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Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent and the Waiting Game

Burning candles from advent calendar Stock Photo1. Advent
The Advent season is now in full swing. I don't know about you, but sometimes I get this panicky feeling when I realize that Christmas is just around the corner. There is so much to do: shopping for gifts, innumerable Christmas parties to attend at school, sport clubs, church, getting organized for out-of-town guests, etc. This hustle and bustle seems to fly in the face of what the Advent season is all about: waiting. It used to be a season set apart for expectant waiting on the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

2. "Wait a minute!"
But waiting is not restricted to Advent and the Christmas season. Waiting is a universal phenomenon.
Ethan, my then six year old, was standing at my side while I was typing at the computer. He questioned me again about something he wanted. Honestly, I cannot even remember what it was about. "Wait a minute," was my answer to him. Upon hearing this he retorted: "Does 'wait a minute' always mean never, Mom?" Ouch.
Waiting is a common, universal human experience. It does not matter how old you are, what race you are, what gender you are, what country you are from. Waiting is and will always be part of your human experience. Waiting is also something we do not find easy because it reveals to us that we are not in ultimate control. Try to convince a newborn baby to wait on the next feeding, or a toddler to wait while food is on his highchair tray in front of him. Waiting on the delayed arrival of a baby still in the womb can be unbearable. Waiting for that perfect man to appear, or for a job offer or on exam results can be torture to us because we are neither in control of the passage of time nor of the certainty of the results.
Another difficulty we have with waiting, is that it never really comes to an end until we die. No sooner than we have received that for which we were waiting, we start waiting for the next thing. We always tend to believe that what comes next will be bigger and better than our current situation. As a child, I felt like I could hardly wait to be grown up because then, life would really start. When I was a student, I could hardly wait to graduate so I could be a part of the adult world, the real world. Once I graduated, I could hardly wait to find a husband because then I would be truly happy. Once I got married, I started thinking that having children would make me even happier. Once I had children and was in the baby stage, I started waiting with great expectation for the time when my child would finally sleep though the night. Once my children were toddlers, I could hardly wait for them to be old enough to speak, to be toilet-trained, to go to pre-school in the morning so I could finally have a little time to myself. And so it keeps going on and on....

3. Waiting involves longing
The truth is that waiting is such an existential part of our life, because waiting, at its core is about longing. There is an emptiness in us that makes us long for more, for something bigger and better that what we are or have now. We long for meaning and security. We long to be known and loved and appreciated. We long for beauty and justice. We long for things to be just right, or even perfect. That sense of longing can appear in all areas of our lives, be it relational, professional, emotional, physical, spiritual,  intellectual, you name it. Why do we long for things to be better? Is our human experience just about the survival of the fittest, as Darwinian, evolutionistic thought would tell us? One might agree that the desire to survive, to reproduce and protect oneself is part of the survival of the fittest...but what about the longing for love, and beauty and justice, dignity and self-sacrifice? These concepts cannot be explained from an atheistic, evolutionary vantage point because these things are completely irrelevant to the concept of survival of the fittest, in fact they even hinder it. My father recently wrote a birthday email to my son on his 14th birthday. I want to share a portion of it with you:
"I preached this morning from Psalm 8 (he is a minister) which teaches about the person of God and human dignity. I mentioned Eric Liddell, a Scotsman, winner of the men's 400 meters at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. He had the world record for the 100 meters but would not run in the finals because they were staged on a Sunday (you may recall this was the theme of the movie Chariots of Fire.)
The Japanese polytheists and the Chinese Marxist  63 years later recognized true human dignity in this man. After his Olympic success he went as a missionary to China, and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1943 where he served the sick and the dying, until, on  February 21, 1945, five months before liberation, he died of overwork and malnourishment. In 2008 near the time of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities revealed information from 1945 that had somehow been preserved by the Japanese that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. He gave his life to save this woman, and it only became known 63 years later. The Japanese were amazed and shared their amazement with the Chinese who made it known in 2008. That is the way Jesus lived. That is true maturity, and eventually people recognize it. You are in my prayers that you will have this goal, Christ-like maturity, always before you."
Darwinian survivalism leaves no room for this sort of behavior, nor can it explain it. Liddel surely had waited and longed for his own release, he probably fantasized about it in his daydreams. But when the time came, he was able to relinquish it and give his place to a pregnant woman. What enabled him to do that?

4. Waiting shows us we are made for something more
I would love to propose that the waiting we experience and the longing we feel when we have to wait is a sign to us that we were made for something more than just this world. Have you ever thought of that? If this world is all there is, why is it that we long for things this world can never really offer? C.S Lewis, a writer and Oxford professor wrote "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity). Another author, Saint Augustine, an early church father, wrote in a well-known prayer to God: "You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." 

