new fullness of time to herald Christ’s return, and in these symbolic weeks of waiting until Christmas–in the decorating and menus, in the escalating wild behavior of school children, in the hoped-for (though complicated) family gatherings, in the memories of Christmases past and loved ones gone, in the gift giving and receiving, in the cookie exchanges and trips to the mall, in the Christmas finery and the candle-lit services, in the imagined reflective moments in front of the lighted tree rarely realized, may Christ’s love take the risk of birth in me.

Meg Elliott Garber, Librarian, Fairfax County, VA

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One of my most inspiring former teachers, Paul Salamunovich, passed away recently. Paul was the music conductor during my two years with the university men’s chorus, just before he was asked to take the helms of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. As I was recollecting his remarkable life, I accidentally discovered the magnificent works of Morten Lauridsen, who worked closely with Paul as the Master Chorale’s Composer-in-Residence. In the precise words of poet Dana Gioia, Lauridsen’s music “has…authority as well as beauty…he recapitulates the entire history of Western choral music…which still seems fresh and contemporary.”

He and Paul had a symbiotic friendship where they brought up the greatness about each other. For example, Lauridsen composed “Lux Aeterna” knowing that only Paul, with his expertise in Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, could bring it fully to life (they were jointly nominated for a Grammy because of this work).

A consistent motif in Lauridsen’s work, befitting the description as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic,” is the theme of silence. Silence is deeply integrated in his life. Most of Lauridsen’s best work was done in his cabin at Waldron Island in Washington State, where he spends his summers, or when he is not teaching or performing. For Lauridsen, silence is necessary to clear the noise, before great work can begin. Silence is reflected in his music, such as his “Les Chanson des Roses,” both as a way of highlighting magical movements as well as detecting “great work that was always there,” as he calls it, rather than inventing it.

This is ancient wisdom that has modern implications. In the Bible, before the monumental work of creation began, there was darkness, which is a form of silence. Wilderness and silence – a form of discipleship and preparation before great biblical events – was a necessary prelude to Joseph’s life as a slave in Egypt. This is also true during the 40 years in the desert by Moses and the Israelites before entering the Promised Land, and the 40 days in the wilderness by our Lord Jesus before He began His ministry. The Apostle Paul had to go through his own three days of darkness and silence after his great transformation, and a calling to the gentiles that changed the history of both earth and heaven.

What about the piercing silence described in Shusaku Endo’s book (and hopefully faithfully described in the new Scorsese movie)? This is a type of silence that is associated with crisis of faith, tragedy, trauma, and suffering, accompanied with a profound sense of disappointment around expectations of protection and unfulfilled longings. Previous assumptions about God and life are challenged. There are no simple answers to this most profound of questions. How do you reason when it hurts so much?

Our response to this type of silence is one of the great questions that can shape a person for eternity. Will experiencing personal tragedy or observing deep suffering gradually weight someone down to lose his or her faith? This is what happened to at least one prominent Christian leader, as described in the book, “Farewell to God.” Or will the piercing silence result in a different yet true response to the tragedy, so honestly described in much of the Psalms, including doubt, fear, pain, wonder, and a hint of faith?

In this season of Advent, what we will do with silence and waiting – how we will respond with what we don’t know – is a sacred question wrapped in mystery and enshrined with moral consequences. As I contemplate my own longings and silences in my life, from the most private and public of responsibilities, and hopes for Christmas and the New Year, I am left with the following lines of Gioia’s poem, Prayer, tenderly and powerfully written after his new born baby died:

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief
I will see you soon enough-
in the shadow of the rainfall,
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

(Morten Lauridsen’s transposed Gioia’s heartfelt poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pB1vCV2gOk&list=RD9pB1vCV2gOk#t=44)

Kwang Kim, Development Economist, Washington, DC

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Watching as our children begin to move out into life’s tributaries or seeing how our aging parents struggle to hold on to life’s ebbing flow, I have come to long for the tranquility and constancy of a slower pool, a moment or a place where stillness and peace reign. I long to not pass through life, but to have the time and ability to experience the fullness of each of its moments. My soul cries, “How long will the water run so fast?”

As we pass one another dragged along by life’s current, I long to connect. I long for relationships that are not interrupted by the hurried rushes and undertows of life. I long for stillness so that time with my wife and children is not corrupted with hurried schedules or my own self-interests.   I long to be known in the truest way, without fearing that such a knowledge would inflict harm. I long for the time spent awakening and affirming the dignity of the people of my city to not require the binding of the wounds, inflicted by an indifferent world. How long, oh Lord?

In my soul reside questions as well as longings: Will my sincere endeavor to lead people into holistic living only awaken them to life’s disappointment?  Will they also have to cry, “How long?”? Will my friends, working to “close the path to misery” in Birmingham, San Francisco, Nicaragua, Denver and amidst the Native American lands in South Dakota have to face the pain of losing friends while in the battle? How long will the work of reconciling our convictions with the disposition of our resources leave us wounded with thorns and bruises of misunderstanding and mistrust?  How long, oh Lord?

While I await the answers to my questions, doubt, the false prophet speaks into the silence. I hear its voice whispering, “Does God really have the power to change all of this?  Even if He does, is He good? Even if He is a good and all powerful God, is He good toward you and those that you love?”  Doubt’s voice is powerful, and should God remain silent, it will in fact crush me and all that I believe. How long, Oh Lord?

This Advent Season may not bring the answers for all my longings or questions. I will likely continue to bob and pitch amidst the torrent. The tide will continue to come in and go out. The undertow will claim its requital. I will still have my company’s Year-End to consider, my family to serve, and the strategy for urban outreach for 2017 to prayerfully plan. But, I know that just like there was a moment when the cries of how long were answered with “No more!” there will come a day and a time when I will hear those words. In the meantime, I will consider the radical calculus used by God to purchase dignity for all in the most undignified of places.  Amidst the nationalistic, racially polarized context of the Romanized Middle East, He redeemed the powerless by becoming one of them.  And so, He will redeem my own world, my work, my family and my soul.

Lord, hear our prayers.

John Lankford, Businessman and social entrepreneur, Birmingham, AL

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I am an optimist. In 2005, I took an optimistic leap and started my own business. The journey was a rollercoaster, but I found silver linings in all the ups and downs. A few years later, I was struggling to keep my business alive during the economic challenges of 2008. In the face of hardship, I worked hard, hoped for the best, and still saw my cup of coffee as half-full. Now, after several difficult years, my business is thriving and continues to grow. Throughout my life, my hopefulness and confidence about the future has served me well. It guides me in my role as a husband, father, son, friend, business owner, and community member.

Yet if I’m honest, the challenge of balancing my responsibilities can be overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like I can’t stay above water, and in those moments, I wrestle with questions.  Am I being present with my family in the way they deserve me to be and the way they need me to be? Is my growing business continuing to reflect the values that I want it to represent? Do I engage in genuine, authentic relationships with my friends and my neighbors? Or, am I only present enough for casual get-togethers and shallow conversations? Do I take time to reflect, to listen, and to engage in the things that really matter in life?

At its core, optimism is the belief that good will win out over evil in the universe. During this  Advent as I have taken time to reflect I know that it isn’t the optimistic hope that good will win, it is the God-truth that good has already won. “For [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5).

Although I’ve experienced death, hardship, and horror, I know my hope is secure. My optimism is the direct result of God’s reality, not the reality of this world. In moments of struggle, hopelessness and heartbreak, I choose to hold onto God, who is the giver of my life. Advent reminds me that Jesus enters into our brokenness and gives us peace in the midst of adversity. Because the hopes and fears of all my years are met in Him, I can seek to give life and hope as it has been given to me.

