The Waiting is the Hardest-and Most Wonderful–Part…

What follows is my usual theological reflection that I include in our Christmas newsletter. If you haven’t received yours yet, consider this your spoiler alert. Otherwise, inasmuch as possible, enjoy… 
With Advent upon us, and Christmas just around the corner, we once again find ourselves in the season of waiting, and for this I am glad. It was just two years ago, after all, that Kirsten and I were quite literally waiting for the birth of our own dear son, and so that Advent season was especially magical. Then, of course, eager to beat Jesus to the punch, suddenly Samuel was here– four whole months early– and one kind of waiting came to an end as another began. After his early birth, instead of waiting for Samuel to come to be among us we waited with Samuel to discover if God would let him stay– and what it would mean for Samuel and for us if God did. Those four months of watching and waiting with Samuel during his NICU stay were surreal, to say the least, and I have no doubt that all of us will forever be marked by that time. The question, I guess, is how we will be marked, and what it all means for us now as we keep struggling to move forward.
Before trying to answer that question, however, I’d like to go back to the waiting described above because this season of the year is obviously a profound reminder of that season in our lives. In 2006 we are waiting for Jesus to come, just as we were in 2004. We are waiting for the realization of the promise of Immanuel even as we work to live as if the hope of “God with us” has already been accomplished in us. This is a paradox, a mystery, which I for one have grown tired of wrestling with and am content merely to “be” with– to attend to. God’s kingdom is upon us, because Jesus has come. God is with us, as the angels, and shepherds, and mystics from the East all attest, even these thousands of years later. Yet if God is love, and Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of that love– the “yes” to all of God’s promises– then it is hard not to feel as if the joyous hope that accompanies his flesh-and-blood arrival among us is now muted, diluted, and dashed. Just what kind of a kingdom is this, anyway? To say that it is “not of this world” is a profound understatement, for this world looks an awful lot like it did before the Messiah’s arrival, which is to say that it still looks pretty awful, indeed. Just ask an Iraqi peasant, or a U.S. soldier, or an underprivileged kid on the streets of Philly. So what do you do when you don’t quite get what you hoped for, or you do, but what you hoped for comes unexpectedly…too early…too small…too weak perhaps even to live?
When this happened for us with Samuel, there wasn’t much we could do but go on waiting, and watching, and praying. The event of his birth (and many related events afterwards) were so big, and scary, and hard, that merely “showing up,” literally and figuratively, was more than enough for us to handle, especially after the doctors told us on his 2nd day of life that he probably wouldn’t live to see day three. Even so, we did show up, of course, at Samuel’s bedside, sometimes without having left from the night before, and day 2 became day 3, and then day 4, and one day bled into another until there had been 115 days in the NICU. Along the way, we began to hope again, and by Spring Samuel came home, after which there was a lot more waiting and watching to be done as he slept (during the day) and we listened to his monitor through many sleepless nights for the reassuring sounds that told us our son was still with us. Now, two years later, by the grace of God Samuel (which means “God hears”) is still with us and it is a joy merely to speak his name for indeed God has heard our prayers for his life and well-being.
Of course, Jesus keeps showing up, too…as a baby in a manger on this and every Christmas, and as that still, small voice that whispers just beyond your hearing, calling you to live, to dream, to hope again.
Isn’t it amazing how God seems so frail as that baby in a manger, so small and weak and powerless in the arms of Mary and Joseph? And yet in Christ the hopes and fears of all the years do indeed find their fulfillment, and this is a wondrous thing. Our hopes are fulfilled because it turns out that God, the creator, the ongoing source of each and every breath we take, is not so far off after all. He is with us. He knows us not just from the inside out but from the outside in as if he were standing in front of us, and for those first century Palestinians- miracle upon miracle- he was! Yet GOD IS NOT SO FAR OFF AFTER ALL! He who has counted every hair on our head before it comes (and in my case, goes), he who has counted every star, every grain of sand, is standing before us, and his mere presence forces us to come to terms with just how frail and small and weak and powerless we all so often are. This, I think, is where the fear comes in. Yet God does not judge us for our weakness. Instead, he quite literally embodies it and it isn’t long before Christmas leads to the cross.
As you know, though, this is not the end of the story. Amazingly, the cross leads to the resurrection, and in this we finally see the true character of God’s judgment, and of God himself. If, as I like to say, God made us in and for love, because God is love, then this means that we were made for relationship– right relationship– with God, one another, and the world. Yet love requires the freedom to choose, including the choice to reject love, to reject God, to run away from right relationship…in other words…to sin. If, as the theologians like to say, sin causes separation from God and that separation is the most hellish thing imaginable, then the cross tells us that God would rather die than let it continue, and the resurrection tells us that death is no match for a love that would compel God to walk among us in the first place, and then die rather than be apart from us.
So God keeps showing up, calling us to live in the love that he made us for. Every day as parents to Samuel we keep showing up too, and each of those days that Samuel keeps showing up we rightly regard as a gift, a miracle, something that might not have been. And this, I guess, answers the question of how our time of watching and waiting with Samuel before and after his birth, and watching and waiting with Jesus even now, continues to mark us today. Our life together as a family made up of myself, Kirsten, Jesus, and Samuel- for however long we have together on this Earth- is a profound and miraculous gift and it is one which enables us to see both the smaller and larger miracles in our lives. The smaller miracles are of course life itself, each and every breath, each hug and handshake, each laugh and each precious tear. As Buechner writes, “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” String those moments together, of course, and the larger miracles begin to emerge as love happens so often in spite of us, conquering our fears, overcoming death itself.
In the meantime, and especially now, we watch and wait expectantly, knowing that once again Jesus will soon be among us, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, to which I say– come, Lord Jesus, Come.


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