This week’s post comes in two parts. Both are by Brynna Jones, who will be leaving us soon for a position on the East Coast. We will miss Brynna and the many gifts, including her music, that she shares with our church. We wish her well.
By Brynna Jones
Part 1: Perseverance — or Waiting on
‘What is real/about us all is that each of us is waiting.’
-Third Shepherd, For the Time Being, W. H. Auden
In life as a Christian, and as an Anglican specifically in some ways, the tension between reason and mystery has had a profound impact on me. As a scientist, I love to take objects and ideas apart and put them back together. As an artist, I love to sit in the stillness of the unknown and the unknowable. As our hemisphere tilts away from the sun and the night takes on gigantic proportions, it seems to me that winter is the season where mystery is at its height. And what greater mystery could there be than the one that we know waits for us to celebrate, the long-expected Word of God born into our flesh? Except possibly the one that we look forward to at the end of time, when the world itself will be born anew.
Last winter, I was working hard to try to finish my dissertation. I had two other graduate students running experiments for me while I wrote and performed analyses on the resulting data. I returned coughing and fatigued from my annual Christmas trip, but wasn’t really fazed by it.
It didn’t go away. I rested and tried to take care of myself, but I wanted, I needed, to be working on my dissertation. After a couple of weeks, I started to feel a little better. Then a few weeks after that, the fatigue and coughing came back. This pattern continued for the next several months. I went to the doctor. It wasn’t mono, or Lyme disease, or any number of various ailments. Treating the symptoms helped some, but I was frustrated with how uncertain my life had become, how unable to commit to anything I felt because I might be sick.
I was tired of waiting.
Now, usually I consider myself to be a relatively patient person. But this was different. This was day in, day out waiting. The waiting that involves constantly taking stock physically: Do I feel well enough to get groceries today? Actually, I don’t. Do I feel well enough to analyze data? Not really.
Honestly, I look back at that time and think “What on earth was I doing with myself?” I was being sick. I was waiting.
During this time, when I was frustrated with my inability to do the work I desperately desired to do, I memorized the first 33 verses of Lamentations 3. This passage contains, among phenomenally horrific and hopeful poetry, this bold assertion in verse 26: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
Is it? Is it really? I think we would all agree that the salvation of the Lord is a good thing. And probably complaining about waiting is maybe a bad thing, hence the “quietly” (though the Lamenter just spent 20 verses listing the many horrible things happening in his life). But is waiting really a good thing in and of itself? Particularly if you are waiting for something good, which by definition means that you do not have it yet?
Advent answers, “Yes.”
It is no accident that this time of preparation before the Christmas feast is also a penitential season. This side of Advent is less emphasized than it is in Lent, and it’s easy to miss in the garlands and tinsel of the décor. But it is there, in the bare branches of the boulevards and the Jesse trees, in the plaintive, minor key of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’
My impatient prayers during this time were innumerable. How long is this project going to take, God? Why did the laser break again? Why can’t I stay well long enough to get up any momentum to finish this? Why on earth did my labmate’s eight months of work on this project turn out to be useless for my purposes? Why do I have to analyze everything over and over again? Are you paying any attention?
God’s response was always, “Why are you in such a rush? Wait. Just wait.”
Part of waiting for the salvation of the Lord is standing in the midst of what we need saving from and looking around.
In his Christmas oratorio For the Time Being, W. H. Auden concludes his meditation on this aspect of Advent in the following words.
We who must die demand a miracle
How could the Eternal do a temporal act?
The infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible.
We who must die demand a miracle.
A year or so ago, I read this with my small group at the time. One person took issue with the use of “demand” in these verses. I understand that; it has an air of presumption about it, but I have always found it to be strangely fitting with the powerlessness shown in the rest of the lines. We know we have no influence on God, no power over him, no riches to bend his ear, no right to ask anything of him. How can an atom demand anything from the sun, a snowflake make demands on the storm? Our demands have such pitifully tiny forces behind them that in reality they are merely pleas. Advent is a time to remember this.
Zechariah’s Lullaby – written and recorded by Brynna Jones