Joel Lueb, Businessman, Long Beach, CA

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Oh, how I long that God would bring together all the things that are in waiting. I often feel this is a journey that looks like a detour. My heart yearns for His kingdom to come, and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The hope of His coming keeps me anchored in the storms of life while the troubles of the world pull me toward destruction.

The hope and pain of this struggle is real. In the life of faith, like our brother Jacob, we must hold on until the blessings come.

I feel like I’m in a “tug-of-war” of sorts, and I am the rope. This war of heart and head has hope on one side, heaviness on the other. The blessing of being aware enough to see other brothers and sisters in their struggle while also experiencing the burden of knowing that each of us is fighting for our own life to keep death and disease at an appropriate distance for a reasonable time.

Where I live while I wait… Stuck between Opportunity and Responsibility

I have both, opportunity and responsibility. One is sexy, and one is weighty. One is for me, and the other is pressing on me. I cannot have one without the other, they go together and grow together. I want to push forward and learn and change… but the pain gets too great sometimes, and I want to refrain. The work I do is about leaning into all I can, but often disappoint rains on my parade like an unwanted friend.

If growth is failing, I often get my fill. I want the journey to be more like a slightly growing hill. It’s mountain climbing with a tiny place to stand. Being a husband, father and friend is the making and often undoing of this man. The thing is, there is no choice in the choices I have.  Not to grow would kill me and to grow sometimes drives me almost mad.

I look at my many blessings and man they aren’t just a few; why can’t I see the promise instead of feeling downcast and focus on my “what’s in it for you?” Opportunities abound, but I have trouble seeing them come to full-bloom; I need to stop chasing every opportunity that comes in the room. Like a dog at the dog track around and around I go, hoping to catch the rabbit for what reason I don’t know.

Help me God I scream, help me I want to see the way. I wake up each morning and search for a better day. If you have what you wanted, would you ever really know? The thing about pushing and growing is you are always on the go.

Waiting and longing are the “tug-of-war” of the day. I have been moved deeply by this quote by Jim Rohn illuminating this struggle:

“It is what you become in pursuit of what you want that matters. It’s not what you achieve but what you become in pursuit of what you achieve that counts.”

So as I wait in silence, my heart longs as David did, “ Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

(“Tug Of War” by John Gholson)

John Marsh, Businessman, Opeleika, AL

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There’s a tension that won’t go away. Try as I might to mitigate its effects, the strain is palpable; longing and yearning…what is flies in the face of what should be. No aspect of our lives has escaped. As it turns out, yearning is an occupational hazard for all of humanity. We yearn with incessant longing, but as a result of the fall, all of life is often hard and filled with unmet expectations.  What if the tension, the yearning are indications, signposts pointing to something far more significant? What if the incessant longing for something better and different is an indicator of something broken and seemingly unfixable? What if we will never escape our estrangement in the here and now?

One of my favorite Advent stories is the story of Simeon found in Luke chapter 2. Simeon, a righteous, clear-eyed, and wizened temple-worshiper was a man consumed with longing. He looked at the world around him and saw brokenness. He knew something of the prevalent and encroaching darkness and yet pined for something better. When the young child Jesus was brought to the temple for the rite of purification Simeon’s gaze fell upon Him. In that moment Simeon’s yearning, like a man overlong parched for water, found his thirsting sated. For Simeon the answer to the longing was found in deliverance, but even more so, in a Deliverer. Simeon describes his yearning being satisfied by seeing. He exclaims, “…my eyes have seen your salvation….”

In Jesus, Simeon saw deliverance, not just for the world, but for himself. Long bound by chains of his own making, in Jesus, Simeon was confronted by his longing, and confronted by his own need and the needs of the world around him. In Simeon’s beatific Advent vision every longing pooled up with satisfaction. Salvation, was found in Jesus in the Incarnation, and in Him the telos of longing, had come.

Dan J. Morse, Businessman, Woodland, WA

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Under a sunny and deep blue sky, a flag draped coffin beckon my pastoral words of final committal. Against the backdrop of a crisp military salute, a grateful nation and mourning family members say a last goodbye to a Greatest Generation father and grandfather. Standing there, I am ambushed with a numbing sadness, surfaced by haunting memories of precious loved ones who have been lowered into the cold and unfeeling earth.

Advent brings with it the joyful anticipation of familial gatherings, yet I am inevitably greeted with the awkward silence of a growing number of those missing at Christmas parties and the many empty chairs at the Christmas dinner table. As the years tick by and my own mortality occupies a more frequent place in my thoughts, I long with greater intensity for that hopeful reunion with those who are now more alive than I ever knew them to be in the broken world I still inhabit. While Advent takes me to a hopeful Bethlehem birth, it tugs more on my sad and longing heart for that joyful day yet future when there will be no more tears, pain or dying and no empty chairs at the table.

Tom Nelson, Pastor, Leawood, KS

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“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” says a main character in Martin Scorses’s new film “Silence.”

Lauren Daigle, a singer-song writer, can empathize. Here are some lyrics to her recent song “Trust in You.”

When You don’t move the mountains I’m needing You to move
When You don’t part the waters I wish I could walk through
When You don’t give the answers as I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You!

Truth is, You know what tomorrow brings
There’s not a day ahead You have not seen
So, in all things be my life and breath
I want what You want Lord and nothing less….

I can relate to the character in Scorses’s film and to Daigle’s song. I, too, wonder if I am praying to “silence,” and I wonder why God doesn’t part the waters or answer prayers like He used to. Still, as Daigle sings, God knows and I will trust in Him.

I have come to the conclusion that we do not know God’s larger, biblical story very well.

There is creation in which God the Trinity, who is to be worshipped regardless, makes all things, including us humans, as His image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-28). And there is the fall in Genesis 3. We wandered off from Him and His creation, and became autonomous or self-legislating. The fall is the reason why we don’t hear from God like we have in the past. I’d be ticked too, if people made in My image and likeness wandered off from Me and My creation.

But He is there and He has loved us and spoken in His Son Jesus (see Rom. 5:8). That’s redemption, and it comes in two stages, the already and the not yet. We live in between the times, at the hyphen between the “Already-Not Yet,” which is another reason why we don’t hear regularly from God. Apparently, God’s activity is episodic.

Advent is a good time to take stock. Jesus came in the Old Testament, and He is coming again. He has “Already” come as a Lamb to be slaughtered to usher in His kingdom via the cross; He will come again (the “Not Yet”) and put the world to rights again (as N. T. Wright says frequently; see Rev. 20-22) as at creation and beyond creation. Meanwhile, I will trust in Him, even if I don’t hear from Him like I think I should. But God the Trinity knows best. There is hope. 

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! (1 Cor. 16: 22).

David Naugle, Professor, Dallas, TX

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I often have cause to think back on that scene from Genesis 3 when the realization settles in on Adam that he is in exile.  What he had known of intimacy and fulfillment in his relationship with God, wife, and creation were altered forever.  What haunts me is the question, “Did he remember Eden?”

Essayist and novelist Frederick Buechner asks us to answer this question in the affirmative.  In his gem entitled Peculiar Treasures, he imagined a post-lapsarian world-weary Adam in this way:  “He let the Times fall to the carpet beside him…. With his thumb and forefinger he massaged the loose flesh under his eyes…. Somebody had the TV on in another room, and he could hear the rise and fall of canned laughter.  He lit a cigarette…the city sky was turning brown with the approach of dusk.  Then suddenly, as if it had been only yesterday, he remembered Eden.”

