Advent’s surprise for us

Shouldn’t we get it by now?

From the inside looking out, we’re aware of the dimming daylight even as we’re typing away, chasing children, on another Zoom. And then we check the time: only 5:15. Whoa.

We’ve observed “spring forward, fall back” our whole lives. We’ve made it through our share of winters. We understand the shortening of days and lengthening of nights. We know how this works. Don’t we?

And yet here we are, year after year, still surprised, still looking outside and saying, “Can you believe how dark it is already?!” (Or, in the words of a TikTok I still think about, “Bro, it’s 5:15! What?”)

When we think of Advent, the themes of darkness, expectation and (im)patient anticipation often come to mind. ’Tis the season to watch and wait. But there’s another element of this time of year that I want to dwell in: the element of surprise.

When we’ve grown up in the church, or even when we’ve simply attended for long enough to know the lyrics and liturgies, the story of Christianity can become a little too familiar. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, we may find ourselves droning along each Sunday, focused more on our lunch plans or what remains to be accomplished before Monday’s return. We may grow so accustomed to the mysteries of our faith that we throw around terms like “incarnation” and “ascension” in a way that strips them of any mystical meaning.

But can we back up just a few steps?

[He] was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made truly human.

Think about how you’d “translate” this into normal, everyday language. God chose to be like us, putting on our flesh forever. That’s a crazy, crazy story.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again.

No wonder the early Christians got some weird looks (and, well, worse).

“Historically, [Christianity] was a surprise because Christianity was born and emerged and grew in a Roman world that had no expectations for it, didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t have anticipated it,” says C. Kavin Rowe, a New Testament scholar. “Christianity was something that the Roman world had never seen and didn’t even have categories for.

“Christianity was surprising also in its particulars,” he adds. “It introduced patterns of life into the world that caught people by surprise in a good way.”

It’s safe to say that at this point in history, Christianity — at least in the way most people conceive of it — is not much of a surprise. It’s pretty mainstream: no longer a fringe movement. But just dream with me for a second. What if the good news — in all of its particulars — became surprising once more? What if we were as astonished by it as by evening’s early arrival?

Yes, there can be plenty of comfort in familiar rhythms and words, but what might it look like to reclaim some of that wonder — not just for shock value, not just because we’re bored or distracted, but in a way that honors the story we have received?

Maybe it’s as small as reading the passages we know by heart in a new translation for a few days. Maybe it’s looking them up in the Art Search from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and seeing some of the creativity those passages inspire. Or maybe it’s simply changing the posture we take when we approach the old, old stories.

How might we be caught off guard?

We joke about the changing seasons surprising us, but the brief days and long nights still startle us each year — “How is it dark already?!” “The sun is already up!”

I hope the jarring reset of our clocks and microwaves and (non-smart) watches might nudge us to do a bit of an internal reset too. I hope the changing church seasons might surprise us as well— that, in some weird and wonderful ways, we might be amazed this Advent by the bizarre, glorious truth of the baby who was God-with-us, the God-man who sits at the right hand of the Father, still wearing his human skin and bearing marks of Roman nails.

I hope we never get used to it.

Waiting is just the worst.

Whether it’s with joy (anticipating a vacation, an out-of-town guest, a new job), fear (a test result, a jury verdict, a conflict with a loved one) or aggravation (a delayed flight, a trip to the DMV, a parent-teacher conference), waiting robs us of being present. We miss what is happening in our lives right now while we’re busy making to-do lists or fretting or simmering.

It can be exhausting.

And yet here we are.

We are in the midst of our second pandemic Advent, and who wants to spend more time in intentional waiting? We are over it, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti writes in The Atlantic — not just individually but collectively.

We’ve been waiting for the end of masks, the arrival of vaccines and the opportunity to sing. We’ve been waiting for the return of people to the pews, money to the offering plate and parties to the fellowship hall.

We’ve been waiting for the end of arguments about precautions, empty Sunday school classrooms and drive-thru celebrations. We’ve been waiting to move past the need to pivot with each new variant or surge.