5. That something more is God himself
This is an amazing proposition! God made us for himself! For relationship with him. The restlessness we experience comes from expecting other things to truly satisfy us and fill that God-shaped void.
The incident at the computer with my son Ethan got me thinking about God as our heavenly Father. He sometimes says "wait a minute" to us too. He is not a heavenly vending machine built to give us what we want,  when we want at the push of a button. Sometimes those minutes turn into weeks, months, or years. But the delay in his answer is not because he is too busy to deal with us, too wrapped up in himself to notice us or that our requests are unimportant to him. God certainly doesn't mean "never" when He says "wait." In fact, 99% of the Bible could be wrapped up in one word: "wait." Humans alienate themselves from God when they decide they know best...In fact, the very first human described in the Bible, Adam, made God his enemy when he failed to wait on God. He, being proud and impatient, took his life into his own hands. Yet, even after his great failure, God promised Adam that a descendant of his would reconcile humanity with God. Thousands of years later (now that's a long wait!), God sent his son, Jesus to this earth to do this very thing: to open up the way for us to have a relationship with God again. Through Jesus, who made a way for us by dying on the cross, the God-sized void in our hearts can be filled again.
Is there a longing in your heart that you recognize this day as a deep longing for God? If you do, the good news is that Jesus can satisfy that longing. All it takes is to recognize your emptiness, your need of him, believe that he paid for your sins on the cross and receive his forgiveness. When we do this, we receive a new identity as children of God. And when we have God's approval, we don't need to strive for the approval of men. When we have God's love, we can live without the love of a man. When we have God's forgiveness, we can afford to not take revenge on those who have harmed us. It is this new sense of fulfilled identity that gave Eric Liddell the ability to forfeit his freedom and give it to another. Jesus gives us everything we need for life and happiness. All of our longings can be satisfied in him because He promises us life in full. He also said that he would come again and set all things aright and that we would live with him forever. So even our desire for a perfect, peaceful and unending world filled with joy will be satisfied through Him someday. But for that, we have to wait. 

6. But wait...
I can hear your  skeptical question, because I have it too: So why do we still struggle with waiting even though Jesus has already come?
This answer may not satisfy you completely, but it does helps me in my doubts. The answer is really more of a question. Could it be that the waiting contains a message and a meaning almost just as significant as the answer itself? Waiting entails longing. Maybe not getting what we want right away forces us to long for God's presence instead of his presents. The Advent season and waiting for Christmas is not really a good analogy for me. Not that it is bad to "wait for Christmas" but, really, that's looking back to an event that already took place. Waiting for Jesus' return is a much more fitting, up-to-date biblical paradigm that challenges me to truly wait, walking by faith, not by sight. Jesus told us in the Bible that he would return "in a minute."
C.S Lewis describes that moment when our earthly waiting will come to an end in his children's book, The Last Battle which is a part of the Narnia Series. In this series, 4 children travel to a magical land called Narnia and encounter a Lion named Aslan, who is a picture of Jesus. In the last book, at the very end Aslan ushers the children into his country. This is what Lewis writes:
 “And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 
Waiting on Chapter One of the great story challenges us to trust him. To believe him. To wait on him. Can you and I live in the gap, between what we know to be true and what we believe will be true? Can we wait in this season of Second Advent, not with passivity but with action, like Eric Liddell, that shows we believe God doesn't mean "never" when he says "wait"?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Santa and the Antithesis of Christmas

I will never forget our first Saint Nicholas day here in Berlin. We invited our neighbors over for a nice Saint Nick's coffee time. They came dressed up in as Saint Nicholas and Knecht Rupert, his servant. Saint Nick was wearing the typical Father Christmas garb, and carried a sack of gifts. But Rupert was actually scary. He came dressed in brown, wearing an ugly mask and carrying a sack of coal and a whip. They both asked the kids whether they had been good or bad...Our kids were terrified and didn't know what to say! Before Saint Nick would give them anything, they had to answer that they had been good.

"According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes.  In other (presumably more modern) versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children useless, ugly gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also can be known to give naughty children a switch (stick) in their shoes for their parents to beat them with, instead of candy, fruit and nuts, in the German tradition." (From the very reliable source of Wikipedia!)

Another time, we were invited to spend Christmas with another German family. Santa came in with gifts, but before the children could receive them, they had to either sing a song for Santa, recite a poem or otherwise perform something before him. Our children, again, unused to this tradition, were petrified and had nothing prepared. Santa refused to give the children anything until they did. This experience was mildly traumatic for them.
All of these cultural tidbits reveal how counter-cultural grace is here, and I'd venture to say it is is similar in other cultures. Think of Santa's "naughty and nice" list... 

There are a number of problems with Santa's logic, compared to God's gospel logic in the message of Christmas:
1) We can never truly say that we've been good and deserve God's gifts.
2) We cannot clean up our act before God comes to us (kids here must clean their shoes before they set them out, or else Saint Nick may not leave any sweets in them)
3) There is no act we can perform to make God pleased with us in order to then receive his gifts.
4) Not only does he withhold the coal and the whip we deserve, he give us gifts we have not deserved.
5) God doesn't just give us material gifts. His greatest Christmas gift is the gift of his son Jesus, which promises peace with God and an intimate relationship with Him because what separated us from him was removed by Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
These truths should inform how we talk about Christmas to our kids and how we use "rewards" and "punishments" in our child-rearing. I need to think about it more. I see how a whole culture bases its value on its works and how deadly of a trap it is. I want my kids to know grace, undeserved grace and hope that experience would so delight them, that they'd understand the deep, deep love of their Savior. That and only that will motivate them to want to be "good."