What Am I Waiting For?
What am I waiting for?
It is the beginning of December 2020 and the second week of Advent in the Christian liturgical year (now the third week, but who's counting?). This year will be one for the history books, and we still have three weeks to go, and no one is quite sure that will happen next. So, everyone is waiting for the year to be over, waiting for change, waiting for a return to normalcy, waiting for the adults to take over, waiting for a vaccine.
So many things to wait for that are just around the corner. Advent, yikes, is a season of waiting. Or at least, that is what I am hearing. In the Christian liturgical cycle, it is the time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. That historic in=breaking of God into humanity as a newborn infant. A time to reflect on the traditions and stories from the Christian Gospels Matthew and Luke. Stories that seem to be different from one another and yet attempt to give a beginning to the human life of the person Jesus of Nazareth. Place him connected to the Jewish people's story and their covenant relationship with the one true God. Make him more than just another Jewish prophet, rabbi, or sage, quoting texts from the Hebrew Scriptures to validate the traditions of Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Connections to David's royal line, links to the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem, references God's universal revelation to all humanity.
So, we read the stories, hear the voices of the prophets, and wait. Not so much wait on Jesus to be born, although that is part of it. We also wait for that soon and not yet of the return of Christ. The manifestation of the fulfillment of God's promises to the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus called the Christ by extrapolation. The writers make a great deal of effort of all the Christian Scriptures' documents to expand the historical traditions and religion of Judaism and write them over, extended them to Gentile outsiders, and removed them from the actual Jewish people themselves. At the end of the Gospels, a promise made by Jesus that he will return soon. The disciples/apostles take that to heart, and it becomes the cornerstone of their faith and belief in the ministry started by Jesus.
The most significant issues with this are twofold. The first is, Jesus said that no one knows the time or the season, not even him. Only God, the one who sent him, knows. The second is the word soon; most of us understand soon to mean within the foreseeable future. It could be days, weeks, months, but not long. But weeks turned into years. Years became decades, centuries, and millennia. Now and then, people forget what Jesus said and try to predict the timing of Christ's return and cast it in a literal physical manifestation of the person of Jesus. This view may or may not be the meaning in the context of the original statement. Whatever the original understanding from the early Christian church's time, believers have been watching the skies—waiting for Christ's return.
So, we wait. We wait to celebrate the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus who came to save Israel and through them all humanity. We wait for the return or manifestation of Christ to redeem those who follow believing. We wait to fulfill the promise of a reign of God, a divine dominion that overturns the brokenness of human institutions and structures that have failed to serve people and have been turned into tools of oppression and injustice by the powerful and privileged. Good things to wait for. And like those who have come before us, we carry on ancient traditions. We practice disciplines of prayer and reflection. We turn our eyes once again to Bethlehem and the skies.
But there is a problem with waiting. Waiting implies a sense of not doing. If waiting to celebrate the Incarnation only for a season or a day, we miss the power of how that Incarnation changed the world and humanity from that time forward. If we wait for the return of the manifested person of Jesus or the divine Christ, we fail to follow the angels' instructions who carried Jesus into the heavens. They told the disciples to stop looking up at the sky but to get to work, continuing the work that Jesus started and trained them to do. Waiting leads to hesitation and insecurity. Waiting means not being focused on matters at hand. It can even cause distraction from the primary purpose of the life and ministry of Jesus.
Throughout the passages of the Gospels, Jesus points to the dominion of God as near but also here. Does this near mean just about to arrive, around the corner in a figurative sense? Does he mean that it is close to the hearers, and they only can't perceive it? A kind of invisible overlay of reality where the rule and reign of God's love are ever-present, and it is beginning to bleed into this world. A reality felt in the hearts and minds of those who "have eyes to see and ears to hear." It is possible; we can't know for sure. We only have the words of those who told the stories of Jesus. We only hear those who spread the Good News in ways that could be understood by people who were not there and not in the original telling context. We aren't even reading or hearing the words that Jesus spoke using his original language. Translated from Aramaic to Greek, to Latin, and finally to European languages. Are we playing telephone call with the message?
When I tell a story of my experiences or remembrances of my father's stories, I sometimes take liberties with what was said or done. Not to make it untrue, but to share what is essential without seeming biased. This objectivity, of course, is not possible, but I try anyway. So, what are we to do? Are we waiting for some magical return, or "beam me down, Scottie," experience? For the most part, not really. Just like I said earlier, there is a real hope that somehow, Jesus will return and make all things right. That there will be a time when everything comes out the way that we think it should. But Jesus warns against that expectation as well. "Do not look for the day of the Lord," he says. A literal judgment day is not something that anyone wants. We all think that we should escape the consequences, and only those we feel are against us should be punished. And then we get into the whole log/speck issue and being judged by the measure we judge. So not a good place to go for anyone.
