So, we've entered the season of Advent, the time in the church calendar where we all think and talk about waiting and meditate on the value of it and the difficulty of it... and we tell the story of Mary and the Angel Gabriel coming to her and then her waiting for the birth of the Most Important Person In All of History, who, in a most unexpected turn of events, happened to be growing inside of her.
In the Northern Hemisphere, this is happening as the days are getting shorter and shorter, and it really works with the whole waiting theme. Darkness implies waiting for daylight. The creeping cold and naked tree branches imply a waiting for spring's warmth and light. You feel it in your bones. In Iceland, for example, they're down to about 5-6 hours of murky twilight at this point in the year. The effect on me physically when I visited there a year ago was pretty dramatic. I could NOT wake up in the mornings, and although I had a great time, my senses were sort of muzzled the whole time I was there, the grey and dark of the world muting every sense perception I had.
Winter is nature in the womb, waiting.
This year, my Advent has begun with a very odd (for me) period of waiting. For the past two weeks, I have literally not been allowed to work due to some government snafus with my security paperwork. The situation will be resolved, but we're waiting on people who have no motive to hurry, so this is dragging on a bit. Last week's wait was broken up by my ill-fated trip to Pittsburgh, but this week has been 100% me sitting at home. Waiting.
I don't do this well. I work. It's what I DO. I realized this week that --aside from the 3 weeks I took after graduating with my Masters degree in May-June 2007-- this is the longest break I have had from working since I entered the work force upon my return to the U.S. in 1999. For 10 YEARS, with that one exception, I have never taken more than a week of vacation at a time. Never. And even THEN during those times of vacation, I checked my work email at least once, sometimes more. And I've NEVER spent this much time in my apartment. Sitting. Waiting.
One very notable side effect of this waiting is that it's kind of like sitting in a mirrored room. I haven't been able to get away from myself. I mean, I've been doing volunteer work for Emergent Village and my church and what-not, but being by myself has forced me to listen to my thoughts in a way I haven't had to for a really long time. It hasn't been pleasant a lot of the time, but I've had to be very honest with myself about some things and my hope is that this bears a lot of fruit. We'll see.
Probably the most painful thing about waiting is what it does to your faith. Kierkegaard said that the only unforgiveable sin (the "sickness unto death") is despair, but waiting for an extended period of time can and does lead to disappointment and eventually to despair. Yes, you have to battle with these emotions, but they're a natural reaction. "How long must I wait for this situation to resolve itself?" "When will You give me what You've promised, LORD?" "Am I missing something? Am I doing something wrong?" Advent's waiting invites a question we, or at least I, rarely articulate: Jesus, where ARE You?? You said You'd come back, and we have 2000 years of theology grappling with the fact that You haven't, at least not in the way You said You would. How long must creation wait?? Are You really coming back???
My friend David Hottinger has an amazing, amazing blog about his work as a hospice chaplain. He just did a post containing a homily he delivered at the memorial service for a patient who unexpectedly committed suicide this past week. In it, he says
The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.
And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.
As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
It's hard to believe this when you're in the middle of it. Does God really reach out to me when I am doubting Him so fiercely? When I'm finding my faith stretched to the breaking point, not by tragedy, but by interminable waiting? Where in the mysterious dance between my free will and His omnipotence do I cross the line into preventing myself from receiving His love? How do I keep from getting to that point?
Waiting can be like having a single drop of water falling on the same spot on a rock every minute on the minute for years. The rock is worn away, slowly, almost imperceptibly. Our faith wanes and wanes until it's gone and we don't even know when it left.
As I've been in this mirrored space of waiting, I've been noting the effect that disappointment over waiting for years for certain things in my life has had on me... how it's sometimes made me cheerfully fatalistic, with a kind of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" attitude. I joke about small tragedies and disappointments that eat away at my faith every day. I move within my life as though I will never see these promises and dreams realized, and as though that's ok.
So. This year, Advent is, for me, about meditating on what waiting does to a person... its effect on faith. Am I more patient as a result, or simply more resigned? Am I wiser now or simply more jaded? Where is the line between faith and fatalism, and if I have crossed it, how do I cross back?
LORD God, keep me honest.