Advent this year has found me stuck on the idea of waiting. In many ways, it has been a hard wait. A desert wait. It was fitting that I happened to be reading Isaiah this month – as I found myself daily identifying with the Israelites as they waited. Through the interminable “how long, Lord?”, holding onto the promise of a Saviour.
On this side of that Bethlehem night, I know that the promised Saviour is now Immanuel. The promise has been fulfilled – so the wait should be somewhat less painful, no?
Perhaps. But it would be foolish to presume that because we live on this side, the dull nothingness of the waiting is any more pleasant. This month, I have been waiting along with the Israelites through a spiritual desert time. Nothing catastrophic, dramatic , just a lacklustre dullness. Blunt edges and feet in sand. What made this all the more painful was that I was supposed to spend this month in a rainforest, not a desert.
And yet every day (give or take) I felt increasingly disengaged. I tried to find new ways of communicating with God, but always a dead end. Every day, I grew more afraid of disappointment, of hearing my prayers ricochet within a vast silence. I know God is refining faith through these times and teaching us to use our rear view mirror, but such platitudes didn’t mean much.
I know that God is one of water in the desert. “But where, Lord?”. I found myself thinking of Mary – of the way our long waiting echo her labour pains. Painful yet glorious signposts of what is to be born. Soon, soon. But right now, the pain is all-consuming. I’m tired of waiting, she may have said.
Why did Mary have to give birth to Christ? Why such physicality in the coming? Why did he choose a long, hard pregnancy season where the streams run dry and the contractions ache?
Seasons like the one I am in now make me think that it couldn’t happen any other way. Mary’s labour pains during Advent remind us that our experience as we live as those commissioned to birth more and more of Christ into the world is deeply physical – and it aches. There will be long periods where nothing flows and we long for the Saviour to just come. Enough with the contractions. Enough with the dry streams which make us crawl in search of a reminder that we are still alive.
And perhaps one of the most painful things about waiting is that the feeling that I don’t deserve this.
But then they said to me: give up your right to ‘feel’ anything from God.
And so I did. No trying and sweating to build a tent worthy to receive God. One in which my ears would magically be opened to hear his voice. want to remember the simple joy of walking the dry trails carved by ancient streams. Yes, aching. But He is coming. Advent.
And as I walked this trail this morning, I did feel the space at the core of me become quieter. Peace settled, and I marvelled at how Heaven is His throne and earth His footstool – and yet He has chosen my heart as a dwelling place. Something shifted and was birthed as I let go of my right to feel and leant into the desert place
Afterwards I went for a run – not a long one but I felt it would be good for my cobwebs. And as my feet pummelled and heart pounded I felt the shift become physical.
I was by the lock on the canal. It was full and the water had clearly been sitting waiting for some time for someone to open the gate. Pregnant with anticipation of the great release. I could almost hear the groaning. I carried on down the canal and was surprised by how far-reaching the impact of this was on the water.
For a long way down, the water lay eerily still and engorged, waiting for streams to flow again. It made me feel uneasy – like the water was holding onto secrets within its fullness – the kind of submerged secret which is the preserve of apparent nothingness.
Maybe that is what we are like as children of God. Those pregnant with knowledge that Promise has come, and is coming back to open the gate once and for all with dancing and singing and eternal streams of Living Water.
I loved watching a crisp Autumn leaf – one of the very last – float down and gently lay itself on the water. The water was so dense the leaf created not so much as a ripple. The water pretended not to notice – but I sense it did. Pregnant with anticipation – it was sensitive to any change in weight. And it seemed to know that it had made a resting place for something which would soon add colour and texture in the rush of celebration as gates open.
Advent. Coming. Let us walk the dry trails, tambourines at the ready. Let us crawl to the stable, a bare whisper of Promise seeping from our lips. Let us lean in as we are stretched to the hardest places and dare to call him Immanuel.
I rounded the corner home and looked up at the open window to my room. As T S Eliot says, we reach the end of our exploring only to end up back where we started – but see it as if for the first time.