November 27 marked the start of a new year, not in the country, but in the church. It was the start of Advent, a season of longing and waiting and hoping against all odds that God will come through on the promise of redemption.
I grew up in a liturgical church where we recognized Advent with a change in our rhythms. There were additional less formal Wednesday night services, typically preceded by all-church dinners, a wreath with four candles (one for each week) and banners of blue on the altar and walls. Advent was like the pre-season of Christmas, the promise that great joy was about to unfold.
Six years ago, Advent got real. On the heals of my first searing season of unemployment, I had finally been hired into a nearly full-time job. I had just joined a church and committed to a community that was about to shape my spirit. Life seemed fresh and hopeful; all things unfolding after months of despair. I believe it could be that way again, though six years feels like a long time ago now.
For someone who has been longing and waiting year after year, to have a dedicated season is both a blessing and a curse. The question of “when” is magnified ten-fold, while the question of “why” echoes faintly behind.
In past seasons I have lamented. In past seasons I have hoped. This season I am pondering, an act I associate with Mary. I am reflecting on words that have been chosen by the First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, Michigan. I didn’t start until December, but I am making an effort to follow until Christmas.
Here are the fruits of the first few days:
Before I finished college, my concept of “calling” was bright and shiny. Calling as a synonym for “vocation” was the light at the end of the education tunnel, the map for uncharted territory, the script to pick up when the courses and classes and credits had been accomplished.
To be called by God, to be seen and selected and chosen for a purpose, is an honor we hardly deserve. Yet, we spend years coming up with our screenplays.
“And in this scene, God, this is where I marry that guy who sits next to me in World Civ…Here in Act Two I’m working really hard as a new team member. I get overlooked for a promotion I have coming to me, but that all resolves a little later when I’m put in charge of a new department. See how well this works, God? How your hand is so clearly at work?”
I want to be called, but I want to help God with the process, to give him some options better suited to my longings.
To truly hear calling requires uncomfortable vulnerability. It requires being open to roles that you don’t want to play and following through with lines you’d rather not deliver, often the ones you feel least qualified to speak.
“Cast me anywhere,” we say with hearts full and waiting.
“But, Oh. No. Not there.”
I think of Jesus in Gethsemane, falling facedown in anguish, pouring out prayers that resonate with my own: Dear God, I see the thing that you are asking of me. If it is possible, if it is in any way an option, please don’t make me do this. Let there be some other way, any other way (Matthew 26:39).
But there isn’t.
I wonder if this is the first time that Jesus shuddered at the task set before him. I wonder if it was like this in heaven, three decades before, when the calling of God’s Son was to enter the world enfleshed as a fragile human. Maybe that was not the script that the Christ would have chosen for himself—to be born among a people who would question, reject, and dismiss him on every side; mock him, disregard him, and ultimately kill him. Maybe Jesus too was frustrated by his humanity. Maybe he was more like me than I imagine.
The weight of a world fettered in shackles and bound in chains,
hogtied, hamstrung, gasping for air.
The condition of the captive,
The condition of us all.
Liberation is a gift I am not sure I can bring,
Freedom, an offer I don’t want to promise.
Yet a yearning of the soul will not let me stay silent,
A longing for redemption wrestles for attention.
In the midst of my pleas for the rest of the world,
He speaks to the small quiet broken.
“I see you,” He whispers. “I see all of you.”
It is enough to remember I am a captive myself,
that the process of liberation must start with my own.
After the talking, tears, and inevitable end, he leaves me late in the evening. I burrow into bed, not bothering to wash off what’s left of my makeup, and cling to my pillow like it is all that will keep me from sinking.
The next morning I make coffee and run water for a sink full of dishes. Two bowls. Two forks. Two glasses. Two plates. It’s the same set of dishes I pulled out months before, that first evening he came over for dinner, bringing a last bottle of wine from a trip up to Napa.
“I’ve been saving this for something special,” he said. “And I think this might be something special.”
I set the dishes in the drying rack, dripping and shiny.
To be lonely is to notice your own presence in a room and to realize the absence of another. Lonely is one plate, one fork, and one glass; one body curled up beneath the covers at night.
Wringing the dishcloth and hanging the towel, I think I will get used to new patterns, that the rhythm of one will come back like a habit, but it doesn’t and it won’t.
Alone is not part of the natural order.
I imagine Adam first waking to Eden, brushing off the dust of the ground and staring wide-eyed at a cerulean sky. He sets foot on lush grass beneath canopied trees, wades through clear streams, and plucks berries from bushes as deer draw beside him. A charmer of the beasts in a world made for pleasure, paradise at his fingers, and yet Adam is found wanting.
Adam is lonely.
We now share the earth with over 7.4 billion others. How is it that we still suffer from the problem that plagued Adam in Eden? We have had thousands of years to engineer a solution. We speak 6,500 languages and boast myriad forms of communication and interaction, yet loneliness and isolation loom large, even (and perhaps most prominently) in the communities that we consider most developed.
We are longing to be seen. We are longing to be known. We are longing to believe that lonely is a temporary state.
“Strength and Vulnerability”
I finish reading the script I prepared two days prior, pause for effect, and take my seat among the group. Sometimes they applaud. Today they sit silent.
“Thank you for sharing,” one of them says. “That takes a lot of courage.”
Often, when I recount the story of how I came to California or offer an honest assessment of my present hopes and fears, I am met with soft affirmations of courage and strength, as if telling my own story is a sign of bravery.
In some respects, maybe it is. But really, that part comes easy.
If offered the invitation and given the space, most of us deeply want to confess our fears and disclose our dreams. We want to share the secret spaces of our hearts, the parts that make us who we are. We long for the invitation to bring all of who we are and set it before another to be loved and praised. If only we knew that love would be the response. But that is not always the case.
Sometimes we are judged. Sometimes we are rejected. Sometimes we are ignored, not even found worthy of consideration or response.
Vulnerability is an act that is easier to begin than it is to continue.
If it is difficult to stand on a stage, offer your talents, or open your heart for the first time — before you have been rejected or found lacking — it would seem nearly impossible to do it again, were it not for the resiliency that vulnerability fosters.
I wonder how this worked for Jesus, the man who was God, but who also was human.
Did it ache when he spoke from his heart and people laughed at him?
Did it pain him when his family didn’t get who he was, share in his dream, or catch onto his vision?
Did knowing that he would be rejected make the rejection hurt any less?
Was he tempted, as I am, to stop caring altogether? To wall up his heart so the pain would stay out?
What kind of strength must it take to stay open to all of humanity? How much courage is required to offer all of yourself to everyone?