Presence, at Advent

candle

This is the first reflection in the “Missio Advent” series. Read the rest here.

Candles—lots and lots of candles—a signal to my family the holiday season has arrived. Stories, and songs and psalms from “the greatest book ever,” as my sons like to say, help us pause during an otherwise frenetic four weeks. Even our pine wreath brings with it the smell of hope.

But I’ve not always felt this way about Advent. I am an extrovert and a sanguine. According to my husband that means I wake up happy—everyday! Advent always seemed so melancholy to me. When we would sing, O Come, O Come Emanuel, I wanted to shout, “Come on, friends, God’s already here. Forget the minor key. Let’s celebrate instead!”

I was all about Christmas day, but when it came to advent, call me a Scrooge of the highest order!

But just like our crotchety friend Ebenezer, my eyes were opened, my heart changed. My conversion from “Advent scrooge” to “Advent poster girl” came in the form of a wise African man, two little boys, and a Jewish baby.

Cyprien Nkiriyumwami is a rare friend—once in a lifetime, actually. Born Rwandan, but raised in Congo, Cyprian is brilliant, self-giving, inspiring, wise and above all, joyful. He and my husband, Stephan, have worked together for many years on some of the most complex and difficult causes of our time—poverty, disease, and war. I asked him once why so many people would choose to spend so much time and money to journey across the ocean to do what Africans can already do themselves? I thought, why not just tell us to stay home and send a check? But I asked, instead, “What is the real impact of those who visit?”

Without hesitation, he said, “Presence.” He gently explained that his people—whether villagers, HIV/AIDs caregivers, microfinance clients, or fellow colleagues—are overwhelmed by those that come from across the world to listen to their story, hold their children, work for justice, or pray with them. “It’s their presence,” whispered Cyprien, “that honors us—that humbles us most.”

Stephan and I were born about 11 hours apart in the same hospital in rural town in Wisconsin. Even though we shared the nursery together—Stephan insists he propositioned me in the cradle—we didn’t actually meet until we were 15, and married at 23. We have celebrated our birthdays together ever since.

Etched forever in my birthday memories is an image of our two sons, Joshua and Caleb, then ages 3 and 5, leaping into our rumpled bed one morning to proclaim: “Happy birthday!” It had been a difficult year living in post-genocide Rwanda, watching a nation struggle to heal, working hard to comprehend the suffering of upwards of a million lives lost, and helping brave Rwandans establish peace. We had seen much in our first year. Tears were no stranger to us. “And now, for your greatest birthday gift,” Joshua and Caleb said in unison, “Tada! We give you—us!” We laughed, almost cried, and melted together telling them they were “the greatest gifts we could ever want!”

There is nothing like the healing presence of joyful children.

Over the years my heart gathered up these bits of evidence, tucking them away. Slowly, a picture of what is means to be truly present began to emerge. It was a season of suffering that helped me bring it all together. A year after moving to Baltimore from Rwanda, exasperated and exhausted during a season of false accusation in my career with no vindication in sight, I was desperate for the presence of God. I longed for it. I craved it. I cried out to God, at times with heavy sobs.

And then, ever so gently, under the cover of night, to the sound of angels singing to a few scraggly shepherds, the God of the universe, Creator of all, Lover and Savior of my soul—showed up for me in a whole new way. Oh, the epiphany of receiving a God who knew my sorrows. Oh, the honor of understanding why he waited so long. Oh the joy of his acceptance, his peace, his love despite my circumstances.

Oh, the presence of God.

During Advent, we celebrate the incarnation, the idea that God became “… flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In the original text, dwell means “to encamp, to pitch one’s tent,”¹ which was fitting for first century Bethlehem, a working class city at best, characterized by the daily grind. Bethlehem had swelled with travelers registering for a census forced by the Emperor. People spoke of Romans in hushed tones for fear of coercion and oppression.

Let’s just say Christmas wasn’t happy yet.

Amidst their struggle, God didn’t immediately overcome their injustice, or instantly take away their fear. He offered his presence, instead, in the form of a vulnerable baby. Into their suffering and injustice, their oppression, their palpable fear, and among the cries of unlikely people:

God pitched his tent.

Whatever the state of your Bethlehem—whether your vocation is soaring or struggling, your family or social life is hectic or harmonious, or your soul is at peace or feels piecemeal—God offers his greatest gift to you too.

This Advent Sunday, when we sing O Come, O Come, light candles in expectation, and kneel, awestruck, at the mystery of the incarnation, what if we offered our presence to others the way God offers his to us? After all, doesn’t God give us himself so we can, in turn, offer his presence to those who dwell in the chaos of this world? To the colleague who frets the holiday season—tranquility. To our culture, which trivializes the holidays—meaning. To our friends or family, who jab with words or misunderstanding—grace. I think God gives tangible, even lavish “peace on earth and goodwill” (Luke 2:14) towards those around us even as we wait for our own few moments of peace and joy.

When we stop long enough to hear the angel chorus amidst the rattle and clang of our everyday world; when we give a few moments of our own presence to God; when we cry out for more of him amidst so much decadence, I believe with all my heart that his presence rushes over us like an ocean wave, so saturating us, that we can, in turn, pass it along to others during a season when people are waiting—whether they know it or not—for something real, meaningful and genuine.

Maybe we need to give each other permission to be more present this advent season? I want to live differently. Advent helps remind me I can. I hope it reminds you too.

1. Complete Word Study Bible Dictionary by Baker, Warren, Carpenter, and Eugene.

Belinda Bauman (M. Ed.) is a wife and mother, speaker and writer, teacher and advocate. A founding advocate for the work of Wage Peace in partnership with World Relief, she is  Executive Director of Together International, a nonprofit focused on water, sanitation and education in rural Nicaragua. Belinda has authored articles for media outlets such as Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Today’s Christian Woman. An ordained minister, Belinda is married to Stephan, president and CEO of World Relief, who make their home in Columbia, Maryland with their teenage sons, Joshua and Caleb. Belinda can be followed on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and at www.belindabauman.com

 

Photo: Alfred Borchard

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