Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner
I am easily hope-impaired.
For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.
I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.
Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.
They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired.
And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait:
I really do not like waiting.
When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line.
I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know.
I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived.
And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.
We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down.
This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.
And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait.
The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.”
I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.
I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine.
I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.
More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets.
And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way.
The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.
The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.
The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing.
My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”
And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage.
Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed.
And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope.
We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.
Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting.
This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.
We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired.
And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.
This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.
This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.
A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.”
This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter.
This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”
“Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time.
Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration.
In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.
(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)
In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist.
And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?
What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?
Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.
Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time?
Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year.
The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired.
In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time.
It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell.
To abide is to wait actively,
To have faith in the seeds,
To make room in our hearts for a new reality.
And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.
“This moment is the moment.”
This is a holy way of waiting.
It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.
We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary.
We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace.
May it be so this season, and always.
Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html