Sunday, November 27, 2011

A student's lament for Advent

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Sometimes it's hard to tell...
Pastor Phil started Advent on a curious note this morning in his sermon at Park View Mennonite Church. He began by talking about lament, doubt, and questioning God, even getting angry in prayer. It was a good reminder to hear that the psalmists and the prophets are on the side of questioners, doubters, and angry prayers everywhere, even going so far as to suggest that such things are the sign of a healthy relationship with God. After all, to do such things in prayer assumes that there is someone there to listen and hopefully answer in some way.

Today, the first Sunday in Advent, kicks off the church's liturgical calendar. For many Christian traditions around the world who follow this calendar, today amounts to New Years Day. Advent is a season of expectant waiting. What a novel idea for Westerners, to engage in something terribly important by waiting. We are expecting/observing the coming of cosmic Christ to the human Jesus. God made flesh, dwelling among us.

What is the link between lament and expectation? In biblical contexts, it is the cry of Israel for deliverance from its oppressors and a desire to see Israel's God, Yahweh, rightly recognized as God of gods, humans, and indeed all of creation, coupled with the expectation that Israel's God would accomplish all this. The Old Testament prophets begin to sound the messianic notes that are picked up in the New Testament by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. John says "prepare the way!" and Jesus says "it's happening now." Later, Paul will speak of God's kingdom as one becoming manifest slowly but surely, subjecting the entire creation to the pangs of birth and expectation of new life.

Advent in grad school
But lament and expectation also have special significance for me this year. It is my wife's and my last year of grad school at EMU. In six short months, we will graduate with three masters degrees between the two of us and will be proceeding on to...just what, we do not yet know. This sense of waiting and expectation for what's next began at the conclusion of my second of four years of studies. So we've been in the birth pangs for our small part in God's mission for a year and a half. Ouch, baby.

And while concrete possibilities for what's next are becoming clearer these days, our school work continues to press in on us, making such future imaginings difficult to focus on. We both hold down jobs in addition to our full-time studies, further complicating. And our daughter is in junior high now. Ay yay yay...

The crushing demands of now and the next six months along with what comes after graduation produce a burning in the pit of my stomach, a buzzing in my ears, a weight on my chest, all of which makes me incredibly tired most days. I've never taken so many naps as I have these past three and a half years.

But I've never prayed as much, either. And that's where my lament gets (or should get) channeled. We moved out here to Virginia on the understanding that God had led us this far from home in Iowa, and the expectation still stands. Slowly, painfully, our next steps will become clear and we will take them in good faith.

Falling in love with the kingdom
In a post from 2008, Peter Rollins likens the "already but not yet" nature of God's kingdom to falling in love with someone:
We can only desire the one who is before us, the one who remains mysterious in his or her presence. The other is both the origin and the unreachable destination of our desire, for there is always something Other about the other, something “to come” amidst the presence of those we love. In the eyes of the beloved a universe opens up and envelops us.
After twelve years of marriage, I can certainly resonate with this analogy. When I was 19 years old, I told my girlfriend that I loved her and asked to marry her. She agreed and so we did. Now at 32, I look back and marvel at the audacity of such an act by a teenager! Yet I still tell my wife the same thing, "I love you." But how that love has been tested and refined, under joy, yes, but also much sorrow! How it will continue to be so for years to come, a universe unfolding and enveloping.

So the lament and expectation with which my family enters Advent this year is especially thick. May the God that is alongside continue to open up the universe for us, enveloping us in the love which we ourselves cannot produce by our own will or skill. And with a certain ancient and exiled visionary, I cry "Amen. Come, lord Jesus!"

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