And I wonder, what did he do with that memory?  And the inevitable longing that had to accompany it?

There is a gap between the world as it is and the world as it is supposed to be.  We all experience it, and in all sorts of ways.  I felt that gap as a teenager before I knew what it signified, but it still occurs in much the same way, as it did just the other day. I stepped out my front door into the beauty of an almost cold but bright morning, the sting of the sharp air in my lungs, and I smiled.  These unexpected assaults of beauty on my senses still have the capacity to surprise, and sometimes stagger. 

And yet, at almost the same time, I experienced a familiar frustration.  I felt like a spectator, an outsider, an appreciative audience attending a play in which I had no part.  What I wanted was to enter in, to carry that moment, that loveliness, into the day, to participate in it.  But being who I am, a member of Adam’s fallen race, I remained a reflective, appreciative, but still distant, spectator, aware of the gap.

All this might sound like the musings of a nature mystic, which I am not.  It is only the earliest memory I have of the gap between what is and what should be.  There are countless other ways in which we experience that gap.  Even the best marriages or friendships leave us wanting more.  Even the most rewarding work doesn’t make us fully at home in the world.  A good doctor’s report doesn’t quell the anxiety that attaches to the next visit.   In these and in countless other ways we feel the gap.

In that gap lies longing.  And lurking nearby is the temptation to do anything that would promise to alleviate that longing.  Waiting well is hard work; saying “no” to a thousand enticing but ultimately unsatisfying and even destructive alternatives (“And if you order now we will send a second one free!”) in order to remain hungry for what is really our heart’s longing doesn’t make sense in a consumer world where even our best friendships and marriages seem to reach their expiration date and leave us hankering for a new and improved version 2.0. 

In my work as a pastor I often find myself helping others sort through their longings and name the deficits of particular choices that are often driven by an unexplored hunger or a disordered desire of some sort.  And in those interactions I experience my own longing for a world set right, along with various temptations that would dull that ache. 

T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” imagined those wise men staring hard into the manger and surprised to find in themselves a growing discontent with the world as it is.  After making their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, “we returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.  I should be glad of another death.”

In this Advent season I am trying to keep the wisdom of these magi in mind, that in this in-between age it is no small gift to keep longing alive.  That, it seems to me, is the only way to both see and receive with gratitude the graces that are everywhere present in this age, and yet not mistake them for our ultimate and highest end.

Allan Poole, Pastor, Durham, NC

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I did not especially like or appreciate my junior or senior english classes in high school. It was just not my thing as many a feisty teenager testifies. However, over the years I have grown to appreciate good ol’ Mr. Durbin who taught us in ways that touched our depths and even planted important seeds in the hidden recesses of our souls. Seeds which would germinate slowly and sprout even 20 years later.

I recall being especially resistant to his lessons on poetry. I did not enjoy the fact that my peers and I could generate so many possible meanings from one written piece. I wanted there to be one knowable answer. I might have been a control freak.

For as much as I resisted those units on poetry, somehow they shaped me. Years later, one line or verse sometimes emerges from out of nowhere. It sings a refrain in my soul, beckoning me to pay attention to some long forgotten message.

This Advent has been one filled with more sadness than I remember. The chaos in the world. The chaos of moving my family of six to a new home, a new school system, and a new state. The chaos of finding my way through countless transitions at once.

Lately the refrain has been shouting more than singing:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light
(
Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

I struggle with winter, with cold, with sadness.  There inside me I notice a raging against these shorter days and longer dark nights. Yet, I am not the author of days. I was not consulted on this one.

Here in the Norther Hemisphere, on Dec 21st, we meet the day with the least amount of light and the most darkness. There is a primal fear and resistance in me as this day approaches, and yet I must come to a place of rest, allowing it. I am not in control.

Our youngest son came home from his new school with material to study for an upcoming test. The study guide was filled with information about MI symbols like the state bird, flower, tree, stone, mammal, and reptile. It was fun to learn and study with him about our new state. A few days before that study guide came home, a friend also sent me a lovely book to use with our children for Advent. It describes how the animals in Michigan make their winter journey.

Through both the book and the study guide I was introduced to the painted turtle.

As the light dies and the cold settles in, the painted turtle doesn’t rage. He takes a deep breath. A breath acknowledging the winter, respecting the cycles of light and dark, the rhythms of which he is not in control.

He swims to the bottom of the pond and digs in where he will rest until spring, until the light comes again. Amazingly, he is able to hold his breath for that long. Something inside his body shifts signaling that it is time to slow down, to sink low, to wait. His waiting at the bottom of a frozen pond is not glamourous. It is in the mud that he rests.

In his waiting there is pain. He is remarkable and can survive without breathing for months, but in order to do so, to stay in that winter waiting, his body begins to ache and then burn. His body slowly fills with lactic acid and in order to neutralize that acid, parts of him begin to dissolve. His bones and shell give up their calcium so that he can wait.

It occurs to me that deep inside his body, the painted turtle also has a silent way of raging against the dying of the light. But his raging is married to the resting and respectful acknowledgement that he is not in control.

I have discovered that somewhere lodged in me is a wish for Advent waiting to be glamorous or at least predominantly peaceful and gracious. This year it is not. I am not. I am a mixture of raging and resting as I wait. The painted turtle is something of a guide to me this year. He knows the way through this terrain, through this waiting game. And so, I seek to follow his lead. I am not in control, but the One who is bids me to come rest. The One who invites me down deeper, even under my own most frozen parts, down to the muddy bottom of my soul, this One knows all. The One who beckons me to stay when there is no oxygen, when the ache and the burn threaten, and when the dissolving begins. Yes, there is One who holds it all.

As I make my way through this waiting I come to find that in the raging between darkness and light during these days, there nestled in what feels an especially bleak midwinter, the Christ is being born again in me.

Rebecca Przybylski, Mother/pastor, Temperance, Michigan

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The nature of my longing is complex and simple, confusing and clear, mysterious and profound.  God’s “silence” in it all has not to do with Him, but with the limits of my ability to hear, with the depth of my blindness, and with the narrowness of the story out of which I choose to live.  Longing to be fully known and fully loved, longing to truly believe that I AM actually fully known and fully loved, and longing to be fully alive to fully know and fully love the world in the ways that God would have me love… these are my longings.  And, God has not been silent in these longings. He has been patient and faithful, gentle and true. 

Much of my 60 year life I worked very hard to be very good and do very well, but had no concept that I was actually working overtime to try to earn the love I had been denied as a child. I excelled at multi-tasking:  wife, mother, daughter, sister, physician, volunteer, church-going citizen, caring friend.  I was, blindly, my own lord and master and God was a bit player in the plot. Living was exhausting but I didn’t know why. I had selfishly placed myself at the center of my story, and I was, in the words of Dallas Willard, “flying upside down”, a crash waiting to happen. 

In a shower of grace just over 5 years ago, I made the choice to surrender my life to Jesus.  I let go of living out of my self-centered story and began to live into God’s big story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  The Lord patiently, then, showed me the very broken places in me that He needed to heal so that I could become the kind of person who could love well.  Over time, He graced me with a new heart.  He blessed me with the miracle of becoming a forgiver of those who have hurt me deeply, even as a young child, and I was gloriously embraced into a new story of redemption and hope. 

Mankind experiences God’s presence through the constraints of time and place in this broken and beautiful world, and this limited lens will magnify our sense of His silence if we fail to trust that there is a wider scope.  However, we can choose to surrender into a bigger, mysterious, more glorious existence.  As our belief grows and we see ourselves written into that amazing plot, and as we know, not merely about, but OF His big story, we begin to experience a new WAY, a way in which God is always with us, even to the end, and that end is so much more glorious than we could ever imagine.

