A Time of Longing

I’ve often heard Advent described as a time of preparation and waiting, but my friend Barb Kollenkark recently described it as a period of longing.

I suppose that makes sense. We are, after all, waiting for the coming of a child, and I’m sure parents-to-be would confirm that those nine months contain a great deal of longing.

A woman who is pregnant is “expecting.” During Advent we expect the birth of Christ in our hearts. That’s a strong word, with a lot of faith and an element of demand to it. We’re not wishing, we’re expecting.

I so often consider the object of my desire to be a conclusion: the completion of a project, the settling of a decision, the ending of an uncomfortable emotion. But in that delivery room, all parents are hoping for a beginning, not an ending.

Life is a continuing unfolding, and that’s what parents want for their children. Not a straight path, not without difficulties, probably messy, but at every moment the potential for growth.

And so with us and Christ. The coming we are longing for is not a consummation, though we often get ourselves into trouble in big and small ways by searching for fulfillment in everything from alcoholism to the salvation that might arrive in the next email or Facebook post. Not that I’d know anything about that.

What arrives on Christmas, what we’re waiting for, is not an end to yearning but a deepening of it. We are finite beings with an infinite capacity for love, multiple teachers have said, and on Christmas we will receive at least two things, regardless of what is under the tree: a historical example of someone who will show us what our hearts are capable of and that ability itself, which is to live in the evolutionary moment we’re in, to live into our longing, into our true selves in God.

That’s something worth expecting.

Dwelling in Discomfort

I am generally not a big fan of mental/emotional/spiritual discomfort, to the extent that I usually do something to avoid it—make plans, eat chocolate, beat up on myself and promise to do better next time—before I even realize my motivation. But this week, I had a few moments of recognizing, oh, I’m uncomfortable and apparently it’s not going to kill me.

Ronald Rolheiser advises us not to resolve tensions too easily. Perhaps sitting with discomfort, with tension, allows different options to grow.

I’m reminded of getting to know loneliness during the year I spent teaching English in China. I lived in a small city and had only one other American to share the experience with. Everything from the language to the food to the social norms was unfamiliar; people stared at us wherever we went; and though I wouldn’t trade that year for the world, it was intensely isolating.

So I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, which at first also felt awful. Then I began to recognize loneliness. Then I realized that I was likely to survive it because, after all, it had happened before and I appeared to be OK. By the end of the year, loneliness and I established a familiarity, and when it came around, it was like opening the door to an old friend—oh, loneliness, hello, come on in, have a cup of tea.

Perhaps now I am beginning a familiarity the uncomfortable state of not knowing what comes next. Discernment—paying attention to where God or life is leading us—doesn’t generally happen on our timeline. Most things that come into being, from oak trees to humans to right action, seem to require some kind of gestation period, a process that this human is often impatient with.

But just as it’s much better for a baby to be carried to full term, so too with taking the next step. And just as it is not the most comfortable thing to carry that baby, so too with the next step.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.