It’s one of my favorite lines in the Christmas hymns:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
Advent is upon us: the season of waiting.
We wait for some sign of His coming, for some hope the tide is about to turn. We feel creation’s groan. We groan under the weight of this world’s darkness and injustice and pain and despair in all its futile attempts to save itself. We wither in body, in mind, sometimes in hope. We feel our weakness growing and our strength slipping away even as we hear Him call for us to fight the good fight, to seek justice and love mercy and be ministers of reconciliation and light to the world. We wonder how uncertainty and anguish and loss can be the mark of a disciple’s life. We wonder, how long, O God?
But doesn’t it all sound familiar?
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in Heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. – Luke 6:20-26
For in hope we are saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man sees, he does not wait for. – Romans 8:24
When I reflect on 2020, still I mostly see mercy. The severe mercy that tells us the truth about ourselves and our world. That it will fail. We are not in control. We cannot save ourselves or anyone else. At the end of the day, our best was still not good enough. We carry unthinkable bundles of bias, blame, and blasphemy around. Some of us carry it closer to the surface than others, but we’re more than happy to draw it out of each other and light it aflame. (If you want to see a real dumpster fire, just look at the human heart on display through our words and actions. That’s what gives the news most of its headlines. Then take a good long look at that human heart beating in your own chest and what all it’s had to say about its lot in life through 2020.)
If there’s one art form I’ve grown in this year, it’s how to loose and lament. I’ve long been a creator, achiever, pursuer, distributor, developer, contributor, lover, giver, grower, you name it. Productivity, efficiency, and measurable results are not bad things, but they’ll cripple your soul if they get to be the boss. I value planting seeds, but man it turns out I do really want to see the mature fields and the harvest in before year’s end.
I really want to see the fulfillment of the vision God gives. I want to see the absolute hope Jesus accomplished experienced by hearts dying from despair. I want to see redemption celebrated, not lost in the weeds of lies and history that hasn’t been reckoned with. I want to see the type of healing that can’t be shaken or taken flourish in the hearts of God’s beloved whose minds and bodies are racked with disease that won’t give up until it’s taken everything that can be. I want to see the unwelcome dance in the love they can’t diminish. To see the refugee feel the embrace of hospitality, the dying come to eternal life, the full to discover the joy of empty, and the empty to see their God-given preciousness. I want us to know that because God is with us, all shall be well.
Those things are happening, with remarkable and powerful testimony, all around the world. But they’re not always happening in the space I want to see them. This year felt like a lot more loss than gain on the personal level, even in the realm of “God’s work”, assignments He’s given and invitations He’s extended, facets of my life He’d been using in certain ways.
I would argue that loosing is just as valuable as holding when God says the seasons are changing. Pruning (sometimes severely) is investment in next crop’s production, but we do well to remember that He also makes new things. We’re often not supposed to get “back to normal” afterward. I also learned that there are some things He gave me only because He trusted me to hand it back over to Him when He said it was time. When He removes things from me that felt like they were a large piece of my identity, that made me useful (grimacing at that full disclosure of pride), that He even had charged me with caring for… He is reducing me to a potent certainty of His presence in my irrelevance, His reliability in my dissolution, His unmitigated love in my most miserable conditions, and His promise to BE GOD to those I was just telling about Him in the first place. Whether I see the outcome or not.
This process is not painless. Thus, the art of lament. We are charged to pour out our hearts to God. And to be still. To weep and wail, and to endure. To stand our ground, and to take up our cross. To be treated unjustly, and to love mercy. To be misunderstood and to keep serving. We are invited to storm the throne room of Heaven and ask boldly in the powerful name of Jesus for supernatural intervention in the things of this world. And we groan within ourselves while we wait for Him to complete this rescue story with assurance that He will fill every empty space. The more stretched-out we are, and the emptier the rooms of our lives, the more certainly He will fill them when offered to Him.
I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand… the poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth. -Bonhoeffer, 1943