Shauna Schneider, wife, mother, daughter, sister, physician, volunteer, church-going citizen, caring friend, San Diego, CA

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Advent

There’s waiting and then there’s waiting.
There’s the eager excited anticipation
of the first day of summer vacation.
There’s the subliminal longing
to return home after being away too long.
There’s the anguished cry of pain
–just make it stop.

All this is waiting.
All this is Advent.

Gifts under the tree.
Wrapping paper and dirty dishes.
Total fatigue.
Dancing.
Knitting.
Weeding.
Expectation.
Lethargy.
A primal scream.
Creation.
Fall.
And fall and fall and fall and fall and….

Pink stick!
Months of heaviness.
Labor.
Travel brochures.
How many more miles?
Lost reservation.
Hold up.
Hang on.
Wait a minute!
Jubilant expectation.
Nagging discontent.
Uncontrolled weeping.
Wonder.
Loneliness.
Disappointment.
Promise.

How long?
Soon.

Sarah laughed.
Daniel prayed.
Thomas questioned.
Coffee.
Work.
More work.
Hannah’s Prayer.
David’s Lament.
Mary’s Song.

Watch.
Pray
Watch and pray.

Be joyful in hope,
Patient in affliction,
Faithful in prayer.

Singing Psalm 40
Reading Isaiah 40
40 years
and 40 days
and 40 nights
in the wilderness.

This is waiting.
Behold, I am coming soon!

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

This is waiting.
I am with you
always,
to the very end of the age.

This is waiting.
Wait,
I say,
on the Lord.

This is Advent.

Kathryn Elliott Stegall, Teacher, Perry, KS

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Much of my longing these past years has been wound up in lament – lament for things to be all that they should be, for us to be all that we should be – from the profound cosmic silence that accompanies tragedy, to the ordinary toil everyday life, our lament is the desire to hear that one still small voice…

Lament does not exist in a vacuum, otherwise it slips too easily into despair. Our lament, like lament on pages of old, exists alongside a real and expectant hope – calling us to believe in what we cannot see, shaping our longing in light of the angel’s chorus sung 2000 years ago,  “Glory to God in the Highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests…”

As a songwriter, I’ve always appreciated the songs that surround the birth of Jesus and the angel’s song in particular. Each one calls us to step more faithfully and intentionally into the world He chose to inhabit. This past year my wife and I responded to this calling in a new and unique way by moving into a 105 year old church in Nashville called Art House (founded by Charlie Peacock and Andi Ashworth). It’s a space to offer hospitality, and to sing & speak the truth in a language the whole world can understand.

This advent I am reminded that 400 years of silence was broken by a baby’s cry and an angel’s song and there are still songs to come. After all, Advent is expectant hope realized, it is the arrival of God in the trenches, which shapes our longing and lament. God has kept His promises in the past, He can be trusted to keep them in the future – no wonder the angel’s couldn’t help but sing that first Christmas night!

Nathan Tasker, Musician, Nashville, TN

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During my lifetime, I have learned that I have been codependent in more than one significant relationship, allowing others’ preferences and opinions to dominate my career choices. Although Christ is victorious over sin and the grave, I am saddened, even regretful about these broken situations. I long for my temperament and emotional makeup to be quietly confident without anger or resentment. Thankfully this has not included my wife, to whom I have been devoted, and who has sacrificed for me.

Secondly, for the early part of my career, I wrote and performed original songs as an expression of a Christian world view and many were biblical paraphrases. After I left the singer-songwriter career focus, I became a high school music teacher for 5 years and then a church musician for 14 years. Although the school experience affirmed my ability to teach, and the church experience gave me broad freedom, I long for a return to creativity in its former sense. Working with students and amateur musicians has caused a leveling of my expectations to mediocrity and slapdash results. As I near the end of my church music career, I am dreaming of composing and songwriting again. I am not sure what the purpose would be, other than a sense of calling.

These two sorrows account for most of my wistful reflection.

James Ward, Musician, Chattanooga, TN

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This Advent I am coming to God with a broken heart. And in His kind and merciful way, out of the brokenness he is restoring my soul.

A year ago mid-August my robust, energetic, never-been-sick husband was suddenly stormed upon by an angry and aggressive cancer. The medical community was stymied—what exact kind of carcinoma was this? Was there a treatment? As we became frantic for answers he was finally diagnosed, only to have him die 48 hours later on September 11. Our family was devastated, as were hundreds of others.

God had gifted David with both love and delight in God, people, and all of life. Although dedication to the kingdom of God was the passionate force in all his ministries, his leadership style was relaxed, joyful and brimming with a deep appreciation of the beauty of God in music, art and culture. When someone talked with him, even in brief encounters, they knew they were genuinely heard, liked, and inspired to a greater trust in God. He oversaw many church plants and mentored pastors. David and I had a wonderful marriage, loved our children, and thoroughly enjoyed working together. Why would his life be cut short? His death deeply impacted scores of people in all walks of life and was something no one understood.

But what I really long for is not answers, but to know that God understands and cares about the deep longings of our hearts.

Several weeks ago I had a dream. I was talking with people at church and all of a sudden I felt my husband’s hand on mine—though I knew it couldn’t really be him. I turned and saw, to my amazement, that it was him! I flew into his arms and we just held each other for a long time, happiness flooding my soul. I asked him, “Are you OK?” and he said, “Yes.” I asked two more questions and after a while I knew it was a dream and started crying, eventually waking myself with heaving sobs.

I get longing.

I long for God to understand my sadness. I long to know that his promises for the future are really going to come true. I long for him to somehow use this grief to make me more compassionate, whole, and better able to reach out to the hurting in this world. Can he?

Advent reminds me the answer is ‘yes.’ Advent calls us to pause and remember that God knows what longing is. All of creation longed for the coming of its Savior…for centuries. And now all of creation is longing for the second arrival of the Savior, to bring a new heaven and new earth.

When my husband heard the diagnosis and prognosis from the oncologist, he turned to all of us who were stunned and said, ‘It’s OK. I’m going to a place I have longed for my entire life. I’m just going there before you.’

As I reflected upon this I read John 20, where Jesus first speaks to his disciples after his death. Jesus knew the disciples’ trauma from seeing him die, and their deep longing for things to be different. That’s why I think the first thing he said to them when he saw them was, “Peace be with you.” Just as in my dream the first thing I asked David was if he was OK, I think they needed to know if Jesus was Ok and if they were going to be OK as well.

But also interesting to me is that right away Jesus follows up with, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” What? After all that trauma he was giving them a job to do? Already? Did he think they were up to it? I guess he was not concerned that they would be crippled by his death—might they be strengthened by it?

If that’s the case, I’m in.

One thing for sure, they would never forget what they had gone through. All the legal corruption swirling around Jesus’ trial, the unfair death sentence and the despair afterwards would not and should not be forgotten. But they would also remember his death being overcome by something stronger—the love of God that ripped all barriers to shreds. They would remember Jesus’ personal care for them when he spoke to them after his death. In future weeks we see the disciples reference his death many times—not out of despair or bitterness, but with conviction, pointing to the resurrection and what that means for us now and in the future.

Tim Keller writes, “We are called to lament our present longings and rejoice in God’s goodness at the same time.” I get that. He goes on to say that we are called by I Peter 1:6 to do both, in order to be strengthened and not wrecked by it. That’s why I do not feel odd about praying, ‘Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being praise His holy name,’ and then immediately in a flood of tears, ‘O God, I will follow you until my last breath, but you know that this is all really hard, right?’ There’s a sense that deep in the Gospel is a mystery of lament and praise that somehow brings forth abundant life.

