I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospital and clinic waiting rooms. Sometimes I’m there as a nurse accompanying a patient or a friend, sometimes I’m there with a family member, sometimes I’m there for myself.
I don’t know many people (beyond those who have chosen the health field as professionals) that actually like going to hospitals or clinics. People are rarely in those waiting rooms because they want to be. They are there out of necessity. They know they are hurting and they’ve come for help. They know there is something not right with their bodies and their response is to do something.
Clinic and hospital waiting rooms are a community of the broken and wounded. Time stops, frozen as it were with only the moment important. We rely on kind professionals who are strangers to walk us through the steps of our procedure or surgery. Though nervous, we wait with hope and expectation that there is an answer, a treatment, a reason for why we are hurting. We wait with faith, even when the odds seem so against us. As we leave, we glance at the time in surprise. “How did it get so late so soon?”
We want to believe that we will get better, that the darkness of sickness and the pain in our bodies will not be forever, that we will one day be well.
How like this time of Advent, where we recognize our need for help, where we wait in nervous expectation for God to show up. We wait with faith, knowing that the Incarnation is a living reality, not a half written fairytale. We sit in the shadows, knowing that there will be light.
We too are a community of the hurting and the broken, welcomed not by a kind professional who is a stranger, but by a God who promises rest for the weary, hope for the hopeless one, and light in the dark shadows of life.
As we sit in this sacred space of God’s waiting room, we are not alone. Instead, we are part of a worldwide community waiting in the shadows for light we have been assured will come. And with this, we have the awesome privilege to “participate in communion with the global church in awareness of our desperate need for light.”*
“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.
I heard the rain falling during the night and woke to it in the early morning. Unbeknownst to us, a nor’easter had been heading our way and landed Saturday morning bringing buckets of rain to our area and feet of snow to other parts of the state.
We suspended our prior plans to go get a Christmas tree today, opting instead for the comfort of a dry, warm home. I sit in the living room, looking out to the rain drenched earth. Like an artist’s paint palette, all the windows are splattered with drops of rain, creating patterns that change with every drop. My Advent candle is lit and I have just begun the process of bread making.
Process is a good word to describe bread making. It takes steps of proofing, measuring, mixing, and kneading. And then you wait. After the dough rises in a warm room, I punch it down and wait again. It’s not time. It still needs another rise. Still later, I punch it down again, form it into loaves and wait while it rises again. Finally, it’s time to put it into the oven.
Breadmaking is a perfect Advent activity. It reminds me of the importance of waiting, not rushing. It reminds me that the process is sometimes as important as the content, that it will be worth the wait when I take out the beautiful loaves of bread.
As I wait for the bread to rise, I’m reminded of the waiting in my childhood. While growing up, I knew what it was to wait. We would wait for hours in trains, when cars broke down, for monotonous sermons to end. We would wait with tears for the end of the boarding term, we couldn’t wait to fall into the arms of our parents and their undconditional love for us. Living in a country where people were valued over time and efficiency, where it took a long time for anything to happen, I learned how to wait.
In more recent years I have lost the art of waiting and in this space, I can confess that I find waiting incredibly hard. I realize when I am asked to wait how much I am a product of the culture where I am now living. And if it is indeed an art, it is an art I want to relearn.
Waiting for bread to rise. Waiting for Advent. Waiting for God to show up. Waiting. It’s not time. God’s waiting room is a sacred space. A sacred space where time is not allowed to predict or dictate outcomes. A space to not hurry, to be okay with process, to learn to live faithfully in the in between.A sacred space where time is not allowed to predict or dictate outcomes.
The sacred space of God’s waiting room was where Simeon, that old prophet in a temple long ago waited. Every day he waited until he could speak words of promise and release. “Now that I have held you in my arms, my life can come to an end. Let your servant now depart in peace, for I’ve seen your salvation, He’s the light of the Gentiles, and the glory of your people, Israel.”*
Along with Simeon was the prophetess Anna, who prayed and fasted, who never left the temple. She too was in the sacred space of God’s waiting room. We don’t know how many years they waited, but we know it was a long, long time. They faithfully continued living in God’s waiting room until their hopes were fulfilled and they met the Christ Child.
Waiting. Scanning the horizon for the Messiah. Waiting in the sacred spaces. This is the journey of Advent and waiting is what we do.
Today, those of us who are Christians enter into a season of waiting – the season of Advent.
Advent comes at the end of November and into the dimming light of December. In the Northern hemisphere, days are shorter and grayer and shadows linger. For those of us who love light, it is tempting to push aside the darker days, brightening them with as much light as possible. Waiting in the dark is long and hard.
Yet I know many right now who are doing just that. They are waiting in the dark.
