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.

On Dec. 31, 2019 — the last New Year’s Eve before the pandemic — I was on the phone with my sister talking about holiday plans. I told her I wanted to go to Watch Night service; she planned to join me.

“But wait,” she said, “who is even having Watch Night?”

Gone were the days when every Black church in town was holding worship on New Year’s Eve. Instead of wondering, as I had in my youth, why they didn’t get together and have one big service, I lamented that churches were now forced to collaborate just to draw decent attendance.

I sat there in church that evening as 2019 came to an end, reflecting on how much had changed about the Black worship experience. But that Watch Night service stood as one of the old landmarks yet to be removed.

I can hardly wait for Watch Night this year — to remember the suffering and death COVID-19 hath wrought, to say the names of those who were with us last year but now live on only in our memories, and to resolve to carry our sorrowful joy into a hopeful new year.

It may feel like more of the same as we take mask-muffled breaths, but 2022 nonetheless is another year pregnant with possibility.

My home church of Pilgrim Baptist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was founded a century before that 2019 service, during the Great Migration. And for 98 of its now 102 years, it has had a pastor from Alabama. The congregation’s Southern and rural roots in the “heart of Dixie” run deep, and that has continued to set the tone for its worship, even today.

The service I attended in 2019 began the way my Watch Nights always have, with hymn lining. Usually some evangelical standard by Isaac Watts or John Wesley, a lined hymn reflects the call-and-response style that is a prominent feature of African American Christian worship.

As a youngster, I could not understand why a four-line stanza took five minutes or more to sing. The slow pace and mournful tone seemed to hark back to the pain and powerlessness of enslavement and segregation, experiences I believed were best left in the past.

But the older I got, the better I understood waiting as a spiritual discipline. When the Holy Spirit moved among the people, hymn lining eventually led to a crescendo of joyful shouts of praise and adoration. Change comes in God’s time, not ours — perhaps not initially, but ultimately, “for those who wait upon the Lord.”

I most look forward to the testimonies of the elders. At Watch Night, there are no pastors offering carefully crafted sermons but instead laypeople giving evidence of God’s goodness. Their stories aren’t interpretations of Scripture or sermons they’ve heard. They talk about what they know to be true through personal experience, about how they’ve been blessed since the last Watch Night service.

This is probably the most important part of the service to me, for I draw strength and encouragement from hearing others speak of struggles, defeats, trials and triumphs. It is most important because I am a glass-half-empty guy. My days are partly cloudy, never partly sunny. I think I prefer it that way so I’m never disappointed when the rain comes; I expect nothing less.

I am therefore always uplifted by people who “count it all joy” — and I do mean all. I recall a woman in 2019 who seemed to be wasting away from some illness that prevented her from digesting. She said her doctor was preparing her for the end and she and her husband were making plans to sell their property and enjoy their last days together.

“Then the Lord led me to a new doctor, an Indian doctor,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit guided him to the right answer. I thought I would be dead and gone, sleeping in my grave. But praise be to God, I’m here!”

The subtext of her testimony was significant, for it said something about the way she believed God works. God didn’t heal her so that she could see another year but so that she could give all glory to God. Also, it wasn’t the half-dozen or so white doctors but a brown man from the other side of the world that God chose to use to cure her. God can use anything or anyone to accomplish God’s will. Therefore, we should look for blessings in unexpected places as well as in the familiar.

The prayers of the righteous are interwoven in the fabric of Watch Night. Indeed, the start of the new year at Pilgrim always found somebody praying — for themselves, their family, their church, the world.

And while to some degree the content was standard, these prayers were extraordinary, in part because of their form. Prayer leaders didn’t stand but approached the throne of grace on their knees in humble submission. Somebody prayed; the rest sang. Of course, this meant no one could hear the prayer. Right, I know. I didn’t get it either.

I remember, as a child, asking my father about this practice, and he said we were helping the person pray with our song. That might have made sense to him, but it didn’t help me hear the prayer any better. Sensing my dissatisfaction, he said, “We don’t need to hear. God hears.” That, I get.

Whether in hymn lining, testifying or praying, the message of Watch Night for me is clear: life is often a struggle, but we draw strength from one another. We are to walk together, rejoice in each other’s victories and be mournful when others are full of sorrow. It is in community that we learn the blessings are not in the things we accumulate. The blessings are in the journey.

God has brought us from a mighty long way, and we don’t know how far we’ve got to go. But we can take comfort in knowing that God will be there every step of the way.