Anticipation and the Dilemma of Advent
This fall, John and I took our annual vacation and combined it with some of next year’s vacation (thank you, Global Ministries) for an extended visit to the US.
We requested extra time primarily to greet our first grandchild, Noelle Josephina, born 11 September. Her birth helps us to transform 9-11 from a date of trauma in US history to a date that also marks this wonder of family joy. Rocking Noelle, asleep in my arms, for long periods offered release from agendas that often tense my body and being. Cradling her brought visceral gratitude, peace that passeth understanding. God came to me in the form of this child, no less real in her distressed screams, protesting what she could not comprehend, let alone articulate. Listening to her cries, I was also reminded of the prolonged distress of so many incredulous citizens at the injustices and hatreds that perpetuate themselves, not just in the US, but also in Indonesia, with ever renewed intensity. It is not only peace that passeth understanding, but cruelty as well.
I am now in liminal limbo in Singapore where we must pick up a new Indonesian visa, fighting jetlag rather than accepting it. I recall the outbound journey, so full of anticipation at meeting Noelle. The adrenaline of excitement was more a steady flow than a rush that helped us get our ducks in a row before we left our home in West Timor. But now the emotional valence is more ambiguous. On one hand, I anticipate reunion with loved ones on this side of the world, and look forward to reconnecting with meaningful work. We are returning to newly- elected Synod leadership (GMIT’s past Moderator, Rev. Mery Kolimon, and past Secretary, Rev. Yusuf Nakmofa, were re-elected to second terms) and the opportunity for new ministerial directions. I look forward to completion of several editing projects—one a friend’s reflection on indigenous practices of disaster mitigation on the island of Sabu, one a joint project on women, past conflict, and peace in eastern Indonesia. Yet as I cross the equator from north to south, I grieve the loss of opportunity to be closer to the lives of loved ones in the US. I suppose it’s a bit like a grandmother’s version of post-partum blues. I so longed to shower physical love on this grandbaby, but after the anticipation and those moments of encounter have passed, what now?
I couch this ambiguity in the context of Advent. Our liturgical rehearsal brings us to annual commemorations of Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. Now that we have returned to the beginning of the Gospel story, how do we anticipate what we already know and have experienced repeatedly? What can be the nature of our anticipation when we grieve the loss of connection, the physical proximities of love, or, moving from the personal to the political, the possibility of a common good when the visions have become so murky?
Preaching on John the Baptist’s proclamation, Rev. Petrus Budi Setyawan of Orchard Presbyterian Church in Singapore reminded me that I need to shift my Advent focus from anticipation to preparation. An aspect of preparation, he emphasized, is not to draw attention to one’s self for the glory of Christmas is Christ’s alone. Yet the dilemma of Advent abides. Whether I reflect on anticipation or on preparation, I remain perplexed: How do we, how do I, prepare for that which is, but is not yet? What meaning does this paradox offer? This is not an issue of “you never know the time or place” of Christ’s Second Coming, but rather an issue of preparing for accountability to my children and my granddaughter for failures and family habits that do not serve them well in these days. It is an issue of accountability for us, as church, to the world in which we live. The witness we bear must be one of accountability for social and economic structures that break lives.
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Advent has never been the space of Canaan’s milk and honey, but rather a desert. It is there we must make our preparations. My own spiritual desert is one of cowardice, for avoiding rather than initiating the difficult conversations and behaviours needed to begin straightening what is crooked; for acknowledging those spaces segregated by race, class, gender and sexual orientation, culture, religion, education, experience, and age; and for healing broken relationships, both personal and political.
Courage to confront and engage with uncomfortable otherness is a faith stance that must be continually nurtured, yet impossible to exercise on all fronts simultaneously. In the effort to balance the many dimensions of my life—meaningful relationships on both sides of the world, identities shaped by different contexts and work responsibilities, and more—I come to see that Advent is also Benediction as time and energy for one commitment or relationship gives way to another. When we prepared ourselves in October to leave behind work commitments and house projects for a time of renewal with family in the US, we left with the anticipation of return to our community of faith in Indonesia. It was an assured anticipation that facilitates preparation for greater accountability. In like manner, I anticipate with assurance a return to family, and the opportunity to forge new relationships of faith, in the US. Noelle, my love, God be with you ‘til we meet again.
John Campbell-Nelson serves the Evangelical Christian Church of West Timor. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, OGHS, and your special gifts.