For a very long time, I thought that I could only serve God and follow the Spirit's call by becoming and being an ordained clergy person in the United Methodist Church. When I was, it brought me great satisfaction and personal fulfillment. I convinced myself that the divine and even the ecstatic experience connected only through my role as a professional minister. Therefore, when I surrendered my credentials, I was so emotionally devastated. I had invested so much of my identity in that role that I lost who I was. Of course, it didn't help that I had to deny a real part of myself and pretend to be a cis-gendered straight man. By putting on a clergy robe and stole, somehow, God wouldn't notice that I was queer or non-binary. Somehow, other people would have to respect me and treat me to acknowledge my humanity. But of course, it never works that way. If I couldn't accept, own, or even love myself fully as I truly was, then no one else could either.
It took being confronted by my past. This experience came when I ran into the person who was my District Superintendent when my life and ministry were coming apart. This person who presents themselves as progressive and forward-thinking bowed to conventional wisdom and allowed much harm to come to me. I don't blame this person. The system rewards those who value their position and power over real-life people under their care—forcing me to confront my pain, my own broken heart. I was triggered and struggled with who I was and why I had felt called to ministry when it seemed to have failed—even investigating, again, the process of restoring my credentials in the United Methodist Church. It would be a process of going through everything again. Years of probation and going before committees and boards with no guarantee that I would be successful in the end. Someone who had worked in the Ministry office of the Conference in which I now live told me that I shouldn't even put myself through that. It only confirmed what I already knew.
It also allowed me to reflect on who I was when serving in the ordained clergy and who I am now. I realized that none of my experiences were invalid. The presence of God through the Spirit was always real. I positively affected the congregations that I served when I preached, prayed, celebrated the sacraments, and performed pastoral ministry. The fullness of the Spirit present when I preached was something that I longed to experience again. I am an excellent preacher and speaker. People always responded well when they heard my sermons, and I always felt connected to God and the divine when I was preaching. Then something struck me, and the bulb lighted up over my head. When I preached or performed other actions in worship, I was fully present. I wasn't worried if people didn't think that I was straight or question my masculinity. I opened myself to the energy of the Universe to hear what God wanted me to say in the context of the people to whom I was preaching. I let myself go. So, I became full of the Spirit, and that same Spirit went forth, like the wind, to touch the hearts and minds of those who heard. Their energy then came back to me and empowered me even more. Finally, it broke through my thick skull that it wasn't the profession or the location. It was my freeing myself from those chains of conformity and self-restraint. I realized that I could do that at any time, anywhere, and doing pretty much anything. The feeling of liberation was intense and filled with joy and hope for a future living out the call that continued to work in my life.
I said to myself, what am I waiting for? I don't need anyone's permission or approval to be connected to the divine or feel the energy of the Spirit. I don't need a piece of paper or wear a stole to know that my ordination was a gift from God, using the UMC, but not owned or controlled by them. Just like my baptism, confirmation, and conversion experience, they all come from the Spirit, and no one can take them away. They are permanent. Not merely changes to my status, but transformations of my Spirit and soul. I could never be the same as I was before any of these. And I won't go back. I won't let anyone else try to tell me that I am not who I say I am and who I believe that God has called me to be.
I waited to move back to Florida, and then I did. It took a while to decide to attend seminary, and I decided that I would always regret it if I didn't just go ahead. I waited to come out until I couldn't wait any longer. After each of the things, decisions, and changes in my life, I always would look back. And wonder why I waited so long to do any of these things. Was I afraid of failure, rejection, or something unknown? Who knows?
We are waiting for the fulfillment of God's dominion, the "kindom" of God. where all humanity lives in full connection and relationship with one another and all of creation. A time when there is a recognition that we are not merely individuals or a speck of insignificant life. We are purposely here at this moment to bring a reality about which Jesus spoke. What are we waiting for? Why are we afraid? Are we waiting to be liberated from pain and suffering? Are we afraid of being judged and punished by a capricious deity for failing to follow millennia-old rules? Or are we unwilling to be a part of God's divine act of liberation and love? Are we waiting for some external manifestation of divinity? Can we let go of all that we have ever known to realize what Jesus promised is not far away, but near? It is as near as our own hands, our minds, our own choices. Everything we do in response to this rule of love is a manifestation of the return of Christ. When we live as if others experience that love through us, the barrier between broken reality and an experience of liberation and love becomes even more real. Don't just sit around and wait. I don't think that Advent means to keep us from moving forward by only thinking about what was or what could be. I believe that we can celebrate all this as the divine's presence is incarnated in each of us and make the will of God "be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."