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Advent: The Spiritual Work of Waiting

I’ve cried a lot this Advent. Watching video clips of Syrian refugees arriving in the Toronto airport gets me every time. (Watch this one from Vancouver. I dare you to stay dry-eyed.) I watch them with awe; I still can’t quite believe that Canada has done such a 180 degree turn and chosen to welcome more than 25,000 of these beautiful children of God.

I know that Toronto arrivals room. Seeing long-separated families run into each other’s arms, running across that same floor over which I’ve dragged my suitcases many times, I’ve seen a glimpse of the Kingdom breaking through. Christ came to the arrivals room of the Pearson Airport, to a place where I did not expect to see Him. He has a way of doing that, doesn’t He?

Just a few short months ago, we were debating whether Muslim women who wear hijabs should be allowed to wear them during citizenship ceremonies. And for the last number of years, terms like “bogus refugees” and “gold-plated healthcare” have been bandied around in both official government pronouncements and citizens’ living room conversations. Our government had promised to welcome a small number of Syrian refugees and hadn’t even lived up to its own meagre target. For the last number of years, perhaps since a boat full of Tamil asylum seekers arrived on the shores of British Columbia, our national conversation about refugees has been characterized by suspicion and a “circle the wagons” mentality—despite the best efforts of many good-hearted Canadians to change the conversation.

But then that tragic picture of Alan Kurdi appeared. Drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean with his family, 3 year-old Alan’s body was found by Turkish police officers, washed up on a beach. Suddenly the statistics were represented by a single, heart-rending story. Suddenly, Canadians and people around the world were able to hear the cries of Syrian refugees. Suddenly the stories that we at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and other agencies had been trying to tell for years didn’t fall on deaf ears. Political parties rushed to make new, ambitious commitments to welcome Syrians. Ordinary Canadians began to think creatively about how to make space in our communities for refugees—from resort owners who offered their resorts to house refugees to school boards who offered empty school buildings to the many Canadians who picked up advocacy materials or made donations to nonprofits that work with refugees.

Why that picture? Why then? There had been other pictures. Syrians and Eritreans and many others had been drowning in large numbers in the Mediterranean for years already. I believe that in those early days of September, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully in this country. Maybe She had been on the move for days, months, even years, preparing people’s hearts for this moment.  After all, kindness and goodness are fruits of the Spirit. Where they are, She is.  

Many people had been working for years to change the conversation about refugees. That was and is good, important, God-honouring work. Likely it was part of how the Spirit prepared the country for that picture. And yet, I am humbled, overjoyed, and even liberated by watching the speed with which the Spirit changed minds and hearts, seemingly within days. God is so beyond us. His ways are so beyond us. The Kingdom is so beyond us. And that is a very good thing. It means that we can take up our calling as Christians to do justice in confidence and humility, knowing that it is not our responsibility to change the world by ourselves. We work alongside One who is so much bigger, so Other, so powerfully at work in the world.

When I was a kid, growing up with a strong Protestant work ethic, a Shalom-seeking faith, and the over-achieving drive of an oldest child, I never understood all those Bible verses about waiting on God. Why in the world would we wait when there’s so much good work to be done? This Advent and especially the transformation that picture unleashed in Canada are teaching me why the Psalmist (along with Micah, Isaiah, and others) speak of waiting—because we wait for the power of the One who is infinitely more powerful and wise than us. We wait for the coming of Christ.

I especially need to be reminded of that beyond-us power this Advent, as I wait with dear friends to hear news about their refugee status determination process. We have been waiting for 2 ½ long years for good news. In addition to the stress of their refugee claim, the father of the family has a chronic liver condition and needs a new liver, but he can’t be on the organ donor list as a refugee claimant—and so we wait.

Honestly, it feels so feeble, when speaking with them, to say “I’ll keep praying for you.” It feels like a cop out. I confess that most of the time, I stop those words before they cross my lips. What if God doesn’t answer them? And yet, when I think of the movement of the Spirit through that picture of poor little Alan Kurdi, I’m reminded that everything can change in the blink of an eye when the Spirit is at work. Waiting puts me in a place of dependence on God that feels deeply uncomfortable, and yet that’s all I can do. Maybe it's enough. 

So this Advent, we keep waiting. This Advent, we keep praying.


A prayer for weary justice seekers this Advent:

Lord, we wait for you. We long for you.

Help us to allow the unexpected, scandalous story of your birth as a helpless infant in a dirty stable to oppressed parents to reshape our understanding of what the coming of the Kingdom looks like. We cannot pull the Kingdom down to earth by the force of our own willpower. The Kingdom is always unexpected, always Other, always Your work. Hallelujah!

God, you are bigger than us. You are bigger than the Church. Hallelujah!

Keep us waiting. Keep us longing. Keep us open. Teach us to rest in you.

O come, o come, Immanuel.

[Image: Flickr user Amanda Tipton]

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