Advent calls us to cultivate a memory of God’s work in the past and a hope of God’s work in the future, bringing forth a renewed sense of calling for the present. That’s what God does. He is in the business of bringing life out of dead things. I am beginning to understand that God understands my longings, and that it is right to honestly lament and praise him at the same time. I have a heightened sense of my calling in the midst of my longing.

I consider these gifts from God and I cherish them. They are restoring my soul.

Lord, I lament my husband’s untimely death. I miss him so much I can hardly stand it. Use this tragedy to make me stronger in you, more compassionate towards hurting people, and filled with hope because your promises for both the present and future are true and filled with grace. Continue to restore my soul and that of everyone else who is deeply feeling the brokenness of the world this season.
Amen.

Jayne George, Teacher, Berkeley, CA

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Christe Eleison: Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Advent is something of a bittersweet time for me.  And possibly for many of us.

It is a sweet season, and I don’t mean the saccharine type of sweet that we get from inflatable lawn reindeer or cheap Christmas pop music.  I mean the satisfying kind of sweet, full of the beauty and the hope that mark Christmas time.  It’s the beginning of the liturgical year when my faith seems fresh and new.  Somehow at this time it is easier to believe that peace on earth is a real possibility, and that peace in our little family will come a little easier.  It’s a season when I can imagine that, some day, my children will grow into kind, steadfast, and courageous adults, and that I will, some day, figure out how to parent each of them with more consistency and grace.  And for four weeks, Advent creates a space where our family has time, in a way we never seem to have time the rest of the year.  We are each other’s.  Things slow down and I give and get attention in a way I don’t during the rest of the year.  It’s beautiful.  As good as it gets.

But this is a bitter time too.  You see I’ve been through Advents in the past, just like you have.  They don’t hold.  All too soon, time speeds up.  The past glories and memories of Christmas fade.  Promises of peace eventually ring hollow.  In one Tweet or Facebook post, the prospects for goodwill toward men are dashed.  And my own family feels the sting too.  Loved ones, like my mother and then my step-mother, who I came to depend on, are gone.  Now there are holes in our family that those of us who remain can’t fill.  And every Christmas family tradition or gathering brings this incompleteness back to mind.   As I live with this frustration I realize I must “learn to live with what you can’t rise above” as the old Springsteen song has it.  But I don’t always know how.

Why keep at it?  Why keep remembering?  Why keep rehearsing the story of an Incarnation when it never seems to quite change things?  Is there, ever, going to be a break in the cycle of promises made and promises waiting for fulfillment?

St. Augustine thought so.  He believed that this bittersweet time of now and not yet was not permanent. Augustine came to see human sin as a felix culpa, a “happy fall or fault”, that brought to earth a glorious Redeemer.  The point, I think, was not that sin had to happen for God’s goodness to reach its apex.  It was rather that in creating a world where sin was possible, the Creator was prepared to give all to rescue it.  That beautiful hope was made tangible in a birth; in a baby the fulfillment of God’s greatest promise began.  And so at Advent the Incarnation is announced and remembered and rehearsed over and over again to sustain us while we wait for a final coming, a consummation that makes sense of history.  A restoration that lasts, that holds.

I long to follow Augustine’s example.  It’s just that for now the felix seems thin and the culpa is hard.  And the waiting is long.  Christ have mercy.

Jon Dunlap, Teacher, Vienna, VA

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It’s a daily battle to live with my deepest longings. It’s taken me years to know what I most desire and it’ll take more years to share those longings with many people. It feels vulnerable and foolish and painful. What I most yearn for I can do nothing to achieve on my own. I can only pray and wait. Every morning I wake with a choice to wait with hope even though God seems silent or get busy and distract myself from my longings.  I’m tired of being busy.

God isn’t silent but sometimes he is very, very quiet. I’m training my ear to hear God whisper in my waiting and I’m learning to do that primarily in Scripture, community, and beauty. Scripture reminds me of his faithfulness to his people, to his story, to his Kingdom to come and that our True Desire is coming back for us. I’m beginning to share the “weight of my wait” in a community of friends who say, “Me, too.” 

It’s beauty that breaks the silence and reveals God most to me. In the beauty of nature, a well-crafted story, a powerful painting, a Broadway musical, or an act of human kindness, it as if God wipes the fog from the window and I can peek into what is to come. The fog rolls back in. The tears and fears return. The questions persist. But he keeps sending those hints of heaven to me through beauty. That’s one reason I’m called to InSpero, a creative community in Birmingham which believes beauty can bring hope and healing to our city and churches. 

Moments of beauty also help sustain my husband, Bill, a cancer surgeon, who feels the weight of brokenness, suffering, and death daily. He struggles with so many questions and ultimately is comforted that God sees and grieves over this broken world as well. There’s aren’t many people who long for Heaven as much as Bill and, for him, beauty is like a window of hope into our true home where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

O Come Emmanuel!

Nancy W. Carroll, Writer/Artist, Birmingham, AL

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Our family lived in Georgia for a while. Down in the back of our yard, near the creek, an old oak leaned to the right. I used to imagine him groaning to his friends, “I think tomorrow I’ll give up standing all the time and lay down a bit.” Every time a storm would blow through the old oak would sway back and forth, as if deciding on whether to keep standing or instead lay down for a nap.

This year, I have felt like that old oak. The heavy rain of family life, the harsh winds of work, the thunder of an election, the dark clouds of racism, and the lightning strikes of relationships have all swayed me. Back and forth. Back and forth. Coming into this Advent season I am tired and want to take a nap from it all. To retreat, if just awhile, until the storm clouds pass. 

When faced with the despair of the world, poet-farmer Wendell Berry wrote about entering into “the peace of the wild things.” In the woods, the beauty bounced off the water and there he could find rest. And, while I don’t get to the woods as much as I would like, I do find rest in the small reflections of beauty all around me. A daughter who roller skates down the hall, giggling with her sister. Two brothers, working together and volunteering their time. A wife who holds my hand as we fall asleep. A work project that energizes. A prayer from a friend. I’ll take those small reflections, sure. But, I long for more. I want to see beauty face to face.

We were in that house in Georgia for five years and that oak never took a rest. It stood, continuing to provide shade to the yard. And so, I too, continue in my vocation saving my nap for another day—waiting until the time I can rest in the source of all the beauty. 

Jason Locy, Businessman, New York City

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When each of my kids was a newborn, I’d go into their room as they were sleeping and just lay my hand on their back— simply to feel the rise and fall of the baby’s chest, simply to know that they were still drawing breath.  That need to know that your kids are all right never really goes away.  As a mother my natural instinct is to protect them, shield them from pain.  That instinct is definitely strongest when it comes to my kids, but it extends, in different degrees, to all of the relationships that fill my life. 

What do I long for during this advent season and throughout my days on this earth?  I long to take the pain away from my friend who has lost her husband and now parents her children alone, from another whose children have been unjustly removed from her home, from the children of my dear friend who this year was tragically taken from them, from the teenager struggling to fit in and searching to find a place, from my five-year-old that just scraped his knee.  Even the struggles of those I don’t know pull at my heart.  My deepest instincts cry out to help them, shield them, ease their pain.

