Upon her discovery of the eternal winter in Narnia, little Lucy learns from Tumnus the Fawn, “It’s always winter here, but never Christmas.” Recently, I landed in a strange, liminal place where it was always Advent, but never the Nativity.
I was waiting for a congregational call after graduating seminary. The wait would last four long years and, although it had a joyous ending, I had no way of knowing this at the outset. The vista stretching before me showed only snow: miles and miles of frozen water.
Funny thing, since I love Advent. Deep blues adorn our sanctuaries. Winter’s chill makes the hot soup and midweek evening prayer all the more communal. Advent is pregnant time, full of expectation. Wait. Watch. Hope. Prepare. And like most pregnancies, Advent follows a charted journey through that time: four weeks building with anticipation, like forty weeks watching a belly grow, and then comes the joyous Nativity. Waiting for a call is full of hope and preparation, but not so charted and measured out. It’s a winding path with fits and starts, budgets and bishops. Ministry lives in local realities with their own quirky processes and calendars. Sometimes the candidates on hold experience that particularity as too slow, oppressive, and even despairing. It becomes wintry, frozen time. To talk to a candidate long in waiting for a first call, you might conclude that the ministry placement system exhibits power not unlike that of the White Witch herself.
Most days during my wait, I would have loved a setting as odd and wondrous as Narnia. My English-professor spouse had cast himself out upon the uncertain waters of academia. We trusted that just about every place needs a pastor and wherever he landed, we would ask the Spirit’s aid in finding me work, too. In the meantime, I made lattes and bagel sandwiches at a local coffee shop. I was the most theologically educated barista in our small town. Though I enjoyed delightful, sometimes deep conversation with patrons, I never did master the technique of frothing milk and that tiny failure loomed large in the painful logic of an unexpected wait. “I can’t even make a stupid cappuccino! How will I ever be a good pastor?” Winter was seeping inward and distorting my thinking. To look out upon my calendar and not see meetings with bishops or interviews, only more dates with my not-very-well-frothed offerings made me bitter toward the good coffee, even the good folk, I served.
As the body of Christ, we pray with the psalmist, “My times are in your hand.” This is a perfect daily prayer for the candidate in waiting. So many other hands clutch at and want to claim our moments, days, and years. Time spent waiting seems split in two: we yearn for the future, when we’ll “finally get to be a pastor,” and we endure the present, less desirable, thumb-twiddling wait time.
This fractured living within time is not entirely of our own doing. The White Witch has her servants, after all. Capitalism, thick as the air we breathe, says our time is money. Wendell Berry argues in his essay, “God and Country,”
Like any other institution so organized, the organized church is dependent upon “the economy”; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect—indeed, has already elected—to save the building fund.
Ouch. Along with the birds and the lilies, time spent in waiting is of no value to a capitalist economy bent on results or services rendered. Anything not producing is worthless, waste. God’s economy is quite different: birds, lilies, people, and time are all sacred in their own right, hallowed by their creator and beloved.
The robust baptismal theology we learn in seminary affirms the holy call given to all people by God. Clericalism, the sinful twisting of a noble desire to honor the clergy, celebrates the calls of a few while dismissing the call of everyone in baptism. The red stole meant to symbolize the Spirit’s fiery mantle about the new pastor’s shoulders can become a sign of elevated status. Clericalism and capitalism are unloving and unbaptismal. Frozen water.
“Stir up your power O Lord, and come,” begins the prayer of the day for the first Sunday of Advent. It is a calling down of power greater than the market, greater than ecclesial problems, greater than any winter or ice-covered vista. The Latin word for “stir up” is excita. Along with Psalm 31, what better prayer is there for those who wait? In it, we plead for the Spirit to enter our world yet again, to become active and present here and now. Excite us! Melt this ice and snow with your fiery holiness! This plea reminds us that Advent is not the same as winter. It is the season of the fiery prophets and the Baptist’s blazing cry, “Prepare the way!” O God, let the waters which once were frozen flow.
Martin Luther taught that each day is a return to the font. The hallowing of our time and the warming of our hearts happens because Jesus brings us back to that source, back to our first first call: our baptism. Daily dying and rising in Christ holds us in a holy rhythm, reaffirming the God-given sacredness of all our days. The calendar, the committees, even the cappuccino can be signs of hope and purpose when the day is already cloaked in baptismal worth. Waiting is best done by wading.
The pain of waiting is all around us. Many wait for a job. Our cities fill with families waiting in lines for food and clothing. Some wait for test results to reveal an unseen pain or illness. Others wait at bedsides for loved ones to breathe their last and enter eternal rest. At all times and in all places, God’s call to the baptized involves a mission: sharing with joy the water that sets us free. Simple baptismal practices recall the constancy and depth of God’s grace and renew the presence of that grace in our lives. We make the sign of the cross over our beloved’s forehead as we sit together in a waiting room. We light candles as we pray our children to sleep, reminding them and ourselves that Jesus lights our darkness. When we gather for worship, we may speak a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism:
Praise to you for your saving waters: Noah and the animals survive the flood, Hagar discovers your well. The Israelites escape through the sea and they drink from your gushing rock. Naaman washes his leprosy away and the Samaritan woman will never be thirsty again. (Thanksgiving for Baptism V, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
With prayers, gestures and signs that announce God’s deeds of mercy and grace, we remember that we are never alone in times of pain. The prayer calls to mind our ancestors in the faith who also waited, often painfully, for deliverance. Finding our lives in their stories, we remember that it is God who hallows our days, not our own work or worry. With sisters and brothers of every time and place, we are held fast in God.
Wait. Watch. Hope. Prepare. Advent is a gift, a magic deeper and more ancient than any of the tricks of the White Witch. To those awaiting a call, to those awaiting any kind of deliverance, may this Advent be a journey back to the abundant waters of baptism and a rediscovery of the rivers and streams always alive and flowing under the ice.
Liv Larson Andrews is pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington.