Advent is a season observed by many aspiring Jesus-followers, where we anticipate a fresh receiving of the ‘Christmas miracle’ — Divine love revealed in Emmanuel, God-with-us. But what does it mean to wait, and wait well?
When singer-songwriter Tom Petty transitioned in October 2017, he left the world of our senses and joined the great cloud of witnesses. An artist of humility and versatility, this Advent I’ve been reflecting on his 1981 hit The Waiting.
His song starts off with ‘a thrill of hope’:
Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now?
Haven’t we all felt this, at one point or another? It’s the rush of new love — maybe we’re experiencing a new job, neighborhood, child or lover. But even in this first flush of connection, there’s an element of wondering: Where will this all go? It’s a natural human trait, wanting to freeze-frame the beautiful and fight like mad to keep it that way.
Will this love flourish, or die on the vine?
The chorus cries:
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
“It’s about waiting for your dreams and not knowing if they will come true,” Petty said. “I always felt it was an optimistic song.”
I can relate.
As a friend of God and aspiring follower of Jesus, I’m reminded of the Psalms — the ancient biblical prayer book gifted us by the Hebrew people. So often, we encounter refrains that remind me this freeze-framed waiting:
Our soul waits for the Lord;
God is our help and our shield. (Psalm 33:20)
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from God comes my deliverance. (Psalm 62:1)
God! My God! It’s you— I search for you!
My whole being thirsts for you!
My body desires you in a dry and tired land, no water anywhere. (Psalm 63:1)
From Waiting to Arriving
In the mystery of Incarnation, Advent reflects on waiting-past and waiting-fulfilled, where God comes near in Christ:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
(John 1:14, The Message)
What so often feels like a forever-deferred longing, the early Jesus-followers experienced as a fulfilled promise:
From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God took shape before us.
We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and divine Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy! (1 John 1:1-4, The Message)
In testifying to the finding, and not just the waiting, they echo the sacred memory of Jesus, himself. Before his ascension, Jesus prays to his Abba:
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!
(John 17:20-24, New Living Translation, emphasis mine.)
This unity consciousness — this oneness — becomes the Gold Standard that the Christ Child — aka the Dear Lord Baby Jesus — came to reveal, to a rough-hewn tradesman and an unwed pregnant woman. This promise of Emmanuel — God with us — stands in stark contrast to the distant Deity of so much of our perception; in our sacred tradition, this promise was the joy of shepherds, the wonder of mages, and the terror of those in power — whether religious or governmental.
This unity consciousness was taught as the norm by the first-century apostle Paul, who never met Jesus of Nazareth but who had mystical visions of the resurrected Christ, shifting his allegiance from being a violent (and well-educated) religious extremist to a fanatic for love. He approvingly quotes ‘pagan’ poetry to a well-known philosophical school in Athens, Greece, saying:
People of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you:
The God who made the world and all things in it, since God is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives Godself to all people, life and breath and all things…that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for God and find God, though He is not far from each one of us;
‘For in God we live and move and exist,’ as even some of your own poets have said. ‘For we also are God’s children.’
(from Acts 17)
Paul sums this up in a letter to equally ‘pagan’ Corinth:
The one who joins themselves to the Lord is one spirit with God.
(1 Corinthians 6:17, emphasis mine.)
This is the lofty promise of Advent, which — though echoed by Tom, is anything but petty: Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now?
Could we possibly experience this same participation in the dance of God today?
If you’re feeling doubtful, you’re not alone, in biblical times or right now:
All our enemies
open their mouths against us;
panic and pitfall have come upon us,
devastation and destruction;
my eyes flow with rivers of tears
because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
My eyes will flow without ceasing,
until the Lord from heaven
looks down and sees;
my eyes cause me grief
at the fate of all the daughters of my city.
Or to quote another musical act, The Offspring: “It feels like heaven is so far away.”
Ancient people weren’t surprised by these devastating experiences, though. In an exhortation common in the New Testament collection of writings, the writer encourages:
Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
(1 Peter 4:12-14).