I long for the day when those I love will know pain no more, and yet I know that pain is precisely what draws each of us — to desire to be in His presence, to accept the peace and hope that He offers us today.  And so I pray that the pain will press those I love more deeply into His arms.  Do I understand it all?  No.  Do I scream and cry and kick wildly to make it right?  Yes.  It is not the way it was meant to be.  I want to fix it.  I don’t want to be weak.  I want to be able to handle it all.  And yet He calls me to come before Him with a “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).  Broken?  Really?  Contrite, in the midst of what feels like injustice?  My pride allows me to think I can fix things, yet He calls me to something so much less demanding.  To just “abide in Him” (John 15:1-17).

Why is this so hard?  As I come before His throne this season, yes, I long for the day of no pain and know that is a hope that will one day be realized.  But today I come broken, realizing how I have failed, with a desire to simply abide in Him.  Can I find this amidst the stringing of lights, attending of parties, the desire to make a “perfect Christmas” for all?  In that pursuit of perfection, I will certainly fail; and my pride will creep in, and then I’ll crawl back on my knees to my Father who loves me more than I could ever love those He has given me.  And He will again beckon me, “Abide in Me . . . with a broken and contrite heart.”

Kara Hartman, Educator, Beaver Falls, PA

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I suspect that athletes and dancers, of all people, feel most profoundly the pain of vocational loss. Sometimes while still at the peak of their ability, the athlete can sense that the power they possess, to hit the long ball, make the impossible pass, will depart from them, no doubt sooner than they would like. Though no athlete, I have come to feel the same way about my vocational power.

Where once I designed buildings that could be seen from space, that could redefine a major city’s relationship with its riverfront, I now mostly help midsize communities sort out their public facility needs at a much smaller scale: do we need a new ballroom? Would renovating this arena make it more marketable? These are not insignificant questions, especially to the communities involved, but the answers will not be visible from space.

In this Advent season, I feel profound longing and expectation. Longing for a sense of vocational power I once had, like a premier athlete, that ideas I put forward could dramatically change a city’s skyline for the better. And an awareness that unless God intervenes dramatically in a way I cannot now foresee, those days, like a hitter’s best years, are behind me.

And yet. I wait with hopeful expectation, not that the phone will ring one day and the voice on the other end will say, “You designed PNC Park, right? I need you to design my stadium!” That is the fantasy of an aging athlete wishing for a younger body, like the hero of the play “Damn Yankees!” My expectation is rooted in my understanding of the restoration of all things: that my work is not yet done, and that my best work is ahead of me, but perhaps not in the world as it now exists.

I take great comfort in a short poem by Kipling, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted,” where the poet imagines, prophetically, in my view, a time when we are all exercising our art on a scale scarcely imaginable, painting, as he says, “with brushes of comet’s hair” on a “ten league canvas.” This is the expectation I cling to as I try to live faithfully within the limits of my vocation, my abilities, and my circumstances, even as all three pull (hard) against my longings.

And only The Master shall praise us,
and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money,
and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working,
and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It
for the God of Things as They are!

David Greusel, Architect, Kansas City

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Eastern Chad, Hadjer Hadid. A Mother and child in the Medecins Sans Frontieres, Therapeutic Feeding Centre(TFC), in the Bredjin refugee camp. In the TFC the most malnourished are fed and medicated back to health. There are about 46000 refugee from neighbouring Sudan, where a devastating conflict continues, in this camp. Refugees interviewed, said that the militia, the Janjaweed, supported by the Sudanese government forces, had been on a rampage of killing and looting, in the Western Darfur region of the country. So more than 150000 people had fled across the border, to Chad. This tented camp was set up with tents supplied, by the United nations High Commission for Refugees. Aid agencies, like , the UNHCR, MSF, CARE, OXFAM, The Red Cross, and others, had set up camps like this one along the border, without which there would have been, a far bigger humanitarian crises, with mass starvation.09/2004 human rights UNHCR tents food health care nutrition ©Rodger Bosch/iAfrika Photos

There were an unusually high number people named Emanuel and Emmanuelle at the Médecins Sans Frontières headquarter in Paris in October of 2011. I’d come to learn accounting systems alongside these committed humanitarians, and nearly to a person, their dearest dream was a world untainted by religion. Still, the beautiful Emmanuelles, God with us.

Before I became a mom to a precocious two-year-old, who keeps the home fires burning for my traveling trauma surgeon husband, I worked in Afghanistan, Malawi, and Kyrgyzstan. I’m honored to know some of the expatriate saints of Afghanistan who for decades developed eye care in the entire country. One said, “We’re still just picking rocks out of the field.” How true it was in humanitarian interventions, and how true it often feels in my family and marriage. Just as every step of Christ’s life from babe to Messiah did not resemble the powerful arrival anyone expected, neither has been His coming in my own experience. Even aid administered with justice, development done in humility, or learning to show mercy in family life feels like joining the long defeat of J.R.R. Tolkien and Paul Farmer. And a misunderstood Jesus.

I sat today with a Sudanese immigrant who had only ever known refugee camps and exile in Egypt before she came west to the United States. She wants to practice English, so we worked on tenses, past, present, future. My husband’s and my favorite line in Handel’s Messiah is “The kingdom of this world is become…the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and of His Christ.” How beautiful is this little twist on Revelation 11:15, the now, but not yet of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” It is past, it is present, and it is future. Even while we wait, we stand when Handel’s Hallelujahs rise, tears shimmering in our eyes. The government upon the Christ child’s shoulders, worshiped by wise Persians and the rest of us, is my dearest dream.

In this hard year, and in every hard year, God came to be with us before any of us thought to look for him. He is for the Sudanese-American mommas in Wyoming whose husbands work at slaughterhouses in Colorado. He’s for très chic Parisians and two-year-olds learning to share. Christ minds. While we wait and while we work, He is also waiting and working.

Hannah Kirkbride Kraner, Mother and global health worker, Cheyenne, WY

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I experience a low-grade panic every year around this time. It settles in after Thanksgiving and gains momentum as December advances. Figuring out gifts is hard for me. The 25th feels more like a looming deadline than the anticipation of Christ’s coming. Every year I wish I’d started earlier, had time to be more thoughtful. I wonder how to make meaning and memory without the hustle and bustle.

Still, I love the days leading up to Christmas—the beauty of lights around the city, my dressed up house, get-togethers with friends, our family cookie decorating party, the Christmas Eve candlelight service at church. When I do get an epiphany for gift giving, the hope of seeing some of the faces I love light-up brings joyful anticipation. But no matter what, December can never live up to the weight of expectation we place on it.

In 42 years of Decembers, my husband and I have experienced tensions in our extended family, marriages unraveling and a trail of hurt children, the deaths of two of our parents, the suicide of a close friend. This year we have a growing list of friends battling serious illness, and as my mother-in-law disappears behind a debilitating form of dementia, her suffering affects all who love her—family in California and Tennessee, grandchildren, great grandchildren.

If only the special effects of December could help. If they could make it all better, or even soothe me when my husband and I argue after a long season of peace and the wounding lingers. Or ease the hurt I feel when my sister doesn’t call, week after week, month after month. When I read the news of current events and easily slide into despair and cynicism, I know that Christmas lights won’t give me the perspective I need. Behind every heartache, every frustration, every anxious thought, and every desire for meaning, I am longing for rightness. I know the reality of “God with us,” and yet I know there’s a permanent righting of all things still to come. I bless every scripture, every piece of liturgy, every song, and every sermon that reminds me I’m part of a long, historical line of waiting people, those who waited for the first coming of Christ and those who wait expectantly for him to come again. The words in 2 Peter 3:13 express my longing and my deepest sigh of hope. “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Andi Ashworth, Nashville, TN– Writer

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My good friend and brother, Steve Garber, reflects on the meaning of advent.  He writes, “Advent is the hope that God is not only there, but that He has not been silent.” Advent points to our longings; the season of advent, perhaps, stirs up our deepest longings.

