I'm not great at new year's resolutions, and that's okay. As two thousand eleven came to a close, Advent became such a time to listen to God's voice. We reflected this past year and began the anticipation of the next. Rather than resolutions, I am focusing on these promises, praying God allows them to be themes for this next year, reminding me of his plans, to be my hope.
1. Live in Freedom
To not live out of fear, obligation, or worry. Unfortunately, fear causes me to constantly predict the negative responses of others and forces me to live in the assumed negative uncertainty of what will happen (cognitive behavioral therapy calls this fortune telling). Fear is when I refuse to ask (not confront) about the condition of my relationships with others and God. Rather than allowing uncertainty to guide my steps, teach me to rest in your freedom, God. The peace you give us, allowing your Spirit to discern when it is appropriate to act or wait, to listen or speak.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?
- Psalm 56:3-4
One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. People are afraid -- afraid of inner feelings, afraid of other people, and also afraid of the future. Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. But if we cannot flee, we may fight instead. Many of our destructive acts come from the fear that something harmful will be done to us. And if we take a broader perspective -- that not only individuals but whole communities and nations might be afraid of being harmed -- we can understand how hard it is to wait and how tempting it is to act. Here are the roots of a "first strike" approach to others. People who live in a a world of fear are more likely to make aggressive, hostile, destructive responses than people who are not so frightened. The more afraid we are, the harder waiting becomes.
2. Actively Wait
This past year was waiting replaced with more waiting. At times, I waited poorly, focusing on the outcomes, discouraging me from the transformation that comes with waiting, becoming more of a certain person. This is what Advent reminded me, waiting is preparation. God is active in waiting. It is not passive. God is at work.
My soul is waiting for the Lord.
I count on his word.
My soul is belonging for the Lord
more than a watchman for daybreak.
Because with the Lord there is
mercy and fullness of redemption.
- Psalm 130:5-7
For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something... But what is the nature of waiting? What is the practice of waiting? How are they waiting and how are we called to wait with them?
Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. "Zechariah,...your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son." "Mary,...Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son" (Luke 1:13, 31). People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a moment from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.
Second, waiting is active.... But there is none of this passivity in scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That's the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.
Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something we wish to have. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair. That is why we have such a hard time waiting: we want to do the things that will make the desired events take place. Here we can see how wishes tend to be connected with fears.
But Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary were not filled with wishes. They were filled with hope. Hope is something very different. Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.
To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God's love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, isa very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.
How do we wait? One of the most beautiful passages of scripture is Luke 1:39-56, which suggests that we wait together, as did Mary and Elizabeth. What happened when Mary received the words of promise? she went to Elizabeth. Something was happening to Elizabeth as well as to Mary. But how could they live that out?
I find the meeting of these two women very moving, because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. Mary's visit made Elizabeth aware of what she waiting for. The child leapt for joy in her. Mary affirmed Elizabeth's waiting. And then Elizabeth said to Mary, "Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled." And Mary responded, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" (Luke 1:45-46). She burst into joy herself. These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was aheppning that was worth waiting for.
The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible's most beautiful expressions of what it meanst to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening. This is what prayer is all about. It is coming together around the promise. This is what celebration is all about. It is lifting up what is already there.
(quotes via Henri Nouwen)