As a kid, I would read passages like this and think of Jesus-followers in far-away lands whose names I could barely pronounce, suffering persecution at the hands of cartoonishly evil governments. But in the wake of political, cultural, economic and spiritual shifts this past year — since I (and many others) called for creative acts of resistance — I’ve had Jesus-following friends arrested for standing up against state-sponsored killing, threatened while confronting Neo-Nazis advocating for White nationalism, escorted by police off a Christian college campus – for calling for a prayer meeting, and put in jail for reading Scripture in protest of the systematic plunder of the poor and middle-class by a draconian new tax law. All of this has happened, right here in the United States.
What’s amazing — and bewildering — to me is, the killing, ethnic cleansing, and oppressive tax burdens are all being advocated for by professing Christians.
But what’s encouraging to me is that these are each being stood up to by other professing Christians.
What a paradox!
Is our resistance doing any good?
When will we know?
The waiting really is the hardest part.
As Langston Hughes put it so evocatively in Harlem:
What happens to a dream deferred?Does it dry uplike a raisin in the sun?Or fester like a sore—And then run?Does it stink like rotten meat?Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?Maybe it just sagslike a heavy load.Or does it explode?
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a Tree of Life.(Proverbs 13:12)
We are given such promises…many of us have had peak experiences: Feeling caught up in Divine fellowship, seeing our activism change hearts and policies, hugging our families (whether birth-families or chosen-families) and realizing that our tangible life here-and-now has meaning, purpose, and value.
But for many of us, the past year has felt like a raisin in the sun…a festering sore.
Getting Off the Roller Coaster
For the sake of our precious hearts…our sanity…for those who love and depend on us, is it possible to plant the seeds of a Tree of Life right here, in the midst of our suffering expectation? A feast in the midst of our enemies?
Is there a way we can give ourselves a daily gift of profound love, peace and joy that enables us to keep on giving to others?
Is there a way we can experience the unity consciousness that Holy Writ promises — that the great poets and prophets, mystics and sages of the ages attest to — without burying our heads in the sand and becoming spiritually-bypassing religious nuts?
I think there is. We can find substantial nourishment in the daily practice of contemplative prayer, a form of meditation that’s uniquely Christian. Its roots arguably extend into the outlook of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and definitely find expression in the communal practices of small intentional communities — monasteries — beginning in the third century C.E.
There are many descriptions of contemplative prayer out there. Here’s mine:
Contemplative prayer is being unconditionally present with God, recognizing God’s unconditional presence with us. It’s a practice of rooting our awareness in the love, joy, presence, and solidarity of the liberating God revealed in Creation and the Prophets, in Mary and Jesus of Nazareth.
There are many kinds of prayer — eloquent and unscripted, spoken and silent. Contemplative prayer is typically silent prayer.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once approached by veteran journalist Dan Rather, who asked her “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I listen.”
“Then what is it that God says to you?” Rather asked.
Can you tell the difference between the stony silence of indifference, and the beautiful, knowing silence between friends?
Contemplative prayer creates space for the latter kind of silence. It’s an invitation to friendship with God.
Okay, so how do I do it?
I recently introduced you to one variety of contemplative prayer, an adaptation called Urge Surfing. Go here for a review of this contemplative practice to embrace every part of ourselves.
Now let’s explore a more ancient form of wordless prayer, that is grounded in a larger practice: Lectio Divina, or ‘Divine Reading.’
The stages of Lectio (including the term Lectio itself) sound like names of Italian pasta, but here we are. They are:
Which reminds me of a joke:
Q: What do you call a pizza containing Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio?
A: One with everything.