I long, like Dr. Martin King, Jr., that this country live up to its creed that “all men are created equal.” To this end, I have prayed recently, “Lord, may President-Elect Trump and Vice-President Elect Pence rule or govern all men justly and righteously. May the newly elected Senators and new members of the House of Representatives and all incumbents rule all men justly and righteously. May the United States Supreme Court Justices rule judiciously, fairly and righteously.”

I long to be reunited with my deceased paternal grandparents – my diminutive grandmother, Willa Mae Bobo and my hero-grandpa, Henry S. Bobo – in the New Jerusalem.  I long for the day that my kids, two bright and beautiful young people, will be judged not by the color of their skin pigmentation but by the content of their moral character. I long to be a grandpa.

I long for the day when the church will lead the way in celebrating and advocating fiercely for diversity among her leadership and body.  I long for the day when God’s people will lament with those who lament and not be quick to shout peace when there is no peace.

This is the time of year Christians traditionally celebrate Jesus’ first advent — His glorious incarnation where He clothed Himself in human flesh. Jesus – fully God, fully man – pitched His tent and dwelt among men and women. This same Jesus would be tried unjustly, beaten mercilessly, crucified horrifically and buried unostentatiously. However, this same Jesus rose from the grave with all power in His hands.  His bodily resurrection not only conquered sin, death and the grave but His resurrection served as a ‘first fruits’ or a preview of more such bodily resurrections.  So, I remain hopeful with a “good hope” (2 Thess. 2:16) that this same Jesus will one day break in with His second advent. So, I continue to “abide in faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor. 13:13). There are several things I know about Jesus’ second advent.  One, this will not be a silent or stealth affair. Two, I know that my heart’s deep longings will be comprehensively met and satiated.

My posture between Jesus’ first advent and second advent? First, I must heed the psalmist’s encouragement, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let [my] heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Ps. 27:14). The word “wait” denotes to look eagerly for.  I look eagerly for Christ’s return where all wrongs will be righted. Second, I am called to work tirelessly, expectantly and wisely so that all men might flourish as God originally intended.

Luke Bobo, Kansas City, KS– Engineer and educator

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The words of the Christmas story told to us in the Gospels and the prophets are as familiar and comfortable to me as a pair of rag wool socks. But, it’s not woolly socks. It’s the Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Because the Christmas story is so familiar, returned to year after year, it pierces deeply and in unexpected ways.

This year it is the story of the shepherds that has probed into the thoughts and intentions of my heart. I know I’m not alone in having wished as a child that I could have been part of that company, to see the angel and hear the heavenly choir. I also know my image of the shepherds was shaped more by Sunday School Christmas pageants where we children wore our fathers’ bathrobes smelling faintly of Old Spice. I’m content now with my place in history and with contemplating the marvel that those shepherds— ordinary, unnamed, unremarkable, very likely looked down upon by others in society, smelling of sweat and sheep, not Old Spice— were the audience chosen to witness that most glorious performance. Their transformation from men terrified by the manifestation of the glory of God into eager though unpracticed witnesses gives me hope that I too can lose my timidity and tepidity. They are the characters in the Christmas story I feel most akin to, after all, in my own ordinariness.

This year, however, I was caught off guard by Luke’s concise ending to his narrative of the shepherd’s story: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”  Where’s the rest of the story? I demand to know. And, slowly I see that I am reading the story through the lenses of my own unfulfilled wants, wants that remained unfulfilled because I did not rightly understand the longings behind them.

I have taught English most of my working life, including in countries where shepherds followed traditional methods of rearing sheep. In those countries, it was not sought after work, but something one was born into as part of a peasant family or member of a certain ethnic group. Any romantic notions I had about a shepherd’s life disappeared when I saw how roughly they lived and how bored most of them seemed and how unpoetic their response to the natural beauty around them. And, secretly, I saw myself as their counterpart. I was in a profession I did not love and could never feel the passion for teaching that inspired many of my colleagues. I felt more like a shepherd watching sheep graze.

So, when Luke wrote that the shepherds returned, this year, those words dug up feelings of long-buried disappointment. The point of the sword touched a point where my soul and spirit needed dividing. The longing in my heart to do meaningful work suited to my personality and gifts was a legitimate longing for the way the Creator had designed things to be. My longing that the work I did would make a difference in a broken, suffering world was a legitimate longing for someone touched by the love of God. But, I mistakenly believed my circumstances had to change for those longings to be met. My circumstances did change at some point, and I discovered that the longings cannot be met through the circumstances of life. We can return—must return—to the grazing sheep, the piles of uncorrected essays, the students who fall asleep in class or get furious when their work earns a B. We can return glorifying and praising God that the Savior was born in Bethlehem, believing that His salvation redeems even the failures and disappointment of the past, and someday, in some glorious way, all our deepest longings will be fulfilled beyond all we can ask or think.

Patricia Boyle, Pittsburgh, PA– Teacher

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I have always believed allowing freedom of expression, even opinions I find hateful, a bedrock of American democracy and community. But in these last rancorous months, I confess to silently screaming at nearly everyone to shut-up. With a self-righteous anger that surprises me, I find myself repeatedly muttering, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” And, my mental invectives were not only hurled at politicians and media pundits but this year I’ve included family and friends. All, who, according to me, won’t stop talking nonsense and screaming slogans must desist.  Stop talking! Listen to yourself and others! What’s wrong with you people; can’t you find common ground! A little silence, please!

But last week, as I watched the priest light the first Advent candle that marks the Church’s season of quiet waiting, I realized the futility of my pleas for silence—and my loss of hope. I realized I had thrown in the towel on me, my friends, and my country. I admitted I don’t believe current political opponents, even my good friends and family who daily work for the common good, will be able to find charity for those who fail to see the truth as they do. The divide is too great.

And not just others. Perhaps, it was reciting the liturgy of confession, but at that moment I knew I had lost hope in myself. Watching the candle flicker on the altar, I was surrounded by a damp emptiness and ache.  A cold realization of how desperately I needed and longed for relationships but how unable I am to look beyond the silent, lonely island of my creation. My self-absorption was too great. I had created a purgatory where those whom I so desperately needed I had banished because they failed to see, believe, and feel the world as I do.

I am a physician and surgeon. I spend my hours fixing real problems denominated in skin and bones and blood. I don’t do helplessness well, it’s not, well, helpful.  And, waiting and patience are activities I do not tolerate. I am alone this Advent in a way I have never known. Alone in a nation of isolated islands slowly being reclaimed by the frigid silence of human ego. Alone with no other choice but to admit my inability to change or do or say anything that will fix the situation. I hate the situation and spend too much time blaming others, especially God.

It was into such a ruthless and hopeless world that the Christ was born. As I write these words, I so want to be restored, but must confess I doubt it can happen. I admit my doubt that the same Christ that was born in space and time is up to this current task. I desire to live in harmony with my brothers and sisters, but my imagination does not allow me to see how this could occur.  I crave being a part of reconciliation but live with the reality of my previous selfish failures. I want to live with open hands lifted up but know my anger too often clenches my fist. I want to live in sure hope
but am confronted by my unbelief.

I wait in silence this Advent. Not the silence marked by an absence of rhetoric, but the silence of a reluctant heart that waits because no other choice is on the horizon. It is a silence that forces me to choose to live in the hope of the God who is there but just now seems so absent. It is a painful, lonely, and seemingly endless silence, but the only silence necessary and sufficient for my ears to hear the footsteps of Christ. Come Lord Jesus come.

