The NazToo blog welcomes the Advent season with a post from our own Erin Moorman. Erin is a district-licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, currently co-pastoring a local house-church-plant and working full-time in the city to support her family of five. She collects fair-trade nativities from around the world, the newest of which is from Russia (but she promises it had no influence on the most recent elections whatsoever). She also continues to annoy her friends and family by celebrating her “40th Birthday Year” through the remainder of 2018.
A couple weeks ago I shared with some friends that I was having a hard time appreciating the “Name something you’re thankful for” Thanksgiving memes that had started going around in November.
I didn’t feel thankful.
It’s difficult to think of something to say “thank you” for when one thing after another, then after another, and then two more for good measure, pile up around you – weighing against you daily, weekly, for months, with no resolution in sight. Whether it’s finances or health or relationships, or all three at once and then some, at some point “I’m thankful for the basics” or “I’m thankful things aren’t worse” lose their luster when you just want things to feel normal again. And “I’m thankful I’m not as bad off as that person” just feels joyless, as well as selfish and heartless. No. Thanksgiving memes weren’t doing it for me.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, we attended a Thanksgiving Service and the pastor preached from Philippians 3:1 and 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Near the beginning of the service the pastor led us in prayer specifically for those suffering in the midst of the California wildfires. During the message I found myself wondering, even if I were able to rejoice myself, how would that message be received by the people being devastated by the fires that very day? Would that message truly carry hope for them?
“Paul’s words carry weight because he wrote them in the midst of his own suffering.”
OK, sure. But it’s one thing to choose to rejoice myself. It’s another to tell others to rejoice in the midst of their suffering. In the midst of my thanksgiving-meme-induced slump, someone telling me to rejoice wasn’t actually encouraging. It brought no resolution for my needs or answers for my questions. It brought no hope that a resolution would come. It brought no peace to my anxiety. It was just words. Words which wanted to silence my lament so that others could enjoy their own moment of rejoicing.
OK. I realize that’s not completely fair. That, of course, is not their intent. But the result feels the same.
The pastor continued: “It’s not about rejoicing about all circumstances. It’s about rejoicing in all circumstances. We can rejoice in all circumstances because of the Lord! We rejoice in Him!”
Oh, that’s right. We rejoice In The Lord. It’s not about what I’m dealing with, but rather Who is with me.
So I wondered some more: Who is with me?
For me the answer was an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy loving Savior who knows my every need and can fix them if He wants to. But He sure is taking His time. If He’s not answering desperate prayers, what is it exactly that I’m rejoicing in Him for? The things He’s done in the past? Those are said and done. Should I be thankful for the works of the past? Yes. But the works of the past aren’t answers to prayers now. God isn’t just “was”, He “is”, and I need Him now. The people in California need Him now. The families at the border need Him now. The kids in cages and the vets on the street and the lonely outcasts contemplating suicide need Him now. Is “Rejoice in the Lord” more than just sentiment? Are we really OK with His presence feeling so distant?
The pastor then invited the congregation to share in a time of testimony. For anyone who has experienced testimony times, it wasn’t anything unusual. Short, long. Calm, emotional. Specific, general. Praises for recent days, praises for decades of faithfulness. But there was one testimony which stuck out to me.
An older gentleman stood and shared that he had preached at another church the previous week. He said the title of his message was “The God of Tears”, and that his message was about how God speaks the language of tears.
And my heart rejoiced.
The God Who is with me is the God who understands the language – the “wordless groans” – of tears. He (unlike so many people) is not afraid of lament. He knows that rejoicing and lamenting aren’t an “either/or” endeavor, but a “both/and” journey. That makes it more than sentiment. That makes God near.
Which made me think of Advent.
Advent holds a special place in my heart. Advent restored my joy at a time when Christmas began to lose all meaning for me. At some point in my early-adulthood, I’d found that all the usual Christmas preparation and expectations felt empty. If Christmas was really about Jesus, why was my church “business as usual” except for a Christmas sermon, a few Christmas carols, and a little added pageantry? If Christmas was really about Jesus, why was it a struggle to get my family to set aside time to read the Birth Narrative on Christmas morning? If Christmas was really about Jesus, why did our family’s schedule say that it was really about food, family and presents? I learned what I’d been shown, and what I’d been shown wasn’t doing it for me.
