The season of Advent is almost upon us. It begins this Sunday, December 3, and goes four weeks, culminating on Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas Day we move to a twelve-day season called Christmas-tide.
I’m new to the church calendar. I grew up in a church that hardly acknowledged the liturgical year. It has been only recently that I’ve leaned into the church’s traditional way of walking through the calendar year – by remembering the life of Christ.
During Advent we remember the many years, hundreds of them, that the people of God waited for God to redeem them. It is a sacred time set aside to remember and feel the pain and ache of those seasons when we have no choice but to wait, when it would be very easy to believe that God has abandoned us.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, a family member asked me if I’d write something about suffering. At first I had no idea what I’d write. But as I’ve been preparing my heart and mind for Advent, it struck me that maybe I do have a few somethings to say about suffering.
Suffering. Pain. Heartbreak. Powerlessness. All are words we use to describe deep feelings that tend to go beyond words, situations that have no easy solutions. Things that rent our hearts in two, things that stretch us into the most human parts of our humanity. When we are in seasons of pain and heartache, of overwhelming loss, almost nothing satisfies. It all hurts. Sometimes these seasons last years, and sometimes the consequences of these seasons last for what can feel like a lifetime.
For most of my life I believed Christianity was all about salvation. That the big idea of Christianity was that Jesus saves us from our sins and invites us to go to heaven when we die. Eventually, this slant of the Christian message exhausted me. It’s not that I don’t believe in sin or in the need for salvation, it was that I needed something more than a one-time ticket into heaven when I die. I needed help for the life I live right here, right now. A life where I’m doing my very best to love God and love my neighbor, where I’m trying my absolute hardest to give things up that hurt me and other people.
When I moved to Chile, I saw something different in faith, and over time it began to make its way into deep parts of me.
Perhaps it was the cultural difference, but to me, people seemed much more at home with pain and suffering, were more aware of poverty and injustice, and the hardships of life, and didn’t ignore it or rage against it like we do, instead they lived in it with quiet poise and dignity.
It’s not that they weren’t praying for God’s help, or asking for country-wide transformation, or standing against injustice. Over time, I realized that they were more at home with their humanity, and with long-suffering, than I was. The Chileans that I met had a resilience I lacked, a kind of comfort in reality that strengthens instead of cripples.
During my three years there, my life with God changed. My prayer life deepened. My life-expectations altered, and the way I waited on God shifted.
I have no idea what it is that you are going through. Some of my good friends are dealing with pain and suffering well beyond anything I could ever begin to imagine. One of my good friends is helping to raise her teenage daughter’s baby, a baby conceived through violence and cruelty. I have several friends battling cancer. Marriages have dissolved, long awaited dreams have shattered into pieces. Prodigal sons and daughters feel very much out of reach, and are lost to whatever choices they have made, choices we prayed they wouldn’t make. Money is scarce. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
How long must we wait, Oh God? Where the hell is God in all of this? Why hasn’t God helped? Nothing seems to be getting better.
If these are your questions, if these are your sorrows, I want to acknowledge that your pain is valid. You are not alone. I would also like to offer a couple simple things that helped me during a particularly dark time in my life.
The first is that faith is deeply communal, but it is also overwhelmingly personal. There are things that you share with the people of God in community, and there are things that you must bear alone, things you alone must wrestle through with God. There are certain pains, certain aches that no one can fix, and no trite bumper sticker slogan will ever help. This is your pilgrimage and yours alone. (I don’t want to minimize the importance of relationships. Real, authentic friendships help.)
The second thing that helped me on my faith pilgrimage, perhaps it is the only thing that makes any of it bearable is that God did not stay far off and separate, but came and sat in the dust heap with us. During times of great pain and heartache, the nearness of Jesus as our good friend, our companion on-the-way can become the bedrock of our faith. The one who collects our tears in a jar and sits quietly nearby.
If you are in a place where you feel like the lonely pilgrim, the one who is tired and weary of waiting, who feels crushed and angry, bitter or downtrodden, I pray that during this Advent, you might find renewal in the comforting companionship of Jesus.