Oh-kay. As to what these stages entail, I can’t summarize them better than my friend Carl McColman, so I’m going to let him:
- Lectio — Read — the key is to read slowly, prayerfully, meditatively. Linger over the words, savoring their message for you. Do not encumber yourself with Bible commentaries or other supplemental books — save those for study time. Rather, simply find a passage, a short passage, maybe even just one or a few verses, and read them slowly, attentively, mindfully. This is not a race. Read a passage, and reread it. You can keep reading until it seems that a particular word or phrase is speaking to you, but stop then. Allow a sacred pause. Take a few relaxing breaths. Now you are ready to move to the next step:
- Meditatio — Reflect — traditionally, meditation in a Christian sense involved the process of reflecting on a word or teaching or one of the mysteries of the faith. Allow yourself to sit with the word or phrase that has spoken to you. Feel whatever feeling it elicits in you. Ponder what questions it asks of you. Perhaps you feel blessed or inspired, or confused or challenged or convicted. Simply let the Word of God speak to you. At this point, it’s less about you reading the Bible, and more about the Word of God “reading” you. Sooner or later, every conversation involves give-and-take, so at some point you’l be ready for the next step:
- Oratio — Respond — God reveals Divine Love to us through sacred scripture, and now we are asked to reveal the hidden depths of our hearts and minds to God through prayer. Of course, God already knows the hidden places in our hearts and minds, but it is a blessing to us to consciously seek to hold those secret dimensions into the Light of Love. Pray to God, in response to the words you have read and the reflections you have pondered. You don’t have to be eloquent or fancy in your prayer. It could be as simple as “God, I love you” or “Lord, today’s reading really confused me/upset me.” Be honest with God. Express your doubts, your longings, your desires, your fears, your dreams. Express adoration and devotion, of course; confess sins when that is necessary as well. Take however long you need to share your mind and heart with the God Who is Love. This doesn’t need to last forever (it might only take a minute or two). You’ll sense when you have prayed all you need to pray, at least in terms of thoughts and feelings. Then it is time for the final step:
- Contemplatio — Rest — “Be still and know that I am God,” speaks the Lord in Psalm 46; in other verses in the Psalms we are invited to let our souls rest for God in silence and even to recognize that silence itself is praise. We begin the process of Lectio Divina by seeking the Word of God through the Bible, and we end by seeking the silence of God through contemplative prayer, the prayer of restful, attentive silence. Here we “do” nothing more than breathe gently, allowing our thoughts and feelings to come and go without commentary or attachment. We can use a prayer word or verse (my favorite, again from the Psalms, is “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”) as a way of focussing our mind/heart so that we are less likely to be distracted by distractions during this period of rest. This is like a “Sabbath” prayer: we seek to grow in love of God simply by resting in God’s heart, the way a small child rests on her mother’s lap. We let go, and let God. We praise God simply by resting in silence, trusting in God’s love to hold us.
For this last stage – Rest – I’d like to bring in another voice, that of the late Fr. Basil Pennington. He offers a distillation of this this last stage of Lectio that an organization he was part of, Contemplative Outreach, calls Centering Prayer:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
- Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in God’s presence and open to God’s divine action within you.
- Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in God’s presence and open to God’s divine action within you.
- Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
(Mike’s note: You will experience thoughts, feeling, perceptions, etc.. – especially the first few days, and maybe forever. Thoughts were common ‘static’ centuries ago when these teachings first developed, and they’re all the more prevalent now. Be kind to yourself! When returning to your sacred word, acknowledge the thought(s) with love and let go. Exercising this ‘spiritual muscle’ of letting go is one of the most profound benefits of contemplative prayer – one that extends far beyond these prayer sessions.)
A Recommended Advent Contemplative Text
And that’s it! Sometimes, I end a contemplative/centering prayer time speaking the Lord’s Prayer. For Advent, you might consider using Mary’s Magnificat as both your Lectio text and closing prayer:
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God!
My heart rejoices in you, my Savior,
because you have showered your servant with blessing!
From now to the end of time,
all generations will know the great things you have done for me.
Mighty One! Your name is holy!
In every age,
your compassion flows to those who reverence you!
But all who seek to exalt themselves in arrogance
will be leveled by your power.
You have deposed the mighty from their seats of power,
and have raised the lowly to high places.
Those who suffer hunger,
you have filled with good things.
Those who are privileged,
you have turned away empty-handed.
You have come to the aid of your people,
in fulfillment of the promise you made to our ancestors—
when you spoke blessing to Abraham
and all his descendants forever!
Want to try Contemplative Prayer this Advent?
You can do this in 20 minutes a day. Try it, and see what happens.
Thomas Keating calls it The Divine Therapy. Your results will be uniquely yours, of course, but so many studies have shown that a consistent contemplative prayer practice can positively impact depression, anxiety, borderline personality issues, addiction, and more. This may not happen overnight, but gradually, you might find yourself feeling closer to God and others in your life.
If you try this, please let me know how it’s going, in the comments!
Tom Petty is right: The waiting is, indeed, the hardest part. But with contemplative prayer, we can wait on God in a way that is also finding more of God…and ourselves.
PS: For your bonus viewing pleasure – the only thing better than Tom Petty singing The Waiting is Tom Petty and Eddie Vedder singing it!