Waiting… Maybe the most difficult practice of all… at least for the modern American. It’s almost a cliché now but we hate waiting. In an age of microwaves and faxes… email and instant messaging. We do not like to wait. In fact, we are offended when we have to wait. We have become a people who feel somewhat entitled to get what we want and to get it now. We kind of think we shouldn’t HAVE to wait… ever.
The only thing that grounds us is that the real world… the parts that we have been unable to change with technology… is predicated on waiting. We have not been able to shorten the seasons. We have not been able to rush a boiled egg – still takes 10 minutes. And; as Diana Ross told us, and Phil Collins reminded us… “you can’t hurry love… no… you’ll just have to wait.”
Life itself is about waiting. It begins with waiting. And there is not a shortcut. It still takes 9 months to create one of us. Usually. From the moment we discover the new life within, we wait. Not always patiently… not always joyfully. But we wait because we must; because that’s how it works. Maybe it is no accident that we often describe our waiting as being “as slow as Christmas”
Advent is about waiting. It is about a remembered waiting ~and~ an actual waiting that still engulfs us. Advent is, in many ways, not simply about the run up to Christmas but about the reality of every day of our lives. We wait. The world waits. Even if we are unaware… we wait.
If scripture is primarily to be read as story; if it is really narrative rather than instruction manual or rule book… What is the story? It is, to paraphrase and “mash-up” NT Wright, Scott McKnight, Eldridge, and others, a story of creation-fall-covenant-redemption-reconciliation. This the big story but, if you look closely, it is also the content of all of the smaller stories within; what McKnight calls the “wiki-stories”.
What does this have to do with Advent? Maybe; if all our smaller stories refer back to THE story… maybe then the advent journey points to our larger journey… to THE journey. And that journey is now as it was then; what filmmaker Adrian Cowell calls “the slow rhythm of waiting”
Historically, Advent is the culmination of generations of waiting. Israel’s waiting; mankind’s waiting. Israel lived in the shadow of a promise. Israel waited for a king… for rescue. Israel had always waited. They waited in Egypt… in the desert… in Babylon… and under the gaze of Rome. Israel waited to BECOME the promise that God had made. They waited to be a nation, governed by God. They waited… and they hoped.
But Advent, if we wait for resolution, is bound to disappoint. If we wait for the moment when waiting will end, we will risk the bitter realization that we waited in vain. I like the fact that, whatever the historical reality might be, we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter. The incarnation does not end our waiting – it did not end Israel’s waiting. Instead, the incarnation intensifies our waiting. It brings focus to our waiting. It also gives our waiting hope.
NT Wright talks frequently of God’s process of “setting the world to rights”. Christmas did not complete the process. The incarnation did not finish the task. The birth of Christ, of God in human form, did not fix all that was broken but it did offer perhaps the first tangible hope that the process was underway.
A few weeks ago, Kim and the kids went outside to plant bulbs. I am not a gardener. I have never been drawn to that particular hobby. But I have been fascinated with the rich symbolism that is attached to the act of planting bulbs; to the deeply spiritual nature of the act and the deeply spiritual story it tells.
Anne Lamott has five simple rules she tries to follow in life. #4 is this: “it helps beyond words to plant bulbs in the dark of winter”
In the most bleak time of year… when days are shorter and the light is less; this is when we plant bulbs.
‘Planting bulbs sounds like a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is. The earth is rocky and full of roots; it’s clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, yet you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds and cover them over again – it’s death and clay and shrivel. Your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails are black with soil…then…the first bulbs begin to bloom…when this finally happens in late winter every year, I’m astonished.’ ~Anne Lamott – Plan B
The bulbs do not hasten the spring. Planting them does not shorten our waiting. In fact, the falling leaves and the frozen ground will quickly erase any sign that we have planted at all. But if we are to hope, we must plant.
Advent is waiting but it is never passive. We wait and yet we move.
You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes. ~A. A. Milne
And so we plant. And we wait. And we hope. We hope for springtime. We hope for beauty. We hope for light. We hope for what we may yet become.
1 John 3:2-3 (New International Version, ©2010)
2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,[a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
A few weeks ago I said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. The spiritual truth in planting these bulbs is that we are never sure they will bloom and we are often surprised when they do. Hope is more than wishing – it is deeper. Hope is that tiny part of us that waits and anticipates these things that we do not truly believe are possible. Hope is that part of us that clings when every logical impulse is to let go. And hope sometimes forgets… until February comes and winters grip seems eternal and unbreakable. Then, through the ice and the snow, hope peeks out into the darkened world. Hope peeks above the dead leaves and frozen ground. Hope tells us in the beauty of a crocus or a daffodil; not that our wait is over, but that Spring will come. The blooming of these bulbs is not an end to our waiting… they are a renewal of a promise. They are the images of the hope found in waiting. The hope that we are becoming. The hope that the kingdom is here although not yet complete. The hope that spring will come; and Easter, and resurrection.
But it is still only a picture because winter will come again and we still wait. Our small stories repeat again and again – not so that we lose hope but so that we may rediscover hope each cycle. So that hope is renewed and so that we will continue to wait as we become like him – even though we will not truly be like him until he returns and brings eternal springtime with Him. We are not yet what we will become.
Advent is planting and waiting and hoping. When logic offers no reason for hope; we plant. And we wait. This is the Advent story. This is still our story. In the moment when hope was most dim; He comes.