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.
The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.
Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.
Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.
It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.
As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.
The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.
This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”
Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.
Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.
This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.
Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.
Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.
I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.
I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.
The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.
We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.
And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.
Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.
So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.
Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.
Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!
‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!
#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!
My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.
I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice. I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.
‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.
And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.
God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”
My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.
It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.
I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.
We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.
In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.
The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.
Starlight shines, the night is still Shepherds watch from a hill I close my eyes, see the night When love was born
Perfect child gently waits A mother bends to kiss God’s face I close my eyes, see the night When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace Loves come down for you and me Heaven’s gift, the holy spark To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door Came the hope we’ve waited for The world was changed forevermore When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night When love was born*
On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!
“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”
This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.
“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’
At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.
But then we become the lucky ones.
We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”
Quote from my friend Jo:
I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.
“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”
Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.
And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS Lewis – The Four Loves
It’s early Monday morning and the house is dark and quiet. I wake up slightly anxious with what I know to be a Monday morning dread. I turn our Christmas tree lights on as watchful cats curl up on the couch, nocturnal beasts carefully observing all around them.
It has been a full weekend. Baking, cleaning, readying our home for an annual open house to reconnect with friends from our different worlds; introducing dear friends to Eritrean food; connecting with our younger daughter over delightfully shallow Hallmark Christmas movies.
It all crashed down on me well after I was supposed to be in bed and asleep. Despite the full weekend of connecting, I’m caught in a vice-like grip of worry for those I love. Crashing against a tired body was a tired heart, a heart lost in tears that quickly dried leaving salt on my cheeks, only to come again with more force.
And it came to me again, like it has thousands of times in the past, to love is to hurt. To love my kids is to hurt for their pain, to rage at some of their choices, to delight in their successes, to weep at their tragedies. To love my adopted country means to weep that terrorists attacked a church, killing and wounding the innocent. To love my dad means to hurt that he is gone. To love my friends means to share in their trouble, to laugh in their joy. To love means to get tired from caring, to feel weary from listening. To love is to hurt.
During my childhood, I often heard about the disease called leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. This disease is not well-known, but growing up in Pakistan, I knew that there were places called leper colonies – places to quarantine those with leprosy. The disease carried a huge stigma and much was unknown about both causes and treatment of leprosy. The main thing I knew about leprosy was that the nerves were damaged and affected people’s ability to feel pain. Since they couldn’t feel pain, they would end up with sores and burns on their bodies, particularly their feet and hands.
Even as a little girl, through knowing about leprosy, I knew that pain was a good thing. Pain was a signal that the body’s nerves were working.
I think about this as I think about the pain that I feel when those I love hurt. I think about the pain that God feels when his creation suffers and hurts.
Despite the tears, despite the inability to ‘fix’ things, despite the paralysis that often comes with these feelings, I will pick the pain of love every time, because I know the numb apathy of an ice-cold heart and ultimately that is far more damaging. This pain I feel is proof that my heart is alive, alive with God-given feeling; proof that my life is full, full of people and places that I love.
This pain is proof that I desperately need God. God, who reaches through pain and worry with a promise of redemption. God, who takes sleepless nights with tears and turns them into joy in the morning.
This pain is proof that I need Advent, I need the coming. I need the incarnation. I need to know that God became man to walk where we walked, to know our pain, to comfort us in the dark of night and in the light of day.
I need to know that my tears are heard, my heart is known, my pain is valued.
On Friday, I read this from Ann Voskamp, and on this Monday morning when reality bites a little harder than it did yesterday, I leave it with you:
“You are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. You are not alone.
Because he says to everyone with their unspoken broken: Come.
He says to the unlikely: Beloved
He says to the weary: Rest
In a brokenhearted and beautiful world, His grace is the only pillowed relief for the tired soul to rest in this season — making all broken things into resurrected things.”Ann Voskamp