Advent: Enlarged in the Waiting
- 2009 8 Dec
"I've learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny." Kathleen Norris
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. Romans 8:22-25The Message
For four years my wife and I were eager to have a baby. At first, naturally, we tried like everyone else. After some time, we had tests. Then we tried drugs - as prescribed by my urologist. At one point we considered artificial means and later looked into adoption. We were praying and trying and waiting and hoping, all a bit anxiously, no doubt.
One spring Sunday at our church in Miami, at a point in the service open for worshippers to speak words of testimony or encouragement as led by the Spirit, a young man said something that caught my attention. Andre was a rotund, deep-voiced Jamaican temporarily among us as a participant in the Youth with a Mission program hosted by our church. "I sense from the Lord that a couple here today has been trying to have children, but unsuccessfully; the Lord is saying: trust in me and you will receive the desires of your heart."
I was generally open-minded about the charismatic workings of the Spirit, but more as an observer than a practitioner. Was this a prophecy of some sort? Was it meant for us? That's what our priest suggested when Andre asked him who might be the subject of this pronouncement. Father Cliff pointed him to us. We listened, neither dismissing his words with skepticism nor seizing on them with enthusiasm; rather, we tucked them away to ponder quietly in our hearts. And we waited.
Andre returned to Jamaica. We went off that summer to Vancouver for study. Our friends John and Martha Zimmerman lived there and we sought their pastoral counsel. They prayed earnestly with us about out situation and the idea of adoption. The months passed. In December while Charlene went to see a specialist in her hometown of Clearwater, I stayed in Miami to host a missionary friend and spiritual mentor visiting from Mexico. Doug listened to my confused questions: Adopt? Remain without children? What were our desires, really? And he prayed with me. It was one of those times of prayer that seemed charged.
Shortly after Christmas, out of the blue, we received a brief note from Andre in Jamaica: "Have been praying for you and wondered what was up." I was startled. I had not thought of him for months. A trace of hope rose within me. I was even more startled when only days later Charlene learned that she was pregnant.
Then, two weeks after that, the Zimmermans flew in to visit and we picked them up at Miami International. Back at the house we shared our exciting news, whereupon Martha, wide-eyed, blurted out, "Oh, Charlene, when I saw you at the airport, the Lord told me you were pregnant, but I couldn't bring myself to say it aloud." It was our turn to be stunned. Signs from God before and after!
Nine months later, Evan was born.
I am mindful just now of the innumerable stories of couples seeking to have children. Many are wildly successful and others deeply disappointed. Some joyfully adopt. Some of these adoptions become painful down the road. Some give birth to babies with Down syndrome or other heartbreaking conditions. And many others are disheartened by miscarriages. So many stories, such a wide range of emotions.
Just this week, a friend gave birth to triplets. Bits of e-mail from these past months tell Diana and Joel's story:
"Good news: we are expecting!... Counting our blessings: twins!... Recounting our blessings: triplets! … Urgent prayer needed: babies missing membrane to separate them in the womb, chances of survival low… Against the odds, we made it to week 24, so Diana can enter the hospital to wait the next two months… Woohoo! We will be delivering Logan, Hope, and Lilli this Friday. I just can't believe our time has come… They are here at 9:35, 9:36, and 9:37 a.m.! All three came out pink and screaming and look wonderful. Amazingly, Dr. said that the power of prayer was proved to him today! PTL."
Such long and arduous and prayerful waiting followed by such joy!
Wendy Wright, in her book of reflections on "keeping watch in the season of Christ's coming," suggests, "Of all the types of waiting, the waiting of pregnancy is most like the waiting that we do during Advent. The waiting of pregnancy is like the waiting we do for God."
Advent is a season for waiting; we wait for the coming of God. We need him to come. Our world is messed up and we are messed up. We lament our condition and long for God to set things right, to make us better. So we pray and watch for signs of this presence. We do all we know to do so that we are open and ready. In the midst of hardship and disappointment, we continue to wait. We wait in hope. We believe that something is happening in our world, something is taking shape in our lives, something large, light-filled and life-giving. Even in December's lengthening darkness, this seed of joyful hope grows within us. We are pregnant with it. In our waiting, we are enlarged. God is coming!
The Heart of Advent
In Advent we focus on three "comings" of Christ: his arrival in history as a baby born of Mary, his return in fearsome glory at the end of time and his intermediate entrance into our own lives. During Advent we are engaged by the prophets of Israel - Isaiah, Zephaniah, Micah, Malachi - and their messianic visions. We are confronted by John the Baptist's stern call to prepare for Jesus by repenting. We are beckoned to walk with Mary and Joseph in their anxiety and expectation. We are sobered by the teachings of Jesus and his apostles on the judgment to come at the end of the age.
But to seriously attend to things both eschatological and historical in a few short weeks (Advent lasts twenty-two to twenty-eight days, depending on the year) is not easy, especially when these weeks are for many of us the busiest and most demanding of the year. How can we experience Christ coming anew into our already full lives? How can we be absorbed in hope when we are so harried? How can our lives be enlarged in so brief a time?
Clearly it takes some work, some wrestling against the culture and our own proclivities. But making it happen isn't all on us. A grace is also at work in this season. Think again of a pregnant woman. Yes, she must pay attention to her body and take care of herself, but the life within her mysteriously takes shape and steadily grows of its own accord. As Luci Shaw encourages:
"During the waiting times God is vibrantly at work within us. And if through the Spirit of God we have been united with the Father in dynamic relationship, if God has sown his gospel seed in us, then Jesus is being formed within us, little by little, day by day. But we have to wait if the Word is to become flesh in us. And that kind of waiting feels like work."
The paradoxical work of waiting. The prophets and psalmists can help us. Old Elizabeth and Zechariah can help us. Their son John can help us. Young, expectant Mary can help us. We can enter their stories, listen to their words and pray their prayers over these weeks. By so doing, we deepen our longing and heighten our hope for God's coming. By so doing, we become more attuned to the joyous wonder of Christ's incarnation and better prepared for the fierce glory of his return. By so doing, year after year, we will be changed as Word becomes flesh in us.
December 9, 2009
Next: Advent in Church and Cultural Traditions
Bobby Gross is director of graduate and faculty ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Bobby also serves on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and lives in Atlanta, GA.