Messages of Hope

Advent: when waiting is the work

Published / by Sandy

(prompted by an article by Laura Jean Truman, Advent: When Waiting Is the Work)

I’ve just spent a week with a family with young children. It was joyous. The four year old would proclaim, in the intervals between activity, ‘I’m bored’. It’s an expression she’s probably picked up from kindergarten, or Bluey, or any number of places. One time she stretched out full length on the couch to rest, assuring us she was bored again. I wondered what bored must feel like, as I adore the moments in between activity and things to do, when there is a time of gentle quiet. So the four year old philosopher and I chatted about how those moments in between activity and the way it lets the brain and body rest.

Perhaps the experience of lockdown in this strange and difficult year has meant the experience of ‘being bored’ has woven its way through many adult lives where ‘inactivity’ too easily equates with boredom. The ‘in-between activity’ moments have been difficult to manage when ‘being busy’ is often worn as a badge of honour, or at least can be an expectation.

My ‘smart watch’ tells me when to take time to breathe deeply for one minute. It pops up when you least expect it, and sometimes at inconvenient times (like in the middle of a meeting!). Making the time for deep breathing has great benefit for body health – a simple and natural tool to reduce stress and anxiety, pain, and high blood pressure. When you become stressed or anxious, the brain releases cortisol, the “stress hormone.” By taking deep breaths, your heart rate slows, more oxygen enters our blood stream and ultimately communicates with the brain to relax. Deep breathing also ups your endorphins, the “feel good” chemical. Breathing is in charge of 70% of cleansing the body of toxins (the other 30% is through bladder and bowels.) If you do not breathe fully, your body must work overtime to release these toxins.

Similarly, meditation improves mood, decreases stress, increases attention span, even increases creativity. Contemplative practices have been a staple of Christian spirituality for thousands of years, as a way to encounter God and our deep self.

Laura Jean Truman reflects: And yet it can be hard to make the time for these practices, to make space for stillness. There is always just so much to be done. Injustice is everywhere and the work is never-ending. When we look at the suffering of the world, being still feels like a sin. How can we justify stopping, resting, breathing, waiting?

Into this anxiety and restless busyness, the liturgical year invites us into the holy waiting of Advent. Into a culture that prioritizes productivity over presence, Advent invites us to believe that we have value even when we are still. Into a culture that tells us if we don’t do it, it won’t get done, Advent asks us to stop working for a season. God is going to do a new thing, and all we have to do is wait.

There is a time for everything, Ecclesiastes reminds us, and the liturgical year leads us through this sacred time that runs alongside secular time — through a time to feast, a time to fast, a time to repent, a time to be forgiven. Yes, there is time to work alongside God bringing in the redemption of the world. And there is also a time to stop working, to sit and be still. It’s tempting to say that the “sitting still” is just a preparation for the work, but it would make just as much sense to say that the work is preparation for sitting still. Neither the steady work of ‘Ordinary Time’ in the church calendar, or the patient waiting of Advent, is more important.

During Advent, the waiting is the work. 

When the earth rests in the winter, it’s not non-productive. In stillness, the earth is replenishing. In waiting, the earth works. In COVID lockdown, the earth had a chance to breathe again, to do some healing in the interval when humans were doing less driving, less travelling, less consuming.

In Advent, we acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our own heady dreams of fixing the world. We admit that even when we stop, God still works. We put down our tools and put down our pride, and wait for the morning that God always brings in.

Waiting is hard because our culture has worked tirelessly to disciple us into the myth that life’s meaning is tied to our productivity. The world has taught us to be unsatisfied and to always strive for more – to be more, have more, get more, do more, fix more. Unlearning that is hard work, and it takes practice. 

No one has taught us that the work goes on, even when we are still. No one has ever taught us that God can break into the world even when we have stopped working.

Advent teaches us how to wait and be still. The rhythms of the church year echo the rhythms of the seasons and the rhythms of night and day. Winter always moves to spring. Night always shifts to day. The loneliness of Advent always gives way to the God with us, Immanuel, of Christmas.

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Laura Jean Truman, Advent: When Waiting Is the Work (published on Church Anew blog)