David Clark, Durango, CO– Physician 

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A well-known musician friend of mine penned a song 30 years ago that I pull out every Advent season if not more often. It is both a reminder of the joyful hope I had then as a young man for whom the Christian story was so new (and genuinely healing), and a reminder of what I most long for today for our fragile world. The song’s refrain said: “Celebrate the Child Who is the Light. Now, the darkness is over! No more wandering in the night. Celebrate the Child who is the Light!” I believe those words to be true – that the Child we know as Jesus was – and is – the Light, and that darkness is, in some fundamental way, over.

And yet in my day-to-day existence, darkness often seems to overcome our world, my friends and family and at times, even me in the midst of what could reasonably be viewed as a privileged existence. Voices of whispering light are overshadowed by harsh voices of darkness. The places on the planet that are not groaning with weariness and war seem like the exception and not the rule. Where is the light? And can it guide us through our darkness? In John’s gospel, Jesus boldly claimed, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” As I peer into the face of my 9-month-old granddaughter Emily and the faces of her four toddler-aged cousins Ellie, Jack, Anna and Tony as they gather in our home all too rarely, I pray this is true. For them. For me. For the world the Child came to serve and save and bring shalom to. Come again in our hearts, Lord. Come again, thou long expected Jesus.

Jeff Crosby, Downers Grove, IL– Publisher

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We all see through a lens. A filter. It is inescapable, and no one sees directly into reality without interpretation. As a painter, my perception of the world has always been through the lens of wonder. Like everyone else I have my ups and downs—and sometimes I despair of the world of human systems (political, economic, religious)—but my main way of being in the world is through the sense of surprise and wonder at the sheer mystery and beauty and complexity of things. As the poet William Carlos Williams says, “No ideas…but in things!” And by this, I believe, he meant precisely the same thing I am saying.

Things are full of wonder. The night sky. Waves on the oceans. The beasts of the air and field and sea and savannah. As the Psalmist repeats again and again, we live in a world of wonders. How is it that we’ve shrunken our vision to such an extent that we have become cynical and hard-hearted toward one another…jaded…looking away from this surprising world? As an artist I cannot look away. This includes, of course, looking at times into darkness. As anyone even minimally versed in Art History knows, artists make images of beautiful things and of horrible, scary things too. We cannot help ourselves because our eyes are open to the wonder.

But you need not become a Pollyanna in order to be awake to wonder. You simply need to keep your eyes open. How does a sense of wonder relate to the season of Advent? This is a time of year when all the traditional Scripture readings point toward the end of days: prophesies of cataclysmic events and the coming of the Messiah. And when He did come, there were indeed terrible events happening. But those events have continued for twenty centuries. They are still happening, seemingly at an even greater scale and with greater intensity.

We await his coming again, but we grow weary. Yet as an artist I say, “Remain open.” Stay awake. Cultivate responsiveness to this world of wonders and to the face of those whose needs are greater than your own. The face of need is the face of Jesus. Christianity is not the religion of optimism but of truth––and the truth is beautiful and scary and comforting and terrifying. It is wonder-full.

But wonders are sometimes seemingly more than we can bear, especially when those wonders include tsunamis, earthquakes, terrible violence, storms, mass migration and war. Jesus is as much in the cataclysm as he is in the “still, small voice”. Listen. Stay awake.

Keep your eyes open. He speaks in this world of wonders both fiery and serene. He waits as we wait, and He calls in many voices—perhaps most clearly in the voice of the one asking for help. Stay awake.

(Painting by Bruce Herman, “Virgin Mary.”)

Bruce Herman, Wenham, MA– Painter and professor

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It was 1929, the year that the U.S. stock market crashed, and the year that my maternal grandfather died. He died of tuberculosis (TB). At age 26 years. In Brazil. This was a time in the global history of TB where the only treatment available was rest, good nutrition, and sunshine. In Brazil he could receive all three of those, especially the sunshine, but these were not sufficient in themselves. The natural history of TB is that at least 50% of all untreated cases progress to death, a miserable passage in which the lungs are gradually consumed (hence, the old name “consumption”) until the person can no longer breathe. It was not until the 1950’s that an effective anti-TB drug was discovered, and even then three to four drugs are needed at the same time for several months before a cure can occur. Much too late to save the life of my Brazilian grandfather……

TB has been around for a long time. It plagued the Israelites and Egyptians in Moses’ day. The Incans in Peru suffered from it. Famous writers, artists, poets, politicians, and common folk – and their children – have died of this disease. And in the 21st-century, it is still lingers. One-third of the world is infected with TB, and
nearly 2 million people each year newly contract the disease. The emergence of HIV in the 1980’s only accelerated the disease process. More people in the developing world compared to the developed world have TB and die, but the disease still occurs in the US. TB is no respecter of persons, to adapt a phrase from Scripture.

So, we can legitimately cry out: “How long, O Lord, will this plague affect and kill your people?”

Generations after generations get sick and die. We yearn for all-out prevention— or for a cure, for a vaccine, for a set of anti-TB drugs that don’t trade cure for countless side effects which discourage even the heartiest of patients from their life-saving regimen. TB is not a “sexy” disease and its patient advocates are not movie stars and celebrities. In addition, the global TB funding support falls short of the needs. As a result, progress towards global TB elimination is glacial.

We yearn to say “good-bye” to this disease, a disease that cuts life short and makes it miserable until life’s final breath. We yearn to see children play, rather than languish in beds with bones and brain and spine riddled with TB. We yearn for parents with TB to live long enough to see their children complete their education, get married, and provide grandchildren to extend the happiness of their days.

Unfortunately in the 1920’s, my maternal grandfather did not live to see his only daughter beyond her toddler years. And he never met his granddaughter who pens this complaint to Heaven today……. Come, O come, Immanuel. Great Physician, come.

Clydette Powell, Arlington, VA– Public health physician 

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Landscape

At the end of 1862, along the banks of the Rapidan River just outside Fredricksburg, Virginia, soldiers on picket duty on both sides of the river took it upon themselves to initiate a ceasefire for Christmas. They needed a break from the darkness of violence, death and Civil War.

And so do we.

Christmas with all its mistletoe and holly can’t come soon enough for many of us this year. We are ready for a break from the darkness of worldwide evil, violence and terrorism. We are ready for a break from the darkness of national suspicion, racism and political polarization. We are ready for a break from the darkness at our workplaces and our schools and our homes. We’re ready for a ceasefire. And we are ready for the light of Christmas – for the smell of Christmas trees, for the sight of presents, for the sound of carols, for Scrooge to wake up with a new heart. Indeed we are ready for the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” of Isaiah, chapter 9 that is so popular this time of year.

As it should be.

But I’m afraid we have dressed it up with so much sentimental mistletoe and holly that we have lost something of its hard punch. What is being described there is not a serene Thomas Kincade-like Incarnation. It’s not a break in the war. It’s not a ceasefire for a day. It is the picture of the Son coming to do battle with the darkness. The four-fold name given to him is actually a description of a war counsel – God Himself who came to wage war – to contend for light in the world, our nation, our workplaces, our homes and our hearts. We are ready for a ceasefire, yes. But what we’re really ready for this Advent is for an end to the darkness once and for all. For the “war to end all wars” to be over. And for Christ to reign in full. That’s what we long for. And that’s what we wait for.

The mistletoe and holly are good things in and of themselves. But they are best things when they point to that day when the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” will finally vanquish the darkness. And so we wait – painfully at times, joyfully at others – but always knowing that what Isaiah says about this Incarnate Warrior is true: That “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

Jay Simmons, Austin, TX– Pastor

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