We have been waiting to get back to normal.

Oh, church.

“Back to normal” might be familiar — but that doesn’t make it faithful. The waiting posture robs us of hope, curiosity and imagination. It is a privileged position that suggests that what we found comfortable was loving enough, liberating enough, just enough, healing enough for all of God’s people.

The Faith Communities Today report released this fall, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change,” summarizing findings from the largest-ever survey of U.S. congregations, makes plain that our churches were not universally thriving before the pandemic: “Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital.”

Among the key findings: most churches are small, but most people are in larger congregations; attendance at most churches has declined rapidly in the past 20 years; and most congregations skew older than the national average, with aging participants and leadership.

Last month, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report offering an early picture of how churches are navigating the pandemic. It suggests, from surveys this summer, that the pandemic is “exacerbating and accelerating” the declines detailed in the Faith Communities Today report. It also notes that the overall picture is “turbulent and chaotic,” though “not all churches are experiencing the pandemic equally.”

“Normal” before the pandemic wasn’t so great.

Maybe we need this Advent after all.

Advent is not a season for waiting to usher back in the old or get through with gritted teeth. It is an invitation to wonder about and actively work for transformation: What new creation are we invited to participate in birthing? As the Faith Communities Today report notes: “A time of challenge and upheaval can also be a moment of opportunity and revitalization.”

That is not to say that this work is easy or to suggest that we forget the trauma our people and our churches have endured for almost two years. We are called to what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis terms a “chastened hope,” a hope that keenly understands our current suffering and dependence on God.

Choctaw elder Steven Charleston in “Ladder to the Light” offers a mantra for faithful activism: “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away.”

He goes on to urge: “Look up and be confident. Look forward and learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there.”

That practice, he says, allows us to “recognize darkness but trust in light.” Charleston urges us all to choose each day to believe and to hope. By doing so, he writes, “we turn what we believe into what we see.” That is fitting for the season of preparation we are in and the seasons of incarnation and revelation we are anticipating.

But how?

How might we unlock creativity in this season, grieving what has been lost while also holding some hopeful curiosity about the future? We begin with practices of rest, lament and remembering, alone and in community.

In “God and the Pandemic,” N.T. Wright writes that “fresh action” must follow our lament, that God’s kingdom is emerging through the “creative, healing, restorative work” of humankind.

“He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.”

Wright goes on to suggest three questions these Jesus followers will answer: “What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?”

These seem like good questions for church leaders to ponder in their contexts, as a way to stay true to who and where they are while also waiting for an uncertain future with energy and wonder.

They also gesture toward some of the characteristics researchers with Faith Communities Today have seen consistently in “spiritually vital and growing communities” — strong leadership, a clear mission, a spirit of innovation and openness to change, active engagement in the local community, significant lay involvement.

“In the midst of all the unsettledness,” the author writes, “now is the ideal moment to sustain the efforts toward innovation.”

Which got me thinking about Mary and her bold “yes” to a transforming and uncertain future. As pastor Isaac S. Villegas writes in The Other Journal, we are all like Mary: “Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.”

We don’t have to know what the future of the church will hold. We don’t have to like waiting or uncertainty or change. We can be tired and annoyed about it.

But Jesus is coming anyway. Something new is birthing in the church.

Say yes.

It will be worth the wait.

“What do you see?”

That was the question I posed last year during the Advent season. Now, as Advent begins again, I’m still curious: What do you see?

May I be honest with you? I see fatigue. I see lament. I see exhaustion.

Despite our collective greatest hopes, I see a community that is still living through a pandemic that none of us anticipated would ever last this long.

What do you see? I see congregations that have reopened but church leaders who still hold their breath week to week praying there’s no COVID-19 outbreak. I see communities arguing over whether we should be vaccinated. I see people with masks in their glove compartments, pocketbooks and briefcases — wearied by the mundane duty of masking up daily after nearly two years of this new normal.