They are waiting for jobs that never seem to come, interviews that are few and far between with the dreaded “Although you are well qualified, we have decided to move forward with another candidate,” that comes every time. Unemployment is their long journey in the dark. Others are waiting for a body scan to show cancer in remission instead of the continual need for chemotherapy. Still others wait for a child to return home, or at least return their texts. There is the waiting for death, which they’ve been told is not far off – and yet, they hurt with the pain of a body that used to serve them well and now fails them at every step. They are waiting for visas and for borders to open. They are waiting for ceasefires – for bombings to stop and a semblance of peace to be restored.
Added to this is the world’s waiting for a vaccine, for a pandemic that has taken over people’s lives, friendships, and emotions to end.
Into this waiting comes the season of Advent. Advent is another waiting in the dark. The difference is that unlike these other situations, Advent is like a tunnel where we see the light at the end. Not only do we see the light, we know and long for this light.
But we are at the beginning of the tunnel and it will take time to reach the end. And so we wait.
And as we wait, we walk toward the light. We walk with expectation and anticipation toward the coming – the coming of hope, the coming of light, the coming of God, birthed in the flesh.
God did not throw us alone into an empty universe. He did not place us on a tiny planet where he afterward forgot all about us. No! He entered into our life, our history. He himself came to us, not merely to save us, but to clothe us with His grace, to transform us according to his likeness.
Father Maximos on November 29 at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church
In this next month, I will be writing each Sunday of waiting, of expectation, of Advent. I would love for you to join me! For companions in my journey I have chosen these two books: Shadow & Light by Tsh Oxenreider and Let all Creation Rejoice by Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis.
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Every morning I get a news brief from the Council of Foreign Relations. The news brief is a short summary of what’s going on in the world. I strategically read it with a frothy homemade latte. The irony of that is not lost on me. I sit in comfort reading what is usually difficult news from around the world.
I read about the United Nations preparing for mass displacement from conflict in Ethiopia, how hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. I read about how the insecurity of the entire continent of Africa is at stake with this crisis. I read about how Egypt’s human rights leader has been arrested, a government crushing dissent. And then there is pandemic news from every part of the globe.
The fact that I’m safe, drinking a great and frothy cup of coffee only serves to make me feel more depressed, more helpless.
And that’s the thing – in the face of all this, we are helpless. There is little most of us can do to make any of these situations better. It would not help for us or anyone involved to get on a plane to go to the heart of the conflict in Ethiopia.. When my oldest brother was in Pakistan helping in earthquake relief he told me of a group that sent hundreds of people to Pakistan. He said there were around 250 people wandering around the hillside with no language skills, no knowledge of Pakistan, and no knowledge of humanitarian aid. It was a disaster, but they all went home with good pictures of the tragedy.
It’s the book of Kings where I find comfort today. For those not familiar, these are books in the Old Testament. They are full of blood shed and violence, full of stories of tragedies, full of the sordid tales of leaders and others doing evil things.
These books tell the narrative of the different Kings of Israel and Judah. The books begin with David’s death and sweep us through history looking at every King. I’ve no idea what scholars say about the books of Kings but it strikes me that the theme is simple; really simple.
Either they did what was good, or they did what was evil. There is no ambiguity. We are told their names and immediately after their names we have an assessment of their lives. They either chose to do right or they chose to do wrong.
Could it be that simple? Could it be that I complicate my life far more than I need when it’s really about choosing God and good? About recognizing that there can be a thin line between evil and good, and if I am in the habit of choosing good, then the thin line becomes a lot thicker?
Could it be that in the middle of these worldwide tragedies that are so far away in distance, and yet so close to all of us in terms of news reports, that what I am called to is to choose good?
Is it that simple?
I can’t help in any of these parts of the globe but I can commit to good in my small corner of Boston. I can commit to integrity today. I can commit to not comparing myself to strangers on the internet, to not getting lost in envy today. I can commit to reaching out via technology to someone in my world who I know is not doing well. I can be faithful in the immediate, which I’ve found will lead to being faithful later. I can’t do a lot, but I can choose good.
The moments of choosing good add up. In God’s strategic economics the equation seems simple, but like Einstein’s E = mc2 it has lasting impact.
It really is that simple.
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
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November in the Northeast of the United States colors gray. Though there are some bright days of sun and leftover reds and golds from a brilliant October, those aren’t as common as the more dull days that whisper of a winter coming and shout of a summer long gone.
And today colors grayer than gray. Though it began with a brilliant sun shining through our kitchen windows, the sun faded out of sight with thick clouds taking over.
The first question that came at me this morning was from an app that I have been using called “Soul Space.” This five minute meditation focused on “anchoring your thoughts to the love of God” is a beautiful way to ground me after my morning prayers. The question was one that quickly brought tears to my eyes.
“Ask your soul: Where does it hurt?”
Where does it hurt? Where are the painful spots in my soul today? The spots that others don’t see as I go about life. Through the meditation, listeners were invited to put their hands over their hearts and listen to where it hurt.
I felt like I was putting a stethoscope up to my soul to find the wounds and murmurs. I hadn’t realized how much my soul was hurting until I stopped to listen. Tears filled my eyes, and I brushed them away impatiently. But it was no use. They came again and I gave in to their therapeutic healing.
