Advent (Day 5)

watching them

Perhaps the most difficult thing about darkness is that it tells us we are alone.

Darkness, it lies.

Long ago, the church began celebrating its new year during winter’s darkest days. This seems right and good, to me. It’s in times of darkness that we most need to be reminded that we do not wait alone.

Whether or not we’re able to attend church regularly, whether or not we’ve found a place to call our church “home,” and whether or not we truly feel at home there, we do not wait alone.

I believe that this is true, even on the days when it doesn’t feel true. Even on the days when I find community in the pages of a book written decades ago rather than in flesh-and-blood conversation.

In fact, waiting with others is the point of Christian community. One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen puts it well:

The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. … We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment – that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.” (from “A Spirituality of Waiting,” as written in my Book of Quotations)

Sometimes I feel lost in the darkness, whether it is a global darkness (famine, crimes against children, poverty) or the darkness that descends when I forget that life is not meant to be as complicated as I sometimes make it (with my buying, my rushing, my worrying).

Advent reminds me to slow down, to light my candle, to find comfort in the many candles lit around me, and to know, again, that if the only thing I do most days is wait patiently, with thanksgiving, then I have lived well.

 

 The Photographer,” otherwise known as Kelli Campbell, invites each of you to contribute your own Advent images to the Advent Flickr group. If you are not a photographer, we hope you will still join both of us there to watch as the season quietly unfolds in pictures.

 

We Are a Beloved Community

thaddeus

On Friday, our weekly pizza-and-a-movie night had to be postponed (and, yes, for those of you wondering, I make two: one deliciously normal for four of us, one dairy-free, wheat-free and “pizza” in name only for the middle child).

This middle child, our accident-prone five-year-old, had to be taken to the emergency room after a fall onto the cement floor of our garage. He came home late that same night happy to show off his new plastic dinosaur and the half-dozen staples on the back of his head.

I still remember, years ago, the preschool teacher who told me that if any child was going to fall into a puddle or trip on the curb it would be my son. Always. This has never stopped being true.

Twenty-four hours later, three of us kneel to receive communion. We prepare to remember death and taste resurrected life while the boy so recently knitted back together stands behind us. The boy who knows what death tastes like better than any of us. He does not yet receive the elements, but he is always given a short blessing, a gentle hand on his head.

Our servers are an elderly couple unfamiliar to me. They must be Sunday-morning regulars moonlighting at our Saturday-evening service. The husband places his hand on my son’s head and leans in close. He prays and prays until it seems that the attention of a whole room has condensed and fixed itself on this prayer for one small boy. I don’t remember a communion blessing that ever continued so long.

It is long enough for this memory: I am seven-months pregnant with my miracle baby, my-sewn-in-tears-and-reaped-in-joy son. I am filled up with a baby and with fear. Having waited so long for him, I am sure that this gift cannot be given with no strings attached. There must be some price, in pain, that I must pay. Until someone touches my own head and prays for me, and I see … well, I hardly know what I see, but it is as if my unborn son and his maker are alone together. Then I understand that I have only a peripheral role in the relationship between them, and I see that my love is small and weak compared with the love God has for the child he’s made.

Kneeling at the communion rail, I can see that the young couple next to me are also watching my son and the gray-haired man. I can see tears in her eyes and feel them in my own, and I know that this, this, is what it means to live in a beloved community. We have been so well-loved by God that our hearts break for how he loves everyone around us. We are loved, and we are loving, and our hands touching broken heads and fearful hearts are the hands of Jesus, always.

And the heavy burden of love that I carry for my son is shared. It is not, has never been, mine alone. Of course, my husband shares it, the firstborn (who runs to her room weeping as the car leaves for the emergency room) shares it, but Jesus also shares it and his beautiful church shares it.

We are a beloved community.

Why Life Shared is Life Abundant

Taken by Yours Truly at Chicago's Art Institute. This painting, with its people like stone columns, always reminds me that living in a crowd is not the same thing as living in community.

Our airplane tilts away over city rooftops, and I feel as if I am leaving home in order to return to a house. It is not an altogether blue feeling (it is a house inhabited by my favorite people, after all), but it is disorienting. An emotional confusion to match a physical one; as the plane banks, I can no longer tell if I am pointed toward ground or sky.

I’ve spent four days trying to understand what I left behind when I moved away from Chicago. It seems important to do this, because I do not yet know if my life is a straight line heading always away from it or a curve that will one day return. I think the only word for what has been lost is community, but that word seems beyond inadequate.

In Florida, when my husband leaves for a business trip, I lie awake wondering who I would call if one of the children had an accident or became suddenly ill. I know that there are people in our neighborhood and people in our church who would graciously, even eagerly, help out, but it would involve some tracking down of phone numbers and many apologies for having “bothered” them in the middle of the night.

Living in community meant that there were no apologies.

We frequently woke to midnight phone calls, whispered midnight prayers for friends in crisis, made beds on the floor for small children whose parents were racing to hospitals. I have rushed behind a curtain in the emergency room to find a friend sitting at my son’s bedside: the friend who held him down for the epi-pen, the friend who drove him to the hospital.

But community is so much more than a safety net.

It is a web of interdependence that is often uncomfortable, even painful. It is the downstairs neighbor who calls (again) because my children are pounding on her ceiling (again). It is the woman pushing the stroller down my street who asks me (again) for bus money. Walking near my old building this week, I saw her, remembered her, and was not at all surprised when she stopped me to ask for money. I passed her again on my last evening in Chicago, and she asked (again) for money. I hand over my bus pass knowing that she will always need, and I hope, for Jesus’ sake, that someone will always be there to give.

Community is trying to keep the kids quiet in the kitchen in order that the group of church ministry leaders meeting in the living room won’t be disturbed. Community is making the bed in the spare room for friends of friends. Community is waking up early to make them breakfast, too.

Community is being inconvenienced.

It is straightening up the living room in order to host a weekly gathering for a church small group when all you want to do is climb into bed. Community is when the unmarried, male graduate student from that same small group surprises you with home-cooked Indian food two weeks after your baby is born.

Community is life in abundance.

This is the gift of the one who made us (the one who said it is not good to be alone): to be poured out again and again in order to be filled again and again. Of course, I am not talking about martyring oneself so that bitterness and resentment destroy all hope of relationship. But I have seen that when I open my hands to give until it hurts I receive … oh, I receive so much in return.

On Sunday, I sat once again in my former church. I was joined by a friend, and we both had tears in our eyes just for the joy of sitting next to one another. She turned to me and whispered, “This is our life,” and I knew just what she meant.

This is our life: it is real, it is now, it is beautiful and difficult, and, above all else, it is shared.

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