I see pastors who pivoted to prerecording services and preaching to empty sanctuaries now pivoting once again to meet the needs of our current moment, reengaging physical touch points with congregants.

What do you see? I see people rushing to business-as-usual, hoping that if they behave as though things are safe again, they somehow magically will be.

In the words of public health epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, articulating the current challenge: “It [the pandemic] doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less. … I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”

Yet we can’t simply stop caring. We must continue our vigilance — even in our exhaustion.

You might be thinking that this isn’t a very hopeful picture of where we are as a nation right now.

My response would be, “Look again! Hope is there!” The first glimmer I see is that we are wrestling with different questions than we were this time last year.

For the most part, our doors are back to being open. We have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated. Our children are back in school. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered guidelines for safe travel and gathering during the holidays. Many of our congregations now have viable streaming and online options for worship.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago. I see hope!

I see hope alongside our troubled hearts. I see duality. We’re exhausted because we’ve endured much, yet we’re hopeful because we’re still here. We’re hopeful because we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and we’ve seen that we have the capacity to adapt. We’ve proved that we can change. And that realization can bring hope to our wearied souls that we can still expect something better, even in times like these.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way in a Christmas sermon delivered Dec. 2, 1928: “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!”

So what do I see? I see a nation of leaders troubled in soul yet ready for something more. I see people who have given the best of themselves all year, completely spent yet ready to be wowed by something greater than they are.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been fighting so many battles simply to exist, operating daily in crisis management mode. We’re troubled in our souls because the physical and spiritual well-being of those we serve is directly connected to the public health and public safety decisions that we make.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been putting out fires, working through vacations, juggling back-to-back Zoom meetings, home-schooling our kids, skipping date nights, performing virtual pastoral care, testing ourselves regularly for fear of spreading the virus, comparing the decisions we make with the decisions our colleagues make in their contexts, and so much more.

We’re troubled in our souls because more than 770,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, and more than 5 million people worldwide, and those numbers do not even include people with near-death complications who have survived the initial illness. Those numbers aren’t just numbers. They represent our communities and the people we have lost.

If we are honest, we must name our weariness. Yet that very weariness lifts our eyes toward hope. Being troubled in our souls sets us up to receive Advent hope and Advent possibilities more fully. It empties us of false platitudes and requires us to truly opt in to the belief that new possibilities come before us with Christ. Restoration is before us. Healing is before us. Miracles are accessible. Beauty is possible. Newness is possible.

Let us not forget — when our Savior became incarnate in human flesh and was born in a manger, God’s people were troubled in soul. God’s people felt out of options. They had done all they could to fight against empire. They were weary. They needed something greater than themselves. They needed someone to advocate for them.

Christ came in crisis. Never assume that being in crisis means you are apart from Christ. My lived experience tells me that Christ is always present when I’m in crisis.

Can I get a witness?

I experience Immanuel — God with us, God with me — in some of my lowest moments. When I’m at the end of my rope. When I’m trying, as Tupac would say, to make a dollar out of 15 cents. When I’m weary and heavy-laden, Jesus walks into my situation.

This is the character of God. In our despair, God sent God’s son to remind us that we would be delivered from the horrific conditions of our present. God has not forgotten, and God has chosen to fight our battles.

In the midst of a genocide of baby boys, Jesus comes. In the midst of oppressive conditions from empire, Jesus comes. In the midst of Mary and Joseph’s state of housing insecurity, Jesus comes. And with Jesus comes new hope.

So what do you see? I see a society in crisis. I see a people who have collectively exhausted our inner capacity to keep going. But just before we give up, our liturgical calendar reminds us that the Advent season is here. We have something new to look forward to. Christ is coming. Christ is here. New hope and restoration are here. Christmas miracles are here.

What do I see? I see leaders of every race and creed ready to receive Advent hope. I see revival. I see replenishment. But most of all, I see that we have been seen by God. Advent hope is here. Receive it. I still see hope.

Do you?