None of us can go through much of life before encountering soul wounds. We can keep busy and ignore them, but sometime they will catch up to us.
This pandemic season they have caught up with us. This time has revealed some deep soul wounds in many of us and we are feeling their weight. Loneliness, isolation, lack of community, division among friends and families, changes in friendships, marriage tensiton, online strife, not seeing family and friends for extended periods – all of this is taking its toll on our bodies and our souls. We are a hurting people who don’t know how to help.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me a poem. Since that time I’ve seen in quoted many times in many places, proof of it resonating across the world.
later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt?
it answered everywhere everywhere everywhere.
And though I love the poem, I don’t believe we are left hurting alone. I have come to know that there is a wound healer that comes beside us and enters our soul wounds, if we are willing.
And so I imagine God picking up that same atlas in an embrace of love, running his fingers across the whole world and whispering these words:
I heal the broken hearted, and bind up their wounds.
I whisper hope into your soul wounds and give you joy.
I take your burdens and make them lighter, invite you into a resting place.
The atlas replied "But it hurts so much."
"I know" he whispered back.
"But let me bear it with you so you will not be alone,"
Ever so slowly the atlas responded to the embrace.
It still hurt, but she was no longer alone.
And so she rested.
There are days as a mom of adult kids where you miss your children so much that you physically ache. You feel it in your bones. It’s not the sharp pain of an acute appendicitis, rather, it’s the dull ache of arthritis. You remember each labor and delivery, the final push that ushered them into the world. You remember gazing at those eyes, nose, ears, mouth completely in awe of the mystery of birth, the mystery of motherhood.
You know in that moment of birth that you will never forget. Never. That these tiny humans that lived in your womb for nine months, sometimes more and sometimes less, are connected to you in an unfathomable mystery.
You know also, though you don’t want to think about it, that they are yours for only a time. After that, who’s to know?
You break inside for the knowledge that the world will sometimes hurt your child. You know this, because you are an adult and the world has not always been kind to you.
The years go by – some interminably slow, others far too fast. And then – they are adults.
You love the conversations. You love watching them with their friends. You love the unique place they hold in the world. You love watching them connect and find their place. And yet, they are no longer in your house. The daily check ins of “when will you be home?” no longer apply. This is when you know that when your mother says on the phone “I love you more!” it’s true. For you now know the immeasurable love of a mother for her children.
Parenting is a dance and you are in the stage called ‘slow jazz.’
I think about this today as I look at pictures on my shelf. I smile at each kid as though they are present when the reality is far different. I think about the parenting dance, the way it begins as a slow dance or ballet. The music is beautiful and haunting. That baby we take home from the hospital, from the orphanage, from the foster care system comes into our lives, and while everything changes, it’s a slow change. We have anticipated this for a long time. The baby blankets and onesies are purchased and waiting. We have bought or borrowed a crib for the little one. The curtain goes up and the ballet begins.
Every movement of that first baby feels recorded in our hearts and memories, it seems like forever. The first smile, the day they sleep through the night, their eating, pooping, sleeping habits all weave their way into our lives.
As another child comes the music changes and the slow dance stops, replaced by the chicken dance where there’s little grace, just a lot of squawking and moving. It’s fun but it’s exhausting.
Middle years are the Macarena and Bollywood. There’s a rhythm and grace and fun. You got this thing. You can criticize other parents because wow – your kids are amazing and their kids? Better beware because they are headed straight to the state penitentiary by way of the principal’s office. But not yours. Oh. No. Yours are amazing and talented and oh you are so thankful for Grace. The Grace given to you of course – not that bestowed on others.
Every parent thinks they dance well during the middle years!
Then the teen years come and you bow humbly even as the dance changes from the Macarena and Bollywood (which you love) to that of rock and roll where your head is splitting and you don’t understand the words but you think you caught a swear in there. It’s so fast you are spinning. The activities, the angst, the long talks punctuated by angry silence, the fun yet exhausting dance of rock and roll.
And then comes parenting adult children.
And suddenly it all changes. It becomes like jazz music: you agree on the notes and then you improvise. Negotiation becomes a key word. The parental dance goes back and forth between being too worried and too involved and throwing your hands up saying “Well, it’s their life!” But even though you throw those words around, you are always there waiting. When the text comes at midnight, you hear the buzz. When the call comes in early morning hours, you know to take it. When they make decisions you disagree with, you know that you love them fiercely and will love and pray for them until the day you die.
Slow jazz is in the background, but no longer a central part of your life. The furniture is rearranged and the house echoes with empty. You miss them deep in your soul, but you know you’ve raised them with wings to fly and they are exercising those wings well.
There are times when you pour over photo albums and you remember when they were so little. And you think “I thought they were so big. I expected so much out of them.” But you realize now that they were so little and the world was so big.
And though the dance has changed dramatically through the years, you pray that even as you occasionally stumble and fall you will dance every step with grace.
Note: Excerpts from this were first published in 2014.
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