Four days ago, we lit the Hope candle on our Advent wreaths, in the stillness of the sanctuary of our little just-over-two-year-old campus, full of rag-tag Christ-followers: A bunch of wounded healers. Right now, in the swirling wind, overcast snowy skies, and twinkling Christmas decorations, some of us are leaning in. As we lean in, we risk losing our comfortable spaces of cynicism. Yet we still move to the edge of our seats a bit more closely, warming our hearts in the glow of the flame of hope. Against the backdrop of anger and chaos, in the cold, early days of December, the bittersweet scent of longing summons those who have noses to smell. It draws us to something deeper, audacious, and slightly rebellious.
Dare we hope?
On November 30th, I began the day with a blood pressure that fell off the chart straight to the center of the earth. The nurses, intimidated and scared, challenged the cuff, only to find themselves mocked by another cuff that gave an even more shocking reading. “You couldn’t be standing with that blood pressure,” one declared. I quipped back with the irritably of someone with a 55/42 blood pressure, “It’s amazing what you can learn to tolerate with time.” When your body yo-yos between both extremes, life becomes an impossible high-stakes game of balance, and I for one have never in my life entertained the thought of becoming a tight-rope walker. So with a rare diagnosis, and an even rarer subtype of that diagnosis, I have a heart rate that one minute shoots above 200 and the next drops to the 50s or 40s, and the doctors and nurses are scratching their heads. Unable to accept an unsolvable case, they declare adamantly that there must be operator error. But deep down we all know it’s true: I’m sick, really overwhelmingly, scary sick, and no one can “fix me.”
So with the Hope candle lit, I hang my head over my Advent barf bucket as all of my systems angrily revolt.
With tears of pain, anger, and utter exhaustion running down my face, I fall flat on my face in my prayer closet, and I scream with the grief of my countless malfunctioning, God-breathed cells.
I challenge God. I beg for answers to a million questions.
And my prayers span out to a global perspective, reaching into the lives of the suffering ones that have intersected my own. I scream and wail on behalf of sweet three-year-old Rowen, who happens to be throwing up constantly today as well, her body revolting as her heart remains in failure, as she is perched precariously at the top of the transplant list at UCLA Children’s Hospital.
And we try to wrap our minds around the words of the transplant team, that more hearts come up available for transplant throughout the holidays because so many people are traveling.
We are in Advent, a time when more deaths occur than any other time of year. How do we reconcile this? How do we hold space for this reality?
Come, Lord Jesus.
Tears for Rowe intermingle with tears for my precious friend, my namesake, who lost her infant to SIDS this past summer. Four-month old Amelia Reece (Millie) will forever be four months old (143 days on the planet). And they must “celebrate” Christmas with a yawning chasm the size of the grand canyon left by a tiny treasure of a life. And I scream in my closet with all of the energy that a super sick, exhausted momma can muster, “THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE!”
And we declare with confidence that Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
We are searching the skies. Not for Santa. He’s not enough.
Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
Oh, the agony of the tension. The reality of suffering is entirely suffocating. These earthen vessels are chipped, full-out-broken, or shattered into millions of pieces. We chuckle darkly at the naive idea of Christmas magic, and we snuff out our candles and linger in hesitation before we tell Alexa to turn off the Christmas tree lights at the close of the night.
In our split second of hesitation, we decide to risk it, so we apologetically utter a prayer: Maybe, God, just maybe, could you send a tiny ray of hope? Could you possibly subtly wink in my direction, just perceptible enough for me to make it through the night?
It’s not sleigh bells. It doesn’t come in the twinkle of chimes in the background like a Hallmark channel Christmas movie. But I am finding the clues. I’m finding the rays of hope in the shifting of the late afternoon light in our kitchen windows. God meets me in my unfiltered guttural groans with a supernatural blanket of peace that settles on my shoulders, soothing the exhausted bones and muscles of this broken body. He shows up in the unsolicited texts or calls of interceding friends who somehow feel the nudge of the Spirit just at the perfect moment. Emmanuel makes Himself visible in the dancing eyes of my children in our daily family Advent readings. Hope shows up in the heart-felt connections in the fellowship of the suffering, as we share “me too” moments in our prayer times after worship team practice. Redemption shines through the cracks left by our brave moments of vulnerability.
Here’s what we know about Christmas in light of our wrestling match with hope and the truth of the gospel:
Christ came to redeem: (A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices!*)
I love-hate the already/ not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God: Christ came. He conquered the power of death eternally. He unleashed the Helper, the Comforter, the Spirit of Peace in the world and our hearts. Praise God, we are not ruled by sin and death. We have the Spirit within us, around us, comforting, carrying, and shepherding our weary souls.
All is still not right: (His law is love, and His gospel is peace–clearly not happening at the moment*)
We share the fruit of Eden. We live in a world not yet fully redeemed, where the prince of lies continues to wreak havoc, where hurt runs rampant and darkness still tries to clobber the light. We live in a world where babies die, nature destroys towns, nations destroy one another, and people mercilessly exploit the weak and vulnerable. We limp around in broken bodies, longing for wholeness, where not every miracle we pray for comes to fruition, and we don’t for the life of us understand why. The more we learn, the more we realize how painfully ignorant we are.
Christ will return. (At His name all oppression shall cease*)
The mystery of the second coming hangs like a threat to some and a promise to others. But deep down, we ache for Christ’s final return. We are different from the Israelites waiting for the Savior, but we also share a deep kinship with them. As we sing, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” if we are honest, we can sing it in the present tense. The King is coming again to complete what He began, and all wrongs will be absolutely made right. Hearts will be fully and completely healed. Longings will be fulfilled. We will be made whole. The liar will be silenced, and the Prince will establish total and complete peace.
Advent: A season shrouded by mystery and guided by certainty in the person and promise of Christ; A season that slows us enough to remember the longing, the gift, and the promise; A season for the hurting, lonely, longing, and aching hearts to pour out their cries to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Friends, all is not yet set right. But we have an ever-present God who dwells among us because God put on skin, defeated death, and left the Spirit as a deposit in this world until His final return. We have the profound and wonderful privilege of living victoriously through the power, comfort, counsel, and direction of the Holy Spirit in a broken world until God restores all creation back to complete reconciliation with Himself. Because of Christ, the Kingdom is here, among us; and the Kingdom in its fullness is yet to come. Praise God for the truth of our Hope in Christ!
Lyrics taken from “Oh Holy Night”, Cappeau, Placide, 1847.