It didn’t feel like it was about Jesus.
It didn’t feel special.
It didn’t feel joyful.
“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to become one of those ‘Grinches’ people hate to be around” and figured it was probably time to claim the “Bah Humbug” hat someone had given to my mom as a joke several years before.
But through thoughtful prayer I was guided to learn more about the history and traditions surrounding Christmas, and in that learning I found Advent.
Advent is all about that near/far, rejoice/lament tension.
All of the incessant “Joy, Joy, JOY!” from Thanksgiving through December 25th had taken away my permission to lament. The “Christmas season” (as I then saw it) seemed to want to silence my lament so that others could enjoy their own moment of rejoicing. “Joy” was the expectation, and if I didn’t feel it, I was lesser. Not being “in the spirit of Christmas” felt almost “not Christian.” But the Christian walk is more than mere sentiment, and I must have felt that Christmas was, too.
Then Advent whispered, “God speaks the language of tears.”
And my heart rejoiced.
The God Who is with me is the God who recognizes that waiting is hard. He isn’t afraid of lament. Even though I may not feel joy, He (unlike so many people) is with me anyway. It was no longer mere sentiment. God was near.
And that made me think of Welcome.
In a service orchestrated to tell me I needed to feel joyful when I really didn’t, I felt out of place. The preacher’s testimony made me feel welcome.
In a season orchestrated to make me feel joyful even if I really didn’t, I felt out of place. Advent’s message made me feel welcome.
I felt welcomed by God and God’s people in my lament, and that gave me joy.
* * * * * * *
As I was listening to the sermon the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I realized that I’d had a sense of peace that week that hadn’t been there the week before. I had no “right” to the sense of peace I felt. Not much had changed in my circumstances. But through the words of that preacher’s testimony, God had spoken to my heart and restored my hope. In restoring my hope, He gave me a peace that “passes understanding.” In finding peace, I once again could rejoice. In being able to rejoice, I was better able to love those around me. God had given me the gift of joy by welcoming my lament.
Like all Israel, the shepherds in the fields had waited for God to fulfill His promises. God’s presence must have felt distant. I imagine that there were many times they struggled to have hope, peace, or joy; or to recognize God’s abounding love. And then one ordinary night, the angels spoke to them. The angels didn’t speak to everyone in the world. They didn’t even speak to everyone in Israel. They told a few lowly, poor, outcast shepherds. And those few rejoiced. They were welcomed by God to share his Word.
And it has been that way for Christ’s people, since. God speaks, and in speaking He welcomes and restores us. The Word sneaks up on us and speaks powerfully and deeply to our hearts in ways we can’t always explain – one faithful person at a time sharing with another.
And that word doesn’t just say “Rejoice!”
It says, “I understand your tears, and they are welcome.”
Welcoming suffering makes God near.
Welcoming those who suffer makes God nearer.
So what might be the message we have for the people in California? The families at the border? The kids in cages and the vets on the street and the lonely outcasts contemplating suicide? Maybe it’s that God understands their tears, and that both they and their tears are welcome by God and God’s people. But it has to be more than just sentiment. It has to cause us to be near to them, and allow them to be near to us.
The things God has done in the past are worthy of praise, but they are a sign-post telling us we can hope in the things to come. The Creator God continues to create. He continues to work. And He asks His people to work creatively with Him in the lives of those around us. For those who have lost everything, we share our abundance. For those seeking asylum, we share our security. For those who are separated, we give restoration. For those homeless and sick, we give stability and health. For those who feel ostracized and unwanted by those they know, we wrap our arms around them and share our love. One faithful church at a time sharing with others.
And we remember that true welcome does not require them to feel joy if they don’t. But maybe – just maybe – as they are welcomed with their tears and lament, the gift of joy will find them, too. For joy comes in the moment of a hope fulfilled.
* * * * * * *
As we wait this Advent, I pray that the never-endingly patient God of hope, peace, joy and love will be with us all, and give us hearts of welcome to those in need.