I am going to ask you to do a very difficult thing. I want you to forget all the seasonal trappings that surround you right now and seduce you into thinking that Advent has anything at all to do with Christmas as you and I understand it. I want you to clear out all the “let’s get ready for Christmas!” cheer and folderol.
Why? I want us to think about what Advent is about—the patience required to wait for something extraordinary. There is an agenda to Advent and we often lose sight of what is required. We need to wait for that which we have not yet seen. We work for what has not yet been accomplished.
Actually for me in Jordan, at least as of right now, this is all very easy. There are no radio stations playing Christmas music, there is no mad dash to the Mall for Santa electronics gifts. Moreover, I am waiting patiently for three weeks from now when I will travel the thousands of miles back to my Cincinnati home. So since today marks the first Sunday of Advent I am all caught up in the expectations and required patience for the holiday. I am thinking how interesting it is that we must reconcile the patience of Advent with the impatience of human and 21st century living—wow, that is the problem and opportunity of Advent!
When I have spoken to students over the years who believe that the Bible lacks credibility, one of the reasons that they find it so unbelievable is that the Bible asks us to do things that are manifestly undoable. They ask us to believe things that, if not believable and true, are at least unlikely. We are asked to have patience with the clichés of Advent—light over darkness and hope over despair and gentleness over might and power—and believe that they will come true. Let’s just look at a couple of things—we know that Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth but we do not believe that that is likely, or not at least not anytime soon. We know that we are to forgive people who have hurt us, but we know that except in rare and wonderful circumstances it is very difficult to bring ourselves to do it.
So we come back to the patience bit. Oh, patience that cruel muse/demon. Isn’t patience for the unambitious, or the under-achievers? I remember someone joking once that patience is for those who have to take the long view because they can’t succeed in the short run. And, have you ever been told to be patient? Oh, think about studying a language or piano. Or writing. Or learning to tie a tie? Yes, I remember my father urging me to be patient about tying a tie. “Be patient, it will come.” Somehow it is hard to believe whenever such counsel is offered. It is such an irritant! (I know of what I speak—as a teacher of writing, I implore my students to be patient, like six months while they work and work and wait for the breakthrough—I know it feels irritating to the students!)
I guess patience implies passivity and we wish not to be passive, we wish not merely to be spectators at somebody else’s spectacle of achievement. We want to make it happen NOW! There is a line in the New Testament epistle of James that shouts, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only!” That I get! I want to do! I don’t want to be told to wait.
I remember as a cub scout we were asked to take a seed and make something grow. I had no interest in farming, but I certainly had an interest in merit badges! So I wanted the biggest seed I could find because I thought that would grow faster. I wasn’t interested in those little packets of seeds—those things would require far too much patience! So we had an avocado once (why we had an exotic avocado in my mid-western household I don’t know, although we did have the requisite 1970s avocado-colored kitchen!) and I got the huge seed from the middle of the avocado and planted it in a pot on the front porch. I raced to see every day the progress of my seed. It took forever—even the biggest seed I could imagine! My father, a master of patience if there ever was one, urged me to calm down and be patient. Finally, after what seemed like eons (what? Maybe 72 hours?!) my father told me in his magisterial way that I needed patience and hope. If one could cultivate those two things, he said, life would be easier and better. I can’t imagine I really agreed with him then, but nearly 40 years after that conversation, I cannot forget his sage advice. A harvest is a result of incredible patience and the hope of things to come. A farmer cannot do anything to induce the rains and development. We have to rely on forces beyond our control. Argh!!!!!!
I am not sure why all of this crossed my mind today, but as we crossed the threshold into Advent all of this came flooding back to me. My father, a master of patience and hope, has never been idle. That was another lesson he sought to impart to me. Tuesday, November 27th is my mother’s birthday—she would have been 74—and the project that was Mary Martha’s health and well-being was my father’s greatest demonstration of patience and hope and never being idle. My father was a sometime farmer for fun, not a real farmer, but you know the kind of suburban guy who plants tomatoes and zucchini and such. But he had the gifts of a farmer, imbuing living things with love, patience, hope, and endless care. He never was held hostage by fantasies and disappointments of the impatient.
In the house of my childhood we were not supposed to speak about Christmas until after my mother’s birthday. So until November 27th had passed, we were not allowed to jump and cheer and wish and beg and cajole and upend the Christmas cheer truck. What a funny thing, in a way, but totally in keeping with my parents’ ultimate goal to cultivate patience and hope in some desperate children.
So why the desire for a lesson in patience in Advent? Like everything else, it is about more than we think. We are not really anticipating the commemoration of the birthday of a little baby in Bethlehem, but the fruition of some divine plan, the culmination of human hope. I guess Advent is reminding us of really re-births and that possibility of getting it right, of mercy triumphant and truth triumphant and joy triumphant and peace triumphant. I don’t know about you, but certainly in this neck of the woods, those concepts would be a miracle.
I don’t think it is about waiting for something in the past either, of merely recreating those moments. There is no hope in history, no age, no season to which we could return when everything would be fine. There is no place in history where it really has worked. Soooo, I guess, there is no better time or place than where we are right now. Oh, wait. Our time and place right now doesn’t work. Soooo, the only place where we can invest, where there is a harvest worth aspiring to, is in the future.
This is the language of Advent. This is not merely a “waiting around for something interesting to happen,” but as with the farmer, a working for which we wait. Impatient living is what we do. Impatient living isn’t about just keeping busy. Working well for that for which we wait is the essence of Advent hope.
I remember one time when I was in college and I asked my mother how it was that she never seemed to give up on her situation with MS. How did she not give up? As she did often, she turned a little moment into a mini-sermon. She agreed that it would seem that there was plenty of opportunity and reason to give up, but she reminded me that God does not give up on his creatures, although we must have given Him millions of reasons to give up. She said we need the patience of Job and we must always live in the anticipation of hope.
How fitting that my mother’s birthday is always around the time of Advent. No one exemplifies patience and hope better than my mother and father—and at her birthday I get the invitation to Advent. Advent hope is not an invitation to easy, silly optimism, nor an invitation to mind-numbing despair or hope held hostage to experience. As my mother would surely sermonize if she had a blog (I would love to have seen her creative blog entries!) Advent hope is an invitation to translate the energy of impatience into the art of expectant living in the here and now.
Happy Birthday on Tuesday to you Mary Martha Griley Leistler! I thank the good Lord that you and your Kenny Babe were my parents, trying to tame the impatient young man, modeling patience and hope and love. I hope you don’t mind I spoke about Christmas before Tuesday. It feels kinda good to get away with something!
Bring it on Advent—I accept the invitation.
P.S. I just googled Advent 2012 to check and make sure today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is not! Next Sunday, December 2nd is the first Sunday of Advent, 2012. Well, I suppose my impatient living wanted me to speed it up, but I will go ahead and post the blog entry anyway…enjoy the week anticipating the season of anticipating!